Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time traveling II - The Roots

About a week ago I got a call from a good friend.  She reminded me, that the exhibition "Bergwerke und Hütten"  (Mines & Mills) with photographies by Bernd and Hilla Becher would end that weekend and I would need to go right away if I wouldn't want to miss it. She had just visited and strongly recommended to go and so I did. 

Bernd and Hilla Becher, are German photography artists who started in the late 1950ies documenting the industrial architecture of the slowly dying coal mining and steel industry first in the Ruhrgebiet, then also in other parts of Germany expanding to Great Britain, France and finally the USA.

They were within the first artists who treated purely functional industrial structures as architecture. Traveling for their lifelong project they worked out the parallels between the industrial buildings around the world with the function forcing the form as well as the differences like the small roofs on the top of the shaft towers which can be only found in France, but neither in Germany nor in GB or the US.

The characteristic of the Bechers' photography is to aim for as much objectivity in their pictures as possible. Obviously total objectivity is not achievable and even less when the visual impression is filtered through the lens of a camera, but ther are certain criteria the Bechers set for their work. For example they shot only on overcast days to avoid shadows influencing the picture. They also tried to make an as complete picture of the structure as possible even if it was sometimes very difficult to find the place for the prefect angle.

So far, so good, so interesting. 

What I did not exactly expect was how much this exhibition would hit me emotionally. I am considering myself not very much as a "looking back person". Maybe this attitude is part of my way to deal with my grief, I don't know. What I know is that looking at this very impersonal pictures triggered a lot of very personal feelings and memories

I have  to apologize in advance for the bad pictures. It was not allowed to take photos of the photos at the exhibition. So I had to make pictures from the catalog and I had to do it with low indirect light to avoid too much reflection. But I need the pictures to visually draw the line between these artworks and myself - so please bare with me although it does not pay tribute to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher at all. 

Dinslaken Lohberg, 1978

I was born in Dinslaken at Christmas 1973.
This mine is not too different from the one in Duisburg-Hamborn (not documented in pictures by the Bechers) where my grandfather worked as a miner. It is about 20 minutes drive from Dinslaken to Hamborn.

Duisburg-Ruhrort, 1970

When I was a little kid my dad had his office in Ruhrort before it was moved to the Duisburg-Hamborn. He loved it there and I loved visiting him. I had totally forgotten about my dad's old office until I saw this picture of the industrial structure I had last seen driving by more than 30 years ago.

Duisburg-Meiderich, 1985

That's where my mom grew up. My family from my mom's side lived close by this place for a long time, but moved away before I was born. 

And if you ever wondered why I so easily adjust to the special beauty of Pittsburgh and the region in general, then have a look at these two pictures by Bernd and Hilla Becher

Pittsburgh, 1980 (look at the downtown skyline in the dusty background)

Nemacolin, PA, 1974

The stories of our childhood - mine in Germany and my generation over there in Pittsburgh -  are very much the same - the romantic ones about the purple shine of the steel mills in the night sky which my grandma used to explain with "The angles are baking cookies." 
And the not so romantic ones of a dying (and now reborn) region. Or the one about the wisdom of my grandfather, who had always said he did not want one of his sons working underground - one of the reasons why neither my dad nor my uncle where effected when most of the mines closed down. 
Or the ones about the pollution ... when for example my grandma told us how she could not hang the laundry when the wind came from the wrong direction carrying all the dirt from the mill and the coking plant.

There is no reason to be too nostalgic, but to lot of reasons to be aware about how these times formed cities, landscapes and most importantly the biographies of people and a special state of mind over generations and on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. 


  1. Christina,

    I stumbled upon your blog after reading about it in PopCity this morning and I had to let you know how much I've enjoyed reading your posts on Pittsburgh, particularly this one.

    I grew up in a steel town west of Pittsburgh in the early 1980's and, you're absolutely right when you say that it creates a special state of mind. I'm often hard-pressed to describe it to people who aren't from the area. Frankly, the pictures you posted are worth a thousand words in that regard, capturing the beauty and harshness of the industries that shaped our perspective.

    I suspect that the seeming uniqueness of our circumstances breeds a sense of isolation. Certainly, Pittsburgh has a fairly deserved reputation as an insular community, albeit one that is oddly warm and hospitable. Yet, your post serves as a reminder that there are other people in other places with similar experiences, who have a similar perspective and who perhaps understand intuitively who we Pittsburghers are.

    I think we Pittsburgher's would do well to remember that. And thank you for rooting for the Pirates. Someone has to.


    Chris Reinard
    Pittsburgh, PA

  2. Dear Chris,

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I am very happy that you liked browsing around my blog.
    I can't wait to come back to Pittsburgh in 2012 and will for sure write more about my favorite US city.

    As for the Pirates: I think it's easier for me to root for the Buccos than for most other people because I honestly do not care that much about Baseball. That way I can easier bare with their special attempt to make it to the record of 20 loosing season in a row soon.

    If that would be hockey, I would not stand this for a second ;)


  3. The site in Duisburg-Meiderich is now the main attraction of the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a public park (free of charge), with Blast Furnace 5 made permanently accessible to the public and used as an observation platform. Blast Furnaces 1 and 2 are also still standing, but are not open to the public (though the cast house of Blast Furnace 1 is used as a movie theater during the summer months).

    The blast furnaces in Duisburg-Ruhrort no longer exist, one has been deconstructed and shipped to India while the other two have been demolished. For some reason, the cowper stoves of those two demolished blast furnaces are still standing.