bernt & hilla becher

water towers

water towers

coal bunkers

coal bunkers

gasometers

gasometers

I caught the small exhibition (4 groups of 9 pictures ­ Cooling Towers, Water Towers, Gasometers and Commercial Facades ­ 1 of 15 pictures ­ Coal Bunkers ­ and some larger single images in a room off to one side) at the Spruth Mather gallery in Mayfair. It was good, free, but only ran until Saturday 4th October.

All the groupings were of large prints tightly grouped in plain white frames. The gallery was quiet ­I was the only person there most of the time ­ so you could get close, peer in at the printing and spend enough time with the pictures to start to see more than just the repetitions. So what did I see…

Firstly, I marvelled at the ability of the eye to anthropomorphise – so many of the coal bunkers looked like insects or other small scuttley animals ­- but having got over that, I realised I was enjoying both the printing – so many different greys! ­- and how the way the Bechers used the tilt facility on the large format camera they used for their series to keep verticals vertical rendered everything slightly strange ­- verticals seen from below sometimes seems to converge at the bottom rather than in a “normal” vanishing point at the top ­- but in a much more subtle way than the perspective compensation stuff in Lightroom does. The flat white of the skies would have simply been blown highlights in digital colour, but here it ­- and the way the details in the background behind the industrial subject tends to overexposure ­- foregrounds the shape of the subject. Whether this was a result of the exposure on its own, good printing technique or a combination of the two, the effect was a good one, and one that it would be fun to play with. Individually some of the pictures were beautiful and -­ unlike much art photography -­ I’d happily hang them on the wall of my house; taken in their typed groups they were fascinating, illustrations of how you can build up series over time. I think the ones I liked best were the ones that most chime with my experience ­- the gasometers and the water towers.

Certainly there is stuff I can apply to pictures I make myself. The idea of taking similarly composed pictures of the same type of structure could easily be applied to the modernist coastal defences in Orkney; then there’s the German Atlantic Wall along the French coast; from behind, looking out to sea would be one angle, what would be the other? There are deflated gasometers all around me in the east end of London and to the east of Glasgow as you drive out on the M8 there are water towers, which look nothing like the “shuttlecock” water tower on the way in from Stansted. In the attic I have a Graflex Press Camera that I really should use to overcome my fears of bellows and recipricocity and tilts and shifts and have a proper play with. Maybe I could even start processing film again. Maybe I could work out how to get 5×4 sheets of colour slide film to a lab somewhere that will still do large format transparencies. I just need to find the time.

Meanwhile, I must get a frame for the poster of some of the blast furnaces that had its price massively reduced in the Tate Modern sale and get it up on a wall…

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