New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Straight Typologies
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Water Towers
Reviewer #1
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Tower, New York City: Broadway / 100th St., 1978

With the cold winds of warmed-over conceptualism blasting through the streets of Chelsea last week, it was a relief to enter through the frosted doors of the temple of Sonnabend to encounter the steamy chicken soup of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s New York Water Towers.

Photographed in 1978 and ‘79, and shown around the world, it is not as if this is new or revelatory work. These images are old friends providing old pleasures. For a New Yorker there is a special delight in this show, however, as glimpses in the background of ‘old’ New York cannot help but bring back nostalgic and personal memories.

Not that the water towers aren’t fascinating in and of themselves. Starting in the 1880’s these wooden structures– some of the last vestiges of the centuries-long wooden barrel making tradition– were built on the tops of just about all buildings higher than six stories. New York water pressure was enough to get that high, but no higher, so water was electrically pumped to the roof, stored in the water tank, and then distributed by gravity. Only the fanciest of buildings thought of hiding the tanks behind facades, so a sea of wooden water tanks became an iconographic motif seen from the windows of apartments across the city.

 by unidentified photographer.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sonnabend Gallery Installation View

Another particular joy of this exhibition is its layout. The big grid of photographs typical of the Becher typologies is broken up, and we can now walk along a line of photos, looking at each photograph individually. (There are grids of other water towers in one of the back rooms for comparison of the effect.) Oh, and it was New York in the 70’s – when it was still possible to go up on the roof of just about any building, to look around. New York then was still in part a working-class city, its utilities and hardware clearly visible to any who looked, with views of surrounding apartments, or an occasional glimpse of a bridge (or the new World Trade Center) in the background. The Bechers could have worked hard to eliminate these backgrounds in their typologies, but they did not, and the quixotic, supremely photographic surroundings of whatever was the ostensible subject of the series provide a good part of their pictures’ charm and captivation.

And, old New Yorkers like you and me can just wallow in some fine nostalgia, and be close to the cutting edge of photography at the same time!

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Water Towers

536 W 22nd St. Ground Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 627 1018

Thursday, October 28 to
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Hours: Tue-Sat, 10 to 6