It all started in Mudersbach. Bernd Becher grew up in this small town with around 6,000 inhabitants in the densely wooded Siegerland, far away from the big cities. His grandfather had built a half-timbered house there, in which his daughters Maria and Berta lived until the early 1980s. As a child, Bernd Becher was in close contact with his two unmarried aunts. Even when he and his wife Hilla had long been an internationally recognized artist couple and lived in Düsseldorf, they maintained their connection to Mudersbach.
Bernd Becher is the photographer who, together with Hilla Becher, revolutionized art in the 1960s and 1970s with photographs of half-timbered houses and industrial plants. The artists are considered the most important founders of the Düsseldorf School, which later produced photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.
Since the death of Becher's aunts Berta and Maria in the late 1980s, the Becherhaus, as it is called in Mudersbach, has been empty. But Bernd and Hilla Becher didn't want to part with it. The ties to the aunts were too strong, says Laurenz Berges. He knows the stories about Mudersbach. After all, the Düsseldorf photographer was a master student of Bernd Becher, who died in 2007. "Bernd kept talking about Mudersbach," says Berges. And for Bernd Becher, Berta and Maria were something like the emotional backbone of his childhood.
But what do you do with a half-timbered house that has so many memories attached to it and that the word real estate would be far too sober to describe? Max Becher also asked himself this question after the death of his mother Hilla 15 years ago. Although it is difficult for photographer Max Becher to take care of the building from New York, he decided not to sell the half-timbered house.
You can call it sentimental if he doesn't want to sell his ancestors' home, where he often stayed as a child. But you can also call it far-sighted – if you look at Mudersbach as the incubator for one of the most important artistic developments in photography. Because without the black and white series of half-timbered houses from Siegerland and industrial plants by Bernd and Hilla Becher, photography as an art would not have blossomed as much.
Due to the close connection to his teacher, Laurenz Berges came up with the idea of photographing the Becherhaus. To get his own impression of it, he drove to Siegerland with Max Becher. "As soon as I entered the hallway, I knew that I wanted to make a photo series out of it."
Berges has traveled to Mudersbach again and again over the past four years. He walked through rooms, let them sink in, inspected the lighting conditions and took photos, he says. The artist was not interested in documenting the living conditions, but wanted to “capture the atmosphere”.
"The stories of the family are formed in these narrow spaces," says Berges. In his photos it looks as if time has stood still. The furnishings appear like a preserved everyday life: the aunts' shared bedroom with the separate beds and with the pictures of angels on the wall, the hallway with the walking sticks from before the rollator days, an open drawer that was lined with flower paper. The room where Becher stayed when he visited his aunts is also part of the recorded story.
Laurenz Berges' photographs are carefully composed glimpses into a bygone era, not a beautiful living aesthetic: "This house reveals the modesty and deep religiosity of its residents," says the artist.
In addition, individual details also provide information about the complex family history. Such as the remains of decorative painting. They are silent witnesses to the artistic ambitions of Bernd Becher's father, who ran a decorative painting business. His son apprenticed with him, then left home in search of his own artistic path; perhaps also because the relationship with the father was not the best, it is said.
What connects Bernd Becher and Laurenz Berges is their interest in the culture of the recent past. Berges, who is now 56, became known in the early 1990s with photographs of Russian barracks in the former German-German border area, which were cleared after reunification, and with his series of vacant houses in Etzweiler, a village that was abandoned because of opencast lignite mining was abandoned. There too, as in the Becherhaus, he carefully approached the rooms and the relics they contained – and created an atmosphere.
However, the Becherhaus in Mudersbach has a special meaning for the Düsseldorfer because it also reveals new insights into the art of the Bechers. "When you look out the window, you're looking out into nature, and there are industrial buildings in the distance." This view is similar to the photographs Bernd and Hilla Becher took in their early days in Wales - photographs of blast furnaces, headframes and processing plants that have now been destroyed in many places.
And what about the future of the vacant monument and artist's testimony, for which the owner has not planned any museum use at the moment? There is no answer to that yet. But with his photographs, Berges drew attention to the importance of this gem.
By the way: He only photographed the half-timbered house once from the outside. He said he didn't want to "compete with the master".
Laurenz Berge's "Das Becherhaus in Mudersbach", Schirmer/Mosel-Verlag, 95 pages, 42 color plates, 38 euros