There I sat at my desk eating a slice of pizza and perusing Pinterest (as one commonly does during their lunch break) when the door swung open and I made the realization that over the past twenty-two years I had entered an important part of photo history. I was looking through someones curated collection of power line photographs when I spotted a familiar scene, a grain tower and pickup trucks. It reminded me of my hometown so I clicked to view it larger. It was. If the tiny (still standing) two-story home in the bottom right corner didn’t give it away, the title sure did: Grain Elevator-Sycamore, Ohio, USA, 1987, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Yes you read that correctly, in 1987 the Bechers came to Sycamore, OH, population 842 (give or take).
If you don’t know, the Bechers are one of the most iconic architectural photographic duos of all time. A married couple from Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher worked side by side until Bernd’s death in 2007 (gaining popularity in the 1970’s with the publication of their first book). They were interested in the vanishing industrial landscapes of Europe and America and spent their time cataloging these structures. The Bechers made typologies of gridded black and white photographs of coal mines, oil refineries, silos, and water towers, shooting until that particular type of building became obsolete. They have had retrospectives at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (1981), the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1985), the Centre Georges Pompidou (2005) and the Museum of Modern Art (2008). Bernd and Hilla were minimalists, conceptualists and activists and they were in my hometown.
Those of you who have followed this blog for any amount of time know how enamored I am with Sycamore, OH. Up until this point I had chalked it all up to a good childhood, ignorance and nostalgia. I am now seeing that it has some redeeming aesthetic qualities as well. I knew that the stacks were iconic to those of us from this teeny town, but am in shock to find out that they are iconic to an audience much wider than that as well. Sycamore is a rural farming community which means it is also a shrinking one, making it the perfect place for the Bechers to set up their camera. I have noticed this my whole life and spent most of the summer of 2015 (28 years later) photographing what was left of it (writing blog posts about it here, here and here). It is these stacks that call me home, that tell me I am near to the place that I love most. For me they represent a relic of a life once lived, for the Bechers a relic of a rapidly disappearing industrial past. Two summers ago they announced that the stacks were to be torn down, demolition began and then quickly came to a standstill. Though the stacks still stand, they are in a state of disrepair, a fact that has lead me to photograph them nearly every time I go home.
To know I stood where Bernd and Hilla Becher stood and unknowingly photographed what they once photographed is incredible: a piece of both photo’s history and my own coming together for 1/60th of a second to be immortalized forever. Mostly I am shocked that nobody knew. Nobody told me that two of the greatest photographers of the 20th century made a pit stop in Sycamore selecting it to be a part of one of their great American typologies. We were all unaware. I always knew that the stacks were important (like the flat cornfield horizon is part of my blood, the stacks are a beacon calling me home). How fantastic is it that two famous German photographers were drawn to them as well?
I always thought that if Sycamore had a chance of becoming a part of art history it would be through me (conceited I know), but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that it already was thanks to the Bechers and a dilapidated grain elevator.
The below images were shot by me last year. This Sunday I plan on revisiting the project after being enlightened by this new discovery.
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