The collaboration of Bernd and Hilla Becher began in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where they used an 8 x 10 inch view camera to photograph the buildings and structures related to the mining industry. They used a strict formula for shooting their images: each structure was shot from the same angle and distance, they only photographed on overcast days to avoid shadows and create featureless skies, and there was a pointed lack of human presence. Their work created a systematic inventory of winding towers, store houses, water towers, silos, cooling towers, factories, warehouses, blast furnaces, houses, and other elements of the industrial landscape.
Later, the Bechers traveled elsewhere in Europe, conducting the same kind of cataloguing of industrial structures, and in 1974 they went to North America for the first time.
Initially, all of the images were contact-printed and displayed as a grid of six, nine, or sixteen 8 by 10 inch silver-gelatin prints of the same type of structure. These ordered arrangements of nearly-identical images were referred to by the Bechers as "typologies," and the similarities of the pictures served to also bring out the differences. Both the titles of the works and the descriptions of individual images tended to be brief, stating only the type of structure, location and date; the lack of text was a deliberate choice, forcing the viewer to look at the structures as "anonymous sculptures" and not as objects in specific functional contexts.
This conceptual aspect of the Bechers' typologies--the identification of the work as images of "anonymous sculptures" rather than as photographs per se--even resulted in the photographers being awarded the Leone d’Oro award for sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1991.
By the late 1980s, Bernd and Hilla Becher had begun to use larger prints in their typologies, and to sometimes display single images alone.