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Editorial View: The Inherently Compromised Relationship between Buildings and Photography

When architectural photography’s controlled views of buildings are redefined by and adapted to new technologies

Roland Barthes once observed that there is no such thing as a photograph. ‘Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see’, he wrote in Camera Lucida. What we do see is the scrutinising gaze of the photographer, which can beguile or unsettle, but should always evoke some kind of response.

As a scientific and ‘truthful’ medium, photography has served architecture well, especially in the Modernist era when the evolving medium synthesised perfectly with a new approach to design. Yet the relationship between architecture and photography is an inherently compromised one. Unlike art practice, architectural photography lends itself less to searching critical enquiry, being essentially an unspoken pact between architect, photographer and publisher to render buildings in a way that discreetly flatters architectural ambition and sells copies of books or magazines.

It can also be argued that the inherent narrowness of the photographic gaze inhibits how architecture is understood and discussed. Architecture is a complex subject, but photography is necessarily selective, and its seductively abstracting tendencies mean that the photographs of buildings often supplant the real thing in the minds of viewers. As the same images of the same buildings sluice around print and digital media, this attention-seeking currency has come to define what architecture is, often to the detriment of the local, the nuanced and the particular. The idea of how buildings fare in use, or have worked over time, which is critical to the wider learning process, is also anathema to this condensed spectrum of visual appreciation.

`But for better or worse, we are all architectural photographers now, endlessly snapping and sharing. Digital technology has liberated the discipline from the constraints of lumbering and costly equipment, while Photoshop can iron out any unpalatable wrinkles. Shifts in technology have also been accompanied by shifts in perception. The notion of buildings statically posed against a perpetual blue sky and generally devoid of people has now been supplanted by the more informal, verité approach of photographers such as Iwan Baan, whose exhaustive exploits are chronicled in this month’s issue.

Within the rather genteel milieu of architectural photographers, Baan is a phenomenon: a Flying Dutchman constantly girding the globe in pursuit of images. Like an architectural version of Mario Testino, he is the starchitects’ photographer du jour, documenting their buildings in a way that has become as distinctive and era-defining as Julius Shulman’s moody, monochrome shots of Californian Case Study Houses. Yet despite the nomadic, rock-star lifestyle, he is also drawn to more marginal architectural currents and locales; emblematic of a sensitivity that goes beyond simply nailing the latest commission.

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