This book of spectacular photographs commands a powerful and diverse beauty but falls short of its ambitious agenda
The title of this sumptuously produced book is misleading. ‘Concrete’ here refers not to the stuff of building sites, béton, hormigón, but to whatever has substance, to the opposite of the immaterial. Published to accompany an exhibition held in Winterthur in early 2013, it reproduces several hundred photographs of architecture and cities, with nine short essays on the current relationship of photography to architecture. Taking issue with Walter Benjamin’s famous pronouncement that photography had destroyed the ‘aura’ of works of art and architecture, making the originals superfluous, the book argues that we need to know actual buildings, how they sound and feel, for photographs to exercise their power. The book is a modest response to the common charge against photography that it drains architecture of substance.
If the book’s agenda is to confirm the need for a physical presence to ‘verify’ the photograph, the result can hardly be considered a success. The beauty of photographs, and especially of those reproduced here, overwhelms us: and as one of the contributors, an art historian, remarks, the sight of a photograph of a building in a gallery ‘doesn’t give me the urge to see the building in real life: the image alone moves me enough’.
Concrete Photography and Architecture is, ultimately, a collection of photographs − and a spectacular one too, a work of outstanding curatorial research. Many of the photographs are unfamiliar, and they range from 19th-century photographs of construction sites, ruins and street scenes, to 21st-century ‘art’ photographs of interiors, cityscapes and suburban desolation.
Photography revealed the structure of architecture, just as it was revealing (via microscopy and radiography) the structure of life itself, giving impetus to functionalists and pedlars of organic metaphors
They are presented non-chronologically around various themes − stone/steel/glass; construction/decay/destruction; models/simulation/temporary architecture; house/home/unhomely; settlements/transit spaces/metropolises. While the allocation of certain photographs to one or another classification seems sometimes arbitrary, the merit of this mixing up of chronology is to draw attention to how very different our own photographic norms are to those of photographers of the past − so different are they that it hardly seems appropriate to treat them as the same genus.
This isn’t simply a matter of the difference between analogue and digital photography − we know when we look at any recent image, whether shot on film or digitally, that it is likely to have been digitally reworked, whereas we can look at 19th- and early 20th-century photographs and be certain that they are indexical records of a moment in time. But 19th-century photographs are also different in that they are so rich with detail, they absorb our attention, and have to be looked at slowly; contemporary images, on the other hand, tend to have relatively little detail, are often rather sparse, with large blank areas rich in tone and texture, and while they may have high impact, there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that they will receive anything more than a momentary glance.
If the image saturation of modern culture has meant that we never look for long at a single image, it has in its turn produced a new kind of image that responds to this new condition.Very few of the photographs here are by famous professional architectural photographers (Ezra Stoller is a rare exception). Almost all the images are either anonymous, like the early photographs of construction sites, or by ‘artists’.
The development of ‘photography as art’ has brought about a revival in architecture as the subject matter of photography. Whereas the pioneers of photography favoured architectural subjects because they were static, contemporary artist photographers choose ‘architectural’ subjects to exploit diverse potentials of the medium. Unconcerned with documenting the buildings, which are often anonymous, the results are more about the picture than the representation. For architects, as for the readers of magazines where the photographs appear, this sets up new expectations when it comes to the photographing of new buildings − and a few architects, like Peter Zumthor, have embraced this new development, commissioning photographers whose main concern is with the image, rather than the building.
The sumptuous reproduction of the photographs in this volume raises the power of photography to beautify to new heights. Duo-tone printing gives a luscious velvety depth that the original black-and-white prints never had − which is why the originals often seem so disappointing when one sees them exhibited. We are faced not merely with the power of the camera to beautify, but also with the power of modern printing to make the drabbest of images irresistible. As one of the contributors, the architect Annette Gigon, says, ‘With an image one can almost never say “no”’ − but with printing like this, one can never say ‘no’.
CONCRETE FOTOGRAFIE UND ARCHITEKTUR / PHOTOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE
Author: Daniela Janser, Thomas Seelig, Urs Stahel
Publishers: Scheidegger & Spiess