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The secret photography of Le Corbusier

The photography of the architect who claimed to not believe in cameras is beguiling and revealing

Speaking to a journalist in January 1936, Le Corbusier said ‘I do not believe in cameras, which are instruments for the idle. They fix nothing in your own brain.’ In his youth he had used a camera but had renounced it around 1919, because ‘by entrusting my emotions to a lens, I was forgetting to have them pass through me − which was serious’. Nonetheless, when Corb boarded the Graf Zeppelin airship for Brazil a few months after dealing with that journalist, he was carrying a newly bought 16mm cine camera, which could also take stills. In the words of this book, his career as a ‘secret photographer’ had just begun.

Over the next two years he would take some 120 film sequences and 6,000 stills − a huge number for someone who was painting and drawing almost every day. Whereas Corb’s early photos have been the subject of several studies, Benton is the first person to systematically examine these 1930s images, but he also sheds new light on the early work in the first half of his book.

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The Graf Zeppelin that Le Corbusier boarded to Brazil

This first half, which includes Corb’s famous Voyage d’Orient with art history student August Klipstein, reads rather like a low-key detective story. ‘We must ask who took the photographs, when, and with what cameras,’ says Benton, of a collection now dispersed between the Fondation Le Corbusier, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Bibliothèque de la Ville at La Chaux-de-Fonds. Exhibit A is the Hüttig Cupido 80 at the Fondation, wrongly assumed to be Corb’s only camera, says Benton; but of more interest than camera technicalities are questions of authorship, as Benton discusses whether not just Corb but Klipstein or Pierre Jeanneret were involved.

For this part of the book, the reader can only be an astonished Dr Watson as Benton brings the deductive skills of Holmes − and a great familiarity with photographic practices of the period − to the problems posed. Not that his conclusions are always definite, but they doubtless supply as much clarity as can be expected about who took what and when, in some cases deterring future attribution to Corb himself.

Numerous photos, both from this first period and from the 1930s, are reproduced on a black ground in stand-alone sections of the book, much like an old-fashioned album in effect. Of course it’s hard to dismiss the thought of Le Corbusier when looking at them, but it’s worth making the effort. Imagine that you had found them in a flea market or an antiquarian shop, with nothing to identify their source. Because of their technical deficiencies and sporadic maladroitness, you’d guess they weren’t the work of a professional photographer but would you say there was a unifying sensibility behind them? Would you think that they were taken by an architect?

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Stills from Corb’s Yoyage d’Orient with art history student August Klipstein

You might suspect so when you study the images from Corb’s first period of photography, where buildings predominate, with the vernacular architecture of the Balkans as prominent as the Acropolis or Hagia Sophia. When famous sites do appear, it’s often quite elliptically (a detail of the Pantheon’s coffered dome), and Benton suggests that a book could be made of Corb’s omissions: in Venice, no Palladio; in Florence, almost no Brunelleschi or Alberti. But from what seems at first to be a miscellany, you can discern Corb’s predilections: a taste for reticent facades, blank walls and flights of steps (for instance at Versailles, St Peter’s and the Villa Medici).

Thoughts of an architect might vanish when you contemplate the disparate images from Le Corbusier’s second campaign as a photographer, where shots of his wife, mother and dog (not to mention himself in the nude) feature beside silhouettes of exotic vegetation and footprints on a beach. But distinct themes nonetheless emerge, cohering in two striking series of stills that resonate profoundly with Corb’s paintings and his overall approach to design.

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Frames from the 16mm films Le Corbusier made on a beach holiday at Le Piquey

One series was taken on board the SS Conte Biancamano in August 1936, as Corb returned to Europe from Brazil. In semi-abstract shots of all the on-deck apparatus, he revels in the machine aesthetic that the Purists admired and that had permeated photography for a decade or more. Benton sketches that photographic context for this series (Paul Strand, Renger-Patzsch, and so on) but the ocean liner setting especially brings to mind an American precisionist painting − Charles Sheeler’s Upper Deck at the Fogg Museum, Harvard.

Le Corbusier took the second series while on a seaside holiday at Le Piquey in the Bassin d’Arcachon. In these close-ups of shells, bones and driftwood, with the sea encroaching and receding and leaving patterns in the sand, we find the objets à réaction poétique that had figured in his paintings since the late 1920s and a compelling focus on natural forces − the cosmic context in which man and architecture find their place. This series is a highlight of this book, for it was just such images as these that informed the genesis of Corb’s richly allusive post-war works.

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The films by Le Corbusier demonstrate his interest in natural forms, temporal processes and the effects of light and shade.

Of some related studies of weathered rock formations on a beach in Brittany, Benton quotes from Le Corbusier’s Une maison − un palais (1928): ‘The eye does not see chaos, or, rather, it sees poorly in a chaotic or confused scene. It instantly seeks out something that has a recognisable feature. Suddenly, we stop, impressed, measuring, appreciating: we discern a geometrical form − rocks upright like menhirs, the everlasting horizontal of the sea, the meander of the beaches.’

This wresting of order out of chaos is of course a function of drawing as much as photography, and what might enhance this otherwise illuminating book is a more frequent comparison of Corb’s photographs and drawings of the same site − the included examples are intriguing. You might still ask precisely what Le Corbusier wanted from his photography, especially as he only printed a dozen of the 6,000 stills from his cine camera and was unlikely to have pored over the others, given the problems in looking at such tiny frames. Perhaps it was enough just to peer intently through the viewfinder, internalising the images and processes he saw there with no need to consult the resulting film. ‘Secret’ or not, what the photographs convey above all is Corb’s voracious appetite for the visual. Whether on an ocean liner or an Atlantic beach, he kept ransacking the world for seeds that might germinate and flower.

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