Exploring photography’s obsession with architecture as motif and metaphor, a cluster of exhibitions in Los Angeles ended by questioning the neutrality of the camera in the architectural assignment
Nothing better suited a long exposure and a limited depth of focus quite so well as the wall of a building. Architecture, especially under an unchanging sky and devoid of passers-by, could sit for its portrait for a very long time. And, cumbersome as the equipment may have been, cameras were vastly more efficient in recording historic and remote sites than the patient pencils of the renderers of historical surveys.
The 19th century got to know its medieval cathedrals from the work of Frederick Evans, its French monuments through the vast commissioned photo surveys of the Missions Héliographiques and Excursions Daguerriennes, and its Renaissance Italy through the studio of the brothers Alinari; while lantern slide lectures welcomed vast audiences into a kind of athenaeum of knowledge about historical and exotic architecture.
Confined as the scope of the camera was, quickly and almost forever lost to architectural photography was the emerging Romantic language of rendering and veduta in which buildings were magically animated by scudding skies or shafts of sun, with cavorting or reclining elements of the populace, and through speeding carriages or stately sedans.
Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire
‘A Sea of Steps’, stairs to the Chapter House, Wells Cathedral,Somerset, 1903
For practitioners themselves, photographic records of great buildings were central sources: the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, for example, placed in his draftsmen’s studio a vast library of photographic albums of French works from the Romanesque through to the Renaissance, examples of form and detail with which to ground his office practice. But it took a surprisingly long time for architects to move toward assigned photography in circulating their own new work, rather than the line engravings established as common visual currency by the 19th-century print reviews.
‘Erich Mendelsohn’s clear reliance on photographic studies of his Einstein Tower established the scale and viewpoint of his apparently spontaneous virtuoso freehand sketches’
Frank Lloyd Wright was one pioneer, commissioning photography and very assiduously directing it for his early publications, most significantly in the inexpensive Sonderheft that paralleled his luxurious Wasmuth print portfolio − a photographic handbook of his house designs aimed at the market of American householders who might be interested in commissioning new ones.
We now know that Wright and his little studio in Fiesole actually worked from just such photographs to establish the drawings for the great Wasmuth prints. Even more striking was Erich Mendelsohn’s clear reliance on photographic studies of his Einstein Tower to establish the scale and viewpoint of the apparently spontaneous virtuoso freehand sketches with which he would as a sort of party piece regularly demonstrate its form.
It is perhaps only a short step from such use and abuse of photography to a habit of mind that begins to conceive of a design in terms of the camera’s establishing view, or to the construction of the path that takes tourists down to the nearly inaccessible site from which the professional camera captured the famous but otherwise unknowable upward view of Fallingwater − as if we had not seen the building properly until we could picture it from the published viewpoint.
Between the wars a new version of the Missions Héliographiques emerged, devoted now not to inciting preservation of a gloried past but to locating and promoting the radically new. It was Erich Mendelsohn’s photographic ‘architect’s picture-book’ of Amerika that did most to introduce Europe after the Great War to the glories of cities built of the steel frame and the tall building.
It was a Viennese publisher’s printed photo albums of Neues Bauen in the early 1930s that made architects around the world familiar with new building sensibilities and techniques emerging in Russia, Germany, the US and France, and in the work of Adolf Loos; and a similar role was played by photography in Wendingen, the Bauhaus books, the portfolios of Cahiers d’Art and such contemplations on the juxtaposition of old and new as Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.
Prominent Czech Modernist Jaromír Funke applied the tricks of the ‘New Vision’ style of photography to architecture: tilted and vertiginous views turned buildings into abstractions and gave them motion commensurate with the tempo of the modern age
Architectural photographs were still, however, largely trapped in the conventions that had emerged with the early constraints in the process of making them. It was probably impossible in the face of cinema to add people or motion to such pictures, since we were all by the 1930s tutored by films to look at the figure and anything in movement as the subject of an image rather than ornaments to its true motif.
Yet as scale grew and the dynamics of urban movement became more rapid, there were evident difficulties with the traditional ground level, slightly distanced and static portrait of a building’s facade. Hence many of these publications relied on tempered versions of radical experiments by such avant-gardists as Lissitzky, Umbo and Rodchenko in tilting, fragmenting and twisting the viewpoint, or in time lapse and collage, using such techniques to capture architecture that spoke to the great heights and bright lights of the electric city.
This approach − cinematic and vivid and embracing of context − was short-lived. With postwar shelter magazines fuelling demand, photo studios (many borrowing from wartime experience and from Hollywood) in the booming construction world of the ’50s and ’60s worked with new equipment, film and techniques to bring back the emptiest and most static conventions of picturing architecture. This led to decades of the commercial photographer’s neatly framed views of uninhabited buildings, set under a blue sky, devoid of passing traffic, lit inside by relentless floods of artificial light, and peopled, if at all, like Julius Shulman’s models in Koenig’s Case Study 22: in vividly complementary dress and posture. It was the age of Kodachrome to which
one suspects the design impulse itself fell victim.
In the early ’70s, gradually and then with accelerating force, architectural photographers began taking radical cues from art practices, like those of Gordon Matta-Clark, which used buildings as their motifs. The focus might be on incidents and casual episodes in a structure rather than a sense of its whole and it is this new tradition that holds sway among the photographers of choice to whom leading designers are now directed. A figure like Luisa Lambri might dwell on the single face of a wall, while Iwan Baan − cheerfully protesting a complete ignorance of architecture − can tell us that his real interest in a new work lies in what surrounds it rather than what it is.
All this is brought to mind by a recent convergence of exhibitions in Los Angeles. Two complementary surveys of the Getty’s holdings looked at the persistent conventions of using the building as motif and metaphor − first in some startling juxtapositions of work from the earliest days of architectural photography to the present, and then in a look at 180 years of conversation between the window and the lens.
At the Hammer Museum a career retrospective of James Welling showed us a trajectory toward the unexpected, mystical − and often largely unrecognisable − observation of optical physics upon our environs that started with observations of abandoned New England mills and the rusticated stone buildings of Richardson. There Welling had wedded the sombre photographic palette and flattened perspectives of much architectural image-making in the buildings’ own times to apparent accidents of composition in which a casual detail or episode seems to appear simply because the lens had so framed it or a passing sensation of the texture of the material had caught the eye.
Meanwhile Woodbury University’s Julius Shulman Institute − dedicated to reflection on the relations between architect and photographer − launched an incisive exhibition and publication on the changing character of the architectural assignment, looking through the work of 10 current architectural photographers to find the distinctive sensibilities in each that takes their work ‘Beyond the Assignment’.
Shadowing all these ‘Daguerrian excursions’ is an encyclopaedic multi-venue presentation of the great California photographer John Divola, who, we are now a little surprised to realise, has been quietly constructing one series of narrative masterworks after another, starting − as Welling began his excursion with the forlorn brick mills of deindustrialising New England − with tales of shattering emotional power that are told by portraying moments in the progressive abandonment and desecration of deserted buildings. Divola’s sullied walls and shattered glass people every site with a human presence one cannot see − the ghostly figures of social displacement and distress.
Undine Pröhl’s photograph of Kengo Kuma’s extension to a house by John Black Lee in Connecticut
Timothy Hursley imbues Philip Johnson’s study with a somewhat sinister presence: is a séance about to take place in this room?
human figures animate this data centre by Sheehan Partners, in a photo by Bilyana Dimitrova
Some of the same sense of a just absent person − of space somehow inhabited when no figure is seen − lies among the shadow and light effects in Timothy Hursley’s view of Philip Johnson’s study and in Undine Pröhl’s chiaroscuro photograph of Kengo Kuma’s house in Connecticut. Other contributions to the Woodbury show − including its curator Bilyana Dimitrova’s brilliant observation of a data centre by Sheehan Partners − violate all the unspoken tenets of commercial photography by insinuating actual human incidents into the scene and by focusing on such matters as light coming from within rather than the lighting of the form seen from without.
In the same way Paul Warchol’s upward view of the catenary curves at Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum uses tiny and vague human forms not only as staffage to establish scale and perspective but also to suggest the thralldom of light and shadow on a shell of catenary curves − the sheer phenomenological magic that we sense in the viewers’ experience.
These strategies can work − as in Dimitrova’s near digital concatenation of illumination or Hursley’s suggestion of Johnson himself as a shadow figure − to almost poignant metaphoric effect. Yet each practitioner clearly talks a language of their own. By acutely confining all the images in the show to a single moderately sized format, Beyond the Assignment: Defining Photographs of Architecture and Design serves as an essay in characterisation, while the technique of addressing the same question to each subject in the catalogue reinforced the idea that each protagonist brought a singular identity of looking into the process of their work.
Paul Warchol plants static and moving people in his photograph of Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum, eliciting an empathetic imagining of ourselves in the space depicted
James Welling’s image of Philip Johnson’s Glass House transforms a modern icon into a motif
This is one facet of the unexpected − that it derives from giving rein to a very personal way of seeing, or of choosing from what the camera saw. Welling’s capture of the improbable view presents quite another aspect of this thesis, and with it an interesting question. There is an evident sympathy between the way he looked at Richardson and the way Richardson looked at his works. But nothing could take us further from the reductivist version of Miesian logic and clarity that informed Philip Johnson’s designs than the obscurantist double take upon his glass house we see in Welling’s interpretation of the glass house.
‘We were left for decades to live with the commercial photographer’s neatly framed views of uninhabited buildings, set under a blue sky, devoid of passing traffic, lit inside by relentless floods of artificial light, and peopled, if at all, like Julius Shulman’s models in Koenig’s Case Study 22: in vividly complementary dress and posture’
Here, as in Thomas Struth’s streaking bypasses of Mies’s German work or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s chiaroscuro distortions of Mies’s North American landmarks, great and lesser works of modern architecture seem to revert to the status of motifs. Yet it is prudish to find these travesties of an architect’s intentions shocking, for once works have insinuated themselves into our common mental landscape of a place or culture, they have surely earned the right to become − like a misty view of the Eiffel Tower or sunrise at the Taj Mahal − whatever an artist or tourist may choose to make of them. Why should the gloried high points of Modernism as a remembered culture be any more exempt from interpretation than the monuments of Paris in the Belle Époque or the India of Shah Abbas?
And why should we not − as the photographers at Woodbury suggest − move ‘Beyond the Assignment’ and stop pretending that a photograph, by observing familiar conventions, actually tells us what a building looks like when what it really does is tell us how one photographer proposes we might look at it: sometimes, at its best, to their own surprise.