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The polemical snapshot: architectural photography in the age of social media

Disseminated by smart phones and Instagram, critical photography thrives online. But can it change the way we look at buildings?

Photography, Walter Benjamin observed in 1935, unshackles buildings from their sites, and as a consequence ‘the cathedral leaves its place to be received in the studio of the art-lover’.1 But in the process architecture, which he called the prototype of a collective art, is privatised. And where it had previously been perceived tactilely, in a state of habitual distraction − a good thing, in Benjamin’s opinion, since this deflected the cult-like devotion lavished on artworks − it was transformed into precisely that: an object of contemplation, and a commodity to boot. If architecture was the prototype of a collective art, for Benjamin the up-to-date version was not still photography, but cinema. However his contemporaries cast doubts on his utopian dreams of film’s revolutionary potential − justifiable doubts, it turned out.2 Benjamin, a German Jew, was writing on the topic from Parisian exile, and five years later he killed himself as he fled a regime skilled as none other in the manipulation of images, not least images of architecture.

That photography − considered as art − continues to do dubious things to buildings is demonstrated by the current Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican, where buildings, famous or otherwise, are turned into icons, each housed in its own devotional aedicule. There are the Shulman photographs of the Eameses’ work, which look like high-class estate agents’ shots, and take architecture’s commodification to a delirious extreme, but even the everyday surfaces of Stephen Shore − even the conceptual, determinedly anti-aesthetic work of Ed Ruscha − are made to look like an affirmation of the title of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s book (which so appalled Benjamin): ‘the world is beautiful’.3


Professor Larry Speck published images of Zaha Hadid’s crumbling Guangzhou Opera on his blog, asking why such a terribly finished building won a design award from Architectural Record

Trash turns into tinsel and muddy water into limpid streams via the refracting crystal of the lens. The result is ruin porn, slum porn: ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and drool’. The question of why we, myself included, love to ogle the damaged and decaying is a knotty one. While we might charitably say it springs from a desire to escape the smooth perfection of capitalist spectacle, it risks becoming exactly what Johnny Rotten sang: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. The idea that images of iniquity can spur the viewer to action is utopian − there is no necessary or immediate connection between stimulus and response. Without the accompaniment of critical text, abject images are ambiguous, and potentially just a form of exploitation that aims to deliver aesthetic pleasure or the warm buzz of pity.4

‘Photographs showing unflattering angles, frustrated users, shoddy finishes, premature ruination and fuck-the-neighbours attitude, are still invisible, at least in the architectural press’


John Donat brought a photojournalist’s sensibility to his work, which spanned Foster’s Willis Faber building in Ipswich and slums in Whitechapel

Could it be, however, that the new media have finally achieved Benjamin’s dream of a collectivised mode of seeing? Does the new photography of architecture, captured on smartphones and instantly distributed to a mobile network of viewers, with each node capable of interaction rather than languishing in bovine receptivity − does this represent a re-collectivisation of the way we look at reproductions of building? A re-socialisation of architectural reception? A means of representing the abject without fetishising it?

Motivations for transforming architecture’s representations and its audiences are not hard to find. The reification of buildings by photographers, their commodification, their fragmentation and isolation from context, the way they are stripped of humans and marks of use, sterilised, and transformed into receptacles for capital investment − has long been the subject of criticism. Even the most biting analytical text has its fangs blunted when accompanied by seductive centrefolds. Too often, architectural photographers see their job as representing what the architect intended, not what the architect built − or what the user encounters (these might be three entirely different things). The result is the photographic equivalent of architectural drawings, with the camera sent back in a time machine, beyond the sometimes disappointing moment of realisation into the mists of ideation. The effects seep into the profession itself: a feedback loop is established between reproduction and production, to the extent that some buildings are evidently built as images, and utility goes out of the window.


Shortly after he arrived in Britain, the AR hired László Moholy-Nagy to design a special seaside issue (July 1936) incorporating ‘New Vision’ style photography

But despite the familiarity of this critique, editors (myself included) and photographers are so enmeshed in the institutional networks of architectural production that critical images have been subjected to an iconoclastic taboo. Photographers want to take attractive photos (their careers depend on it after all), and they won’t get invited back by architects they’ve exposed. Editors want people to consume their magazines, which should, therefore, look delicious. Alternatives have been tried − and abandoned. The AR employed László Moholy-Nagy in the 1930s to produce layouts in which architectural details, shot from crazy ‘New Vision’ angles, pop through cut-outs in the page. The AR also has a long tradition of printing what Robert Elwall called ‘polemical snapshots’,5 such as Ian Nairn’s endless telegraph poles for Outrage and John Donat’s socially engaged work. This tendency came to a head with the infamous Manplan campaign, which began in 1969 and lasted for eight issues − until the outraged response of architects and Hubert de Cronin Hastings’ own editorial team (but not subscribers, as Steve Parnell recently revealed) led to Thermidorean reaction. In any case, looking over Manplan now it becomes clear that, for all the protopunk graphics and the pugnacious chutzpah of the grimy monochrome, this was the work of angry old men. H de C’s accompanying essays are the words of a conservative revolutionary, dismayed by the modern world and keen to turn the clock back to a picturesque past: a wish that jarred with his chosen mode of representation, which has an inadvertent voluptuousness, seducing the viewer with its grain and silvery tone.

More recently, after many years of absence, the AR has reinserted humans into the images it publishes, and frequently represents buildings behaving badly in their contexts (see, for instance, Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton rearing over the Bois de Boulogne, or Piano’s ill-conceived additions to Ronchamp). Our Revisit series attempts to recover the temporal dimension neglected by journalism’s slavery to the news cycle, and our covers, over the last few months, have purposely abjured manicured glamour shots in favour of the oblique and the occasionally unsettling. Nevertheless, photographs that show unflattering angles, frustrated users, shoddy finishes, premature ruination and fuck-the-neighbours attitude, are still generally invisible, at least in the architectural press.


Critic Oliver Wainwright regularly posts images of inept architectural details on his Twitter account, such as this guttering from Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris

Online, on the other hand, a blizzard of images blows through the ether − images good, bad, and indifferent. There are blogs, there are Instagram feeds, there are Flickr pools and Facebook albums. People share images by email, SMS and WhatsApp, and comment on pictures on other people’s accounts. Does this represent the glorious unfolding of a real architectural public, where discourse blooms unshackled from institutional fetters? Or could it be said that, though the ecology of online publishing is a lush and thriving jungle, what seem at first glance to be the green shoots of freedom grow in fact from ground fertilised with filthy lucre? Architects attempt direct marketing by tweeting images of their own buildings, Dezeen regurgitates glamour shots from the architectural PR machine, and Flickr’s endless amateur hour is stuffed full of examples of what Pierre Bourdieu called the ‘middlebrow art’: images aping the professional canon, all rendered in emetic HDR (High Dynamic Range).

‘The new photography of architecture is captured on smartphones and distributed to a mobile network of viewers, with each node capable of interaction − but is this a re-collectivisation of the way we look at images of buildings?’


A selection from the thousands of amateur images of the Parthenon on Flickr, which provides a global survey of the way we see buildings

And where exactly is the social element in the so-called social-media? Are we reduced to ‘liking’ Twitter posts, like caged rats relentlessly pawing the button that releases one more tiny hit of socially secreted dopamine? To appending the words ‘nice capture’, followed by a thumbs-up emoji, to yet another carbon copy picture of the Parthenon on Flickr − an image that, bar its psychedelic colouring, could have been taken 150 years ago? Substantial critique and reasoned debate are hard to achieve in 140 characters, a form that favours instead bad-tempered put-downs. Star photographers like Iwan Baan who resort to the new media − Baan’s favoured forum is Instagram, where he has 23,000 followers − aren’t so much interested in engaging their public in the creative process, as in cultivating their own professional images as roving eyes, always with a shoeless child at hand to buff that aura of social concern that goes down so well with famous clients (but doesn’t translate into depictions of their projects, naturally). His adoption of the demotic helps explain his popular success: he employs the casual visual language of the hobbyist, and his favouring of camera phones has been widely reported − he just happens to point his from a helicopter.

The lack of critical analysis in this trade in images is a glaring one: Tumblr blogs such as Fuck Yeah Brutalism may occasionally bring the odd unexpected gem to light, and spark ponderings about the vanishing heritage of this widely reviled style, but there are no connections made between these pictures, and very little said of them. Even supposedly critical photo blogs, such as Unhappy Hipsters − which collects real-estate photos starring bearded white yuppies − fail when it comes to text, since the ‘satirical’ captions are about as funny and as biting as a humorous greetings card. At best, Tumblr is an archive, and nothing more; at their worst, Tumblr blogs are lightly ‘curated’ composts of disconnected visual platitudes, a perfect illustration of gape-mouthed Forrest Gump-style sentimentality. Gee the world sure is beautiful.


Douglas Murphy reported on a visit to Gateshead on his blog, complete with images revealing the inelegant backside of Norman Foster’s Sage Gateshead


Owen Hatherley’s blog featured excursions through the ruins of neoliberal Britain, such as the infamous ‘Bradford hole’, a site left empty since 2008 after a scheme by mall-builder Westfield was paused in response to the financial crash

There are alternatives. Even simple image aggregator blogs can, by means of repetition, build up a kind of thematic integrity: architects Asif Khan and David Knight, for instance, maintain a photo-blog titled AANDD which records the traces left by inhabitation on buildings and urban spaces, provoking reflections on what it means to use architecture. For a couple of years, Kieran Long pseudonymously disseminated images of terrible buildings on his blog Bad British Architecture, revealing a whole substratum of poor design that rarely gets mentioned, let alone depicted, in the mainstream press; even Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup tends to favour the superlatively awful, or bad works by big names, whereas the banality on show on Bad British Architecture was its raison d’être, and reminiscent, in that sense, of Nairn’s strategy of bringing the ignored to light. In a similar vein, but more analytical, are the blogs of Owen Hatherley and Douglas Murphy, where they launched their own careers as writers by recording journeys around British towns to reveal − via their own, admittedly inexpert photography − the decay of the country’s urban centres under neoliberal policy.6

The internet has something to offer even a broadsheet critic like the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. Though he’s not shy of publishing critical opinions of big-name architects, he has to resort to Twitter to show the images that justify his critique, while his articles in print and on the Guardian website are accompanied by a combination of promo shots and architecturally illiterate photojournalism. There are exceptions to this: for instance, his recent collection of images of facade retention schemes, many of them solicited via Twitter, was published online by his official home. Yet on the whole, critical photography’s online exile is general − and as Professor Larry Speck points out on his blog, this leads to the situation in which the Guangzhou Opera House can get garlanded with construction awards and depicted like Aphrodite freshly sprung from the waves − whereas, in reality it is, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, ‘falling apart’.


A selection of images from Asif Khan and David Knight’s blog showing architectural adaptations, including a ‘bum-proofed’ corner and a Távora fountain in Porto modified by skaters

What are the solutions to this photographic apartheid? In an era in which print quakes before the online hydra, editors are justifiably reluctant to rock the boat or risk producing what looks like a substandard product. But − leaving the ethical argument aside − might there not be a case for product differentiation inhering precisely here, in the interstices between ArchDaily and Wallpaper*? The levelling promised by electronic media’s more enthusiastic advocates turned out to have a distinct democratic deficit as the hierarchies of the old media were transposed into the new; figures of authority in print replicate this authority online, for instance Olly Wainwright with his 14,000 followers on Twitter, or the AR with its Tumblr of architectural drawings, followed by 170,000. Expertise clearly still has an audience, but in visual matters its successful communication depends on a non-contradictory visual strategy. The argument for a further enfolding of what the internet can do into the old media would seem clear: it’s time for a return of the polemical snapshot to architectural journalism.

‘Where is the social element in the so-called social-media? Are we reduced to ‘liking’ Twitter posts, like caged rats pawing the button that releases one more tiny hit of socially secreted dopamine?’


1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, Selected Writings, Vol 3 (Harvard University Press, 2006), 101-33, 103.
2. Theodor Adorno et al, Aesthetics and Politics (Verso, 2007), 120-6.
3. Renger-Patzsch’s book of photographs Die Welt ist Schön was published in 1928. Ironically, the title was actually an invention of his publisher: Renger-Patzsch had wanted to call it Die Dinge (Things).
4. Martha Rosler, ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ (1981), in Richard Bolton (ed), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (MIT Press, 1992), 303-42.
5. Robert Elwall, Building with Light (Merrell, 2004), 162.
6. Both Hatherley and Murphy wrote on this topic in 2012, eliciting an indignant response from Dezeen asserting the value of their (then) virtually text-less site. Dezeen have since employed Hatherley as a columnist.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Matthew Jarsky

    It is a shame that neither the four blogs, nor the one Twitter accont mentioned in the article are linked.

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