Building Sight

Reading Time: 7 minutes

One of the first subjects photographers turned to when photography was invented was architecture. Given the limitations of early cameras, it was crucial that buildings, unlike people, did not move. Or talk back, for that matter. And, importantly, if you argue that a primary mission of early photographers was to symbolise the imperialist enterprise by making an inventory of the material things of the world – which the colonialist powers largely owned – then architecture was one of the camera’s most vital subjects.


For example, PH Delamotte’s 1855 album about the removal of the Crystal Palace to its final site in Sydenham is not only one of the great examples of early architectural photography, it is first and foremost a company report. It provides the first example of the qualities the writer David Campany invests in the photography of architecture – that it is document, publicity and commentary. Actually, Campany also adds art, but we’ll come to that later.

His thoughts on photography and architecture appear in the catalogue Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, on show at the Barbican Art Gallery in London from 25 September until 11 January 2015. This appears simultaneously with a major new book from Phaidon, Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography (published 29 September). The common denominator is Elias Redstone, the independent architectural curator who wrote Shooting Space and co-curated the Barbican show with Alona Pardo.

Curious crossroads

Ever since the 19th century, photographers and architects have had a symbiotic relationship. A surprising number of people in photography, myself included, studied or practised architecture. Many leading photographers of the built environment have taught on architectural courses, such as Lewis Baltz and Guido Guidi at the architecture school in Venice. And architecture was the primary subject for both the greatest and the most important photographers of the 20th century – Eugène Atget and Walker Evans, respectively.

The photography of architecture is a crucial subject. It relates not only to where we live, but how we live. It touches on so many aspects of our lives, and there are so many aspects to the subject, as both exhibition and book demonstrate – the document, publicity, commentary and art criteria again.

The first aspect of this complexity, and the first thing to perplex us, is what exactly is architectural photography? Pedro Gadanho, curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, asks this question in Shooting Space. He doesn’t come to any definite conclusion, acknowledging that: “Either because it creates its own realities, or because it draws from trends in the field of photography at large, architectural photography seems to be at a curious crossroads.”

Defining architecture is difficult enough, but the art of constructing the built environment encompasses more disciplines than planning buildings – structural engineering, town planning, landscaping, road engineering, building sciences (heating, lighting, ventilation) and so on. When I studied architecture, the engineering students were in a different establishment. The town planners were in ours, but their course was separate and ne’er would the twain meet, physically or philosophically – a situation that pertained throughout my architectural career. The architect is the nominal conductor of this interdisciplinary orchestra, except there is the additional bugbear – and it often is a bugbear – of the client. The client pays the piper and therefore calls the tune. Most architects have less power than they imagine.

Empty buildings

At its purest, architectural photography is represented by photographers such as Julius Shulman, who photographed the classic modernist domestic structures of architects including Richard Neutra and the West Coast ‘Cool School’. As the photographer once modestly said: “I sell architecture better and more directly and more vividly than the architect does.” Shulman allowed the odd perfectly formed person to populate these pristine interiors, but people are usually shunned by architects when they ask a photographer to record their work. People litter buildings and mess up the architect’s idealised vision. This attitude is changing, however; I am told Sir Norman Foster is thinking of having some of his buildings re-photographed with people in the pictures.

The unpopulated trope of architectural photography also extends to many clients, especially the property developers. They do not really want people in their buildings at all. They want covenants – that is to say, the annual revenue from a 25-year full repairing and insuring lease, with upwards-only rent reviews at each quarter term. Thus, within the strict definition of the term, architectural photography is product photography, and is actually not that interesting – so both the Barbican exhibition and the Phaidon book encompass a lot more. Spread throughout both (with some overlap), we range from the photography of vernacular architecture (Walker Evans), engineering structures (Bernd and Hilla Becher), urbanisation (Nadav Kander) and urban decay (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre), to the attrition of war (Simon Norfolk), the commercial landscape (Ed Ruscha) and the urban landscape (Stephen Shore).

And also, let us not forget the artsy fartsy. There is a deal too much artsy fartsy in contemporary photography, and architectural photography seems particularly adept at bringing out the portentous and the pretentious. There is much contemporary pictorialism, flights from naturalism and the document into the realms of the abstract and constructed – partly because this is a tendency, and partly because it seems easier, and in some ways more fun, to mess about with Photoshop. Making meaningful straight photographs is extremely difficult. It is one of the great paradoxes of photography – the ‘art of the real’ – that so many seek refuge in pictorialism in the desperate desire to make photographic ‘art’ that is seen to be art. For example, are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s soft focus images of modernist buildings really “quietly contemplative and surreal abstractions of light and shadow, which soften the concrete walls and harsh angles of Modernism”, or are they just large, out-of-focus photographs?

There is a particular pictorialist trope that seems to attract so many photographers it almost constitutes a sub-school within architectural photography. It could be called the Legoland tendency. My granddaughter was recently excited to get a copy of The Lego Movie, but unlike some of these so-called photographic artists, she can be forgiven as she is only four. This tendency, of course, results in the construction of collaged fantasy worlds, using Photoshop to do what visionary, ‘megastructural’ architectural groups like Archigram did in the 1960s using pen, scissors and paste.

But using seamless photographic methods means the distinction between art and the virtual reality computer games of the ‘Empire Building’ kind becomes blurred. The same kind of megalomaniacal bent is involved and, sure enough, I am told that this is beginning to affect standard architectural photography. Many architects are beginning to question the efficacy of traditional photography because the computer-generated images used to sell buildings to the client at the design stage – which can amount to not only amazing, seamless-looking perspectives, but three-dimensional, filmed ‘fly-throughs’ – are just so much more sexy than boring old photographs.

Flattening space

But if we come back to realist photography, which for me still constitutes the real, solid fare in both the exhibition and the book, there is much interest. It is good to see Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott together. They are both conduits to Atget, but whereas Abbott merely replicated Atget with her New York to his Paris, Evans took photography to a different level. In considering Atget and Evans, a question is raised by the title of the book – Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography. Just how good, in fact, is photography at depicting space – at producing a plausible replica of a three-dimensional space?

It is difficult, but of course Atget was the great master at depicting the space of a Parisian street or a park. No one has done it better in the medium’s history. We are all familiar with his alleyways and streets, where the perspective zooms sharply away from the camera position and energises the frame to an inordinate degree. Indeed, this caused Evans to remark – exhibiting the great artist’s tendency to differ from his inspiration, rather than merely copy it – that Atget inspired him to photograph head-on.

And that, by and large, is the tendency in contemporary photography. The photographer, or rather the camera, tends to flatten space within the picture, which makes for coherent images, lines and shapes integrated within the frame, but tends to mitigate against the ‘natural’ depiction of space. It is not a consideration for the majority of photographers, whose aim is to make ‘images’. One distinct and notable exception is Stephen Shore. His quiet, understated images are masterly expositions of the depiction of natural space in photography.

Walter Benjamin observed that photography helped one to ‘get’ a building more than the building itself. This might be true in an iconic, symbolic sense – we might think of the standard shot looking down into the central space of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, for instance – but it is not true in a spatial sense. You can only really ‘get’ a building by being in it. Hélène Binet’s photographs of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin are effective enough, but how can any photograph do justice to the actual feel of the underground paces in this great building, which provides one of the most remarkable architectural experiences you can have? If you regard great architecture as theatre, this is one of the great theatres of the world.

We perhaps tend to think, especially in this Instagram and virtual reality age, that photography can be a credible surrogate for actual experience. Photography certainly is made to act as a simulacrum for actuality, and is remarkably effective at doing this in many ways, but it has its limitations. We have come to rely upon it so much, and now seem to be so much in thrall to the virtual world, that we perhaps tend to forget that the ‘real’ beats the virtual every time. Perhaps it’s because they do realise, deep down, that so many photographers feel they have to ‘trick up’ the medium.

One of the photographic works which perhaps comes closer than most in depicting the three-dimensional – even four-dimensional – complexities of architectural space is mentioned in Campany’s catalogue essay but is not included in either the Phaidon book or the Barbican exhibition. This is Jules Spinatsch’s Vienna Opera Ball project, exhibited earlier this year in Vienna. Using CCTV screen grabs, Spinatsch charts the course of the Vienna Opera Ball over the course of the evening, both spatially and temporally. Sometimes, the arty can work – if it is intelligent enough – and it’s a pity this work could not be included, because if there is a cutting–edge place for photography in connection with architecture at the moment, here it is.

In the end, I find both the Phaidon book and the Barbican exhibition to be something of a curate’s egg. Both ask more questions than they answer. Of course, that is precisely the point of any curatorial enterprise, but also important are the questions raised. To come back to my Gadanho quote in Shooting Space, and his comment that architectural photography seems to be at a “curious crossroads”, I think this sums up the vague sense of dissatisfaction I am finding, but it extends way beyond architectural photography. I think we are seeing a kind of schism within the medium. It’s not new, and it seemed, perhaps 20 years ago, that photography had reconciled itself with art. But we have entered an age of viral pictorialism, and the dichotomy may be wider than at any time since the 1920s, when modernist straight photography split from the original pictorialist school. But this time I think it’s between the real and the virtual. It’s potentially interesting, and it’s potentially dangerous, which adds to the interest.

Constructing Worlds, Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age opens at the Barbican Art Gallery on 25 September.

Shooting Space published by Phaidon and priced £49.95 is available to buy here.

Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.