Building Sights

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Gerry Badger writes in this month’s issue of BJP about photography and the built environment, responding to Barbican Art Centre’s upcoming exhibition, Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age  (25 September—11 January), and Phaidon’s book covering similar territory, Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography, published 29 September. Here follows an extract of his article:

There is 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. 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.

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 Eugène 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 spaces 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 on 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.

Read the full article in this month’s issue of BJP, available direct from the BJP Shop, or from good newsagents in territories across the world. BJP’s award-winning iPad edition is also available via iTunes.

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