Document, Publicity, Commentary, Art

Posted on February 7, 2015


This post presents my thoughts on the recent CONSTRUCTING WORLDS Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age Exhibition at the Barbican London. This exhibition closed in early January 2015. I visited twice. There was much to take in at this blockbuster exhibition, which presented work by 18 photographers. I have struggled to get my mind around it all and as a consequence have delayed posting my thoughts on it for some time, until now.

The title for this post is taken from an essay by David Campany which was published in the exhibition catalogue. It suggests that the role of photography in relation to architecture can assume many guises. Photographs can be simple documents of architectural forms. They can be used to publicise and promote the work of particular architects or simply the sale of property — a largely commercial endeavour. They can act as a commentary on the state of the society in which we live. And they can become recognised as art, although the boundary between photography and art seems ever to be blurred (at least in my mind). I have used this construct as the basis of my review of the exhibition, although it is fair to say that the boundaries are not clear cut.

The exhibition itself was organised in a chronological sequence. The starting point was Berenice Abbott’s photographs of New York made in the 1930s. Abbott was inspired by Atget’s work in Paris and had in fact acquired a large part of his portfolio on his death. As Atget documented Paris, Abbott sought to document her native New York. There I feel the similarity ends. Abbott’s images are Modernist in style with expressive viewpoints and dynamic angles and lines — a Modernist style to capture a Modernist city. Her photographs celebrating the glory of the city’s architecture were however tempered by images of the everyday, the vernacular. Washing lines, street signage, shop fronts and such like are presented alongside the grand architecture. Abbott’s photographs are a document of New York at that time, albeit a personally expressive document.

Berenice Abbott - Night View, New York, 1932

Berenice Abbott – Night View, New York, 1932

Walker Evans is perhaps one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. His self described ‘documentary style’ has been much copied. It is interesting that Evans recognises the illusive nature of objectivity in photography in his own description of his approach as a ‘style’. The photographer’s hand is ever present, making a purely objective representation an impossibility. I see Evans’ work as both documentary and as commentary. His seemingly objective, often frontal views of the vernacular scene of 1930s America are a record of place and time. But they also have much to say about American society at that time. Atlanta Georgia, Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936 is an interesting example. This photograph is multilayered. On face value it documents a street scene, but it also depicts the American scene as one dominated by obsession with celebrity, advertising and consumerism. The duplication of the houses in the photograph also point to the homogenisation of vernacular architecture — a subject later much developed and explored by New Topographics photographers such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.

Walker Evans - Atlanta Georgia, Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936

Walker Evans – Atlanta Georgia, Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936

Julius Shulman and Lucien Herve were commercial photographers who specialised in architecture. Their work is essentially about publicity and promotion. At the outset Shulman worked with architects Gregory Ain, Rudolph Schindler and Raphael Soriano who were up and coming architects who specialised in ‘West Coast Modernist’ residential property. Shulman’s photographs showcased their work and later the work of many other architects working in this style. The photography is about representing a lifestyle to which upwardly mobile Americans would naturally aspire. Most of the photographs are in rich colour. Herve worked for many years alongside Le Corbusier. His graphic black and white images seem to convey the essence of Le Corbusier’s architecture with its stark bold lines and are often almost abstract in style.

Lucien Herve - Haute Cour, Chandighar Inde, 1955

Lucien Herve – Haute Cour, Chandighar Inde, 1955

Ed Rucha is an artist. His work however seems to follow in the footsteps of Walker Evans. His images of the vernacular in West Coast USA are in a ‘documentary’ style. Why then is his work art and not photography? His work was published in book form – very flimsy small books of black and white images. I think the important distinction with Rucha’s work was the way in which he worked. His photographs are presented in series  and avoid, as far as possible, aesthetic expression. This forces the viewer to consider content rather than form — the content being a commentary on the state of American society at that time. At the Barbican exhibition his Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967)  was on show. I read this series as a critique of American society’s obsession with the motor car and how it has come to dominate the landscape. Perhaps it is this conceptual underpinning that qualifies Rucha’s work as art. Perhaps it is because he was an artist who adopted the photographic medium for some of his work.

Ed Rucha - Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967)

Ed Rucha – Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967)

The Dusseldorf School is much represented at the exhibition, with work from the Bechers, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. The industrial typologies of the Bechers seem to transend their documentary form. It is hard to pin down why this is. Perhaps it is simply the serial form of presentation which adds layers of meaning. Stuth’s Unconscious Places  has long been a favourite of mine, in particular the black and white images of streets in major cities. I have posted my thoughts on this work previously, see here. The street architecture has much to say about how the particular society orders its priorities, from the strict homogeneity of Northern Europe to the chaotic palympsets of cities such as Naples. He draws our attention to the background setting of city life which is often overlooked. I am not a fan of Andreas Gursky’s. Yes it is impressive, probably because of its monumental scale. But somehow it seems overworked, and almost too obvious.

Thomas Struth. Via Medina, Naples. 1988

Thomas Struth – Via Medina, Naples. 1988

Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places is another favourite work of mine and it was good to see a large  number of photographs from this series in the exhibition. Shore’s work for me is more a document than a commentary. It seems to follow in the tradition of Walker Evans. It was radical at the time as it was an early example of ‘serious’ photography shot in colour. The photographs are expertly composed and beautifully lit, yet the subject celebrated is the everyday, vernacular scene.

Luigi Ghirri, Helen Binet, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Luisa Lambri all present personal interpretations of architectural spaces, each in their own style. As at other exhibitions however it was Sugimoto’s work which most grabbed my attention. His interpretations of iconic buildings are both fascinating and awe inspiring. Sugimoto made large scale photographs of iconic buildings such as the former World Trade Centre in New York. The photographs are deliberately blurry. He focused on what he called ‘twice infinity’. On a view camera, such as the one that Sugimoto uses, the camera is focussed on infinity when the distance between the lens and the film is equal to the focal length of the lens being used. Sugimoto set this distance to twice the focal length to make his architectural images. The photographs have an eerie other worldly feel to them. They seem to represent what would be left in a post apocalyptic world. The broad shapes are clearly discernible but detail is lost. The prints were very large and hugely impressive. I have seen this work in books before and not paid much attention. These large photograph command attention! Does the aura that surrounds Sugimoto’s images qualify them as art?

Hiroshi Sugimoto - World Trade Centre, 1977

Hiroshi Sugimoto – World Trade Centre, 1977

 In the work of Simon Norfolk,  Nadav Kander and Iwan Baan arguably whilst architecture features in their photography it is not the central subject per se. In the case of Norfolk for example the subject is the landscape of war. The traces of conflict on the architecture represented are part of this landscape. Whilst interesting in their own right I wondered if the works by these photographers really fitted with the theme of the exhibition – perhaps I was getting picky by this stage. That said Nadav Kander’s huge images of China were awe inspiring and with their warm tones reminiscent of Turner landscapes – high praise indeed!

In his Avenue Patrice Lumumba Guy Tillim shows how architecture has been used to make political statements. Tillim photographs buildings constructed African states in the aftermath of independence from colonialism. These structures whilst once grand and celebratory are now run down and neglected – an obvious but still effective metaphor for the parlous political and economic state of many of these places today

Guy Tillim - Apartment Building, Beira, Mozambique 2007

Guy Tillim – Apartment Building, Beira, Mozambique 2007

All in all this was an excellent, if exhausting exhibition. What did I learn? Well it confirmed my view that I am most interested in work which is multilayered and where there is an underlying conceptual framework. There are too many images in this world. Good ideas are more difficult to find!