Framing the debate. Architecture and photography

Max Vickers
March 26, 2015
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Goole, Great Britain, 1997

On a Saturday morning in September, queues are forming in front of  doorways across London. The crowds can be seen all over the city, people  patiently waiting in Whitehall and Wapping, in Bloomsbury and  Beckenham. Their locations are apparently random – at the foot of the  newest glass towers in the City, outside old school buildings, in front  of national embassies and old pumping stations, and lurking about  private houses in London’s residential streets, too. Although the  British public are acclaimed queuers, it’s obvious that something out of  the ordinary is going on here, on a city-wide scale. All of these  people are waiting for their opportunity to see something they usually  can’t – and that something is simply the interiors of the buildings  among which they live.

This is all due to Open House London,  an annual city-wide initiative that encourages London’s private  buildings to open their doors to the public for one weekend each year.  Running since 1992, the initiative has become something of an event in  the city’s cultural calendar, with over 850 sites participating and  drawing tens of thousands of visitors across the capital.  Bookings and  even ballots are mandatory for many of the most sought after  experiences, which this year included 10 Downing Street, the Shard and  the Bank of England. Browsing the vast listings for Open House, you  begin to realise just how little of your city you really know; or  perhaps even could know, if you wanted to. You also begin to comprehend  that the nature of the weekend’s most popular buildings – governmental,  corporate, and private – gives a decent impression of London’s landscape  of power, and the public’s usual limited-to-none access to most of it.

Open House is actively engaged in broadening dialogues about the  public sphere, and encouraging democratic empowerment through a ‘direct  experience’ of architecture and space. But as their website makes clear,  this ‘directness’ is apparently something strictly separate from other  ways of experiencing our surroundings:

“Core to our beliefs and values is having  direct experience. You can’t make an informed decision merely through  abstract images, such as photos and illustrations. You need to be  engaged with the space in question to know what the reality is.”

Yet a cursory search for #OpenHouseLondon on Instagram tells a  different story. Of all of the genres of image making to have been  revolutionised by mobile technology and photo sharing networks (the  self-portrait comes to mind), architectural photography is arguably  undergoing something of a transformation. In fact, looking over the vast  cache of images made collaboratively over that weekend in September –  openly accessible to anyone, anywhere, it’s worth adding – it soon  becomes clear that Open House London is something of a city-wide photo  op. New rooms and new views are point-and-click bait for every kind of  photo sharer: plentiful are the saturated panoramas, the moodily  filtered geometric meditations, and a few shameless selfies thrown in  for good measure. Above all though, here are thousands of interesting  and thoughtful visual reflections of people’s experiences and memories,  in the places that Open House London opened up to them. Only the most  dedicated to either photography or architecture would have been prepared  to make these images ten – even five – years ago, let alone share them:  to do so today requires only a couple of swipes of the finger. Growing  exponentially, in virtual space, is the most collaborative, populist,  and accessible bank of images that has ever existed about the places  where we live.[1]  The optimist in me likes to think that this sudden surge of images –  and of image makers – might encourage new kinds of engagement with the  spaces we live in: one that exemplifies the difference between seeing and its more thoughtful, considered cousin, looking.

At Barbican Art Gallery, in one of London’s key architectural landmarks, the recent exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age  has explored exactly this phenomenon; the ways in which looking at  architectural space offers a means of both showing but also reading our  surroundings. The show brings together an impressive roster of  photographers from the last 100 years whose work has been consciously  implicated with architecture and the built environment. One of the  advantages of photography exhibitions is an ability to bring together  images made for entirely different purposes, and Constructing Worlds  surveys a range of artists and photographers who have all used  architecture in their work according to their own objectives. Among the  eighteen photographers whose work is on display, this show brings  together commercial practitioners such as Julius Shulman, the documentary styles of historical giants of the medium like Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott, through to the conceptual cool of 1970s artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher.  That the show has somehow managed to be both chronological and  thematically organised gives some indication as to how our interactions  and interpretations of architecture have evolved over the course of a  century.

Berenice Abbott, Night view, New York City, 1932

Although the exhibition begins somewhat abruptly with Berenice Abbott  in 1930s New York, under examination here is a singular and rich  relationship that exists between photography and architecture, and one  that is woven deeply into the history of the medium. Exactly what or  which is the first photograph ever made has always been debated; that it  was an image of a building is almost certain.  The stillness of our buildings and the stillness of photographs were  seemingly made for each another, and architectural studies were ideal  for early photographic technologies that demanded long exposure times.  Architecture was not only a subject made of clear and recognisable  lines, but more importantly one that would keep still for as long as you  needed.

Given the wealth of what comes before the 1930s it seems a shame to  start so far into the history of photography, yet Abbott’s photographs  of rapidly changing New York are an exhilarating starting point for this  show, arriving as they do at one of architecture’s most compelling  historical moments when New York emerged, literally, as the world’s  first city of sky-scrapers. Alongside this architectural revolution, New  York was the epicentre of photography’s revaluation as a medium at the  time; modernist artists, photographers and writers were experimenting  and reconsidering what the camera was capable of. There is a true sense  in the monumentality of Abbott’s New York photographs that only the  camera could ever have captured the scale, the geometry, and the  electric luminosity of Manhattan’s modernity. Arguably her best known  image, ‘Night View, New York City’, is spellbinding in a way that only a  photograph can be: densely detailed, intricately composed, deceptively  simple.

Much of Abbott’s desire to capture New York came from a documentary  impulse. It was Abbott who returned to America from Paris with a horde  of Eugène Atget’s haunting, proto-surrealist photographs of empty  streets in a quickly changing 19th century Paris, and which provided  much of the impetus in her own desire to capture what would soon  disappear in New York. In rapidly changing cities and cultures,  photographs become invaluable historical and social documents, a kind of  collective social memory for what would otherwise be lost to the past.  Walker Evans’ photographs of the vernacular architecture of the American  Deep South, images that have been a seminal influence on 20th century  photography, come from the same documentary angle while demonstrating an  entirely different approach with the camera. Whilst Abbott’s  photographs accentuated the impersonal, faceless life of the big city,  Evans’ work documented unflinchingly but humanely a rural American life  of the same era in all of its poverty and sordidness. Evans began to  photograph the architecture in these communities in much the same way he  would take a portrait; imbuing the shotgun shacks of the South with the  same significance we read in the eyes of their residents.

Evans’ characteristic style would become a lasting influence on 20th  century photography, and his one man show in 1938 at the MoMA – the  first ever for a photographer – also signalled photography’s migration  into the museum and into a more established position within artistic  practice. The generation of artists and photographers that followed  Evans would co-opt his deadpan style to address their own questions  about their surroundings. The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is a clear  inheritor of Evans’ style, all the while taking photography into new  conceptual realms. Their typological grids of industrial structures –  always the same, always different, but somehow still thrilling after  nearly half a century – arguably form a kind of template for the  postmodern adoption of the camera and the photographic image. The  Bechers’ work embodies so much of what photography offered to a  generation of conceptual artists in the 1970s – a very postmodern  fondness for typologies and sequences (one that has arguably never gone  away), but above all a cool detachment that the camera alone could offer  as a mode of representation. By its unique conflation of objective and  subjective realities, photography could take centre stage in the wake of  the death of the author.

There is a notable absence of people in the photographs that occupy  the middle part of this Barbican show – focus shifts onto the man-made,  and the unconscious impulses that shape the built environment. Ed  Ruscha’s aerial photographs of Los Angeles are still mesmerising in  their simultaneous simplicity and complexity; his photograph of the  Dodger’s Stadium from above is utterly deadpan, yet somehow supercharged  with uncanny power and force. Waves of abstracted, radial traces left  by something as banal as a carpark are transformed into something like  the Rorschach pattern of a civilisation. Ruscha drove along LA streets  photographing every single building long before Google Street View, and  the wave of photographers and artists alongside which he emerged –  Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth are also present in this show – taught  viewers to re-evaluate what was worth their attention. Walter Benjamin  observed as early as the 1930s that the camera “introduces us to  unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”,[2] but it was arguably not until the 1970s that artists managed to truly extract the medium’s potential to such ends.

The melting of boundaries between photography and other forms of  visual art has made it increasingly slippery and difficult to delineate  as a medium. Many of the contemporary photographers on show at the  Barbican operate either between, outside of or simply wilfully ignoring  ideas of genre. Work that would once have been classed as  photojournalism – and printed exclusively in magazines – now occupies  museum and gallery walls, fuelled in part by the monumental print sizes  now available to photographers. Nadav Kander and Simon Norfolk stand out  here as practitioners who are able to make series that are as edifying  as the best photojournalism, while at the same time integrating the  complexity and ambiguity that would once have been associated only with  great painting. If globalisation is the overarching narrative of our  time, then series like Kander’s Yangtze: The Long River or Norfolk’s Afghanistan  photos are some of the finest examples of the ways in which photography  and architecture are complementary, universal, languages capable of  communicating the latent conflicts and histories embedded in a  landscape.

Faced with the wealth of photographic history on show in Constructing Worlds,  the incredible saturation of today’s visual culture with images seems  to be both problematic and propitious for the status of photography  going forward. To think of it as a medium in its own right is  increasingly difficult, as photography collapses under the weight of its  proliferation and ubiquity. The more that our lives are mediated  through photographs – think of every image you see each day online, in  adverts, on television – their power to command our attention in any  serious way ebbs away. Yet this show is a timely reminder of the  irreplaceable role that the photograph has played in revolutionising our  ways of seeing; its ability to show us what is otherwise ignored, and  to bring to our attention what has often been hiding in plain sight.  Photography has been a democratic medium in which amateurs have  flourished from its very inception, and the #OpenHouseLondon  photographers show this to be as much the case now as it ever was. Open  House is absolutely right to assert that our engagement in communal  space is more vital than ever; perhaps, too, they’re right about what we  see when we look at photographs: we look the other way – another way.


[1]  The Problematic Point Of The Corporate Power Bound Up In These Images  (For Facebook And Instagram) Is Not Lost On Me. For The Sake Of This  Piece, However, I Am Only Concerned With Levels Of Access To Image  Making And Sharing.

[2]  Walter Benjamin – The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical  Reproduction, Sct. 13 (1936; Repr. In Illuminations, Ed. By Hannah  Arendt, 1968)

All by
Max Vickers