In an extract from his book, ‘Shooting Space’, ‘Constructing Worlds’ co-curator, Elias Redstone, introduces the powerful relationship between architecture and photography.
Architecture is in and of itself a lens through which to see the world.
Buildings are, for the most part, solid, immovable objects fixed to the ground upon which they are built, and it is this very permanence that has allowed photography to document and interrogate buildings from afar. As Walter Benjamin stated in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, buildings can be viewed more easily in a photograph than in person. This is as true now as when Benjamin wrote it in the 1930s, both in terms of ease of access and as a way of digesting a work of architecture, which is often a complex and layered spatial experience in reality.
Whether it is the world’s tallest building in Dubai, a science center by Zaha Hadid or a private house in Mexico, architecture relies on its photographic image to be mediated and made public. More easily read than an architect’s plan or sketch, and more immediate than film and video, photography is the ultimate communication tool for architecture. A photograph has the ability to influence and transform the way people perceive and value a building. Although mediated, a photograph can appear more real than the building itself, as it is the image consumed most widely. However, photography is by its nature subjective and presents a highly personalized view of the world.
‘Everyone will have noticed how much easier it is to get hold of a painting, more particularly a sculpture, and especially architecture, in a photograph than in reality.’ Walter Benjamin
Architects have long understood the power of photography as a promotional tool for their work. The genre of architectural photography emerged as architecture magazines embraced the photographic image. This type of image was commissioned by the architecture and real estate professions – and to a lesser extent in recent years, magazines themselves – to present buildings in the best possible light, in a similar manner to professional portrait photography. As a photographic style, it has developed its own visual tropes: straight lines, wide depths of field, and generally unpopulated environments. The whole façade is captured, with perfect blue skies and no ‘ugly’ context getting in the way. In essence, it is the creation of an advertising image, designed to make a building look perpetually new and desirable, without locating or dating it. Architectural photography is rarely rated for artistic value.
‘I agree that all good photographs are documents, but I also know that all documents are certainly not good photographs. Furthermore, a good photographer does not merely document, he probes the subject, he ‘uncovers’ it.’ Berenice Abbott
Today, digital photography and the internet have made the creation and dissemination of images more immediate and prolific than ever, and architecture has proved to be a popular and photogenic subject for professional and amateur photographers alike. At the time of writing, a search for #architecture on Instagram returned over five million photographs – a vast databank of architectural imagery seeking the validation of likes and reposts. The power to photograph architecture and broadcast it to the world has, at least in theory, shifted from professionals to the people. At the same time, digital technology has collapsed the distance between the pristine, ‘photoshopped’, advertorial image and photo-realistic architectural renderings created from scratch – a topic addressed in the final chapter of this book – making the relationship between photography and architecture ever more complex.
Beyond its own professional sphere, architecture is attracting the attention of contemporary artists. Artists are looking beyond the surface of a building, and responding to architecture as a subject that can reveal wider truths about society, to explore the factors that have shaped our physical environment and our place within it. There is also an acute awareness among many photographers of the purely visual nature of photography, and therefore, of its weakness as a substitute for architecture’s function as a space for the body.
Shooting Space considers the changing influence of architecture on photographic practice, and the influence of artists on how architecture is read and understood. Work by fifty artists is presented in five chapters, each of which considers architecture in different contexts, and addresses a variety of themes that have contemporary pertinence – from the singular building to the city street; from issues of land use to image manipulation; from Annie Leibovitz’s construction workers in New York City to Jose Dávila’s collages that cut out the building altogether, creating a photographic image marked by the very absence of its architectural subject.
Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography by Elias Redstone, £49.95 / €65.00, Phaidon 2014, www.phaidon.com.
Elias Redstone will be in conversation with photographer Bas Princen and artist Richard Wentworth at The Photographers Gallery on Saturday 27 September.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is open until 11 January 2015.
Image: Elias Redstone – Valerie Bennett