Script for a debate about the definition of architectural photography
The debate is already long; it counts over a century and a half of intense exchanges of arguments and appears still to raise different voices. The history of architectural photography melds with the history of photography, but there appears to be no consensus regarding the definition of the category or genre, namely the difference that exists between a photograph of architecture representing a determinate work of architecture and an artistic photograph (a work of art) which has the architectural work or the built landscape as object of its representation (or model of reality). One hears both parties.
In 2014, MoMA - New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired six photographs signed by Fernando Guerra, five of which of the Iberê Camargo Foundation’s building, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, designed by Álvaro Siza, and the sixth, a portrait of this architect. The photographs integrate the collection of that museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, of which are equally part 17 sketches, 4 technical drawings (which share the sheet with hand drawn perspectives) and a model of the same work’s project. With this set of elements, MoMA seems to possess - certainly what it understands to be - a representation of that work of architecture, being the photographs, according to the curator, an easier vehicle of communication for a public non specialised in architecture. The selected photographs correspond to interior spaces of the building, insufficient fragments to understand the whole of the work, but from which one apprehends its intrinsic plasticity, the cut- outs of its white walls and the twisting games of its forms.
Photography is solely an element which participates in the representation of the work of architecture, which will yet demand the conceptual and abstract effort to the gaze in order to reconfigure an image on the thought, necessarily complex, of that same work. This image is the same which appears on the thought when reading or hearing words we know - window, bench, sea - and will never be able to correspond to the thing (or to the object) that exists. Presents it, re- presents it under many forms and respective languages.
Relevantly, MoMA’s Department of Photography still didn’t exist, when Walker Evans became the first photographer to have an individual exhibition on that museum, in 1938, under the title “American Photographs by Waker Evans,” revisited in 2014 - the year of the acquisition of Fernando Guerra’s photographs - in an exhibition that aimed to maintain the original layout of two sections with many of the photographs exhibited at the time. The first section presented, mostly, a set of portraits of several Americans in informal quotidian contexts, while the second section presented a set of photographs of streets, wooden houses (the American house, which was at the origin of Adolf Loos’ Raumplan and which he drew, from memory, with coloured pencils), small churches, rural areas, factories, among other architectonic forms, similarly to his photographs of XIX century American houses he had presented, some years before, on the architectures galleries of the same museum.
Those were the years of the economic depression and great political agitation, whose effects were scattered across the faces, the body postures and the American landscape. On Evan’s photographs, one senses this necessity of recording, anticipating the future time of complete disappearance of some forms of expression of the American culture, without however guessing any nostalgia. Evans’ formal compositions of great rigour appeal to a precise comprehension of reality (some would say factual, almost functional), of the complex transformation that modeled the world and the tensions of modern life, of which the buildings and the landscapes are powerful visual signs. Notwithstanding the undeniable documental character of Evans’ work, this, according to Lincoln Kirstein, “has, in addition, intent, logic, continuity, climax, meaning and perfection...,” categories that, according to Rosalind Krauss, allow us to understand the photographic work of Evans from the aesthetic categories established by art history to define the body of work of an artist-auteur.
Evans had contacted, in Europe, with the work of the Neues Sehen, from Moholy-Nagy in the bosom of the Bauhaus, which inspired certainly his New York’s photographs from oblique angles, dynamic geometries and strong contrasts in the light-shadow play. However, his seminal work will depend more on the influence of Eugène Atget’s work on the old Paris, whom Kirstein compared it with in the essay on the book accompanying the 1938 exhibition.
Architectural photography exists since photography exists. On the first years of photography development, buildings and landscapes, due to their immobility, suited the long exposures necessary to obtain a clear picture. In that time, equally, a rising interest in the distant places and the exotic peoples existed, which up until the date only a small minority of society had had the privilege of visiting. Photography celebrates the advent of tourism through a reversible effect: if one wishes to visit that place that already knows from images, afterwards, one craves registering forever the image from it that we start recreating in our memory, resisting to ignore that the photograph never reproduces the experience, nor will it ever be able to correspond to the memory of it. Photography is a representation of memory, in the sense that memory, which persists in our thought, is an image necessarily, fabricated from the photographic image, never the original memory.
Ever since its invention photography manipulates the representation of reality and may never be confused with it, despite André Bazin having one day believed that the photograph is the object in itself, once freed from the time and the space that condition it. For Susan Sontag, on the contrary, “by deciding how an image should look, by preferring an exposure in detriment of another, photographers are continuously imposing standards on its subjects. Even if there is the idea that the camera, in fact, captures reality and doesn’t merely interpret it, the photographs are as much interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”
The placing of the camera defines the placing of the observer (its placement in space and the placing of the machine in relation to the body in space imprint in the photograph a resonance of the gesture of the body which anticipates the photograph, permitting a reverberation in the one who looks at it and, in that way, an identification with what one sees - the eye as wonderful synthesis of a body); the physical distance to the object defines the framing, the cut-out of reality, reflecting, equally, the critical distance demanded by the thought which anticipates the shooting and determines what is wanted to be given to see; the format of the camera delimits the quantity of information it imprints from reality (big and medium formats, for example, appropriate a greater quantity of information about the matter, permitting a greater clarity in the definition of the details, while digital cameras extract more abstract and plain forms and matters); the shutter speed and the exposure time condition the kind of light (and the kind of shadows, which are light, as well) or allow the crystallisation of people movements, for example; the kind of lenses establish the depth of field or the proximity of the things and objects to us, observers, of our body which sees itself (as in a mirror) in the photograph.
Certainly the first photographers had knowledge of this characteristic of photography, although they had sought to emphasise its objectivity and its value as a document (albeit circumstantially, it would fixate a determinate moment in History). Deliberately, or not, these characteristics were reaffirmed by the institutional commission, which, having as an end the construction of a historical archive (and, in a certain way, the dominion over time), determined that role to photography. The Missions Héliographiques, commissioned by the Commission des Monuments Historiques of the French government, in 1851, to five photographers, had as an end to document the architectonic heritage to evaluate the condition of the monuments and their needs of restoration, serving, in that way, the prevailing historicist intentions that photographs themselves denounce in their composition, following the tradition stemming from the drawing representation: the buildings perfectly framed in the center of the image (the center of the composition would coincide with the center of the building’s main façade), photographed from a single elevated point of view to isolate the building from its context, to compensate for the perspective distortion, and the photograph resemble to a perfect model.
One can’t ignore that photography coincides, as well, with the advent of modernity. Charles Marville, official photographer of the city of Paris from 1862 onwards, was responsible for documenting the modernisation program launched by the emperor Napoleon III under the plans of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, photographing from the most ancient quarters with its sinuous and insalubrious streets, which were to be demolished, to the birth of a disinfectant and luminous new urban fabric. In many of his photographs, one senses, in the juxtaposition of those two times and spaces, the irreversibility of loss and the tensions generated between the old fabric and the new avenues. Marville, used to photographing monuments as well, introduced in his photographs of the streets of Paris a less formal composition, opting, many times, for the point of view of the passer-by, the same point of view that will be privileged, some years later, Eugène Atget.
To Walter Benjamin, Atget is one of the main photographer-auteurs from the beginning of the history of photography, because he knew how to create images which, in the muted expression of the empty city (“the city, in those photographs, appears like an orderly house still without a tenant”), permit a free appropriation (including that of a “politically elaborated gaze”) due to its impersonality - the city as “anonymous resemblance of a face” - created through rigorous framings, an indifferent and abstract light obtained after long hours of exposure through dawn and the absence of people.
Benjamin speaks, for example, about how the photographs of Atget liberated the objects of its auras or removed the symbols that contributed to create a romanticised and stereotyped atmosphere of the cities, what the photography its contemporary - especially those of portraitists - exacerbated. By photographing an occult city without recurring to nostalgic elements, Atget liberated the emancipatory power of the city as a free space of creation and expression (all the cities and desires would fit there), that the surrealists know how to identify and utilise to explore the “alienation between ambient and people” as condition of modernity and the experience of shock (so dear to Benjamin and to the surrealists).
Atget like Evans became unquestionable auteurs for a collective of photographers that became known, in the 70s, through the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. The exhibited photographs operated a radical change not only in the represented themes - forms of anonymous architecture, suburban and desolate industrial landscapes, where traces of reminiscent human occupation persisted - as in the aesthetics, eliminating remnants of romantic tradition, ideals of sublime and artistic aspiration which dominated their contemporary landscape photographs. To Stephen Shore, one of the photographers that integrated the exhibition (and, relevantly, the only one to present photographs in colour), according to an Arab proverb, “the apparent is the bridge to the real.” The buildings, the way they relate with each other and with the different elements that compose a built landscape, express, in a physical and material way, the cravings, the motivations of a society, but also its scars and its cracks, sometimes, imperceptible. These photographs give back the look over the quotidian, the banal, the informal, what is, inclusively, several times, considered ugly or uninteresting, finding in the forms of anonymous architecture and on the landscape the expression of a present in conflict with its own disappearance or with its resistance, as the time of the photograph is, necessarily, past, and, nevertheless, virtual, because it registers a reality in potency, which will unveil before our eyes, the longer we linger on its surface, always feeding future dialogues (so much so that some photographs seem “haunted” not by the past, but by the time that followed).
The topographical photography creates very precise essays about the built reality and, paradoxically, similarly to its forebears (Atget and Evans), by nearing as much as possible the impersonal representation of reality, of muteness, under an aesthetic without qualities, affirms itself as creative and critical, in the sense Benjamin attributed to it. “If photography stems from a set of contexts (...) emancipated from physiognomic, political or scientific interests, then, it becomes “creative”. The theme of the lens will be “englobing” through looking; the madness of photography appears. “The spirit, surpassing the mechanics, converts its results into parables from life”.” Creativity stems from a thought that’s built simultaneously with and in a critical regard, pursuing a specific interest in reality: a physiognomic (or morphological), as Benjamin reveals in Sander’s photographs, or a scientific interest as he reviews in Bloβfeldt’s photographs, or another yet still.
The photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, exhibited in that same exhibition, stem, for example, from a typological interest, more than a topographical one, as in the remaining represented photographers, becoming important references for architectural photography. With an enormous rigour of composition, the object isolated from its context filling the near totality of the frame, the same plain and abstract light (nearly shadowless) through the mechanical rhythm of the series and respective types of buildings of a, predominantly, industrial, character, the photographs of the Becher couple reveal to us something like two evidences: the one of the very represented building, whose function corresponds to the visible form, and the one of the very photograph as objective representation of reality. Perhaps through the affirmation of the evidence, our regard lingers more on the composition of the buildings that are shown, strangely, complex in its apparent abstraction, acquiring an own timeless life (and the plain character of the surface is, once more, destroyed to liberate new speeches and forms of thought).
Photography reveals that mutual construction of regard and thought, where one feeds the other, from the matter which seems to us more accessible and evident - reality - and which, in the end, reveals itself, as if by magic, another. It wasn’t all before our eyes. “Photography is the result of a gaze over the world and, at the same time, a transformation of the world; it’s a new thing,” as Vilém Flusser told us.
The photographs of Atget and Merville will have to be understood as institutional commissions whose only goal was the construction of an archive and the production of History to their image. Consequently, they may only be interpreted as documents and their exhibition, later, in the context of a museum caused, from then on, some strangeness for some art theoreticians, among them Rosalind Krauss, who defends that one can’t apply the same categories constituted by art and its history to photographs that had as a function to catalogue, exhaustively, the various components of reality, without any principle of serial constitution (understood as a line of style in which the body of work of an artist unfolds) or of authorial investigation. To this author, the photographs of Atget and those of Merville both belong to the same documental plan and to the categories, previously, codified by historic investigation.
At MoMA, the photographs of Fernando Guerra appear exhibited, alongside the drawings and the model, as representations of the work of Álvaro Siza, facilitating its access and comprehension. According to Ignasi de Solà-Morales: “The manipulations of the objects captured by the photographic camera, its framing, the composition, and the detail, have a decisive incidence in our perception of the works of architecture. It is no possible to do, today, a history of architecture of the XX century without referring the names of the architectural photographers. Not even in the direct experience of the edified objects we escape the photographic mediation, in a way that it lacks sense the Manichaean idea according to which there would exist a direct, honest and true experience of the buildings and another manipulated and perverse one through the photographic images. On the contrary, the perception we have of architecture is a perception that is aesthetically re-elaborated through the eye and the photographic technique. The image of architecture is a mediatised image that, with the resources of the flat representation of photography, facilitates our access and comprehension of the object.”
On the covers of Life, the photographs of Julius Shulman, in the 50s and 60s, transformed the works of architecture into promotional images of the American dream and the respective lifestyle: the sky always blue, the slim bodies by the swimming pool, the interiors carefully illuminated at dusk... While they may be interpreted as documents of a certain era and, consequently, expression of the popular culture and aesthetics, they determined a kind of architectural photography which is distanced, irremediably, from the documental photography to near itself to publicity and commercial photography, offering a work, entirely, fictional.
These photographers knew, perfectly, that the experience of the work of architecture cannot be reproduced by photography, regardless how many sequences may be established to recreate the movement through the work (like Le Corbusier’s trial of equating the movement through his promenade architecturale to a sequence of photographs, the narrative of which still followed the cinematographic impulse that the work itself contained, reaffirming, through representation, the idea built in the space, as Beatriz Colomina notices) or no matter how many situations they could stage - the wife in the kitchen preparing dinner; the kids, in the living room, playing; the friends in the terrace at dawn chatting - however, they dared subverting the commission, which had as a goal to document the work of architecture and build an archive of images, subjugating it to the market laws and the cogent models of perception of a mass culture and there make it, truly, accessible.
The photographs of the Becher couple belong to the art museum and the history of photography, similarly to other works present in the New Topographics exhibition. However, it’s unquestionable the influence they held in various contemporary photographers who unfold themselves between a “creative and critical” work, remembering Benjamin, and a commissioned work under the representation of determinate works of architecture, as for example, Candida Höfer (student of the Becher couple), Thomas Ruff, Mikael Olsson, Bas Princen of the Portuguese Paulo Catrica and André Cepeda, among others. In the work of these photographers, one finds another possibility for architectural photography, that of being able to constitute itself not only as document (and, if in the work of some, it is very clear the connection to documental tradition, on that of others post- photographic manipulation is assumed, as for example, on the work by Thomas Ruff on the Ricola warehouse by Herzog & De Meuron, where they utilise, curiously, a blow-up of one of Bloβfeldt’s photographs), but as an essay on architecture, a critical essay that unveils what remains occult in the experience of the work, and, at the same time, poses very precise architectonic problems. The auteur photographer is an eximious interpreter of the places, the landscapes, of its singularities, of the subtle variations of light over matter, of the quotidian gestures in the absence of the bodies, of the apprehension of time on the crystallised surface of the photograph, so that the represented work does not reflect, solely, itself, on its proportions, on its materials, on the spatial sequences - albeit these oughting to be, correctly, defined, without any distortion -, but causes the revelation of how the work apprehended the space and transformed it; how it is, also, a machine that captures light and imprints it on its surfaces and spaces; how it is traversed by the world; how it speaks of the small and insignificant gesture on which one discovers the most wonderful analogies.