Photographs do not merely record buildings, says Steve Parnell – they shape the culture and practice of architecture.
Camera Constructs: Photography, Architecture and the Modern City
Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray
Ashgate, 380pp, £65
‘Modern architecture only becomes modern with its engagement with the media.’ These introductory words that summarise Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity (1994) form the backdrop to a growing area of research into architectural mediation that has the potential to expose the fragile foundations of the edifice of architecture. This is because modern architecture, both the profession and its products, has an intractably symbiotic and all-pervasive relationship with the media that is little acknowledged. It’s the elephant that is not only in the room, but defines the room. And photography is a substantial component of architecture’s relationship with the media, from the traditional paper publication to its digital counterpart.
At first glance, the choice of essays by editors Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray may seem chaotic, but the strange attractor around which they orbit is to be found in Roland Barthes’ fundamental observation from Camera Lucida that ‘a photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see.’ As its title suggests, the book subtly and consistently reiterates this point, helping the reader to focus on the object rather than the subject of the photograph, and therefore critically establish the parameters by which architecture is judged, validated and ultimately constructed. This is important because, as Peter Blundell Jones observes, ‘there are inevitably many buildings involved in discourse at the school of architecture that one has not experienced directly, and counting them up, it must surely be the majority.’ Architects are taught through layers of mediation that are falsely assumed to be entirely and innocently transparent.
The earliest known photographs were of buildings, as they tended to stay still and be bathed in light for long enough for their images to be fixed by the long exposures required by the nascent technology. Since those early-nineteenth-century beginnings, architectural photography, the architectural press, education and the profession have all developed in tandem, each mutually dependent on the others for progress. Blundell Jones cites Villa Savoye, the Barcelona Pavilion, and Fallingwater as examples of the architectural canon whose pictures were ‘made’ (as opposed to ‘taken’ – a fundamental premise of the book) from well-known, specifically framed viewpoints that lent themselves to the flattened, abstract image of modernism, void of context, and that became the accepted norm for the reproduction of architecture.
Several essays rehearse previously over-exposed subjects, but most offer original perspectives. They cover technical aspects, such as stereoscopy, architectural representation including aerial photography, architectural models, and psychoanalytic representations, and social reflections, such as a surprisingly fascinating chapter on the German bungalow. While the reader will meet Eric de Maré, Julius Shulman, Ed Ruscha, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, such a collection could never be exhaustive. There is an essay on Google Street View, for example, but there is no wider consideration of digital photography. But my main criticism is that the book is entirely black and white. While classic modernist architectural photography was rendered in shades of grey and sharp chiaroscuro, this limitation loses a vital dimension in the work of Ed Ruscha, among others, leaving the relationship between colour in architecture and architectural photography unexplored.
However, the book is cleverly curated to offer many disparate ways to appreciate the underlying thesis, accessible to all levels of reader. The reading of one essay enhances the understanding of the others, and a desire to go back to some of the original established texts on the subject by Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Barthes, and even Colomina. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing evaluation of architecture’s relationship to its favourite medium.
Steve Parnell is an architect, critic and lecturer in architecture at the University of Nottingham.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012