On his blog architect and theorist Kazys Varnelis discussed the way architectural photography has increasingly divorced itself from its ostensible subject.
To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today.
A degree of category confusion is introduced at this point, because the photographers Varnelis cites are primarily thought of as art photographers—the gallery system, curatorial authority, and the collector dictate their industry. But even in the postmodern, network culture realm Varnelis teaches and writes about, “architectural photography” proper still connotes a traditional client-driven practice straddling the architecture and publishing industries.
Architectural photography’s place of distinction in the contemporary environment is due to an apparent paradox: that for all its physicality and spatiality, architecture has always been primarily experienced with the sense of sight. Humans are more mobile than ever before, yet we can never attend physically all that is within range visually. Architecturally voracious, our eyes seek not just what’s on the skyline, but the continued propagation of images of buildings in a superabundant visual environment: online, in books, magazines, and other visual media.
As architecture evolved from a gentlemanly pursuit to a codified industry over the course of the twentieth century, photography’s role became critical to popularizing new development. During the era of high modernism the emphasis shifted to the future; radical new forms were proposed and introduced to the industry and the general public through trade and lifestyle publications, and photographs were key to the aims of the development and real estate sectors. Many of these photographers first trained as architects, and its practitioners were considered specialist-experts, resulting in a purported opposition between “true practice” and “mere commerce.”
Architect-cum-photographer Joseph Molitor is a prime example of this self-accredited connoisseur outlook, down to the name of his signature monograph from 1976, Architectural Photography. “Granted an architectural photograph must truly interpret the structure; what else distinguishes a good architectural photograph from a good commercial one?” he asks, rhetorically reinforcing the professional divide. His rules—foregrounding, dramatic perspective, optimizing texture through shadows, balancing isolation and environmental context of the subject, housekeeping both of environment (wires, cars, etc.) and interiors, balancing light, and creating excellent print quality—were characteristic of an era when buildings were hallmarks of an assertive modernist moment; a few years later such prescriptions could no longer obtain to a built landscape under heavy torsion from postmodernism and deconstructivism.
So Varnelis is indeed pointing to an observable development: the current practice of architectural photography has in many ways evolved more toward art. Fairly conceptual photographers such as Iwan Baan and Frank van der Salm are regularly tapped by the titans of the architecture industry—OMA, Herzog & De Meuron—to create photographs of their projects that seem to violate most of Molitor’s tenets.
A brief exploration of the work of Tim Griffith provides further example of this new “artistic” approach to architectural imaging and the shifting state of architectural photography. Giffith’s work, recently included in the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, depicts some of the most prominent architectural projects of our age. Australian-born and US-based, Griffith explores the parallels and tensions inherent in this yoking of architecture and photography; his work is formed by professional rigor yet inflected toward art, hypertechnological in subject and approach, yet suggestive of an already fading moment.
Griffith shows it is possible to attend the norms of conventional architecture photography and subvert them at once, within the foursquare of the very image. His approach to the new canon of recent technological structures—the CCTV Headquarters, the Beijing National Stadium, Taipei 101—is not unlike that of any classical architectural photographer who must recognize and visually communicate a building’s more esoteric values, with attention to timeless qualities of strength, character, stillness and formality.
The portraits of this iconic generation of state- and corporate-sponsored architecture would not at first flush seem to fall within the classical rules. They simultaneously plot different points in the continuum of commercial images and contemporary art-photography practice. Griffith’s work portrays these edifices of power through a subjective and sometimes disorienting pictorialist scrim—revealing, in another way, more of them than any rigorous client-generated work could allow.
Whereas many artists conventionally take up the most obvious capacity of the camera and explore the range, nature, and effects of light, Griffith delves into the subtler and more arcane functions of time in the architectural subject and the photographic image.
At the conclusion of Architectural Photography, Molitor writes
Someday another [pioneering architectural photographer Ken] Hedrich will come along and view architecture entirely differently than any of us today, and then architectural photography will enter its diamond age. Perhaps the architects themselves will bring this about by coming up with such dramatic changes in design that a whole new concept of photography will be necessary to record it properly.
The work of Tim Griffith and his contemporaries may be an incomplete rejoinder to Molitor’s speculation, but the certainty to be found in their images is that this Diamond Age is indeed upon us.
[More architectural photography criticism at my regular blog Critical Terrain.]