Thirty years ago, the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri complained that pictures of well-known buildings were often as conventional and flat as mediocre still-life paintings “but executed out of doors.”
Those images, he wrote, “remind me of photographs of architectural models rather than realized buildings. The skies are almost always clear and unchanging; the camera is centered on the axis and equipped with a decentering lens, so as to avoid distortions; the focus is exact, to obtain maximum clarity. This is the functional if fascinating ritual through which architecture is translated into something for the archive or the museum.”
The new architectural photography exhibition at the Barbican, “Constructing Worlds,” sets out, as Ghirri himself did in shooting buildings by the architect Aldo Rossi, to explore another approach: more personal or political, markedly conscious of the often messy interactions between architecture and the neighborhoods (and cities) it occupies. Something very different, in other words, from “maximum clarity.”
Arranged chronologically, with spare, even somber exhibition design by Belgian architecture firm Office, the show includes 18 photographers. It begins with the American Berenice Abbott, born at the end of the 19th century, and wraps up with Iwan Baan and Bas Princen, both born in the Netherlands in 1975. In between are Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Andreas Gursky, Eero Saarinen, among other well-known names.
“Constructing Worlds” focuses on pictures, as the curators Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone put it, that “communicate wider truths about society” and stand “in direct opposition to conventional notions of architectural photography,” with its goal of being “understood and appreciated by as wide an audience as possible.”
The show is most enthusiastic about work that slips a wedge between, or at least holds up for close scrutiny, what David Campany, writing in the catalog, calls “the cozy relationship between buildings and photography.”
“Photography is often at its most complicit,” he writes, when it is enlisted to turn architecture into “promotional images.”
The show kicks off with an anti-promotional bang. Abbott’s photographs of construction sites and early model tenements in Manhattan, still remarkably powerful, give way to frank, tender pictures by Walker Evans of churches in South Carolina, billboards in Atlanta and the peeling interiors of a Greek Revival plantation in Louisiana.
These two photographers, close friends, were working through the Depression not for architects eager to see their new buildings published in magazines and newspapers but for New Deal patrons in Washington.
The exhibition then executes a sharp turn with a room dedicated to the sleek and market-ready postwar work of Julius Shulman, who produced promotional images, many of them celebrating the hillside Case Study houses, of the most charismatic kind.
The detour is surprising but brief. Photographs by Ruscha (documenting a much different Los Angeles, covered by ravenous parking lots and dingbat apartment houses) and Lucien Hervé soon steer the show back toward its center.
Hervé's black-and-white pictures show Le Corbusier’s monumental concrete buildings in Chandigarh, India, in graphic, boldly abstract form. Yet several of them include ordinary Indians, often standing or walking near the front of the frame.
A photograph of Chandigarh’s High Court of Justice taken in 1955 is dominated by a man facing away from the camera who is wearing a torn shirt and a turban; he holds a wide, shallow bowl of what might be food but looks more like construction material.
This sense of anonymous struggle sometimes makes it into the photographs. At other times it’s found in the biographies of the photographers themselves, where it becomes less about physical labor and more about the weight of ambition. Stephen Shore, represented here by pictures of small churches that owe an obvious debt to Walker Evans, as well as by very different photographs of a late-modern mirrored-glass office tower in Fort Worth, produced a series of postcards in 1971 called “Greetings From Amarillo, ‘Tall in Texas.’”
He expected an eager audience for them back in New York and had 56,000 printed. When they failed to sell he quietly stuffed them into postcard racks in rural, remote gas stations and trinket shops. Later he went back to check to see if they’d been purchased; many had.
Following Evans’ lead, many of the photographers in “Constructed Worlds” are interested less in shiny new landmarks by pedigreed architects than in vernacular architecture or buildings that are half-destroyed or falling apart.
Simon Norfolk made photographs in Afghanistan in 2001 and again nine years later, as invasion gave way to a shaky reconstruction. Guy Tillim’s images of crumbling but monumental modernist buildings in Congo, Mozambique and Angola are not just “allegories of Africa’s post-colonial condition,” as the curators have it, but also affecting essays on how proud buildings age.
Even the highly stylized, enigmatic work of Luisa Lambri and Hiroshi Sugimoto suggests some kind of end (or twilight). Lambri, here showing dark, enigmatic pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1905 Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y., has said that for her architecture is less literal subject than “just a dream,” a vehicle for slippery pictures that treat residential interiors by a range of modern architects as allegories for the psyche.
In Sugimoto’s now-familiar photographs, instantly recognizable buildings including the original World Trade Center towers and Luis Barragán’s house and studio in Mexico City are thrown out of focus, as if modern architecture’s promise were both rapidly fading and maybe sharper all along in affect and emotion than geometry.
There is plenty of salesmanship in these photographs, even the most abstract ones. (Hélène Binet’s images of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, taken in 1997 as the building was nearing completion and the galleries were still empty, are advertisements for the power of slashing, deconstructivist architecture to suggest violence and loss as directly as any museum exhibition.) And of course in every case, perhaps most obviously with Gursky’s extra-large, gallery-ready work, a large part of what the photographers are selling is themselves.
Still, the guiding themes of this excellent show are always close at hand. They are best exemplified by two contemporary figures: Princen, whose work is both a patient exploration of local conditions in places like Cairo and Dubai and a cool critique of the world’s increasingly generic skylines, and London-based Nadav Kander, whose pictures of rising infrastructure along the Yangtze River in China capture a country amid disorienting physical and cultural change.
Worries that architectural photography is complicit in the slick marketing of pricey new buildings are nothing new. But they mushroomed during the boom years of the last decade, as architects relied heavily on imagery of their most glamorous new projects to feed their own celebrity — and as digital technology made it possible for dramatic photographs of new buildings to go viral, with or without the help of traditional media outlets.
Since the bottom fell out in 2008 architecture has experienced a sharp reckoning, with a younger generation of designers turning to more socially engaged work. What “Constructed Worlds” makes clear is that architectural photography is going through a similar crisis of faith.
More and more, even the photographers who support themselves working for the best-known architects in the world, shooting their newest projects for glossy magazines, are pursuing side projects driven by conscience or populist concern. Instead of keeping architecture in a close and lucrative embrace, they’re seeing just how far they need to push it away to produce some much-needed critical distance.
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