Architecture’s use of photography is one of its most fundamental practices, and yet whereas art criticism has intensively studied and challenged the medium’s seeming truthfulness, a virtual taboo exists on critical or self-reflexive enquiry into its conventions, use and impact within mainstream architectural discourse. Photographs seem to have the force of evidence: they are taken to be unmediated conveyors of architectural experience. The ways in which architecture is imagined and discussed are dependent on its image in photography, used and reproduced in many different contexts – in various media, in architectural education and professional discourse.
Photographic encounters with architecture may have become far more significant than physical ones: one ramification is evident in the way in which architectural history is written and taught. The comparison of photographs of very diverse buildings has become one of the principal narratives of architectural design discourse, and the international dissemination of photography is undoubtedly largely responsible not only for local building traditions being discarded in favour of more compelling forms imported from elsewhere, but also for concealing the inappropriateness of many of the imported ideas – either because failings in the original were not evident in the photographs, or because photography suggests that a design idea whose original environmental and social context is suppressed can be imported from France to Brazil as cleanly as cutting a photograph from one context and pasting it into another.
Robin Evans’ essay on the relationship of the architectural drawing to its subject argued that a great misunderstanding that had developed from the identification of the drawing and the architectural object: and further, that this error had led to the practice of drawing and its particular properties being left unexamined. (Evans Translations of Drawing toBuilding1997 pp152–93). Photography, given its seeming transparency, is even more insidious in its effects. The identification of the architectural photograph with its subject is, for the most part, complete. It is all but taken for granted that a series of photographs of a building can make sense of and adequately represent the complex experience of encountering and occupying architecture.
The architectural photograph takes on, then, one of the key properties ascribed to the photographic medium: an assumption of truth, that there is a direct equivalence between it as an image and the building itself. As Roland Barthes has written in Camera Lucida, his essay on the nature of the photograph…'(W)hatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see...’ ( Barthes Camera Lucida London 1984 p5).
A photograph of a person is that person: a photograph of a building is seen to represent that building in its totality. As Barthes argues however, the photograph is not ‘taken’, as in common parlance, but made: the camera’s subject, viewpoint and framing are those of the photographer. The basis of the photograph in the observable nevertheless lends it an authenticity: its assumption of truth is seen to furnish evidence, as if its images are objective and definitive, rather than the product of a process.
The title of Camera Constructs on the one hand opposes the medium of photography and the materiality of construction, but on the other can be read as saying that the camera invariably constructs what it depicts. The photograph is not a simple representation of an external reality, but constructs its meaning and reconstructs its subject. The starting point of many of the authors in the book is to analyse this condition and illuminate its processes: the photographic practices of the artist, of the architect and of the documentarist are each seen to construct images highly specific in their context and meaning.
The 1920s and 30s marked a period of astonishing creative exploration into the medium of photography led by a small number of photographers in the USA, the Soviet Union and Europe… The 'new photography' and the architecture which came to be known as the International Style both represented a modern aesthetic created in response to the machine. Their aesthetic and ideological commitments were similar; they were by implication partners in the same polemical campaign. Instead of a vision of a romantic past, which had informed much previous photography, now representations of an engineered future came to the fore. The resulting emphasis on the visual as a means to comprehend modern architecture suggests that the architectural photograph can be interpreted as a perversion of a more purposive Modernism.
The relationship of photography to Modernism, and, in the case of architecture, its role in picturing an idealized architecture that scarcely existed in material form, has provided an extraordinarily flawed reading. The history of the last century might have developed rather differently if the new photography and the new architecture had not worked together to such mutual advantage: perhaps the particular formal language of modernism, rather than any deeper level of its meaning or realization, would not have become so pervasive.
Extract from Introduction by Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray in Higgott and Wray Camera Constructs: Photography Architecture and the Modern City Ashgate 2012
Book cover photograph from Concrete series by Heidi Specker: Brunnen 3 2003