Most rough sleepers live in urban centres so urban spaces and architecture were an inevitable component of assignment 1. Too many of my initial photographs for that assignment were poorly composed and, as assignment 2, is taking me back to architectural subjects I wanted to take a closer look at how various artists have approached photographing buildings.
An obvious starting point was Elias Redstone’s Shooting Spaces (1). This book is a mélange of contemporary architectural art photography and, as such, a helpful introduction to a variety of styles and approaches.
Architecture has featured strongly in the work of artists, amateurs and commercial photographers since the invention of photography which is odd because, as Elias Redstone points out, photography is synonymous with time whereas architecture is synonymous with space; photography is flat, architecture is volume; photography is fast, architecture slow. So, on face value, they are not natural bed-fellows but architecture always was and still remains one of our most popular subjects but the variety of approaches is nearly as broad as the subject itself. The foundation might be Eugene Atget’s systematic documentation of Paris (2) undertaken over thirty years from the turn of the century, a baton that was picked up by Berenice Abbott who, influenced by Atget, studied a changing New York (3) in the 1930’s. For Atget and Abbott documentation, the creation of a record, was the primary motivation but an alternative motivation for what, on face value, appears to be a documentary project can be found in Josef Koudelka’s Vestiges (4) where he has spent twenty three years (and counting) visiting twenty countries around the Mediterranean photographing ancient Greek and Roman sites, not as a document but to capture the “most perfect images of their existence”. In between pure documentation and an artistic search for perfection we can find a host of historic and contemporary photographers including the Bechers (5) and Ed Ruscha (6), the Deadpan artists I discussed in an previous essay (here), and conceptual artists like Philipp Schaerer (7) who challenge the whole idea of the photograph as a faithful document with his montaged buildings.
Putting the documentarists to one side for a moment the origins of architectural photography lie in the commercial promotion of buildings by architects, city planners, estate agents, hoteliers, owners and developers. This photography has a certain style, blue skies, straight lines and sanitised surroundings with people as props rather than as a natural presence. A good example of this form of commercial photography is Norman McGath (8), a London born, Dublin educated and New York based architectural photographer. My copy of his book, Photographing Buildings Inside and Out, is over twenty years old and offers a collection of perfect photographs that might have all been taken on the same beautiful summer’s day. These are not bad photographs, exactly the opposite, they are absolutely fit-for-purpose, exactly what the client wanted, perfectly executed, technically excellent. However, they have little in common with any of the photographs in Shooting Space so how did contemporary architectural art photography develop from its commercial origins?
Reviewing the photographs in Shooting Space and looking more closely at the artists I was surprised to see that a significant amount of the work is in fact sponsored by architects. I am assuming that many architects wish to present their product in a contemporary, perhaps intentionally edgy, style and have turned to the art world to photograph their buildings. However, most of contemporary architectural art photography is being carried out without the sponsorship of the architects which leaves the question of motivation still open and why is the artist’s result so different from the commercial photographer ?
The answer to both questions lies in what architecture represents. Humans build, recent research shows that the people of the mesolithic who had previously always been categorised as hunter-gatherers in fact built houses and settlements that were permanent structures, designed to be continuously occupied for several generations. So we now know that humans have been building structures that were expected to outlast their builder for at least 6,000 years. What we do not know is whether those earliest structures were purely functional or was there was an element of artistic design? Based on our understanding of human nature in both primitive and sophisticated societies we can surmise that, once the functional requirements were achieved, the builder or perhaps the occupier embellished and personalised their home in some way and it is because people create structures that express something beyond their functionality that artists and historians alike see buildings in multiple dimensions. Redstone says that a functional architectural photograph will communicate a building effectively but an artist will make us engage with an idea through the motif of architecture.
The collection in Shooting Space offers many different approaches and several different messages ranging from the Ed Ruscha influenced work of Eric Tabuchi’s Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (10) which like Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (6) are just a statement of fact. Somewhere towards the other extreme is the work of Thomas Weinberger (11) who takes two photographs of his floodlit subjects, one during the day and one at night, these are then combined to create a single image which challenges the idea that a photograph captures a single moment in time or the more impenetrable work of Idris Khan who combines multiple images of the same scene to “create a single compound image that has the effect of a film still or motion blur” (12).
This book is therefore far from being a manual on architectural photography but I was approaching these artists with a basic idea already in my mind and was therefore able to explore some specific approaches. For assignment 2 I want to use very clean, un-manipulated, simple images that focus all the attention on the subject as a whole but contain enough mystery that the viewer is asked to look closely to see the specific features that caused me to choose the subject. The photographs in Shooting Space that have helped me progress this idea are:
- Hélène Binet – Bruder Kalus Kapelle 2009 (13): a black and white photograph of a monolithic structure in an open landscape.
- There is plenty of leading space from the left and front.
- The subject follows the rule of thirds which is not necessarily usual in the type of photography so it shows that a traditional composition can work even in a minimalistic image.
- The structure dominates but does not overwhelm the picture.
- Walter Niedermeyr – Bildraum S 130 (14): “From a scene, I try to frame what interests me: the landscape that is used by man, which is structured. The pure landscape, without human impact, doesn’t fascinate me particularly. Maybe it doesn’t even exist any longer, man has already been everywhere.”
– Walter Niedermayr (14). These are two identical buildings photographed differently and then placed onto a single print.
- Combining two photographs onto single print is an interesting idea that could offer options for showing two different aspects of the same building. The use of a diptych in this instance provides the information that this is a single space but offers a shift in perspective
- Both pictures use deadpan light
- One image is symmetrical, flat, face on
- the other image is at a slight angle so we can see two sides
- Balanced but not large space left around the subject
- He has accepted the overhead tram cables and used them as part of the structure of the picture
- Sze Tsung Leong – History Images (15): A broad series of pictures of the re-ctructuring of China.
- For Suzhou Creek and Jiangbeicheng he allows plenty of space around the main subject. This provides a lead in.
- The light is misty but not de-satuarised, in fact there is quite strong contrast.
- Suzhou Creek is quite a traditional composition with one or more triangles formed by the foreground buildings.
- Although there is a misty view of a city in the background of both pictures he puts all of his main subject in the lower half or maybe 60% of the frame. The first impression is that the top half is empty.
Whilst there are several other photographs that help my thought processes the approaches start to be repetitive. The key summary is to leave adequate space around my subject and to not feel compelled to fill the frame. It is acceptable to use a mixture of angles (see Eric Tabuchi’s Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations) and do not let the deadpan approach dictate every element. Use deadpan in the sense of offering uninterpreted facts but do not present an identically framed and composed series in consistently flat light – they can become boring.
(1) Redstone. Elias. (2014) Shooting Spaces: Architecture in Contemporary Photography London: Phaidon Press Limited.
(9) McGrath, Norman ( 1993) Photographing Buildings Inside and Out. (Revised and expanded 2nd edition) New York: Whitney Library of Design
(2) Atget, Eugene ( 1898 to 1924) Eugene Atget Photo Library (accessed at Atget Photography 8/3/15) – http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Eugene-Atget.html
(3) Abbott, Berenice (1935 to 1956) New York (accessed at Commerce Graphics 8/3/15) – http://commercegraphics.com/ny.html
(4) Koudelka, Josef (1991 to 2014) Vestiges (accessed at Magnum 8/3/15) – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_4&VBID=2K1HZOQ8FXQK4B&IID=2K1HRG6N2K0G&PN=1
(5) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) Lost World: Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Legendary Industrial Photographs. (accessed at The Guardian 23.2.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/03/bernd-and-hilla-becher-cataloguing-the-ominous-sculptural-forms-of-industrial-architecture
(6) Ruscha, Edward (1963) Twentysix Gasoline Stations (accessed at Tate 23.2.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/transforming-artist-books/summaries/edward-ruscha-twentysix-gasoline-stations-1963
(7) Schaerer, Philipp (2007 – 2009) Bildbauten (accessed at Philipp Schaerer’s website 8.3.15) – http://www.philippschaerer.ch/e/w-bildbau02.html
(8) McGrath, Norman (accessed at his website 8.3.15) – http://www.normanmcgrath.com/bio.htm
(10) Tabuchi, Eric (2002 to 2008) Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (accessed at Lens Culture 8/3/15) – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/eric-tabuchi-twentysix-abandoned-gasoline-stations
(11) Weinberger, Thomas (2003) “Cracker”, ESSO Refinery, Ingolstadt, Germany (accessed at the artist’s website 8/3/15) – http://www.thomas-weinberger.de/2011/0134.htm
(12) Khan, Idris (2004 – 2009) Every…… (accessed at the Saatchi Gallery 8/3/15) – http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/idris_khan.htm
(13) Binet, Hélène (2007) Peter Zumthor, Bruder Kalus Kapelle, Mechernich, Germany (accessed at the artist’s website 8/3/15) – http://www.helenebinet.com/photography/architects/peter-zumthor.html
(14) Niedermeyr, Walter (2006) Shooting Space 2: Inhabitation. the Work of Walter Niedermayr (accessed at uncube 8/3/15) – http://www.uncubemagazine.com/blog/14412067
(15) Leong, Sze Tsung (2004) Suzhou Creek, Putuo District, Shanghai, 2004 (accessed at the artist’s website 8/3/15) – http://www.szetsungleong.com/h_suzhou.htm
Ursprung, Philip (2012) Thomas Ruff” “I Make My Pictures on the Surface” (accessed at american suburb X 8.3.15) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/08/thomas-ruff-i-make-my-picture-on-the-surface-visiting-thomas-ruff-in-dusseldorf-2005.html