CONSTRUCTING WORLDS: PHOTOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE IN THE MODERN AGE, Barbican Art Gallery
The Barbican’s latest exhibition presents nineteen leading photographers whose work explores the idea of architecture as a process which crucially shapes modes of human existence. In over 320 photographs, the exhibition offers an affirmation of architectural photography whilst at the same time posing fundamental questions about its traditional practices – and, by extension, those of architecture itself.
As David Campany argues in his introduction, architecture and photography soon became complicit and ‘conventional’ architectural photography is challenged - one way or another - by most of the photographers on display. Not all, of course, because the curators have (perhaps rather obviously) chosen Julius Shulman as the exemplar of conventional practice. His alluring images of sleek modernist 1950s Californian homes, with their carefully arranged people and objets, were conscious attempts to sell a dream lifestyle - complicit, certainly, but extremely successful at the time and which initiated a visual language which resonates still.
Yet signs that photography could say more had long been in evidence. In the 1930s, Berenice Abbot tellingly juxtaposed old and new in her portrait of New York modernity and Walker Evans brought a dispassionate viewpoint to his frontal photographs of clapperboard houses, garages, chapels, negro dwellings and roadside shops. With an eye for contemporary street iconography such as advertising hoardings and signs, the exhibition demonstrates how Abbot and Evans laid the basis of a modernist photographic language with which to describe the built environment of contemporary America.
Even while Shulman was glorifying Californian modernism, Lucien Hervé was reinterpreting in starkly mono tones the work of another modernist master. His high-key images of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh zooms in on the master’s concrete forms, dramatically fractured cubist-like by shafts of light. Like other emigré Hungarians, Hervé deployed a photojournalist’s eye for detail with the compositional facility to know precisely when to use the human figures in counterpoint.
Fine art and conventional practice were now set on diverging paths. In the 1960s Ed Ruscha made a series of aerial photographs of parking lots around Los Angeles whose patterns demonstrate brutal intrusion unseen from the ground. His consciously artless ‘Los Angeles apartments’ was Ruscha’s counterblast to the Shulman school. The exhibition presents (in series, as the authors intended) images by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who rigorously documented industrial structures in the 1970s and ‘80s. Their unpopulated, decontextualised images of water towers, blast furnaces, chimneys, form a coherent taxonomy, part-documentary, part-industrial archeology and part-aesthetic of function.
Indeed, function was the new aesthetic. Stephen Shore’s images of street mundane in Texas, Los Angeles, New York and other cities imported a postcard aesthetic to built environment photography. Andreas Gursky is represented by two monumental images – São Paulo train station and an apartment block in Montparnasse – digitally-manipulated the better to show the control and order they impose on people and place by built structures.
Thomas Struth’s views of unpopulated streets from New York, Chicago, Dusseldorf and London to Pyonyang, Beijing and St, Petersburg, are essentially those of seemingly consistent and unchanging spaces framed by buildings. Appropriately located in their own enclosed spaces, the work of Hélène Binet and Luisa Lambri mount a challenge to architecture and conventional photography from the inside. Binet’s work deploys light and shadow to define internal space, fragments of structures animated by light as if they were a performance stage; Lambri’s attraction to interiority are self-consciously those of a female photographer – a response, as it were, to the male bombast of external forms.
In similar vein, the Barbican presents Hiroshi Sugimoto’s enormous blurred images of famous buildings; hugely evocative, they are the ultimate triumph of impression over detail.
More recently, photographers have seen the ravages, decay or even destruction of buildings as signifiers of architecture’s massive impact. The curators choices are first rate –Simon Norfolk’s pictorialist-inspired photographs of war-torn Afghanistan in soft dusk glows, Bas Pincen’s huge images of marginal city areas and Guy Tillem’s evocations of the decay of post-colonialist modernism in francophone Africa. Nadav Kandar evokes an impressionist aesthetic (compare Yibin I (Bathers) with Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières), juxtaposing old and new to explore the effects of China’s rapid industrialization in an impactful if melancholic fashion.
When a 45-storey tower in Caracas was abandoned mid-construction in 1994, it was colonized by 3,000 homeless people who reconfigured, decorated, and now maintain and police the building. The Barbican’s most telling challenge to architecture and conventional architectural photography lies in the work of the Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, who found the soul of this building in its messily populated yet vibrant interior – surely a world apart from the pristine, unpopulated exteriors of conventional practice.
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