Constructing Worlds

A documentation of Architecture



A documentation of Architecture

Since the first photograph, architecture has proved to be a very captivating subject matter. This idea, of recording architecture, has allowed us to document the changes in society. It has changed the way we think about architecture and even the way it works. ‘The understanding that photography which takes architecture as its subject matter has the ability to communicate wider truths about society’ is an interesting quote from the exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds.’ It explores the idea that society drives the changes of architecture and how it is built and viewed. The photographs throughout this exhibition reveal more than what is to be seen as they not only document the world we live in but they also reveal who we are and the truths behind society. Whether key artists such as Atget, Abbott, Binet, Herve, and Bernd and Hilla Becher drive the documentation of architecture or that society has a bigger impact is an important idea, although the differences maybe subtle. The exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds’ takes the reader on a journey through the twentieth and twenty-first century exploring the differences in architecture around the world. For example Berenice Abbott’s ground breaking photographs of the birth of the skyscrapers in New York to Lucien Herve’s subtle evocations of the modernity in Chandigarh, by le Corbusier. While Abbott focused her photographs around the places in New York, Herve focused on the structure of the architecture of le Corbusier’s work. However through the documentation of these places and structures we are able to see how society impacts the way architects develop buildings. It’s clear that if an area is not economically viable the architecture will most likely be slum like and run down however these make for interesting photographs.

Architecture has been the most reliable subject to photograph since the earliest days of photography as the long exposures required by the first cameras made it hard to photograph the figure. The idea of recording architecture has remained constant and allows us to document our ever-changing world. The understanding that ‘Constructing World’ brings together diverse photographers who worked across an expanse of time and space leads to photographic mediums, which present the value of our built world. We can see that there is a vast difference in aesthetic, personal, social and political relationships between the architectural subject and the photographer. The photographs in this exhibition explore the mundane architecture such as the urban and suburban scenes as well as the architecture of authority like the urbanisation and globalisation of huge cities. From the 1930’s photographers like Abbott and Bernd and Hilla Becher have been able to capture economic and social aspects of the industrialisation. It is present in these series of photographs ‘Changing New York’ and the ‘Water Towers.’

Atget photographed the old architecture before the modernisation of Paris. He preferred to record architecture with the focus on the place. Atget’s work is known to be quite unique as he was the photographer of authority and originality. He set himself the task of understanding a complex, ancient and living tradition and he photographed Paris by doing this. As the buildings in Paris were being systematically demolished he was able to capture the modernisation of the city. His work was driven by the disappearance of buildings through the schemes of modernisation. However Atget didn’t think of himself as an artist and told Man Ray ‘don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make,’ which suggests that he wanted to photograph Paris to create evidence as to what it looked like before the modernisation of the city.

The photograph ‘Church of St.Gervais’ was taken as part of his project ‘Old Paris’ between 1902 and 1905. From this photograph we can tell that the architecture of the church is old and gothic like. The rusty railings on the windows and the worn away bricks suggest that Atget captured this church a few century’s after it had been built. This sepia coloured image includes some important compositional ideas such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, which adds an interesting atmosphere. It wasn’t until a year before Atget’s death when there was a shift in perception about his work. Abbott was intrigued by the strangeness of Atget’s photographs and they began to be described as the ‘scene of a crime.’ The old church in this photograph is juxtaposed next to a modern building, whether it’s a coincidence or not it supports the idea of Atget capturing the modernisation of Paris. The textures and detail in the cobbles and bricks add to the overall decrepit feel. The light in this photograph seems to be natural and soft, it hits the roof of the church highlighting the detail of the architecture. Dissimilarly the darkest points of the photograph draw more attention, for example the arch at the end of the cobbled path. This photograph creates a melancholy atmosphere however there seems to be a sign of hope as the arch at the end of the cobbled path symbolises the fact that the unhealthy, medieval neighbourhoods were soon to be demolished.

This photograph was taken to document the old Paris and it successfully does this. This suggests there was a boost in the economy as Paris was being modernised. This was due to the fact that the population of Paris doubled to become over one million. This put great strain on Paris’s infrastructure and resulted in a massive overcrowding problem. Before the modernisation of Paris, the city was medieval style with narrow winding streets, confusing layouts and they were not efficient for commerce and traffic. This had to be corrected so the people of Paris could lead a healthier and happier life. This meant architects had to design new buildings, which gave photographers and artists the chance to document the change in society.

Atget worked with an 18- x 24 cm view camera mounted on a wooden tripod and roughly produced 10,000 negatives in his lifetime. The process in which he went through was quite interesting as once he set his camera up, which he covered with a black cloth, he would duck under the cloth to see the scene captured by the lens. The image would be reflected onto the ground glass at the rear of the camera. He would then make adjustments for focus and composition and remove the ground glass and swap in a plate holder containing a glass negative. He would use clips to hold the negative in place, which are evident in some prints. Atget would then take the photograph by releasing the shutter, which allowed light to pass through the lens and register on the negative. Atget made contact prints using albumen silver photographic paper. To develop his images he would place the negative in direct contact with light sensitive photographic paper, which he would expose until the image appeared. This process, which Atget favoured, was standard for making prints in the 19th century. Although geletin silver papers were available he continued to use albumen silver photographic paper, as it would allow him to achieve greater clarity, more detail, and nuanced tones. This is understandable as he was photographing architecture so capturing every bit of detail was important.

Abbott who is known for creating significantly strong photographs of cityscapes photographed New York during the modernisation of the city. The series ‘Changing New York’ is a collection of photographs, which document the old urban scenes in New York, similar to Atget’s photographs of Paris. She photographed the construction of the new buildings, which meant she was able to explore with new angles. It was during the early 1930’s when Abbott was able to photograph the rapid changes in modern cityscapes from a new perspective, as the Empire State had been built. This is something that hadn’t been done before, which makes her photographs interesting and influential.

The black and white photograph ‘Changing New York’ from 1938 is from the roof of 60 Wall Street tower. The compositional idea behind this photograph is interesting as the high vantage point is unusual. From the height and angle of this photograph it is clear that the modernisation of New York was taking place. As the skyscrapers were being built Abbott was able to record New York from a new perspective. The detail and reoccurring shapes of the architecture adds to the hopeful atmosphere of the photograph as New York was being rejuvenated. The framing of the black rails adds to the image, as it’s clear that they are fairly new, there is no rusting compared to the rails on the church that was photographed by Atget.

Abbott had been living in Europe for eight years where she had a successful photography company. However, on a three-week trip, she was so astonished by the amazing scenes New York had to offer. The unbelievable wealth alongside the heart breaking poverty, during the modernisation of New York, allowed Abbott to record the immense contrast of lifestyle throughout the city. Like Atget, Abbott was interested in photographing places. His photographs create an impressive and contemporary atmosphere as the idea behind the photograph is fairly unusual and a new concept had been developed.

Abbott wanted to create photographs to record the aspects of New York that would be of use to historians, sociologists and art critics rather than capture emotional content. In an interview in the early eighties she said ‘People say they have to express their emotions. I’m sick of that. Photography doesn’t teach you how to express your emotions; it teaches you how to see it.’ She did this by using an 8×10 inch view camera, which became her standard equipment for most of the rest of her career.

Lucien Herve is known for taking photographs of architecture designed by le Corbusier. While Atget and Abbott focused on taking photographs of places, Herve focused on the structure of the architecture. As Herve and Le Corbusier worked together it led to one of the most famous architectural collaborations of the 20th century. Le Corbusier used steel and reinforced concrete to produce the architectural, geometric forms that Herve photographed. His designs combined the functionalism of the modern movement with a bold, sculptural expressionism. He joined the functionalist aspirations of his generation with a strong sense of expressionism. Being the first architect to make a studied use of roughcast concrete it satisfied his taste for sculptural forms.

The photograph ‘Le Corbusier: Façade of the Secretariat Building, Chandigarh, 1952’ that is in black and white, has a high contrast. The diagonal shadows, formed by the rest of the building, create an interesting abstract pattern. By looking at this photograph we can tell that Herve thought about the compositional idea. As this photograph is taken at a right angle, it led to interesting, geometric shadows being created. This is quite pleasing to the eye. The overall photograph creates a sense of fascination and beauty. The other photographs from his collection have been photographed at different vantage points to portray the experience of walking through le Corbusier’s buildings and create ‘cinematic visual experience’s unfolding over time.’ He focused on taking detailed photographs, showing close ups of the rough concrete, the geometric shadows, and the heavy sweep of the rooves. When the detailed images are viewed on their own they appear abstract but when viewed in a collection they create a rich experience of the building, one that wide-angle images would have missed.

Herve who was described as an artist with ‘the soul of an architect’ worked with Le Corbusier to produce Photographs that would depict the monumental buildings. As he portrays the spirits of places rather than the buildings themselves it helps create an isolated atmosphere. Herve’s dynamic perspectives and dramatic use of light is an important feature of this photograph. The book ‘le Corbusier & Lucien Herve: a dialogue between architect and photographer’ explores the individual prints of Herve’s work which creates an exhilarating rhythm that powerfully showcases the architects novel form and materials.

Herve taught himself and experimented with over or under exposing images. He would sometimes severely crop them to create unusual compositional ideas. This would also isolate the stark lines and chiaroscuro of the space and create that inner tension. When photographing for Le Corbusier, Herve took 650 photographs in one day on his Lomography camera. From taking these photographs Herve was able to bridge the visions of an architect, le Corbusier and the photographer, himself.

Bernd and Hilla Becher travelled around the world photographing industrial structures in the late fifties. The couple were described as having recorded the heritage of the industrial past. By taking photographs they were able to capture scenes that time has now eradicated. They were not interested in creating art and instead fleeting time was their subject matter as they wanted to offer a model for disciplined living and seeing. They did this in an obsessively formalist way which led to them being the most dominant and influences in contemporary European photography. I was able to visit the Tate Modern in London to view Bechers work. The collections of photographs of the industrial towers were lined up across the room, situated at eye level. They were very impressive and I was made aware of the differences between the industrial structures.

The black and white photographs in the Water Tower collection are photographed from a distance to show the scale of the towers against natural objects. The light is evenly distributed and the prints are identical in size, this helps us notice the differences. The texture and detail in these photographs are quite interesting as we can see how and if the environment or society affects them. The way in which the couple organised their photographs, in grids and rows, reinforces the sculptural ideas and functions behind the architecture. Through documenting the water towers Bernd and Hilla Becher were able to capture the fact that although all the towers are constructed of metal they differ massively in form. The Bechers said that ‘through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association.’ This explains why the water towers are the main focus of the photographs.

Their photographs explore the ideas behind how society around the world has changed and how this impacts the way architects design industrial structures. The objective of their project was to return to the straight ‘aesthetics’ and social themes of the 1920’s in response to the sentimental photographic aesthetics that arose in the post war period. These photographs have been interpreted as ‘nostalgic ruminations on a lost era’, which suggests that the industrial production of the towers had huge implications for the economy and the environment.

Each industrial structure was photographed from a similar angle on a large format camera (8 x 10 –inch). The couple photographed the industrial structures either on overcast days, to avoid shadows, or early in the morning. While on site, the Becher’s would also create overall landscape views to put the structures in context and to show their surroundings. However they did exclude details, which would detract from the original theme and idea behind the structures of buildings in different areas. From seeing these photographs first hand there seemed to be a sense of loss and melancholy. The water towers looked incredibly impressive and the idea that they present is important as they explore how society influences the documentation of architecture.

Helene Binet, a contemporary photographer, has become one of the world’s leading architectural photographers. Her images crackle with light, shadow and texture, leading to an intimate investigation of the building in question. Like Atget and Abbott, Binet photographs the structures of buildings capturing the contours of it without flattening them. She is known to ‘not only bring inanimate objects to life but also somehow seem to invest them with a soul.

The black and white photographs in the collection ‘composing space’ explore the idea of space. Like Herve, her photographs are quite abstract and the shadows play an important part in the overall look. This photograph of the ‘Holocaust Memorial’ in Berlin from 2005 features a numerous amount of compositional ideas such as leading lines, rule of thirds and dynamic diagonals. Through the use of heavy shadows or flooded light her photographs allow viewers to piece together a sense and ‘emotion’ of space. Binet takes photographs to ‘expose(s) architectures achievements, strength, pathos, and fragility.’ Her work challenges perceptions of physical space. However she has started taking architectural photographs during the early stages of the building. As the building is unfinished the architect won’t be judged meaning there is a sense of freedom from both sides, which is, quite beautiful.

Similarly, Binet works with film although she had the choice to use digital. The idea that she chose the traditional method over a far more productive method is interesting. She refuses to work with digital as she said ‘If something is a bit strange, a bit rough, you work with that’ which is an interesting idea as she thinks that with digital photography you cannot tell the difference between the original photograph or the rendered one. Binet often uses an Arca Swiss 4×5 format camera, which features two separate moveable parts, connected by flexible bellows. With the lens at the front and a viewing glass at the back this type of camera allows greater control of perspective and depth of field than many other analogue devices. This leads to sharper images as the individual film plates have a larger area than the film used in normal cameras and can record more detail.

From researching how key artists such as Atget, Abbott, Binet, Herve and Bernd and Hilla Becher have documented architecture over the past century it is clear that photography allows us to communicate wider truths about society. It enables us to explore the use and designs of different architects around the world. Photography has enabled us to document cities and how they have developed which in turn can influence a person’s perspective of a place or a structure. An interesting quote from ‘On Photography’ by Susan Sontag is that ‘The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, and titles it.’ This suggests that we only see part of the scene, which the photographer chooses to capture. Although this can lead to biased work being produced, the documentation of an architectural place or structure is interesting. This then allows us to depict the changes in society.

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‘The understanding that photography which takes architecture as its subject matter has the ability to communicate wider truths about society’ is an interesting quote from the exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds.’

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