The Parrish Art Museum explores the relationship between architecture and photography
Garry Winogrand, the famous photographer of American life, once observed: “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It’s about how this thing looks photographed. Winogrand was expressing a point of view that could be attributed to many architectural photographers, who, at least in some cases, are less interested in recording the appearance of buildings than in producing images of how they could, Where should, see. In doing so, they sometimes associate with architects, who wish to disseminate idealized images of their work, and with publications which oscillate between wanting to present reality and wanting to offer visual pleasure.
The gap between documentation and manipulation is a central theme of “Image creation: how photography transforms architecture” an exhibition at Parish art museumhimself, the occupant of a much-photographed Herzog & de Meuron facility – in Southampton, New York, until June 17. It includes images that don’t pretend to be realistic – some by current art darlings like Thomas Ruff, who has said that other photographers “believe I captured reality and I believe I created an image.” Therese Lichtenstein, the curator of the exhibition, notes in her catalog essay that Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have already commissioned Ruff to photograph their buildings to see, she says, “what they would look like as art.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works, which blur famous buildings in black and white, are prominent photographs that do not attempt to represent “exactly”. In a 2001 image, for example, he struggles to see how far he can warp 30 Rockefeller Plaza without sacrificing recognizability, a process he describes as “an erosion-testing architecture for durability.”
For Sugimoto’s footage to work, the buildings in question must already be iconic, a status they gained in large part through the efforts of his camera-armed predecessors. The narrow-shouldered 30 Rock, for example, was made immediately recognizable in the 1930s by Samuel H. Gottscho. But even Gottscho, it turned out, was a manipulator who first shot 30 Rock with enough light to make the outlines of the skyscraper crisp, and again at night, to capture the glow from his windows, then turned. combined the results in the darkroom.
“Documentary” photographers who did not resort to such extreme efforts still took care to photograph modernist buildings in such a way as to give them a glamorous appearance. As Interior design Member of the Hall of Fame Julius Shulman once said: “All the architects I have worked for have become world famous thanks to the publicity they receive. Shulman himself is famous for photographing the Case Study Houses, southern California’s mid-century residential design experiments, tellingly sponsored by a magazine.
Shulman’s post-war contemporary Balthazar Korab photographed tightly cropped sections of buildings, creating abstractions of the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other masters. Today, Korab’s closest counterpart may be Hélène Binet, whose work focuses on shapes and textures, which at times makes it difficult to determine what exactly is depicted. (Luisa Lambri and Judith Turner, who aren’t on the Parrish show, explore similar effects.)
A divergent strain in American architectural photography has been the dystopian view. A prime example: Lewis Baltz’s 1970s images of blockhouses in the West, which make buildings seem, in Lichtenstein’s words, “out of fashion even before they were completed.” While photographs like these populate art journals, they are less likely to appear on the pages of architecture or design magazines, where they can be seen as depressing.
Architectural photographers must decide whether or not to include people in their images. Contemporary German conceptualist Candida Höfer believes that photographing buildings with no one inside reveals a lot about human nature, just as an absent guest is often the topic of conversation at a party. Young Dutch photographer Iwan Baan tends to include people in his shots, but not always those the architect or client would have chosen. It rose to prominence over the past decade by documenting the construction of the CCTV headquarters in Beijing by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture with its images which put migrant workers and their makeshift housing in the foreground.
For a century, architectural and interior photographers have been a mainstay of the print media, including general interest publications. Gottscho’s work appeared regularly in City Country as well as the most specialized Home & Garden, while Ezra Stoller published in See, Harper’s Bazaar, and Playboy, as well as the expected architectural reviews. Design magazines play a hybrid role, not only entertaining but also educating readers, and therefore tend to stay on the ‘representative’ side of the spectrum (with the ‘misrepresentation’, for art or profit, to the other end).
But, as a show like “Image Building” makes clear, there is no such thing as a pure depiction of buildings in photographs. The qualities of large interiors, in particular, need to be experienced firsthand. As Baltz said in an interview in 1993, “Architecture, real architecture, always challenges reduction to two-dimensional representation. Otherwise, it’s not architecture at all.
> See more in the April issue of Interior design