Three Defining Movements in Architectural Photography
From the first experiments carried out by the French Joseph Niépce in 1793, and his most successful test in 1826, photography became an object of exploring and a resource for registering lived moments and places of the world. Within the broad spectrum of photographic production throughout history, architecture has frequently played a leading role on the records, be it from the perspective of photography as an art, document or, as it was often the case, an instrument for cultural construction.
Having great autonomy as a practice and of particular debate inside this theme, architectural photography has the ability to reaffirm a series of expressive features of the portrayed works, create tension in their relation to the surroundings, and propose specific or generic readings of buildings, among other investigative possibilities.
World Photography Day is celebrated on August 19th, therefore, we have gathered examples of significant productions within the field of photography that deal with the theme of architecture, separated, as it were, in three moments or approaches: urban photography, from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century; modern photography, highlighting the relationship between influential architects and the photographers who recorded their modern works; and architecture within fine art photography, with examples of well inserted productions in the artistic field, but whose themes are found in architecture and the built environment.
Urban photography is a strand that explores the relationship between architecture and visual record in an indirect manner, and it is very well exemplified by the photography of Eugène Atget, a character that embodies the spirit of the flaneur and captured everyday scenes of Paris fin de siècle. Despite this, it is undeniable that this type of urban scene always reveals the characteristics of its historical context, which are of great service to the understanding about what was the built product of the time.
This line of work deals with an object that is, par excellence, the work material of architects: the city. New York – which was the most prominent city in the world scene of the twentieth century – was extensively shot by Berenice Abbott, who produced in the 1930s, inspired by Atget, photos that speak of the dynamics, buildings, designs and flows of the greatest American city.
In the architectural field, the twentieth century was predominantly marked by the designs and debates proposed by modern architects. Always trying to establish a practice aligned with the construction of a discourse, it was common for them to associate themselves with photographers to have their works recorded. Besides, the beginning of the century was one of intense development of architectural magazines, which promoted even more the movement for recording the period’s works.
For these architects, the design as a manifesto was a fundamental part of their work, therefore, the photos of their buildings should be aligned with their discourse. Some notable examples of these relationships are the architect Le Corbusier and Lucien Hervé, Walter Gropius and the photographer T. Lux Feininger (Bauhaus), Frank Lloyd Wright and the photographers Henry Fuermann and Pedro E. Guerrero, as well as Richard Neutra and Julius Shulman. The latter was also one of the greatest collaborators in one of the largest publishing initiatives for an architectural visual culture, the Case Study House, sponsored by the American magazine Arts & Architecture, from 1945 to 1966.
Besides these examples, it is worth to mention the role of Ezra Stoller, whose photography represented, in itself, a manifestation of the architectural characteristics done at the time: elegant, simple, clean and direct. During his professional life, his work was so recognized that his name became a verb, and having one’s building Stollerized, that is, shot by him, had great value. He worked recording the works of great architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan and Philip Johnson.
Fine art photography
The debate over the concept of space has been food for discussions within the art universe on several occasions. In architecture, it is evident that is one of the central themes of the field and, at the border of the confrontation of architecture and photography as arts, space has been the place for experimentation.
Being a theme common to both activities, to think about the photography of space as part of what can be read as architectural photography means to give the term a place of prominence and conceptual importance for the design practice. Within this, it is possible to recognize several photo experimentations that deal with space. It is the case of the German photographer Michael Wesely, who creates images from the technique of ultra-long exposure that bring movement and dynamism to a subjective reading of architecture and landscapes from images that can take years to be finished. One of his most recent projects, Câmera Aberta, is the recording of the construction of the Instituto Moreira Salles in Sao Paulo, made using six cameras that spent three years capturing images of the construction site.
Another initiative that represents a type of photography that deals with volumes, not necessarily architectural ones, but always inserted in space, is the work of the couple Hilla and Bernd Becher, which became widely known by its series of photos of industrial typologies, buildings and structures such as silos and water tanks, almost always organized in symmetric grids. Although they inhabit the conceptual photography field, the Bechers often evoke in their work an approach that questions the portrayed object and its environment.
These three moments in which photography and architecture cross paths in history aren’t limited by the works shown here, but reach the works of many other relevant professionals in both fields; neither they attempt to define a linear overview in the history of architectural photography. They represent a specific – and succinct – fragment that aims to present the myriad of possible approaches in this overlapping of fields, whose result can only be the enrichment of both architecture and photography.