Architecture and Photography = Art

By Brian Stater  (10th May 2022)

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On a beautiful May evening full of cow parsley and birdsong, we met at The Maltings for a drink and catch up before an hour’s talk illustrating the idea that “the camera never tells the truth”. We were asked to consider architectural photography as an art form while the speaker used a framework of four themes for his talk: Record, Persuasion, Protest and Revelation.

It is strange to think that the 19th century population had no real idea of what many of the world’s great buildings actually looked like until early photographers such as Stillman or Fenton (who famously took his horse-drawn dark room to the Crimean war) began to record and share images, often with a human for scale. The idea quickly expanded and while the Frenchman Eugene Atget was a pioneer of documentary photography others, including Julius Shulman, quickly found that photography could be used to persuade people to buy the dream; idealising houses with beautiful women or fast cars.

 

With photography assured as an effective form of communication, protest through photography naturally followed.  Eric De Mare, John Betjeman’s less famous, though equally essential, partner in saving St Pancras station, idealised the slums around the station, wrapping the building in a swirling early morning mist of pinnacles and towers, forgetting the human misery below.  Photography was firmly  established as “a two dimensional medium representing a three dimensional form”.  The message that “a picture speaks a thousand words “ was quickly understood and used.  Protest and message became more sophisticated in social commentary by, amongst others, Nadav Kander’s Long River series in the early 2000s. This series is an oblique look at China’s rapid expansion and its effect on humans in a country where direct criticism is risky.

 

More soothing was the section on revelation as photographers progressed from idealising to more naturalistic comparisons. Frederick Evans’ photograph of the flowing chapter steps of Wells Cathedral as “a sea of steps” allowed solid to turn fluid. Eric Smith’s loving portraiture of English country churches re-introduced natural forms, echoing tall trees in gothic arches or parishioners at prayer re-imagined in the pew ends. The speaker showed us the work of Ernest Haas who photographed American skyscrapers with serially overlaid images to create an almost Impressionist view, creating beauty where it was previously absent.

We were convinced by the end that the photograph can be more real to many, than the building itself.

Lucy Picton Turbervill