|Berenice Abbott, A Nighttime View of New York City, USA, 1932. © Berenice Abbott.|
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.
– Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity
To be alive we must find ourselves in environments where we can float up like skydivers in reverse. Until May 17 you can walk by and around the eight-legged Freudian nightmare Maman (1999) on Skeppsholmen in Stockholm. You can turn left inside the Moderna Museet to see the entire show of this intimidating French-American artist who made art that looks like art (Louise Bourgeois). And it is what it is. Or you can turn right for a fully levitating experience that is more akin to the four-legged Theme Building (1961) at LAX.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at Arkdes is the golden ticket to photography’s relation to the built world from the early 1930s till today. The pictures are in essence about human life and its traces on this pale blue dot.
The clou in the film about The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (2013) is when the ten-year-old stowaway from a farm in Montana arrives in the big city in a backwards motorhome on a flatbed train carriage to receive his science award: “Every millimetre of landscape was replaced by manmade constructions ruled by the laws of geometry. How could humans create so many angles when their behaviour is so convoluted and illogical?”
The Modernist architects hated the whole “messiness” about human life. Le Corbusier, in his Ville radieuse (The Radiant City, 1935), attempted to sterilise the “frightening chaos” of Stockholm, ruin one of the most beautiful cities in the world and convert it into a Soviet suburb with a procession of dispossessed housing blocks. (Stalin threw them out in 1936.) Marshall Berman (in All That is Solid Melts Into Air) argues that Baudelaire had “something that is missing in most of his successors: a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos”. Constructing Worlds goes to this effort to show the world as it twists and bends and slides out of shape.
Constructing Worlds comes from the royal plum pudding of British Brutalism – the Barbican Centre in London – and is curated by Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone. Redstone (whose presentation of the show in Stockholm left much to be desired) calls photography “the ultimate communication tool for architecture” in his own book on the subject, Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography. The only thing that doesn’t make sense with this show is that it hasn’t been made before. It is a simple idea conceived in the best possible way.
John Szarkowski (the famous long-time curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) saw photographs as mirrors and windows, as products of both the artist’s mind and imagination and the camera’s distinctive ability to see and register. As The New Yorker staffer Janet Malcolm observes, “Photography is naively believed to reproduce viewed reality, but in fact the images our eyes take in and the images the camera delivers are not the same. Taking a picture is a transformative act.”
Ariella Azoulay writes in The Civil Contract of Photography that “Photos are always dangling between modes – between what is depicted on the photographic paper and the traces of the photographic act, between the two-dimensional image and the chaos of reality out of which it was forged, between being a silent picture on the wall and being (the traces of) a scrap of the world teeming with life.”
Bas Princen is one of the eighteen artists in the show. He asserts that it was the photographers who came to lecture at the Design Academy in Eindhoven that made him realise “that you can contribute to the world of architecture without being an architect, and that gave me a lot of courage to understand that photographs could have that role”.
Constructing Worlds is not concerned with customary architectural photography and its eagerness to please a certain breed of architects, instead preferring to kindle the emotive and political aspects of buildings and environments and, consequently, the bigger issues of things: “For a building to become architecture, it must be imbued with a spirit that words, written or spoken, are hard-pressed to capture,” as Jonathan Glancey described it in The Guardian (April 15, 2002). For this you need an artist with a camera.
The greatest colourist of the 1970s when North America reached its photogenic peak in the middle of everyday life is also in the show. Stephen Shore says that “It seems to me that a good photographer is a combination of two things: one is interesting perceptions and the other is an understanding of how the world is translated by a camera into a photograph.”
When Édouard-Denis Baldus was hired to document Hector Lefuel’s extensions of the Louvre in 1855, something happened that was not supposed to happen – he filled the pictures with his own perceptions, elicited them with some kind of spirit: “That the photographer turned out, at certain points, also to be a poet was another matter entirely and of no concern of the time,” writes Olivier Beer in Lucien Hervé: Building Images. “The invention of photography was still too recent for people to yet view it as anything other than a miracle, with the power to transcribe what the eye sees onto photographic paper, and to do so more accurately than a drawing.”
Modern art and Albert Einstein did away with ancient perspectives. Later, during the formative years of modern architecture in the 1920s and 30s, the universe expanded for us when Edwin Hubble proved that everything had a beginning – 13.78 billion years ago – and that the universe is a starry sky of endless galaxies. The 20s and 30s were the beginning of time for creative photography. “The camera has had a profound impact upon the evolution of modernity and how architecture is imagined and, indeed, constructed,” write Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray in Camera Constructs: Photography, Architecture and the Modern City. “Bringing a new world into being through its imagery was an essential element of the work of the modern architect, as it was of the modern photographer.”
The first photographer to bring a new world into being photographed the old scraps of Paris. Eugène Atget’s (1857–1927) intimate but monumental undertaking of photographing what was left of the city after Baron Haussmann’s imperial renovation began with a commission from the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris. Three decades and 16,758 sold prints later the unknown artist died from starvation. Constructing Worlds takes off in New York in 1932, but the spirit of Atget’s work is all over the place. He lived in Montparnasse on rue Campagne-Première, the street where Man Ray had his famous studio. Man Ray’s apprentice Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) purchased 7,800 prints and 1,400 eighteen-by-twenty-four glass plate negatives from Atget’s executor before she returned to the US in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash.
“In a saga that is almost breathtaking in its dedication – receiving few rewards and mostly indifference – Abbott arranged exhibitions of Atget’s photographs, encouraged the publication of books about his work, and in her darkroom painstakingly continued to reproduce the forgotten photographer’s images,” writes Clark Worswick in Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Paris. “One of the best technicians of her generation, she made carefully crafted prints of her own selection of Atget’s negatives on heavily impregnated silver-coated photographic papers. But not only was Abbott unfailing in her efforts to make Atget’s work known to the world, she was also inspired by him to undertake her own documentation of a city – that of Depression-era New York.”
The clusters of works in Constructing Worlds shift fluidly between paces and moods, all accentuated by the great exhibition design by the Belgian architects Office KGDVS. The first picture in the show takes us to the upper level of the tallest building in the world until the World Trade Center. Berenice Abbott’s A Nighttime View of New York City, USA is a thrilling cityscape of light-perforated skyscrapers, shot from the Empire State Building just before Xmas in 1932 and exposed for fifteen minutes before the end of the day for the thousands upon thousands of people in these upright office buildings. In the next picture we are suddenly in a steep rabbit hole of anachronisms and a garniture of huge primeval icicles, ground zero of the Rockefeller Center, New York City (1932) with a brand new skyscraper in the background.
Abbott (who dreamt of becoming an aviatrice) was relying on New Deal money to realise her great Changing New York project. In one of those proposals she wrote that she was after “a synthesis which shows the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it”: “To photograph New York City means to seek to catch in the sensitive and delicate photographic emulsion the spirit of the metropolis, while remaining true to its essential fact, its hurrying tempo, its congested streets, the past jostling with the present.” Then she added: “How shall the two-dimensional print in black and white suggest the flux of activity of the metropolis, the interaction of human beings and solid architectural constructions, all impinging upon each other in time?” Changing New York was published in 1939 and it is a classic.
In A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of 30s Photography, John Raeburn describes how the medium emerged as a democratic art form in the 1930s, “and not only because some of its most skilled practitioners turned their cameras on ordinary people and the Depression’s calamities. It was also democratic because its audience became a popular one, far more so than earlier or with the other fine arts, and because a unified, tastemaking elite did not govern photographic culture. These circumstances created an atmosphere in which a number of photographic practices rubbed against one another, and that eclecticism also encouraged the growth of heterogeneous audiences.”
Abbott said in a speech in 1940 that what she loved about photography is how it “seeks to reach the roots, to get under the skin of reality”. When Abbott’s writer friend Walker Evans (1903–1975) set out to photograph the living conditions in the Cotton States for the government, also as a New Deal project, and the rural architecture of the Deep South for a private entrepreneur between 1933 and 1936, his inspirations were Modernist literature and Atget’s photographic work of Paris. In a recorded interview Evans said that, “I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time, and rather unconsciously recorded that period. The work piled up, and the sum of it is looked at now as a record that I wasn’t even thinking of making.”
In his introduction to James Mellow’s Walker Evans biography, Hilton Kramer calls this body of work “an art that changed the very conception of what a photograph might be”. That is a valid statement. MoMA published American Photographs in 1938 when the museum exhibited these truly modern pictures (a majority of them were architectural) from backward America. One of the one hundred images that John Szarkowski discusses in Looking at Photographs (published in 1973) is a picture by Walker Evans: “Evans’s work seemed at first almost the antithesis of art. It was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that Evans’s pictures, however laconic in manner, were immensely rich in expressive content.”
Rem Koolhaas, in his book Delirious New York (1978), called himself “Manhattan’s ghostwriter”. With his signature images of Los Angeles and its architecture, New York-born Julius Shulman (1910–2009) stopped time to record and transcend the mythology of Californian living with his sumptuous colour photographs of those Mid-Century Modern dream houses that dot the Hollywood Hills (with that immense Los Angeles carpet farther down). This is the good life, with the covert uneasiness known from the eternal pool gatherings of Ned Merrill’s spotless neighbours in the glorious film The Swimmer (1968).
“The photographer,” as Shulman argued in his book Architecture and its Photography, “assumes a role of tremendous responsibility in reporting, literally as a communicator. The mind, the dexterity, and the ability of the person with the camera can become the vehicle by which the image of architecture is transferred to publications and the people of the world.” Shulman was just a young man with an amateur camera when he took some pictures of Richard Neutra’s Josef Kun House (which was bought and restored by Devo’s Gerald Casale in 2007). Shulman posted six of them to the architect who was so moved by how ingenious they were that he hired him for more. Constructing Worlds shows Shulman’s exemplary exactingness in six photographs of residential homes from the Case Study House program.
Lucien Hervé’s (1910–2007) first photograph was a mirrored self-portrait. Olivier Beer suggests in his Hervé biography that the artist “graduated from the Eiffel Tower as others did from the École des Beaux-Arts”. His five hours every day at the piano also “determined his approach to art”: “Achieving beauty was never enough for him, then and always, he wanted to understand the work and would explore the same terrain endlessly. Subsequently, he sought to express something with each subject, constantly striving to figure out how to transform that subject into an event.”
Hervé came from Hungary, but as an artist and a Jew it was far more advantageous for him to relocate to Paris. Hervé photographed Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse de Marseille (his first and best Unité d’Habitation) in 1949, and had some of these prints delivered to the famous architect who instantly made Hervé his official photographer. “With Le Corbusier, in addition to a constant need for purity, I learned to get close to beauty at the moment of its birth,” said Hervé. “I also came to better understand the importance of details, those details that are all too often overlooked in favour of the whole, although they are the very life of that whole.”
Chandigarh is a model city in northern India that was designed in every detail by Le Corbusier in the 1950s (much of it has been plundered by art dealers today when everything is for sale). The black and white images in the show are from Hervé’s visits to the city in 1955 and 1961. “Without exacting rigorous composition, a photograph is nothing more than an anecdote,” Hervé remarked. His compositions and his superb manipulation of light – simultaneously twilight and daylight – produce a display of starkly geometric patterns and Weimaresque shadows.
Walker Evans revealed his theory in a 1974 interview “that almost all good artists are being worked through with forces that they’re not quite aware of. They are transmitters of sensitivities that they’re not aware of having, of forces that are in the air at the time.”
The works of Walker Evans and Eugène Atget were of great significance to Edward Ruscha (b 1937), whose conceptual photo booklets of the 1960s were both laconic in manner and immensely rich in expressive content, like wordless collections of poetry. At the time, however, Ruscha thought that photography was dead as fine art and claimed to regard his own camera work as nothing more than snapshots.
In Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments Virginia Heckert writes that, “taken together, the subjects of his architectural photobooks demonstrate a continued interest in the prosaic appearances and textures of Los Angeles. His translations of some of these structures into paintings, drawings, or prints further underscores this interest, even if these works stylise or otherwise simplify the lines and shapes that initially attracted him to the subject.”
Ruscha’s Pop was not an art that sometimes possibly criticised and definitely always treated the wrappings and packaging of anything consumable (foodstuff in particular) with royal affection. Ruscha’s early art deals with how the automobile shaped the look of Los Angeles – “the dramatically alien, confusing, inexplicable metropolis of late Capitalism, the inadvertent and usually unacknowledged model for almost everything that came in its wake, at least in the USA and Europe,” as Owen Hatherley puts it in the Barbican catalogue.
In 1966, Ruscha mounted a 35mm camera with a motor drive on a pickup truck and photographed Every Building on the Sunset Strip on both sides of the 2,400-metre-long boulevard (which was a hippie hotspot back then). The printed sheet unfolds like an accordion, the binding as much as the idea. Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles was published the following year. It shows the prosthetic culture of car-crazy America from a different perspective: the pictures are taken from a helicopter during a time of day when the automobiles and their owners are somewhere else. These are vast spaces of nothing but the quirky patterns of “tyre marks” formed by oil spots.
“The books represented an excursion off onto some side issue that was even puzzling to me, and yet offered me a platform for speaking,” says Ruscha. “But with the books I was able to see that there was some magic in dreaming up something that may not even have come to pass yet.”
Bernd (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (b 1934) ingratiated themselves with the unknown architect of bygone industrial structures. Bernd Becher described these sites (in an interview from 1969) as things “so full of fantasy there is absolutely no sense in trying to paint them; I realised that no artist could have made them better. This is purely economic architecture. They throw it up, they use it, they misuse it, they throw it away.”
Hilla Becher’s grid arrangement for Constructing Worlds is twenty-one melancholy portraits of water towers from Germany and France. The Bechers’ “anonymous sculptures” – captured with their large-format Plaubel plate camera – are as plain as they are spectacular, and they are totally fascinating. They are like people who are loved for the first time. What impelled the couple’s smokestack nostalgia and wish “to create an almost perfect chain of distinctive manifested forms” with two hundred collections, each consisting of fifty to one hundred photographs, were grounded in childhood interests and playground pleasures.
Blake Stimson in Art Forum (October 2007): “‘The war robbed us of the pleasure of looking at the past,’ noted Hilla, who grew up in East Germany – it is this pleasure that the Bechers sought to renew. Their project allowed them to leapfrog backward over the horrors of Stalinism, Nazism, and even World War I, and to return to what Bernd called the ‘pragmatic English way of thinking’ or ‘the soul of industrial thought’.”
Hilla Becher told Stephen Shore (b 1947) in 1973 that he should go out and photograph each and every main street in America. But that, of course, was her and her husband’s way of doing things. What Shore wanted to do was “to photograph the quintessential main street”. Between 1973 and 1979 Shore photographed America in colours never seen before. He said that he “wanted to see what our culture was really like. I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not in the news.” Shore photographed the tatty beauty of 70s America and its splashed-out sex appeal, and he nailed it with his ardent imagination for reality.
Only fourteen years of age, Shore phoned Edward Steichen and said that he wanted to meet him. Steichen purchased three of his photographs for the Museum of Modern Art on this occasion. Shore spent almost every day of his young life in Andy Warhol’s Factory during the mid 1960s where he took a wealth of pictures in black and white. In 1971, the year he started to use colour, Shore had a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ur-New Yorker – who was also doing the light shows for the Velvet Underground – described his first ever road trip (to Amarillo in Texas) as a shock, and the experience became a groomer for the Uncommon Places project and the photobook that was published in 1982 with forty plates (and again in 2004 with fifteen pictures added).
Carl Gunhouse at the International Center for Photography wrote on their website (May 22, 2007) that “What makes the pictures sing is Shore’s breathtaking ability to create a world that seems so everyday, but contains elements of transcendent beauty.” Yes, they are remarkable.
Thomas Struth (b 1957), who was taught by the Bechers at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, named the photobook with his typological examinations of city streetscapes and their charges of bleakness (conducted between 1977 and 2012) Unconscious Places as an acknowledgement of Shore’s work. (Curiously, the only British picture in the show is a silver gelatin print of Clinton Road, London from 1977.) Struth is searching after something, but his photography is hardly about how great our world can appear through the looking glass of the photographer and the window of the camera. His large and nearly colourless Cibachrome from the tidy North Korean concrete hell Bukseo Dong, Pyongyang (2007) is a tongue-tied postcard from the country where everybody is happy. It speaks a thousand words.
Luisa Lambri (b 1969) creates her art inside the belly of an architect. She claims to be after “anything that lies beneath the physical presence of architecture” because “for some reason I can only find life in the interstices”. “By focusing entirely on the view from within, Lambri’s work falls far outside the established category of architectural photography,” as Susan Morgan observes in Aperture (February 2011). “Her camera’s eye is deliberately subjective, taking in odd angles, junctures, thresholds, the subtle but revelatory shifts of daylight, how spaces flow between indoors and out, and where nature might collide with architecture.”
Lambri comes from a place north of Milano. “I always thought of architecture as a mirror for emotions,” she says. Her parents let their teenage daughter travel as much as she wanted and that, and her snapshot photography, gave Lambri an early sensibility for the private lives of buildings and the concept of home. Lambri, who studied philosophy and literature at the Università degli Studi di Milano, lives in Los Angeles today (her “favourite place on Earth”) where she gets into the bellies of those extraordinary Mid-Century Modern homes on the hillsides. She told Sharon Mizota in the Los Angeles Times (February 28, 2010) that she “always really wondered what was happening inside and what it felt like to really actually live there”. Her works are unfortunately the most ordinary in the show.
Hiroshi Sugimoto (b 1948) is an artist from Tokyo who has been living in the US since 1971. Sugimoto, like Lambri, uses his camera to seize an architectural object that he loves so he can feel it, understand it, live with it. He is a passionate collector of things like dinosaur eggs, Stone Age tools, rocks from the depths of space and fossils. “Fossils are the first photographs,” he asserts. “They are time-recording devices.”
His pensive series from old cinemas where he uncapped his 19th-century camera to collect the sum of light from the entire duration of a feature film in each of these venues is indeed very beautiful. Sugimoto’s suite in Constructing Worlds collects some of the most famous buildings in the world and they are photographed like Lillian Bassman photographed women, as essences. His blurry photograph of the transient Twin Towers (taken in 1997) serves as a sad lament today, like the dead mother in Cría cuervos (1976) who appears in the film from time to time when Ana cries for her, not as a ghost but as a memory.
“There is something terrible about reality but I don’t know what it is.” Ravenna’s industrial spew of yellowy greyness that blocks out the city from the sea in Antonioni’s greatest work The Red Desert (1964) is taking the best of Giuliana (Monica Vitti). Il deserto rosso is a form of architecture by itself, and Antonioni achieved everything in this film with his minimalist narrative of colours, composition and sound. “The daily encounter with reality, the fictions, the surrogates, the ambiguous, poetic or alienating aspects, all seem to preclude any way out of the labyrinth, the walls of which are ever more illusory,” contemplated Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992) in his self-published photobook Kodachrome in 1978, which also depicts the flat landscapes of northern Italy with an impressive sense of silent storytelling and the singing poetry of colours. In 1983 Ghirri photographed the San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena. Samples from this and two other series of small-size prints – where his telephoto photography merges the landscape with Aldo Rossi’s architecture – are in the show’s rotunda.
Daniel Libeskind, the original architect behind the shiny, sexless One World Trade Center in New York, met Hélène Binet (b 1959) for the first time when she was combining studies in art history with photography in Rome in the early 1980s. Libeskind, who motivated Binet to involve architecture in her photography, describes her as “an artist who is successful at the extraordinary difficult task of capturing a building without flattering it or turning it into yet another pretty picture. Her work reveals architecture’s inner intensity by materialising the phenomenon of light, texture and density, all within a composition that is wholly conceptual.”
The gelatin silver prints presented here are photographs captured from the inside of the Jewish Museum Berlin in 1997, a few years before the completion of Libeskind’s design. These photographs are concentrated on the building’s window slits as apertures of light and framers of shadows. “Shadow is an amazing subject,” says Binet. “Shadow is an absence.”
“I’m very keen to work with what I feel but also to work with the score of the architect. I’m like a musician. I can interpret but I’m not going to ignore the score. I like to somehow know as much as possible about the way he or she works,” Binet told Jonathan Glancy in The Guardian (April 15, 2002). “In the end, what I do is about feeling. Certain buildings, certain architects generate a strong emotion. It is hard to explain but, if I am lucky, I can find this feeling, these emotions, slowly and quietly in the darkroom when my pictures come to light.”
The Modernists wanted to purge the cities and scale them out of human proportions. The most beautiful human anthill in Paris sits atop the artery of Gare Montparnasse – architect Jean Dubuisson’s Mouchotte building (completed in 1959) with 750 apartments made for two thousand residents. Michael Rustin writes something interesting in his text on Andreas Gursky (b 1955) in Dissent magazine (Summer 2001): “Whereas the forms of modernity seem to be imposed forcibly on the world in the work of the pioneers of Modernism, they return to us in Gursky’s photographs from a world already fully modernised.”
Gursky’s more than four-metre-long, lush Cibachrome Paris, Montparnasse (1993) is a totally beguiling Advent calendar, a patchwork of the impressive building on 24–28 rue du Commandant René Mouchotte. “When Gursky is on, he’s one of the few photographers that could make a moviemaker jealous,” raves Jerry Saltz (who is hardly a Gursky fan) in The Village Voice (December 28, 1999):
“Gursky specialises in fleshy, panoramic images of edgeless postmodern life that reveal invisible structures of commerce, consumption, and grandiosity. Although digital manipulation is often involved, Gursky’s work is a form of high-style documentary. He’s like a stunt photographer, a producer of special effects, or a maker of pattern-and-decoration photography. These pictures rarely tell you things you didn’t know, and they don’t add up to much, but it doesn’t matter because he makes modern life look so cool.”
That is true. Gursky focuses on the hotspot areas of human life – or what looks like human life but isn’t. His pictures are either practically void of people or full of people reduced to ants. “People in Gursky’s pictures are poor creatures. Viewed from afar, their individuality is lost and they seem to struggle insignificantly against the weight of land or floor, sky or ceiling. These tiny figures indicate, Gursky says, his interest in ‘the human species as opposed to the individual’,” writes Julian Stallabrass in his essay for the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. “People are never agents, but rather instruments which react to a certain space, disposing themselves this way and that, involuntarily producing an emergent order which, since it cannot be represented accurately by action and development, is simulated by composition.”
The photograph became a star carrier of the event in the 1920s and it was a position it held until the advance of television newscasts. Bas Princen (b 1975) graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2000 with a set of photographs based on a concept of “spontaneous infill”. He says that the beauty of the Netherlands lies “in the fact that there always seems to be something missing, with all its design effort, it seems incomplete, it is always in the process of being finished, but never quite getting there. I like that feeling and to try to put it back into the photographs I make.”
You can tell by his four images in the show that Princen’s photographs are products of enormous talent and a lot of work. They are great in all sorts of ways – weird, otherworldly and very real because it is here, on this pale blue dot. Mokattam Ridge (Garbage Reclaiming City), Cairo (2009) is an unpeopled aerial view of a Cairo suburb chockablock with garbage. This is where the “garbage people” Zabbaleem dwells and works through consummate recycling. The “guest workers” in Water Cooling Plant, Dubai (2009) are the only people present in these photographs, a group of tiny men in blue overalls and that big black film-prop monolith which seems to suck up most of the daylight.
“I use the photographs as a way to construct an idea, and the camera/frame helps me to see it,” says Bas Princen. “I like to keep my photographs abstract, the way models and ideas can be abstract – the most interesting thing about photography is that you can use real life scenes to evoke fictional scenarios. With photography, a place can be real and unreal at the same time.”
David Campany points out in Photography and Cinema how “slower working procedures are producing images more akin to monuments than moments” and that photography’s “forensic attention to traces is spliced with an almost classical sense of place typical of traditional landscape photography. Just as the medium has been sidelined from events, these imagemakers find their outlet away from the popular press, in the expanded field of fine art photography.”
Guy Tillim (b 1962) has a background as a photojournalist for international news agencies. The advancement of his images of Africa is indeed the advancement that David Campany is talking about, the course of photography where “sharp reflexes have given way to careful strategy”. The South African artist says that, “All wars have to end. The scars – emotional, physical – are readily apparent. But they gradually become part of the scenery; what was foregrounded is now background. Perhaps the photographer’s means of communication best rests in accepting the background for what it is, aberrant, different, brutal, and looking for a communal human thread that links us all.”
Tillim’s Avenue Patrice Lumumba is a series that deals with the aftermath of the ethereal idealism and the dilapidation of the African Dream that took place amid the continent’s post-colonial states during the 1960s. There are many African roads still today that are named Avenue Patrice Lumumba as a result of this dream. One should heed that Patrice Lumumba was a dangerous, psychotic idiot whose actions as a self-imposed messianic “liberator” only furthered the chaos and the violence when the Belgians finally left Congo in the summer of 1960.
Avenue Patrice Lumumba is Tillim’s own personal Sunset Boulevard (1950). As he explains: “There’s a ten-year period in the late-Modernist world where there was this grand colonial architecture built in Francophone Africa. It was this strange contemporary mythological time. These buildings are impressive, for all their inappropriateness they nonetheless form part of a contemporary African stage. If you look at them in a certain way, they’re just kind of floating worlds.” Tillim’s diptych Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique (2008) depicts an abandoned luxury hotel where over one thousand squatters live today. Their presence in these pictures is only known through their laundry on the balustrade.
Alex Danchev’s On Art and War and Terror is full of great things. “The concerned photographer bids to be a better angel,” he argues. “They have a point of view: they are against forgetting.” The body of work by the Nigerian photographer Simon Norfolk (b 1963) deals with historical neglect. His blue and mourning images from Afghanistan, taken in 2001 and then again in 2010 after the opprobrious Fourth Anglo–Afghan War, are simply extraordinarily beautiful fuck-offs. “The beauty in these things is only ever tactical,” Norfolk states. “The reason why I am here is not to make beautiful pictures. The reason I am here is to articulate the anger of my politics about what is happening in this war, and the brutality that is being visited on Afghanistan by barbarians, imperialists. Just another wave of sorry imperialists with the same stupid delusions as the last lot, and the same murderous incompetence.”
“I am trying to photograph my disappointment. When I came here in 2001 I was angry about what the Americans had done, I thought it was a mistake, I thought they should have done a deal with the Taliban if they really wanted Osama bin Laden. But at least I thought that there was some kind of opportunity, and I have seen that opportunity not just squandered but taken outside and had its head smashed in with a baseball bat again and again and again. Ten sorry, miserable years have gone by. Half a trillion dollars has been spent in this country and it looks worse than it was.”
In an obituary in The Guardian, John le Carré described the keynote of a lost friend’s character as “that peculiar loneliness that comes from knowing and seeing a lot that you can’t do much about”. There is a temper, a sorrow, a bloody outrage that permeates Simon Norfolk’s warzone photography. As Alex Danchev describes it: “Norfolk fixes the scars, using an old-fashioned wood and brass field camera of the kind familiar to war photographers of the 19th century, with tripod, magnifying glass to focus and blanket over the head. Stupendous images form slowly on outside negative plates. They contain few people but many remains. Simon Norfolk is the portraitist of the disappeared. He follows the wars, and the massacres, inspecting the ground and the guilty secrets sown there.”
London-based Nadav Kander (b 1961) made five trips to China to photograph Yangtze, The Long River in 2006 and 2007. What these un-National Geographic-like pictures of raging progress really do illustrate is the coin that Marshall Berman spins in All That is Solid Melts Into Air: modernity as sublime transformation, modernity as destruction. “The River seems to float through everybody’s mind in China,” Kander says. He journeyed the 6,500 kilometres from Yangtze’s mouth in Shanghai to Qinghai Lake in the west – hundreds of millions of people live along the River – “And I felt very, very moved by the amount of existence there was rather than any quality of life.”
Kander: “I’m not a documentarian and I’m not interested in truth and photography being the vehicle for it. I don’t believe it is photography’s place anymore. For me the only interest in it is to express one’s self, one’s view – leaving enough questions unanswered in any frame that I take, and that people can respond in their own way and tell their own story through it and see their own emotional state through the work.”
Chinese money put an end to a fine vertical community in Caracas last year. “I think this tower is better organised than the country. Compared to other people living in the streets with no place to go, I’m all right up here,” says Yecenia Polanco who is one of the voices in the BBC documentary “Venezuela’s Tower of Dreams”, which was made just before the announcement that the three thousand cooperatively-organised squatters of the then unfinished and since 1993 abandoned Torre David (also known as Centro Financiero Confinanzas) were to be evicted.
“Tower of David” was the third episode of the third and feeble season of Homeland (though it wasn’t filmed there). The real population of Torre David welcomed the Dutch photographer Iwan Baan (b 1975) in 2011 to document their lives on the first twenty-eight floors of the elevatorless forty-five-floor skyscraper with his 35mm digital camera: “The residents were extremely nice and helpful. People took such pride in showing the places, which they had built themselves. People took such ownership of the tower and really wanted to show us and explain what they did. It’s as if everyone became an architect. People were so proud to show us their places and what they’d made out of it. For them it was such as step forward from the slums and barrios more than seventy per cent of the population in Caracas live in.”
Baan’s photobook Brasilia–Chandigarh: Living with Modernity – with which he wanted to show “what happens when the chilly, impersonal drawing from the past is populated by real, live human beings” – landed him the first Julius Shulman Award in 2010. Baan assures that he never intended to become an architectural photographer, and that he doesn’t speak the “super clean, no people, bright sunlight” lingo of architects. “My work is documentation around the architecture, what people do in the space.”
Fred Bernstein portrayed the artist in The New York Times (January 22, 2010) with a good reflection: “Mr Baan’s conjuring of real life may be ideally suited to a time when architects like Mr Koolhaas are creating buildings meant to absorb and reflect the messiness of 21st-century cities.”
And he added: “For decades magazine editors, developers and architects themselves favoured a static style of photography that framed buildings as pristine objects. Mr Baan’s work, while still showing architecture in flattering lights and from carefully chosen angles, does away with the old feeling of chilly perfection. In its place he offers untidiness, of the kind that comes from real people moving through buildings and real cities massing around them.”
The world as it twists and bends and slides out of shape.
That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.
|Iwan Baan, Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011. © Iwan Baan.|
|Guy Tillim, Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 (part of diptych). © Guy Tillim.|
|Bas Princen, Water Cooling Plant, Dubai, 2009. © Bas Princen.|
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at Arkdes in Stockholm through May 17, 2015. The next venue is Fundación ICO in Madrid (June 3–September 6, 2015).