Context, Object, Detail and Use – qualities compared in the work of Max Dupain, David Moore and John Gollings:.

It is strange that, in an age so alive with scientific thought, we still have the spectacle of make-believe pervading the practice of photography… We attempt to idealize the subject instead of assessing its value as an objective fact.  As Lewis Mumford said, the mission of the photograph is to clarify the subject.  (1)

A cursory glance at contemporary magazines confirms Max Dupain’s generalisation.  All manner of subject matter: cars, computers, health-care products, fashion accessories, mobile telephones — including buildings are photographed under exceptional circumstances.  Pre- and post- production technology is meticulously employed to enhance or exaggerate the subject’s essence.  The main purpose of such stage-managed manipulation is to gain notoriety and further commercial gain.  Architecture too is assembled from a myriad of manufactured materials and components and it likewise exists in the commercial market place.  Under such circumstances can architectural photography clarify its subject, rather than idealising it as Dupain pessimistically asserts?, or does this run against the very commercial premise of the medium?  This author holds an optimistic view providing photographers, graphic designers and journal editors knowledgably and collectively work towards more comprehensive representation.

Pressure to idealise architecture through its photographs begins with the most frequent of commissions — the photographer by the architect. John Gollings was particularly aware of the importance of patronage to his and most photographers success.  He wrote with business-like candour in summarising the architect-photographer relationship:

A symbiotic relationship has always existed between architects and their photographers.  For instance, Seidler and Dupain, Cox and Moore, Ezra Stoller and Mies Van der Rohe, Ando and Futagawa, the list goes on.  Both professions are commercial arts depending on patronage and working with the inherent limitations of client requirements and budgets.  Photographers need good buildings to photograph and publish for a living, architects depend on good photographs to promote a design or attract new clients. (2)

Some architects regularly use the same photographers because they seek a specific interpretation of their work — the photographer is briefed as to what that is, and can reliably deliver the image ‘type’.  For example, In Harry Seidler’s case, Max Dupain frequently interpreted his modernist architecture in a similar manner — ie, high quality black and white images from unusual vantage points with very wide angle lenses — techniques long promoted through the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s.  Seidler is never satisfied with a snapshot, he always accompanied Dupain to ensure his preferred views were recorded.  This is a clear case of the architect and photographer working together to monitor, or ‘orchestrate’, — depending on one’s view — the resulting images.

Then, to have any impact on public taste/values, to market design skills, to promote one’s professional standing, such photographs must be published.  Editors of magazines, journals, or books know very accurately who their ‘target audience’ is: for example readers could be under thirty-five year old yuppies or conservative middle-aged bankers.  Senior staff, editors and ‘art directors’, are highly trained visual communicators who anticipate the image type and graphic layout that their readership appreciates — all of which will contribute to increased circulation, selling more advertising and making more money — the principal objective of capitalism.  Thus a yet another layer of censoring comes between the designed work and the viewer — an often ‘innocent’ consumer who is simply attempting to understand a building’s configuration.

Much cautionary and critical theory has been written about these associations. Theorist Walter Benjamin caustically observed in his 1944 writings about ‘the new’ or modernist photography in the hands of exponents such as the German Renger-Patzsh;

 [he] is now incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish heap without transfiguring it … [he] has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment… photography can endow a can of soup with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists.  (3)

More recently in the 1998 edition of the Harvard Design Magazine, Thomas Schumacher wrote in an article wittily titled ‘Over Exposure’:

Architects today use the photograph as a form of pornography.  It is perfect, clean and “air-brushed,” with no odour, no hair, no warts.  More importantly it has become a substitute for experience, as evidenced by the widespread interest among contemporary architects to aim all their activities toward getting the magazine cover, and not worrying whether the building will last beyond the photographers shooting session.  Our experience of the building is no longer even a visit, but a carefully cropped and composed tableau.  (4)

Such criticisms may be overstated but they serve to alert us to the potential bias of many architectural photographs.  Those involved in the making and dissemination of photographs must be reminded that architecture always: exists in a cultural and physical context, is three dimensional, has a purpose — involving users, human or otherwise, and is assembled from a palette of materials with particular details.  Given the multi-faceted nature of architecture: context, object, detail and use, it is unlikely that a single photograph will inadequately clarify the subject.  John Szarkowski, then director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, confirms this view when he observed:

a series of photographs can convey a meaning greater than the sum of the individual images.  The individual pictures of a photographic essay can be considered as sentences.  Each should have a clarity a precision of form, but their functions will vary profoundly.  Some will define the problem and state the photographer’s approach, some will be narrative, some fundamentally illustrative, some parenthetical and suggestive, some declamatory, and some will state conclusions. (5)

This author argues that in order to clarify its subject, the ‘series’ of architectural photographs Szarkowski refers to should embrace (as a minimum) ‘context’, ‘object’, ‘detail’ and ‘use’ and the following ‘case study’ elucidates this assertion.

In 1984 Philip Cox separately commissioned Max Dupain, David Moore, and John Gollings, to photograph the newly completed Yulara Tourist Resort in the Uluru National Park, Northern Territory.  Those assignments inadvertently offer an opportunity for comparative analysis of some of their resulting photographic representations.  The architect’s account reveals the differing modus operandi of Moore and Dupain.  Although Cox’s summation is inconclusive as he does not mention Gollings, his language suggests Dupain to be the benchmark for architectural photography:

Max took about three hours to set up and put his big black hood on and study through the lens and he’d get you to crawl underneath and look through it, and you’d see this marvellous composition and he’d have the red filters on so that the sky was right, and of course you’d get this wonderful still-life appearance, this wonderfully studied piece of art….You just couldn’t believe there was a better photograph to take. Max was the first and then David came up second, and David was so gun-ho; he was off the hip, and clicking here and clicking there, and I was a bit puzzled. I thought well, you know, this is hardly the photographer that I expected…. I thought he’d be much more studied like Max, but he then explained to me that his view of photographing architecture was one of the everyday experience and that he should truthfully portray architecture as the observer would have it. (6)

But how do the images differ, if at all?

Max Dupain’s image ‘Yulara Tourist Centre’ (1985) has certain predictable and at the same time perplexing qualities.  He is drawn to the dramatic patterns of polyester sunshades, which are portrayed in black and white shimmering above the podium in abstract splendour. The photograph speaks not of the desert context, not of the many tourists enjoying the architecture of place and not of what sunshades do best — which is keep the sun off — but of abstract patterns generated by the play of electric light on the architecture at night.  Strangely the ‘hypar’ sails float silvery above the darkened podium steps — recalling an eccentric Bauhaus stage-set rather than the comings and goings of a tourist centre in the Australian desert.  This is a thoroughly modernist ‘architecture-as-object’ photograph in which the architecture has become the subject of the photographer’s formal representation.  As with all like-minded photographers Dupain was capable of being enticed by graceful form, and Yulara was an opportunity he clearly found irresistible — irrespective of his pronouncement at the beginning of this article.

David Moore has published several images from Cox’s commission and his approach varies markedly. His ‘Yulara Tourist Village’ (1984) is what Moore refers to as a ‘responsible image’ and is consistent with some of the photojournalistic beliefs he expressed in 1974:

 … I believe, more and more strongly, that it should be possible to photograph well any building in existing conditions if it is worthwhile architecture.  After all, as members of the public, we experience buildings under many differing conditions and depending on the value of the architecture these experiences can be continually more delightful and stimulating or progressively more depressing… it seems a trite, and possibly misleading solution to continually rely on blinding sunlight as our tool of drawing. (7)

The viewer is positioned under the sunshades — part of the space rather than looking at a series of sculptural objects as Dupain’s image conveys.  People sitting at outdoor tables suggest at least one of their reasons for being there — to enjoy a relaxed outdoor lifestyle.  Their presence lends scale to the construct — which assists in ‘reading’ the photograph — the size and purpose of the architecture is suggested by their inclusion.  Although there is a casual feeling about the picture (aided by the structural ties which diagonally slice the picture frame), the perspective and depth of field are precisely constructed to vanish at the right hand side mid-point.  Perhaps a more exaggerated example of reportage or photojournalism would have included figures strolling across the foreground pavement.  No doubt Moore exercised his experienced judgement about the emphasis of architecture’s technics compared with its use.

John Gollings, in his untitled image of the Yulara settlement is the only photographer of the three to represent a visceral sense of the architecture and its place – its physical context. Thus the Olgas glow red on the horizon under the vast dome of the Central Australian dawn sky, and the diminutive scale of diverse low-rise forms is clearly expressed on the undulating desert dunes.  The significance of the contextual image is emphasised by Glenn Murcutt: ‘To understand why a building is placed in a certain way, to understand the eco-tones that it is involving itself with are really important issues. For an architect this [context] is a very important part of the description’.  Murcutt’s recall of working with Dupain is consistent with the latter’s ‘Yulara Tourist Centre’ photograph:

I spent so much time trying to get Max off the building. Pulling him back from the building, because Max’s really great attribute was detail in a sense — light falling on detail. He just was a master at it. He was master of the object. The building or the landscape, but not the building in the landscape. Yet he loved landscape and when he took that as a subject he was fantastic. When he took buildings as a subject he was brilliant but to put the building in its context very often no….(8)

Gollings’ emblematic image does not rely on preconception or stylistic devices but on understanding the wider context within which the unique architecture exists.  Philip Cox recalled it as the outstanding example of photographic craft, saying, ‘There was an unbelievable quality of light and I was absolutely taken by [it]’…  (9).

The purpose of this extended comparison has been to demonstrate the classification characteristics of ‘context’, ‘object’, ‘detail’ and ‘use’ in architectural photography.  Photographers will invariably differ in what should be included or excluded from the picture frame.  In the case of Philip Cox’s commission, Dupain expressed the formal sculptural properties of ‘the object’ while David Moore showed his concern for reporting the informal qualities of use, scale and space.  John Gollings, alone, revealed the spirit of place and the diminutive scale of the total development compared to the vast expanse of the central Australian desert.  Gollings reminds us of the importance of context — of stepping back to appreciate architecture’s individual and relational properties.  Collectively the series of photographs commissioned by Philip Cox is a balanced and clear representation for those unable to experience the architecture first-hand.



(1)   Max Dupain quote cited in Elizabeth Riddell’s ‘Max Dupain’, Art and Australia October – December 1975, p. 162.

(2)  John Gollings, How to Commission, Use and profit from Digital Imaging, self published brochure circulated to the audience attending his NSW RAIA lecture, 1994.

(3)  Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer’, 1944, in Understanding Brecht, New Left Books, London, 1973, p.95.

(4)  Thomas Schumacher, ‘Over Exposure: On Photography and Architecture’, Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 1998, p.5.

(5)  John Szarkowski is quoted in Akiko Busch’s The Photography of Architecture: Twelve Views, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1987, p.34.

(6)  Wolfgang Knochel, Gregory Read and Ray Thomas, film script: Photographers of Australia. Dupain, Sievers, Moore, Lindfield: Film Australia, 1992, cited in Brett Boardman’s 1994 Sydney University B Arch thesis titled: Building Images: The Architectural Photography of David Moore, p. 96.

(7)  Moore, David, ‘Thoughts on the Photography of Architecture’, August 1974 in Architecture Australia, Vol 64, No.4, August 1975, pp 68-71.

(8)  Author interview with Glenn Murcutt, February 3rd 1993.  The complete transcript of that interview is in the post graduate thesis: Max Dupain and the Photography of Australian Architecture, Volume 2, pp. 56 – 90, Queensland University of Technology Library.

(9)  Author interview with Philip Cox, September 14th 1992. The complete transcript of that interview is in the post graduate thesis: Max Dupain and the Photography of Australian Architecture, Volume 2, pp. 12 – 31, Queensland University of Technology Library.

Adrian Boddy, April 2001

(2332 words including endnotes)

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