Constructive Images: the nexus between architecture and photography.

The true architectural photograph is primarily an instrument of communication between the architect and his [sic] audience — an audience with the capacity and desire to understand and appreciate, but lacking the opportunity to experience the work in question at first hand. The camera, ideally, is the anonymous vehicle for this journey; yet the ideal is never quite achieved, for a variety of reasons (Stoller 1963, p. 43).

Fig 1.  ‘TWA Terminal, JFK Airport, New York’, 1962. Architect: Eero Saarinen, photographer: Ezra Stoller (Caiger-Smith 1991, p. 73).

We comprehend the four dimensions of architecture with all our senses.  To fully appreciate the Gothic cathedral, for example, is to walk the arcaded nave hearing a reverberant chorale; seeing spectral light from stained glass windows dispersed across aged stone; feeling the hand-worn oak of pews — row upon row; smelling incense in a dank crypt; tasting the bread and wine…  Experiential knowledge of architecture depends on the individual’s interpretation of these sensory stimuli.

Despite its visual power, the photography of architecture is necessarily a diminution of this rich sensory experience.  In architectural education, the purpose of using photographs is to illustrate a proposition, to facilitate recognition and ultimately to encourage us all to seek the multi-sensory first-hand experience.  Architectural photography is presently used so extensively across disciplines such as history, theory, technology and design that teaching and learning without  it is almost inconceivable.  How are we to understand this ubiquitous presence?

Ezra Stoller, the pre-eminent American architectural photographer argues that the architectural photograph is particularly purposeful, for it is always directed toward increasing the viewers’ knowledge of the built environment.  Terry Barrett in his book Criticizing Photographs has a broader view: he argues that architectural photographs can be classified according to their ‘descriptive, explanatory, interpretive, ethically evaluative, aesthetically evaluative, and theoretical content’ (Barrett 1996).  To this list one could add: celebratory, educative, aesthetic, promotional, archival and technical.  This author holds the view that the primary purpose of the architectural photograph is to facilitate interpretative thought and argument — not to end it.

Interpretation is encouraged when one remembers that photography is never neutral, never ‘objective’.  Indeed Glenn Murcutt asserts that the very act of framing through the viewfinder becomes an act of censoring by virtue of what is omitted, as well as what is temporarily included (Author interview with Murcutt, 1993). Further ‘editing’ takes place in the hands of commentators or at the point of publication when only certain images are selected to substantiate a particular argument. Tom Picton, in the Architect’s Journal, July and August 1979, dismissed the contemporary architectural photograph as ‘the “craven image”, a lifeless piece of flattering deception foisted on an unsuspecting public by an unholy alliance of architect, photographer and art editor.’ (Picton in Elwall 1991, p. 63). A bitter critique, particularly since it was written by a photographer!  John Gollings’s 1994 statement is more pragmatic:

A symbiotic relationship has always existed between architects and their photographers. 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 (Gollings 1994).

There is in fact a long-standing link between architecture and photography.  Pioneers of the technology in the mid-19th century such as Daguerre and Talbot favoured static subjects because of the long exposure times required in their early processes.  Thus individual buildings and urban form became a convenient and celebratory theme.  Talbot claimed that photography could be of special benefit to the architect: ‘Even accomplished artists now avail themselves of an invention which delineates in a few moments the almost endless details of Gothic architecture, which a whole day would hardly suffice to draw correctly in the ordinary manner’ (Talbot, in  M Woods 1990, p.156).  In 1845 when John Ruskin was having difficulty drawing Venetian palaces, he wrote in praise of the newly invented daguerreotype: it was ‘very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself. Every chip and stain is there, and of course there is no mistake about the proportions’.  Ruskin was one of the first to recognise photography as a means of documenting buildings, of recording the ‘material and tangible things’ (M Woods 1990, p. 157).


Fig 2.  ‘South Facade, Church of the Madeleine, Paris’, early 1850’s. Photographer: Henri le Sercq. (Pare 1982, plate 26).

Within contemporary architectural education there remains a widely-held belief that sketching a building leads to a deeper comprehension of the subject than taking a photograph of the same thing.  Franck vehemently expressed this concern in the early 1970’s thus:

We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes… Our looking is perfected every day — but we see less and less.  Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing… Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world (Franck 1973, pp. 3-6).

Franck’s opinion is not as new as one might expect.  Woods noted that as early as 1857, at one of the first meetings of the American Institute of Architects, there was a discussion about photography and ‘although it was generally agreed that the process would benefit architects, some concern was expressed that photography would destroy the architect’s incentive to sketch, and would deprive him [sic] of an intimate knowledge of his [sic] subject’ (Woods 1990, p. 157).

By the late 19th century many architects had purchased photographic prints and formed large study collections to expand their understanding of current and historic work. But the photograph’s educative role was limited by its incompatibility with the printing press. At first each photograph was an individual print that had to be hand mounted onto the correct publication page.  This process meant that photography was too expensive and labour intensive as a form of illustration.  With the technical advance of the half-tone block in the 1880s and its widespread use during the ’90s it became possible to print text and photograph in a single operation.

The first architectural magazines as we know them today– Architectural Review (1896) and Country Life (1897) – were published in Britain.  In the United States American Architect first appeared in 1876, sparingly using both the expensive and temperamental heliotype and the cheaper but far less effective photolithograph.  The editors believed that readers generally found architectural photographs more understandable than drawings and encouraged their use in educating the public (Woods 1990).  It was naively believed that the very nature of the photographic process — the result of the chemical action of light falling on light sensitive substances — would result in an objective rendering of a building.

Fig 3.  ‘Arch of Steel’ or ‘Bridge Pattern’, 1934. Photographer: Harold Cazneaux.  (Dupain 1978, p.64).

Fig 4.  ‘Bridge by Night’, 1938. Photographer: Max Dupain. (Newton 1980, p. 48).

It is, however, a gross mistake to think that the craft of positioning the camera relative to the subject and the manipulations that can further take place in the darkroom are value free.  To clarify this point, consider and contrast the painterly and soft atmospheric effects of Harold Cazneaux with the dramatic perspective and sharply defined light-shade compositions of Max Dupain.  Both were photographers of acknowledged dedication, both passionate about recording the built environment, yet in the 1930’s, with access to similar technology their photographic interpretation of architecture was almost antithetical. Cazneax’s output embraced the long-established romantic values of the Pictorialists, whilst Dupain’s visual preferences were more closely aligned to those of European Modernism

There is little doubt that Germany’s Bauhaus was the most influential experimental school of art and design this century. Photography at the Bauhaus was both an integral part of the education program and a powerful publicity tool during the 1920’s and early 30’s.  Students’ projects, industrial design products from the carpentry, metal, weaving, stage and ceramic workshops, and of course the new buildings at Dessau were amongst the subjects systematically recorded.  Their photographs varied from the snap shot, the surreal montage and avant-garde artistic experiments, through to the studied documentation of architecture (Fiedler 1990).

Fig 5.  ‘Marianne Brandt on the balcony of her studio/home’,1928. Architect: Walter Gropius, photographer: Werner Zimmermann. (Feidler 1990, p. 162).

Fig 6.  ‘Portrait of Otti Berger and her studio house’, c. 1930. Architect: Walter Gropius, photographer: Lotte Beese. (Feidler 1990, p. 126).

Fig 7.  Title picturefor the catalogue Bauhaus 1919 — 1928, New York 1938. Architect: Walter Gropius, photographer: Herbert Beyer. (Feidler 1990, p. 149).

Fig 8.  ‘New Bauhaus building, Prellerhaus balconies’, 1927. Architect: Walter Gropius, photographer: Irene Beyer. (Feidler 1990, p. 148).

Photography of this period alerted us to the intrinsic beauty of everyday things by frequently treating the building as a sculptural object.  Photographs were characterised by extreme perspective views, taken under raking or dramatic light conditions and too often isolating the subject from its users and surroundings.  The genre became known as the ‘New Photography’ as Keast Burke explained in Australasian Photo-Review, December 1932:  ‘It demands that photography be purely objective, shall photograph anything and everything — snap repetition and pattern whatever it is to be found from shavings to collars…’ (Burke in Newton 1980, p. 123).

Inevitably these techniques were applied to the promotion of architecture.  The ‘New Photography’ promoted modernist architecture as an ‘art object’, excised from the context of politics, people, place and purpose. This excessive concentration on architecture as ‘isolated form’ at the expense of documenting construction, context and use is an influence that continues to be widespread in both photography and architectural education.

Proponents of the New Photography’s ideology remain influential, although there are those who hold more inclusive attitudes about architectural photography.  In the 1960s, English photographer John Donat was an advocate of a more assertive approach to the presence of people and that technique is known as ‘reportage’ or photojournalism — ‘tell it the way it is’, rather than continually reproducing the empty, abstract, or formal/spatial representations we have come to accept as architectural photographs’.  Donat’s views were influential: they were published in the RIBA Journal; and he lectured in Australia at the ‘Architecture International Series’ in Sydney and Melbourne in 1980.  His beliefs are summarised in the following anecdote:

An architect rings up: ‘For heaven’s sake take the pictures this weekend — people are moving in on Monday!’ Where did this preference for empty buildings come from? Probably long ago when you needed very long exposures (particularly for interiors). We just came to accept that an ‘architectural’ picture was an empty one. One scruffy live picture is worth ten dead ones (Donat 1968, pp. 62).


Fig 9.  ‘Goff’s Bloodstock Sales, County Kildare’, 1975. Photographer: John Donat. (Caiger-Smith 1991, p. 67).

When one delves into the practical aspects of photographing architecture and people it is evident that the reportage approach is far from simple. Melbourne photographer John Gollings confirms the technical difficulties of working to extremely exacting standards:

At the moment we are using 60 second exposures for people. I’m photographing the Windsor Hotel, an architectural coverage of a Victorian building — with up to ten and more people [models] in it. They are having to lock off areas to prevent others walking into the shots. I’m using fast film, lighting it with 4 K movie lights, and even then we’re are still running out to the 2 second mark.… (Author interview with Gollings, 1991).

Harry Sowden, author of Towards an Australian Architecture, practised the reportage philosophy using 35 mm equipment with some success.  In photographing the work of twenty firms, Sowden wrote that he:

avoided the usual formal methods employed in architectural photography — the meticulously staged full facade shots where people, cars and other uncontrollable objects are rigidly excluded… The job that architectural photography must do is to recreate the experience of a building… I think this cannot be done by showing buildings as a series of isolated monuments tortured on the rack of a wide angle lens (Sowden 1968, endpaper).

Clearly Sowden was taking a swipe at the exponents of the New Photography with their concerns for formal, dramatic points of view and reductive or selective compositions.  His work received wide acceptance by architects and was frequently published in preference to the well-established Max Dupain, in Architecture in Australia  in the 70s.

Fig 10.  ‘School for Deaf Children, Mosman, WA’, undated. Architects: Hawkins Sands & Aris, photographer: Harry Sowden. (Sowden 1968, p. 144).

Sydney architectural photographer David Moore also wrote a statement of beliefs in the mid 1970’s titled ‘Thoughts on the Photography of Architecture’.  The paper reflected attitudes formed during his years overseas when he operated as a photojournalist with The New York Times, Life, Fortune, The Observer and other journals. At one level Moore appealed to the reader’s common sense by saying:

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 different 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 (Moore 1975, pp. 68-71.).

Moore cited the Sydney Opera House as a building that could be photographed from most vantage points under any weather conditions, while still generating good results.  The substance of such an argument is difficult to refute, yet architects who had been working on less prestigious projects might conclude that Moore would photograph their work under bleak or less than flattering circumstances.  An obvious analogy was having one’s portrait taken by a professional during a thunder storm!  Moore’s attitude was courageous for it was published in the profession’s own journal.  From a purely commercial point of view, at least, it is very likely that his assertion annoyed potential clients since many architects continue to commission professional photographers with the expectation that an ‘ideal’ image of their building will be forthcoming. Moore’s beliefs must have been of serious concern to them for he dismissed the traditional ‘slick’ approach in favour of seeking a more realistic record.

By the late 1960’s another determinant altered the dissemination of architectural photographs — the demand for colour reproduction.  Journals reluctantly had to compete with television and popular magazines. Their’s was a polychromatic world in which illustrations recognised what architects had long denied, that colour was an integral part of the built environment. Perhaps the high chroma employed by Corbusier and the modernists would not have been interpreted as so many shades of grey by practitioners and students alike if the six-colour printing machine had been invented earlier.  By the 1970’s colour in architecture was a well considered design element.  In the decade later, Post Modern architecture frequently used colour as an excessive graphic device. Could this have been for the sake of seeking attention in popular and professional publications?  In Melbourne, John Gollings worked closely with architect Peter Corrigan and the outcome was a portfolio of ‘constructed’ images based on multiple exposures and poetic/theatrical intent.  Golling’s photography infuriated some and delighted others, and continues to stimulate debate.  Was this an era of superficial ‘architecture-as-advertising’; a quiet conspiracy between designers, photographers and publishers?

Despite the preference of journals and magazines for full colour images, established architectural photographers such as Max Dupain, Wolfgang Seivers and Richard Stringer regard ‘black and white’ as the most appropriate medium for their work. Their a-chromatic photographs convey a degree of abstraction that potentially transforms the art of architecture into fine art, and that is satisfying to patron, viewer and artisan.  Eminent American professionals such as Ezra Stoller and Norman McGrath also continue to state their preference for this long-standing mode (Busch 1987 ).

Fig 11.  ‘Fragment of the Sydney Opera House by Night’, 1968?. Architect: Jorn Utzon, photographer: Max Dupain. (Dupain 1986, p. 195)

Fig 12.  ‘Sulphuric Acid Plant, E Z Industries, Hobart’, 1950. Photograper: Wolfgang Sievers. (collection of the author).

Younger exponents such as John Gollings, however, prefer to explore the potential of new, rather than old technology.  At a lecture to the NSW Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects on 11 July 1994, he asserted that we are already living in the ‘post photographic era’.  By this he meant that photographs can be digitally scanned and ‘manipulated’ using personal computers and readily available software.  Previously, architectural photographers had freely interpreted their subject with the aid of various films, lenses, points-of-view and darkroom techniques.  Nevertheless such images could be generally regarded as evidence of the building’s proportions, structure and materials.  Gollings was, however, flagging a new era of architectural photographs — one offering unprecedented potential for radically reconfiguring the actuality of architecture’s context and components — even falsifying its very existence.

The linking of the computer to the camera raises an important question: will future architectural photographs be accurate records of cultural endeavour, or will they simply be false illustrations of unrealised intentions?  Should the latter scenario become widespread, the role of the photograph which has hitherto been a cornerstone of architecture’s scholarship, would be seriously diminished.  There is a certain irony in this possibility, for accuracy and credibility was precisely the perceived failing of perspective drawings prior to the invention of photography!

There is little doubt that the use of photographs does influence our judgements about architecture — often we only ‘know’ a building through such imagery — a property described by one academic and critic as: ‘facilitat[ing] the decentring of life’ (Best 1994).  Selective views, emphasising a building’s process, context, singular appearance, details, use, even abstract qualities, are all valid means of portraying architectural subjects.  Consequently, architectural photographers and graphic designers have a collective responsibility to ensure that Picton’s previously quoted strictures serve as a caution.  It is also important for scholars to develop a critical capacity to anticipate and deal with the filtered, often biased, sometimes quite inaccurate messages imparted through this ubiquitous medium.


Barrett, Terry, Criticizing Photographs, Mayfield Publishing, California, 1996.

Best, Sue, ‘The Underexposed City’, Sydney Photographed,  Museum of Contemporary Art, NSW, 1994, unpaginated.

Busch, Akiko, The Photography of Architecture: Twelve Views,  Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1987

Caiger-Smith, M and Chandler, D (Eds), Site Work: Architecture in photography since early modernism, The Photographers Gallery London, 1991.

Donat, John, ‘The Camera Always Lies’, RIBA Journal, 1968

Dupain, Max, ‘Caz — An Appreciation’ in Photographs by Harold Cazneaux 1878 — 1953, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1978.

Dupain, Max, Max Dupain’s Australia, Viking Penguin, Sydney, 1986.

Elwall, Robert, ‘The Specialist Eye’, Site Work, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 1991.

Fiedler, Jeannine, Photography at the Bauhaus, Dirk Nishen Publishing, London, 1990.

Franck, Frederick, The Zen of Seeing, Wildwood House, London, 1973.

Gollings, John, How to Commission, Use and Profit From Digital Imaging, self published brochure, Melbourne. 1994, unpaginated.

Gollings, John, typescript of interview with the author, East Richmond, Melbourne, 1991.

Moore, David, ‘Thoughts on the Photography of Architecture’, Architecture in Australia , Volume 64, no.4, August 1975.

Murcutt, Glenn, typescript of interview with the author, Sydney, 1993.

Newton, Gael, Max Dupain, The David Ell Press, NSW, 1980.

Pare, Richard, Photography and Architecture, 1839-1939, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Canada, Callaway Editions, 1982.

Sowden, Harry, Towards an Australian Architecture, Ure Smith, Sydney and London, 1968.

Stoller, Ezra, ‘Photography and the Language of Architecture’, Perspecta, No 8, 1963.

Talbot, William Henry Fox, The Pencil of Nature,1844-1846.  Reprinted, Da Capo Press, New York, 1969.

Woods, Mary, ‘The Photograph as Tastemaker: The American Architect and H. H. Richardson’, History of Photography, Vol 14, Number 2, April-June 1990.


Adrian Boddy
Senior Lecturer in Architecture.
University of Technology, Sydney
February 10 th, 1998.

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