Architectural Photography: Beware!
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 idealise 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. — Max Dupain [i]
A cursory glance at contemporary architectural magazines, including Architecture Australia, confirms Max Dupain’s suspicions. Buildings are often photographed under exceptional circumstances using pre- and post-production computer-aided technology to enhance or exaggerate their attributes. Just how many purple sunrises can fit between the covers one wonders on occasions! The main purpose of such stage-managed manipulation is to gain notoriety and further commercial gain. Pressure to idealise architecture through its photographs often begins with the photographer being commissioned by the architect. John Gollings was particularly aware of the importance of patronage to his and most photographers’ success.’ He summarises the architect-photographer relationship with business-like candour:
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. [ii]
(Gollings could have coupled his own name to that of Daryl Jackson before he became the Australian architectural photographer of the 1980s and beyond — after that time he virtually became polygamous!)
Much critical theory has been written about the idealising capacity of photography. As early as 1944, Walter Benjamin caustically observed that in the hands of exponents such as the German photographer, Renger-Patzsh, ‘the new’ or modernist photography could idealise anything:
[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. [iii]
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. [iv]
Such criticisms may be overstated, but they serve to alert us to the potential power of many architectural photographs.
Australian architectural photography has evolved over one hundred and sixty years — ithe craft preceded The Journal of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales by sixty-and-a bit years. Today the country’s leading photographers continue to have their work published in Architecture Australia. At the risk of oversimplification, here are some of the more significant milestones of architectural photography’s development and change:
Louis Daguerre’s scientific discovery was announced at the French Academy of Arts and Science in 1839, yet photographers were using the daguerreotype process in Australia by 1841. Technological change was also rapid in antipodean nineteenth century photography!
Many accomplished commercial photographers emerged but in NSW Henry Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss were exceptional. In 1872 they photographed settlers in front of their houses, small businesses, schools, churches and diggings in the gold rush towns of Hill End and Gulgong. Each picture was detailed: everyday items of clothing, goods in store windows, even hairstyles add to our present-day understanding of goldfields life. Similarly building structure, fabric, lettering and detailing clearly describe the contemporary vernacular architecture. Panoramas of diggings, tents, muddy streets and hastily erected buildings portray the goldfields’ raw busyness. These images have become Australia’s most comprehensive record of nineteenth century pioneering people and places.
In the colonial capitals other photographers celebrated the building boom sustained by gold and wool. Documentary style ‘views’ were sold as sets of prints or fold-out albums to vaunt new town halls, houses of parliament, banks, libraries, churches, wharfs, bridges and other monuments to civic prosperity. Richard Daintree, Antoine Fauchery, Charles Nettleton and later Melvin Vaniman were commercial operators whose carefully constructed photographs promoted Melbourne as a grand European city on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. Sydney photographers operated similarly — in the late 1850s William Blackwood produced the albums Australian Scenery and City Banks, each containing excellent architectural studies.
Photography of Australia’s built environment continued through the earlier decades of the twentieth century and is exemplified in the work of Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953). ‘Caz’ was a prolific photographer of landscape, people, fashion, home interiors and gardens, most notably for The Australian Home Beautiful and The Home magazines. **[ I’m unaware of any of Cazneaux’s photographs being published in Architecture ]
Regarded as the leader of the pictorialist movement in Australia, he used softening effects — mist, fog, smoke, steam, cloud, rain — to create painterly impressions through the manipulation of daylight. Darkroom techniques including brushing and bleaching, sometimes enhanced the effect. By today’s standards the result was a largely false ‘European’ atmosphere. Cazneaux assiduously recorded the development of Sydney in thousands of uncommissioned photographs, ‘Wet Day, Bridge Street, Sydney’ (c. 1910), ‘Puncture in Pitt Street’ (1912), and ‘Fire in Redfern’ (1914) represent frozen moments of city life. Some of Cazneaux’s later work, for example ‘The Canyon, Martin Place’ (c. 1926), ‘Bridge Pattern’ (c. 1934) and ‘Despatch bay, tramway wheels and axles’ (1935), anticipate the modernism subsequently typifying the younger Max Dupain’s output.
The shorter history of Australian architectural photography properly begins with Max Dupain.
Modernist or the ‘New Photography’ as it was known was radical in the hands of overseas artists such as Rodchenko, Kertesz and Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus. By the early 1930s Dupain was aware of work published in overseas magazines such as Das Deutsche Lichtbild. Modernist images were characterised by dramatic points of view — both up and down, reductive composition and close-ups of everyday subject matter. It presented the familiar in very unfamiliar ways. Ambiguity and abstraction of the architectural object emerged as the leitmotif. Technical advances toward lightweight, small-format cameras aided the photographer’s endeavours. Traditional ways of seeing were challenged; altered perceptions of familiar objects or situations demanded that viewers actively interpret the photograph and the social reality it represented.
Australia’s contemporary buildings were not generally impressive by European or American standards, but in Sydney Max Dupain used prosaic city views as inspiration for his modernist interpretations. There is little doubt that in quality as well as quantity Max Dupain remains Australia’s most significant architectural photographer. Among his long standing patrons were some of the most highly acclaimed architects in the country — John D Moore, Sydney Ancher, Harry Seidler, Philip Cox, Glenn Murcutt, Ken Woolley, Lawrence Neild, Andrew Andersons, Alex Tzannes, Ed Lipmann. These architects all sought Dupain to photograph their work. In Seidler’s case the relationship lasted nearly forty years! The same architects produced some of Australia’s finest buildings and Dupain assisted in building their reputations. In doing so he also produced a comprehensive portfolio. The statement by John Gollings in the ‘overview’ of this article clearly applies to the architect-photographer interaction between Dupain and his patrons.
Wolfgang Seivers and Mark Strizic were two Melbourne-based émigré photographers whose modernist work was parallel to Dupain’s thinking.
Sievers’ studied at the Contempora School in Berlin and his interest in architecture was rekindled in the 50s and 60s through commissions by eminent local practitioners such as Frederick Romberg, Peter McIntyre, Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds, Buchan Laird and Buchan, Yunken Freeman, and Bates Smart and McCutcheon — some of the leading exponents of modern architecture in that city. Sievers photographed Romberg and Shaw’s ‘Newburn Flats South Melbourne’ in a manner consistent with that adopted at the Bauhaus by Feininger and Bayer during the early 1930’s His ‘Olympic Swimming Pool, Melbourne’ (1956) is treated with a similar modernist appreciation for a cleverly engineered structure. Here the building is represented, not by an interior space and the activities associated with the sport of swimming but by a tilted frame of stepped seating supporting steel trusses and ties. The image excises the wall from context and celebrates the functional action of structure in strong and carefully angled light.
Mark Strizic was 15 years younger than Sievers, and gained his interest and his knowledge of photography in Australia rather than Germany. Dr Phillip Goad pithily described the difference between the two professional ‘visions’ at the opening of the Late Modernism Melbourne exhibition in 1997:
In Melbourne in the 1960s, there was a very small number of dedicated architectural photographers. Two stood out. One was Wolfgang Sievers. The other was Mark Strizic. Strizic was and is different from Sievers. He was interested in the art of composition rather than the singular heroism of the object being photographed… Strizic also put people into his photographs. He included life in the art of architecture, not in a precious deprecating way. He made these confidently modern buildings appear utterly natural in their place and utterly natural for their time.
Images of Australian Buildings is a catalogue of architectural photographs entered for the Dennison Award in 1985. Strizic selected three finely-crafted dichrome photographs (a system of colour processing he developed). Their titles, ‘Space, Homage to Robin Boyd’, ‘Soul, Homage to Robin Boyd’ and ‘Structure, Homage to Robin Boyd’, suggest his high regard for Boyd. They also demonstrate his thorough grasp of the essence of architecture through the use of key words: space, soul, and structure. Transition, No. 38 (1992) contains an extensive chronological list of Boyd’s work identifying Strizic’s photographs. Geoffrey Searle’s biography Robin Boyd: A Life (1995) is also well illustrated, with photographs from a variety of sources including images of modernist precision and drama by Sievers and the somewhat more poetic work of Strizic. Such interpretive differences should not be ranked because by any measure Sievers and Strizic are exemplars of Melbourne’s, and thus Australia’s, architectural photography.
The English photographer John Donat was an advocate of a more inclusive approach. Donat’s approach is known as ‘reportage’ or photojournalism — ‘tell it the way it is’ rather than continually reproduce the empty, abstract, or formal-spatial representations we have come to accept as architectural photographs. When one considers the practical difficulties of photographing architecture and people it is evident that ‘reportage’ is far from simple.
Harry Sowden, who worked in Australia during the late 1960s and is the author of Towards an Australian Architecture, also practised the reportage philosophy. In photographing the work of some 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). Clearly Sowdon was taking a swipe at the exponents of modernist photography (largely Dupain) with their concern for formal, dramatic points of view and reductive or selective compositions. His work received wide acceptance by architects and Architecture in Australia in the 1970s. There is, however, a possibility that such photographs may be dominated by activity, that they may be perceived to be a record of the event rather than of architecture-in-use.
In 1974 the Sydney architectural photographer David Moore wrote a statement of beliefs titled ‘Thoughts on the Photography of Architecture’, which was published in Architecture Australia in August 1975. 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 building users and to the reader’s common sense by saying that it ‘should be possible to photograph well any building in existing conditions if it is worthwhile architecture’.
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 have worked on less prestigious projects might have concluded that Moore would photograph their work under bleak or less than flattering circumstances. (An analogy might be having one’s portrait taken during a thunder storm!) From a purely commercial point of view, at least, it is very likely that Moore’s assertion annoyed potential clients.
Many architects commission professional photographers to produce an ‘idealized’ image of their building. Moore’s beliefs must be a serious concern to them for he dismisses the traditional ‘slick’ approach in favour of seeking a more accurate and critical record. In effect Moore was telling the architect-as-patron that he would not conceal design flaws — he would interpret ‘warts and all’. He went further, suggesting architects who made mistakes should be ‘big enough’ to have them exposed in the media.
David Moore’s thoughts were undoubtedly motivated by concern for fidelity in photography — and for the general public who use buildings in all weather conditions. Clearly he was not using the forum of Architecture Australia to expand his own commercial niche. Were architects sufficiently detached from their work to commission such an independent photographer? There is little evidence in the published work of the period to suggest that their patronage supported a photojournalistic approach. After all it was not art, but that is what the majority of architects were seeking.
By the late 1960’s another determinant was altering the dissemination of architectural photographs — the demand for colour reproduction. Journals reluctantly had to compete with television and popular magazines. Theirs 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 if the six-colour printing machine had been invented earlier. By the 1970s colour in architecture became a seriously regarded design element. Colour’s aesthetic significance to architecture was implicit in photographs of exemplars such as Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1972-77)Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans (1979). The decade of Post Modern architecture frequently saw concern for colour trivialised. 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 to produce a portfolio of ‘constructed’ images of polychromatic architecture based on multiple exposures and poetic-theatrical intent. Gollings’ photography infuriated some, delighted others, and continues to stimulate debate.
Despite the preference of journals and magazines for full colour images, established architectural photographers such as Max Dupain, Wolfgang Sievers and Richard Stringer regard ‘black and white’ as the most appropriate medium for their work. Their achromatic photographs convey a degree of abstraction that potentially transforms architecture into a fine art satisfying 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 ).
Younger exponents such as 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!
Although photographs are important to the Australian architectural profession relatively few photographers work exclusively in the field. By the mid-1990s there were somewhat fewer than 100 architectural photographers nationally — most of them accept a wide range of alternate commissions. Among this relatively small circle of specialists, an even smaller group generally set the pace — they include Patrick Bingham-Hall and Eric Sierins in Sydney, John Gollings in Melbourne and Richard Stringer in Brisbane. A generation earlier, in the 1960s, when Australian architectural photography was still comparatively young, the leaders were Max Dupain, David Moore and Wolfgang Sievers. This trio then towered above all others, establishing standards for the photography of Australian architecture for the 1960s and beyond. Their work appeared frequently in Architecture Australia, (and its predecessors) the journal of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.
The link between particular photographers and Architecture Australia is significant. Publication and acknowledgement in the journal bears an unofficial but implicit imprimatur of acceptance by the architectural profession. The influential photographers, that is those valued by the profession, are the ones whose images are not only published in Architecture in Australia , but also bear their names. In the 80’s and 90’s this became standard practice for all photographs. Max Dupain was by far the most frequently acknowledged photographer in the journal from the 1950s at least until the mid-70s. His representation in the journal tapered off during the 1980s as other, younger photographers achieved recognition, until by the 1990s Architecture Australia had become virtually a show-case for John Gollings. Despite that, a measure of Dupain’s influence upon the Australian architectural profession is the fact that for almost three decades, he was the photographer whose images architects saw most often as they sought to keep up to date with recent national developments within their profession.
There is no doubt that photography influences architecture. It is the principal means of communicating new architectural concepts, constructs and processes in various forums, including photographic exhibitions, audio-visual presentations, architectural journals — including Architecture Australia, television and the press. Architectural photographs present its audience — architects and the general public alike — with new perspectives on buildings and the built environment. Comparatively little knowledge of recent architecture is gained by first hand experience: so much happens in architecture around the world that most of it can be known only through images. If the building is not yet constructed, the image will be a drawing — hand or computer generated, or a photograph of a model, and if under construction or completed the image is almost invariably photographic.
Despite my cautionary introduction concerning architectural photography’s links to the print media, Architecture Australia and its predecessors, mirrors the work of some of this nation’s finest photographers — and one trusts that that educative and inspirational role will continue.
[i] Max Dupain quoted in Elizabeth Riddell ‘Max Dupain’ Art and Australia October – December 1975 p162
[ii] John Gollings How to Commission, Use and profit from Digital Imaging, self published brochure.
[iii] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ Understanding Brecht New Left Books, London 1973 p95
[iv] Thomas Schumacher ‘Over Exposure: On Photography and Architecture’ Harvard Design Magazine Fall 1998 p5