This is just a first stab at it. The middle bit is wholly incoherent and shows have far I’ve got to go before that article will be ready. But it was good to structure my thoughts in this way and I shall continue to do so until I get it nearer the mark.
Having reached a milestone in my research, I am writing to explain the relationship between architecture and photography – such as I see it. That milestone is the completion of an artistic research project done in collaboration with three Finnish and three Danish architectural firms. In preparation for that project, I conducted a formal analysis of the conventional practices of the architectural press, which I shall also avail to explain during the course of the following text. With such a big question to research, I think it timely to point out the obvious fact that this is only a small step on the road to understanding.
If I have any insight to offer it will be as an architectural photographer. I have come to understand the relationship between architecture and imagery, image-makers and architects and that of buyers and sellers better than I did before. I believe that is information worth sharing. I have, likewise, become aware of gaps, slippages and misconceptions that occur when commissions are made which should be brought to light and further considered. Additionally, I believe I have come to know and understand my own practices in greater depth. Yet before discussing any of that, I have realised after repeated conversations about this topic that the most important thing to do first is to state quite clearly what I am not going to cover.
Architecture is divisive. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it, usually stemming from love or hatred. Architects tend to prefer and often even idolise the constructions and drawings of the 20th century. The rest of the world calls for the wrecking ball and bulldozer when you bring them up. And whilst the architectural way of seeing will be addressed in this paper, the relative merits or evils of contemporary architecture will not. My work is as a photographer, not an architectural critic or historian; like everyone else, I have my own views, but I will endeavour to keep them from this text.
Likewise, ‘the Image’ is too broad a subject for the scope of this investigation. My main focus will be on the photographic image, digital and film based, and it’s reproduction. CGI (3d and 4d renders), engravings, woodcuts and watercolours are interesting, relevant, and will be touched on lightly, but they are outside my area of expertise and thus must only be mentioned for the sake of comparison with photographic images. For the same reason, I shall avoid the interesting pitfalls of Phenomenology, Semiotics and Structuralist theories as they have been very well explained by people far more qualified than I to talk about them. I shall just touch upon them where they shed light on my endeavour, but not lean upon them too heavily for fear of not being able to walk on my own afterwards.
Lastly, the important link to PR will only be crossed obliquely. Books by Beatriz Colomina, Laura Iloniemi and Petra Ceferin were the starting point for this research, but not it’s final destination. Photography is so closely linked to the promotion of architecture that to avoid its discussion would be akin to praising the emperor’s new clothes. However, they have already done such an admirable job of unpacking that particular issue that my purpose is simplified by them: to add the missing voice. Academics, architects, philosophers, promoters and publishers alike (often one and the same person) have all discussed the relationship between images and architecture at length, but photographers have been silent for a generation.
So much for what must be passed over in silence; what can be said clearly?
I have attempted to concentrate the contents of my research into three articles. Each addresses a part of the subject at hand, like the blind men who described the elephant they encountered as: a palm leaf, a snake and a broom. One is tempted to argue that each of these might, in abler and more patient hands, have been developed into a separate thesis. But to do so would be, in my mind, to remain blind to the overall issue and run the risk of letting the pachyderm trample the village. I believe sincerely that to address the relationship between photography and architecture you must look at the role of publishing and the established conventions therein, consider what is not being said by those images once you have established what is, and test people involved in creating those conventions. How do photographers, publishers, architects work with images – what were their motivations and why? As stated, I am using photography as my principal method of investigation, and it has allowed me to talk to architects about several things, the first of which was atmospheres.
Atmographs or Archmospheres?
This is the first article I have written about an artistic research project in search of a dialectical method and a new sort of expanded architectural photograph. The process involved 6 case studies with architects who were selected after interviews with 12 practices in Finland and Denmark. A key component to the enquiry is to work out the notion of atmosphere, as understood by Gernot Böhme, and its implications in regard to my field. The idea was that instead of following contemporary architectural photography practices – depicting material objects largely removed from their context –photographs might be used as a method to explore and represent what might be meant by the term “space of moods”, offered by Böhme. Doing so might also allow for an investigation into certain institutional practices, as it is a component largely ignored by architects and publishers when they commission photographs. That omission is significant as it stands in contrast to the interest in the subject evinced by architects like Peter Zumthor and Juhani Pallasmaa. In short, there is a gap between what architects write about and what they (are prepared to) show in images. To test this hypothesis, I conducted photographic experiments in order to articulate questions in a visual form and interview architects and publishers about their response to these new techniques. The contact points between photographic art and research are several, but crucial to the work is the desire to produce questions via photographs. In this way, photography is used as a method to enquire into conventional practices within three intertwined industries: photography, publishing and architecture. Hence artistic research is the method of enquiry; expert responses to the work form an important part of the findings.
Do images make buildings?
In this article I consider a number of different ways to interpret and answer that central research question: How have they? How do they? How might they in the future? But more importantly, what is meant by the word ‘make’? Images are central to the business of promoting buildings – they make them look beautiful and make them famous. It is here that the media discourse alluded to earlier takes on a central role in understanding the relationship between photography and architecture. But still other meanings for ‘make’ come to mind. What about photography’s role in the process of design? Architects spend their lives looking at buildings of other images. In what sense, then, might those images be said to provide ideas both vague and specific for future designs? Moreover, it is not merely the architect that looks at pictures of buildings, but also their clients. Photographs (and digital renders) act, in this sense, as a style guide for non-expert practitioners to make decisions about the images they want to commission. So much for an overview of standard industry practices, what about parallel uses of architecture and photography?
The art world has been filled with imagery – often called Dead Pan – of buildings and urban environments since the 1990s. Interest in that subject matter is often attributed the Dusseldorf school and its several prominent graduates. Clearly also the rise in staged photographs put into fashion at first by Jeff Wall, and the creation of fictional spaces by Andreas Gursky and more recently artists like Victor Enrich, Josef Schulz and Filip Dujardin are an example of how space might be used photographically only as a starting point. Their images depict an idea, rather than document a point on the map. Seen this way, photographs work as a means of revealing the overlooked or unseen – a spy hole for viewers into another world. Digital capture and post production are the enabling technologies. Photography’s relationship with time makes it an obvious technology for such reconfiguration of daily life through the senses. Digital capture means it is also a means of expanding our knowledge of light, thereby extending the notion of photographic capture’s relationship with time which is normally limited to the freezing or blurring of objects in motion. The same goes for unravelling space, where vast surfaces can be stitched together and then viewed in one take, rather than panned across by the eye.
Lastly photographs can act as data. In (XXX) 2012 Martin Parr gave a talk about the idea of large bodies of photographs at Aalto University as part of the presentation of his latest travelling exhibition. In it, he explained how the internet means we are invariably dealing with photography as massive quanta of data about the world we live in. Inverting the standard relationship between time and works produced, Parr offered rough images hung cheaply and quickly about local sites photographed immediately before exhibition.
All of these are examples of ways in which images might be said to make buildings, but as was the case in the former article they fall into two clear categories. Images where photographs are instrumental to an architectural practice and images where architecture is instrumental to photography. In the end, it ought to be said that images make buildings and buildings make images.
How images make buildings: conventions in publishing.
In this, the third and final article we go back to the beginning of my research, to the background information found in books, magazines and online. It was this research which led me to enquire into conventions of commissioning and publishing architectural photography. Following the hypothesis that architectural photography fits into very narrow parameters, in both the formal and narrative sense, I decided to assess the history of architectural publishing in Finland and compare it to one month in global publishing at the time of enquiry. In doing so, I felt my method would ensure place as the control group in the first case and time in the second (with the inverse being true of the variables). I offer a photographer’s analysis of the strategies used to produce these images and a look at just how few photographic practices are made use of (and, by virtue of which it seems safe to assume, considered) in their production. In short, it is analysis of the way of seeing: an architectural one guiding a photographic one with the results shown to an architectural audience. In this loop, the photographer offers little more than a safe pair of hands. One can’t help but wonder if that is good value for money.
Market terminology is, even when used in jest, perhaps inevitable in such a commercial niche of photographic production; however, there is a larger issue at stake, which returns us again to the way of seeing and doing. Ultimately, I am engaged in research into the relationship that has developed between photography and architecture—not into either practice on its own, per se. Photography is both a profession and a passion for me. Architecture is the source of commissions and the object of observation. But more interesting than either on its own, I find, is the way they are connected. By investigating that relationship, I don’t claim to offer a new theory or even break new ground. Instead, I have availed to articulate the position of a working professional and question the practices of other closely related professions in order that they may shed some light upon each other. Articulation, description, interpretation – as Juha Varto succinctly put it. In doing so largely via means of artistic research, I hope to open up my own practices as a photographer but also guard a hopefully not vain hope – and hopefully not in vain – that this means of questioning about one’s profession through one’s profession might be considered by other academics and arts in the future. It would not have occurred to me to do so (at least not to this extent) without the influence of others conducting research at my university and at various others around the globe. I feel I must at least try to return the favour.