The Power of Photography as Post Architectural Production

Let’s take this topic in three parts.
The first is near to home. In 2014 I was part of the small team that organized the second Helsinki Photomedia conference under the theme Photographic Powers. There were around 130 participants and a book was produced. Power brought to mind surveillance to many of the speakers. Power was nearly always a bad word: generally, anything Foucault ever said or wrote about. I think this is especially relevant when discussing architecture. When architectural photography is written about, it is usually to address a problem. I’m thinking about Juhani Pallasmaa, Neil Leach and possibly Claire Zimmerman (though her position is far more nuanced and frighteningly well researched). Beatriz Colomina, Elias Redstone, and Andrew Higgot are a few notable exceptions).
To address the second point, I need to ask a question: is photography ‘post architectural’? It’s post construction, most of the time. Which is a shame since building is the most interesting part, and it was standard to take building photos when photography was invented. But where does photography lie within the practice of architecture? It’s outsourced, when ‘money shots’ are needed. It is in house when documentary office pictures will do, often shot on a phone these days. Where architecture is linked to the practice of building, photography is post architectural. Insofar as architecture is a business, reliant upon social media and traditional PR like any other, photography is integral and still very much in the foreground. And what about the art and craft of design? Does photography still come after – or could it be viewed as the food for thought for any hungry young architect? Does it not go on to sustain an establish architect with inputs throughout their career? So isn’t photography integral to architecture? It is not an integer, a separate whole. More like ½, ¼, 1/8 depending on the office and the project. It is a key part of any production.

Production is the third point, and it is not always clear what architects produce. Of course they submit project drawings and working drawings to clients and local authorities. They produce materials and legally binding signatures. They produce heroic results that often are only celebrated at a distance – through photographs, and then without a rich understanding of the project. This piece is not another rant about architecture. Architecture is a wonderful thing that makes the world a better place. Being less idealistic, it is also big business. After winning a few competitions and making a name, architects produce cache [sic] giving developers the respectability that they and arms dealers normally lack. The word used to be familiar in that weird Franglaise sort of way – like déjà vu and cul-de-sac – and has now taken on a new life as that thing you need to empty when you run out of memory. Perhaps we should splice the old meaning (i.e. ‘value’ which comes from another word, ‘chachet’) with the new meaning and what I dare to call the real meaning: ‘hidden’, from the French cacher, to hide. What is the hidden value of architecture, photography and the fruit of its copulation: architectural photography? To answer that another triumvirate is useful.

1. Architectural photography is useful and widely used to battle against the vicissitudes of building in a cold cruel world.
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image 1a

2. Architectural photography is under used as a way to establish where a practice is from and where a project was built. Photography is an integral part of architecture, and it works just like the mathematical definition: an integral assigns numbers to functions in a way that can describe displacement, area, volume. That is basically what you are called on to do as an architectural photographer. But in a pretty way. Postcard weather is the order of the day, but in reality life is not a beach.
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3. Architectural photography bears witness to the fact that minimalism and drawing are still considered really nice things.

These are all nice photographic practices used to represent architecture. But what about the other million or so practices they leave out? Because there is still a Universal Style, it’s called architectural photography. It went from black and white to blue and white and then stayed there. Forever?


Article by Marc Goodwin