Friday, November 28, 2014

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age @ Barbican

Simon Norfolk, A Home Made of Shipping Containers, Kabul
I had many questions of this vast exhibition of photography. Is it really about the intersection of photography and architecture, or is architecture the thread that loosely holds together a certain history of art photography in the twentieth century? The photographers collected here are among the most celebrated of the last 100 years, and it’s really exciting, if overwhelming, to see all their work together. Strictly speaking, however, a number of the photographs in the exhibition were not about architecture. Works by Berenice Abbot, Walker Evans, and later on, Simon Norfolk and Nadav Kander, among others, are exemplary of the development of photography and its negotiation as representation of space over the past 100 years, but they are not representations of architecture. Space, light, surface, and their intersection with photographic representation are the more likely foci of Constructing Worlds.

Berenice Abbott's photographs in 'Constructing Worlds'.
Berenice Abbott's photographs in Constructing Worlds
My second question for the curators is the size of the exhibition. As I say, there is no doubt that it is a treat to see all these great photographs in one space, but to be honest, I found it too much. It is impossible to get an overall sense of over 250 photographs by 18 photographers, that span the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as every continent on earth. With this challenge in mind, here are my thoughts.

What stood out for me was my introduction to some photographers I wasn’t previously familiar with and to those by others whose other work I know well. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s blurred and confused spaces and places of erasure are breathtaking. And they become haunting, unforgettable when we learn that they are actually representations of the World Trade Towers in 1997, four years before they were destroyed, it is as though Sugimoto knew the fate of the twin towers. Sugimoto’s long exposure technique has produced a very different, but nevertheless, powerful result in these huge black and white images.   

Lucien Hervé, High Court of Justice in Chandigarh, 1955
Upstairs, Lucien Hervé’s photographs of the High Court of Justice in Chandigarh, India 1955 stood out for their abstraction among works that were, for the most part, interested in some form of documentary realism. Hervé’s almost delicate images are both an ode to the medium of photography as no more and no less than images of light. Hervé more than anyone else in the 1950s represented in the exhibition is pushes the image in its relationship with architecture into abstraction through silver gelatin prints. And simultaneously, as he photographs Le Corbusier’s radical building, he finds an architecture as well as a mode of representing it that breaks new ground in the 20th century.

Guy Tillim,  Apartment Building Avenue Kwame Nkrumah Maputo Mozambique, 2008
By the time I reached Guy Tillim’s photographs downstairs, I was convinced that photography is the superior medium; its flexibility, vast possibility and ability represent, reconstruct and document all at the same time. And yet, I was frustrated again because Tillim’s familiar sensuous, but rough and organic surfaces are almost de-politicized when we don’t get any information regarding the production and more importantly, his printing process. Tillim’s technique is everything. To be sure, of course, the images are about the dilapidated, derelict government buildings and luxury hotels, the state of decay of his native post-colonial Africa. But the blunt, hard vision of Africa is brought to life through his use of pigment ink on cotton rag paper to give the buildings a wet texture that is key to their political edge. Along the same lines, nothing is mentioned of Gursky’s digital manipulation of the image in production and post-production to stretch the underground subway station of Sao Paolo, Sé (2002) in his characteristic rendering of an everyday space of capitalism, an isolated superficial structure.
Nadav Kander, Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality

Nadav Kander’s photographs of the Yangtze River and the industrial developments that have taken place there are mesmerizing. Their empty, effaced backgrounds, the traces of structures that could be from the past or the future, it’s difficult to say which, are at first glance, almost Romantic. And then up close, the enormity of the structures, their overwhelm of the people takes over, becoming ever more noticeable. In what is unusual for the photographs in this exhibition, people existed in the reconstructed worlds of China, but they are always dwarfed by the development of industry along the Yangtze. And for us, who are so aware of the imperative to take care of our landscape, Kander’s photographs show the violation of a landscape that otherwise has no hope. Thus, after time, the transformation of the river is like a descent into hell shown in Kander’s images.

I also enjoyed seeing Simon Norfolk’s Afghanistan images. His excessive use of filters simultaneously creating a superficial vision of bullet scarred, war torn Afghanistan, as well as exposing how the same spaces are repurposed to functional everyday uses. There is no mercy in this world – sun and light may shine brightly on seductive landscapes, but they are populated by buildings and worlds that have been destroyed. The irony is everywhere in Norfolk’s images.
Luisa Lambri, Darwin D. Martin House (1905)
designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, 2007
 Luisa Lambri’s negative spaces were compelling and lyrical, as she finds what cannot be documented, what is left unspoken for in the built environment. Her prints explore corridors, doorways, thresholds, the caverns and crevices that might otherwise be ignored.  Lambri’s are in the same vein as Hélène Binet’s captivating images of the Libeskind Jewish Museum in Berlin. But where the latter creates dimensionality and volume through filling space with light, Lambri does the opposite, closing down the spatial environment so that only what is otherwise invisible is traced in light. I was interested to see that these two examples of work that no longer expose the structures and surfaces of the architectural, are by women. It’s women who are interested in space, in the unsaid, the invisible.

Hélène Binet, Jewish Museum, Berlin, 1998
And in this, their work strongly resonated with that of Berenice Abbott upstairs. In the 1930s, the student of Man Ray was interested in finding the spaces that are completely taken up by buildings, closing out sky. Abbott’s photographs were about the density and intensity of New York, the city it would become, sculpted through the intensity of the relationship between light and the camera, the chiaroscuro able to be created through the specificity of the photographic medium. 

No comments: