OCA – constructing worlds 10/01/2015

” … The photography in the exhibition sharpens our reading of architecture and urban environments as metaphors for the society that inhabits it.” Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone

My first question I have about this exhibition is why select 18 of the world’s exceptional photographers rather than find work by eminent architectural photographers? The answer is soon found in the introduction to the catalogue by Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone who are the curators of the exhibition; they write … “The understanding that photography which takes architecture as its subject matter has the ability to communicate wider truths about society is fundamental to the work presented …” This is opposed to conventional notions of making an accurate representation of the building. The photographers here are not concerned with “interpreting the intentions of the architects” rather giving a sense of the lived space and “the symbolic value of our built world.”

I see this exhibition in the company of fellow students, a few of whom I know and a few of whom I get to know; OCA tutor Sharon says it’ll take us about an hour and a half to view this exhibition!? I know I could take much longer and may go back for a second viewing if there is time; good to have a comprehensive view of the exhibition but one session might be enough since I do have the catalogue which shows many of the photographs but I suspect not all. I ask at the shop about this and they say that a few may not be in the catalogue; in fact, many are not. For instance, Berenice Abbott has 7 photos in the catalogue but 27 photographs in the exhibition.
The following comes from notes made at the time while viewing work as well as reflections following conversations, inputs from tutors and essays in the catalogue.
Berenice Abbott
Her photos became a definitive view of NYC; from collection of about 1,000 negatives. Some of the prints here are signed on the mounts in pencil with the name in capitals.
Felt compelled to photograph the “city of incredible contrasts, the city of stone needles and skyscrapers” There is a contrast here between the old and the new architecture, skyscrapers replacing older smaller buildings.
Night View from top of Empire States Building
Narrow perpendicular of “Broadway and Exchange Place, 1932”; implies verticality of N YC
South Street looking East, c.1936 shows more spacious side to NYC at that time
Interesting view of Brooklyn Bridge with a warehouse in the foreground and skyscrapers in the background.
These initial images of the exhibition show growth; later ones show decay.
Walker Evans
Like Bernice Abbott used large format 10 by 8; the prints appear to be contact prints or might they be digital? We are not informed.
Meticulous detail thanks not only to the camera but also developing and printing techniques. There tends to be an eveness of tone in Evans’ work rather than the dynamic contrasts created by Ansel Adams.
There is an interesting 19’th century shop front from Charleston, made in 1936.
A great deal of these images are well known such as the “Love Before Breakfast” poster in “Atlanta, Georgia. Frame houses and a billboard, 1936” which features in Evans’ book American Photographs.
Some images such as one of a sharecropper’s daughter from Alabama made in the summer of 1936 hardly seem to be about architecture other than revealing a slated wooden background as does the iconic image of Allie May Burroughs from the same time. The image of the sharecropper himself shows even less architectural detail; what are the curators thinking here?
The final image exhibited is of a “farmyard covered with flood waters near Ridgeley, Tennessee (February 1937); the farmhouse is marooned but land and trees help frame the image.
Julius Shulman is not someone I have heard of. He has depicted Californian 1940’s and later architecture from the post war era. His realistic and convincing use of colour (chromogenic printing) is striking for the time though he also made black and white images. There are striking views over Los Angeles at night from 1960.
Advertisements!? If so, for what!? Not just the buildings but an aspirational lifestyle.
He photographed buildings by different architects and is considered to be an advocate of Southern-Californian Modernism.
Lucien Herve
“I look at everything that I see with enormous intensity”
Modernist use of high contrast, show and highlight. Some views are from India owing to Le Corbusier’s influence; he collaborated with the architect and manages to reflect some of that vision. A lot of small prints on show.
Wonderful sense of play in the chiaroscuro effect further emphasised by formal qualities. This is visible in the Chandigarh images which are digital silver gelatin prints; looking at prints made at the time, the strong contrast is a later decision yet possibly part of the original intention of the artist.
looking at work by Ed Ruscha

looking at work by Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha
Black and white photos which look like graphic documents; Modernist approach also somewhat deadpan. Ruscha is best known for his 26 Gasoline stations Photobook but he did other typologies such as Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965 which is on show here.
For some reason, the curators did not exhibit the gasoline stations perhaps because they were not so concerned with architecture as other works.
The begining of a more culturally conscious and dystopian view.
looking at work by the Bechers

looking at work by the Bechers

Bernd and Hillary Becher
Deadpan but fascinating photographs of industrial buildings in which the buildings are treated almost as individuals. Wonderful quality and craftsmanship behind these immaculate prints. A fellow student points out the difference in times with the earliest made in 1970 and the most recent in 2012 (although Bernd died in 2007); the quality has remained intact and one can not distinguish differences although the 1970 image has more definitive contrast that the later ones.
Diagrammatic almost mathematical approach.
As if an alien had come to look at earth! These documents have preserve some of these forms, a happy outcome to the work!
Stephen Shore
“Architecture is the form in which many cultural forces etc
Early colour photography from the 1970s made on large format; the images are striking for the sheer strength of representation as well as subject matter. ??
Shows some of his postcards; they do not bear his name and although they might be boring, they do give a sense of place.
Strong sense of colour; in his talk, Shore emphasised the need to talk about a colour palette.
Shore made many of his photographs on road trips; his work reflects the fascination of this particular genre of exploration.
Thomas Struth
German and deadpan; photos from around the world. Early work is in black and white while later is in colour! No real consistency in photographs shown.
His work has been compared to Atget in the absence of people; however, Atget’s images tend to be closer up while Struth’s images are show more space with a stronger idea of the street.
At this point, the exhibition moves downstairs. The first part has run from the 1930s to the 1970s. The lower floor reveals a shift in vision to a more subjective view. Some of the work here such as the Sugimoto is more like an installation – the work is more lyrical and contemplative!
The feeling of actually being in the space delineated by the architecture.
Luisa Lambri
Imaginative, Almost identical but hard to recognise images; from the inside of a building of cracks of light in windows. Minimal difference between the four photos shown.
Hiroshima Sugimoto
An interesting and favourite photographer with an imaginative approach but find myself questioning his blunt use of black and white.
Basic abstract forms. Out of focus images but this does not matter because the presence of these  often well known buildings is still recognisable.
Luigi Ghirri
Obvious emphasis on architecture; clean geometrically composed images.
Colours are seldom strong even when sky is included.
Not well known places yet sensitively portrayed sometimes with visual puns. The images are some of the most pleasant to look at.
Helena Binet
Modernist use of light and shade with extreme contrast but with tonal depth; the dynamic quality of this work is almost completely lost in the catalogue reproduction of her work.
Here her photographs are shown in a smaller, octagonal space that nicely reflects the angular nature of her work.
She photographed The Jewish Museum in Berlin while it was being built hence the walls are bare and the light falling into the interiors largely accidental.
Guy Tillim
Marks another shift in the exhibition to architecture in the Third World. Here however, it is often dystopian with the photographer trying to make sense of the buildings he sees with groups of images revealing many aspects of these building’s functions.
Andreas Gursky
Post photographic at least post analogue! Prints here seem to lack basic technical skill.
Exploring ideas of contemporary life such as the way we live so closely together.
Final group of five photographers exploring contemporary architecture, the way in which it is expanding often without any real sense of urban growth.
There is work by Bas Princen from the Middle East and also that of Simon Norfolk from Afghanistan. Many of these are from the Burke and Norfolk series but also from Chronotopia as well as Scenes From A Liberated Baghdad. The prints appear to be colour negative 10 by 8 contact prints and are rich in colour and detail.
Nadav Kander‘s work is printed large and in colour; the photographs do not look too polished or accomplished which adds to the sense of the real these images convey. Although about the Yellow River, they are concerned with the architecture that is growing up around it.
Constructing Worlds exhibition at The Barbican

Constructing Worlds exhibition at The Barbican

 For further insight into this exhibition, an essay by David Company is worth reading !

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