As a professional photographer, my experience with architecture is not so much the history or study of as it is one of practical knowledge. You need to learn the hallmarks of the different genres to speak with some intelligence to various clients. Before working as an architectural photographer for Carnegie Museum of Art in 2004, I really only knew of Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of other names, but of course still could pick out visually interesting buildings and enjoy the differences between eras. Continue reading
Teenie Harris is perhaps best known for his ability to photograph people and capture their spectrum of expressions as well as truthfully document their life events. He was surrounded by family, friends, and a large community who seemed to be drawn to him and offered their trust to his lens, as well as frequently “photobombed” the margins of his frame while he was on assignment.
But Harris also had a keen eye for architecture and the urban landscape—he was known to have a deep love for the city of Pittsburgh, and at times it seems as if the city itself was another member of his community. His landscape and architectural images show the same intimacy and the deliberate and careful composition that he used when photographing children playing in the street or a family being evicted from their home. Continue reading
I was recently looking at some of the photographs in the exhibition Architecture + Photography with curatorial assistant Alyssum Skjeie, who co-organized the show with me, when I saw an image that was so familiar it felt like I’d been transported back to an art history class. The photograph shows the vestibule and staircase of the Laurentian Library (or Biblioteca Laurenziana) in Florence, which was designed by Michelangelo and constructed by him and others in several “campaigns” between 1524 and 1559. The staircase is dramatic and idiosyncratic—it’s been described as looking like a lava flow—and the photograph here is a version of the “money shot” that’s shown in virtually every source on Renaissance architecture. Seeing that image again evoked the same kind of feeling I experience when looking at photographs from trips I’ve taken.
My reaction isn’t unique or remarkable: a great deal of what we know or remember about the world is what’s been captured by us or for us through images. It’s fair to say that this is especially true of the constructed environment—the buildings and other structures we humans build for ourselves. Most of us don’t get to literally travel the world to see its architectural wonders, and not even the highest-resolution, largest-scale photograph can provide the physical experience of space that’s so crucial to truly understanding a building or site. So we rely on pictures—and have done so ever since photography was invented. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, one of the medium’s two principal founders, originally trained as an architect, and buildings were a favorite subject for experimentation in the field’s early days.
This points to the central proposition of Architecture + Photography: the mere fact that a building appears in a photograph doesn’t mean that that image is about architecture. In other words, it’s not necessarily “architectural photography.” For example, the pictorial content of Richard Stoner’s Why We Fight, September 18, 1990 (1990) is obviously the oil tanks in the lower left corner and the huge, somewhat agitated and ominous sky that looms over them. But does the picture aim to elucidate ideas about oil tanks as architecture? The title certainly suggests otherwise. (Titles: another great topic for dissection!)
By contrast, the subject of Ezra Stoller’s work is, unequivocally, buildings. One of the top architectural photographers in the twentieth century, Stoller shot many of the most iconic images of modernist postwar American architecture. He was keenly aware of the photographer’s ability to shape viewers’ understanding of architectural imagery and attempted to communicate through a two-dimensional medium the experience one might have of a building or place. An example is this somewhat enigmatic photograph of the McMath Solar Telescope (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1962) at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona: Stoller doesn’t show the entire structure, but instead focuses on its colossal scale and extraordinary setting. You can easily place yourself in that photograph, sharing the sensations we imagine the man in the photograph having.
The Laurentian Library, along with Stoner’s and Stoller’s images, are but three points on the spectrum of photographers’ intentions in presenting architectural imagery in their work. Come see the show while it’s open (through May 26)! We would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
I recently spent a few days in Charleston, South Carolina, researching and revisiting sites photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston. In the Heinz Architectural Collection there are 25 photographs by Johnston, an early female photojournalist and later in life a documentary photographer. Johnston’s interest in photographing buildings was mainly for preservation purposes. Her goal was to document the buildings should they be torn down, but also to inspire communities to preserve or restore the historic edifices if possible. The photographs in our collection represent houses, storefronts, and architectural details around the historic downtown Charleston area. The set was displayed in 1937 at the Gibbes Art Gallery, now the Gibbes Art Museum, and will be on view in the Heinz Architectural Center in the upcoming exhibition Architecture + Photography.
Johnston donated most of her archive to the Library of Congress. Part of the archive includes the original photographs of the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, a multi-year endeavor to photograph buildings from Maryland to Louisiana.
During my research trip I revisited the sites in Johnston’s photographs in an attempt to recreate the scene as much as possible. Many of the buildings in our set of 25 photographs are still standing, but a few are empty lots, or are completely unrecognizable. Below are some comparisons between Johnston’s images from 1937 and some from the recent trip.
As part of the 2013 Carnegie International, Tokyo-based Tezuka Architects designed an installation titled run run run for the largest gallery of the Heinz Architectural Center, the architecture department of the Carnegie Museum of Art. This temporary installation consists of a flowing curtain, almost elliptical in plan, onto which film is screened from multiple projectors. The films depict children at play at the Fuji Kindergarten, an innovative structure recently realized by Takaharu and Yui Tezuka in the Tokyo suburbs. For the Pittsburgh installation, balloons and a padded floor surface augment an atmosphere of play and interactivity.
This gallery has in fact hosted several installations and exhibitions of work by Japanese architects, reflecting Japan’s significant contributions to contemporary architectural culture. Japanese architects have been awarded the Pritzker Prize, the world’s most prestigious prize for architects, on five occasions, including Tadao Ando in 1995 and the team of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa in 2010; only the United States has had more Pritzker laureates. Furthermore, Japan has produced seminal new talents each decade: Shigeru Ban and Sejima/Nishizawa in the 1990s, Tezuka Architects in the 2000s, and most recently, Sou Fujimoto and Junya Ishigami.
In 2003, as part of Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life, the Heinz Architectural Center accommodated an entire house. Made from cardboard tubes and resting on Kirin beer crates, Paper Loghouse was designed by Shigeru Ban as emergency housing in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
In 2005, for Frank Lloyd Wright: Renewing the Legacy, the Japanese-born architect Toshiko Mori displayed models of her competition-winning proposal, now completed, to build a visitors center next to Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York.
For 2012’s White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, dramatic new structures on islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea were presented in our largest gallery. Projects on Naoshima by Tadao Ando were represented by large topographic models and drawings by this Osaka-based master. Four maquettes made from household materials revealed the design process of Ryue Nishizawa for his enigmatic Teshima Art Museum, a collaboration with the artist Rei Naito. An adjacent space was occupied by a transparent model of Seirensho, the re-working by Hiroshi Sambuichi of a former copper refinery on Inujima.
It may be a simplification to draw direct connections between the works of these outstanding Japanese architects presented here in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless each operates in a cultural continuum that values materiality, space, lightness, and communication with nature.