On a sunny July afternoon in 2011, I had the privilege of going to the home of William G. Nunn Jr. and Frances Bell Nunn, to interview them for the Teenie Harris Archive’s oral histories. I had known them casually in my childhood, but as their front door opened two impressions hit me: 1) Here were some of Pittsburgh’s finest African American citizens, and (2) how much they seemed to still be in love. They greeted me, together, with big smiles and we shared a warm, informative afternoon full of both serious discussion and rich laughter. Continue reading
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
When we talk to people who knew Teenie Harris personally we hear the same thing over and over again: Teenie was everywhere, always taking pictures. We asked his family if he ever slept since the other part of taking pictures required long hours in the darkroom. They said he managed to keep on going with his trademark positive energy despite little sleep at times. Then we wondered, what about his down time, did he ever put down the camera? 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.