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.