Following on from London’s largest photography fair, Port presents a round up some of the architectural highlights on display this year
The history of photography invariably concerns itself with buildings. In the early days of the medium, few subjects were better suited to the necessary long exposure and limited depth of field than architecture. The oldest surviving photograph is, in fact, a view from a window showing surrounding buildings taken by Nicéphore Niépce at his estate in Burgundy.
For architects themselves, photographs of great buildings have proved to be excellent design resources. Then there is the role of assigned photography in an architect’s promotion of his or her own work. Frank Lloyd Wright was quick to exploit this, even commissioning a photographic handbook of his house designs to encourage new business.
Architectural photography has by now matured well beyond the early limitations of the medium, beyond the service of mere record and commercial device towards a distinct and complex field all of its own, and one that can encompass documentary, fine art and political objectives. More than ever, it seems, architecture is rich and varied territory for photographers.
For four days every year, Somerset House plays host to London’s largest photography fair. Now in its third edition, Photo London has established itself as a world-class photography event bringing together leading photographers, curators and dealers. Given its size and scope, a single-minded approach can be a useful way to navigate the fair.
Here are Port’s picks of the best architectural photography on show this year.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers, 1972-2009
Over a period of more than 30 years, German conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher documented typologies of industrial architecture across mainland Europe and the United States. Together they photographed in excess of 200 industrial structures including gas tanks, blast furnaces, and winding and water towers.
To give their images consistency and a neutral quality, each photograph was set-up and produced in exactly the same way using a large-format camera positioned to either capture the structure its entirety, in the context of its surroundings, or as a detail. These parameters allowed the Bechers to uniformly record their subjects irrespective of time or place. Structures were then classified according to function, then materials, and finally by their shared features.
Of the virtues of their approach, the husband-and-wife duo said in 1989: “The particular strength of photography lies in an absolutely realistic recording of the world. And the more precisely it depict objects, the stronger its magical effect on the observer.”
Thomas Jorion, Vestiges d’Empire, 2013-2015
For his project Vestiges d’Empire, French artist Thomas Jorion travelled extensively while photographing the ruins of former French colonies, from Algeria and Morocco, to Vietnam and Cambodia. Whether capturing the interiors of a villa in Indo-China or the crumbling facade of a cinema in Oran, his photographs are a reminder of a pivotal chapter in France’s history. Jorion, born and based in Paris, works exclusively with natural light using a large-format camera and analogue film. Framed by both romanticism and an eye for truth-telling, his photographs are memorials within which narratives of the past and the present are overlaid.
Beate Gütschow, S, 2004-2009
To the casual eye, Beate Gütschow‘s monumental photographic works appear to be rather unsentimental depictions of socialist modernism in the Eastern Bloc. But the longer one looks at them, the more staged they start to feel. The perfect composition of the image slowly betrays itself and the picture plane begins to fragment so that each component suddenly feels ever so slightly out of place. This is because everything in frame has been photographed separately.
Gütschow photographs architectural landscapes with a medium-format camera before converting them into digital files. The German artist then assembles new landscapes in Photoshop, arranging elements from one photograph next to elements from another so that the joins are barely visible. In the process, she borrows from the formal qualities of both painting and photography, using digital montage to construct new worlds.
“In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures,” Gütschow writes. “My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism.”
Hélene Binet is one of the pre-eminent architectural photographers of today. Since meeting architect Daniel Libeskind while studying photography and art history in Rome, Swiss-born Binet has trained her eye on contemporary and historical architecture for 25 years. During that time, she has photographed the buildings of ‘starchitects’ including Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor and Libeskind, as well as the late works of Alvar Aalto, Geoffrey Bawa, Le Corbusier and Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Rather than engaging in self-evident documentation, Binet homes in on details and the play of light and shadow. As such, she is a great visual advocate of the built environment and her sculptural photographs reframe the work of her favourite architects. She is committed to analogue photography and works exclusively with film.
“Every time Hélene Binet takes a photograph, she exposes architecture’s achievements, strength, pathos and fragility,” says Daniel Libeskind.
Photo London will return to Somerset House 16-20 May 2018