The image annexes space

July 8, 2010

A few years ago, an exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute entitled Spectacular City: Photographing the Future posited the thesis that, in the words of photographer Frank van der Salm, the best architects around today are photographers.

This is one metaphor for understanding the image’s primary role in the practice and perception of architecture today. As mentioned before, architectural photography—where space and the image intersect—reveals the radical flux acting on the constituent practices of architecture and photography today. The architectural image—which was the basis for the trade press, lifestyle publications, and monographs which nourished different aspects of the industry—has now broken nearly every bound of medium, format, and expository context. It is now increasingly independent from its original commercial purpose, and like an autonomous emergent intelligence is part of the process of demoting its ostensible benefactor (the architect and client) and casting a new, indispensable role for its creator and technician (the architectural imager).

The implications break in two directions. The first is found in extravagantly prodigal print manifestations—OMA’s Book Machine publishing laboratory and its 40K-page supermonograph.

The second is in the post-virtual, optical/perceptual hybrid space of the holographic architectural model, such as the autosteroscopic 3D tiles from Zebra Imaging.

When global modernism was emerging at the same time that cheaper and better photomechanical reproduction became available, the image became the primary currency of this architecture. Then, the goal of architectural photography was clarity and iconic singularity. Today, the opposite is true; the kaleidoscopic cloud of architectural images speaks to the decline of the architectural monograph in codex book form, and the image’s surprising annexation of architectural space itself.




June 3, 2010

This blog originated as part of my classwork in pursuit of an MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts. I was among fifteen students in the program’s inaugural year, which culminated in a day-long event entitled Crossing the Line: the 2010 D-Crit Conference.

For all the chaos that a new program necessarily entails, I have to say the faculty (who include some of the most vital figures in design writing and research today, just look) and our class did an astounding job. D-Crit allowed me to develop research in diverse areas of interest, including architectural history, physical infrastructure, concepts and experience of space, the rhetoric of criticism, how technology shapes perception, unloved and forgotten graphic design, and alternative approaches to encountering the built environment.

On this last issue (and drawing on a number of the others as well), I developed my thesis around the contemporary practice of infiltrating and exploring abandoned spaces and infrastructure. Popularly known as urban exploration or urban archaeology, it is now a rather trendy phenomenon, spawning numerous online forums and Flickr pools. The activity is straightforward, but rich in potential meanings and implications about our relationship to urban space today. My research methodology included talking to a number of experienced urban explorer/archaeologists who are also very thoughtful about the practice.

Part of my premise was encapsulated by this short note scrawled in one of my notebooks: “Urban exploration is the kind of thing you do in the face of the heat death of your society.” But I also tied it back to aesthetic and philosophical ideas with their origins in the eighteenth century, primarily melancholy and the sublime. I was very encouraged by the contributions of urban explorers and photographers of sites of decay such as Jeremy Blakeslee, Bradley L. Garrett, Julia Solis, Troy Paiva, Geoffrey George, and Joe Reifer. More important, their support for many of my conclusions was a strong validation for my approach to the topic.

I will be posting more about this shortly, including excerpts from the thesis itself. But you can also see my ten-minute presentation on the subject followed by a short Q+A with Kurt Andersen here (as well as other presentations and lectures from D-Crit).


Graphic warnings of the Roadtec RX-900 cold planer

May 12, 2010

A small iPhone gallery of the graphic warnings found on this multitrack road planer; I counted over a dozen different signs. Some of these subject the internationally standard graphic stickman to various gruesome perils, others deviate from abstraction to show more specifically how limbs can succumb to the asphalt-gulping machine. Most odd is the perceived need to add a helmetlike nose and eye to indicate a face in profile, which just seems superfluous.

Note to self: stay away from the pinch point areas.


Win a David Maisel print for $20 and help a friend

March 27, 2010

Photographer David Maisel’s friend Meg Patterson was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Meg’s friends are putting out the word to help her get the advanced integrative cancer treatment that her health insurance does not cover.

David is raffling off one of his amazing prints, “The Lake Project 38” (above), for $20 per entry. You can read more on David’s facebook announcement, but basically, for a chance at this original, signed 15″ x 15″ photograph, please send a $20 check made out to the “Meg Patterson Cancer Treatment Fund” to David Maisel Studio, 100 Ebbtide Avenue, suite 320, Sausalito, CA 94965. The deadline is April 15.

David says,

I will draw one of the checks randomly on April 15th, when the raffle will conclude. The winner will be announced on Facebook. Checks must be received by that date in order to be eligible for the raffle drawing. Checks received after that date will be returned. The selected person will receive the print from me by May 15. After the April 15th raffle drawing has concluded, checks will be deposited to the “Meg Patterson Cancer Treatment Fund” based in Astoria, OR 97103.

If you would like to increase your chances at owning this photograph, please send as many $20 checks as you please. (This is, after all, a fundraiser for someone who needs our help). And of course, in the spirit of offering your help to Meg, if you would like to make your check for an amount greater than $20, that would be deeply appreciated. (Please note that these are not tax deductible donations).

To read more about Meg Patterson, visit her site. To donate directly, without participating in the raffle, visit her Give Forward page.

Please permit the spirit of goodwill to commingle with your desire for an original Maisel print and send an entry/donation. Thank you in advance!


Modern Ruins, Urban Archaeology, and the Post-Industrial Sublime

March 18, 2010

That would make a great title for a panel event and discussion, don’t you think?

….et voilà!

From Stages of Decay by Julia Solis

Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the amazing Morbid Anatomy library, is launching a panel series at the Observatory event space (Morbid Anatomy and Observatory are part of the Proteus Gowanus collective at 543 Union Street, Brooklyn). I am honored to be part of the first event on Thursday, March 25, featuring people who explore the aesthetics and phenomenology of contemporary ruin, spaces that still evoke powerful responses in the beholder. From the panel description:

. . . the ruins that captivate us today are of the relatively recent past—not just the industrial era that established Western hegemony, but now an even more recent service/retail age that dominated American culture until the crash of the late 00s.

A few dedicated individuals are committed to investigating and documenting this ruinous legacy. These intrepid photographer-researchers infiltrate a variety of hidden and abandoned sites, often risking physical danger or arrest, to capture and share stirringly uncanny photographs expressing the grandeur and pathos of these majestically crumbling spaces.

I will moderate the event, which features presentations by three people with fascinating qualifications and specialties: Ian Ference, who is “particularly fascinated by insane asylums and quarantine hospitals, both for their uniquely purposed architecture and for the particular threads of history they embody;” Tarikh Korula, cofounder of Uncommon Projects, who will be discussing photographer Brian Ulrich’s topical and attention-getting Dark Stores project; and Julia Solis, a veteran urban archaeologist/photographer whose explorations of subterranean New York have inspired many (and whose book New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City is a classic).

From Stages of Decay by Julia Solis

Each panelist offers opportunities for robust discussion, but I also hope to address the issues that bind them—including the history of depiction of ruins, the search for truth and derangement in the built environment, and whether the contemporary interest in ruins has something to say about the anxiety over the state and fate of our own empire. These topics are all central to the research I conducted for my recently submitted thesis, and along the way I found a lot of other people interested in these subjects. If you are one of them and are in Brooklyn next Thursday, I hope to see you there! Admission is $5.


Is architectural photography art photography?

January 21, 2010

This is a revised and expanded version of a post for a blog/assignment I briefly flirted with, Artificial Infinite. This essay is part of my research into the history and interpretation of architectural photography, presenting its current dilemma primarily through the work of one contemporary photographer, Tim Griffith. In this post I’m proceeding from the premise (whose defense I don’t think I need to really mount here in detail) that today both architecture and photography are in their own states of disarray and redefinition, making their current fusion especially fluxy. I also changed the title of the post to pose a question, for which there may be numerous answers beyond “yes” and “no.”

Taipei 101 by Tim Griffith

Upon its inception, the photograph—the “fixed image” (recalling this phrase’s wet-plate process origin, the point at which an image must be chemically stopped and fixed in its development before it flees)—was popularly thought to be a way of suspending time and freezing motion, but it has always been key to conveying the inanimate built environment too. Photography—whose first and arguably true muse is architecture—liberated impassive and stationary buildings from their physical bounds to the ephemeral realm of the image. The mastery of photomechanical reproduction in the 1890s allowed these images to wander as far across the globe as commercial means could take them.

But that was then. Architect and theorist Kazys Varnelis proposed that architectural photography has increasingly divorced itself from its ostensible subject.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today.

A degree of category confusion is introduced at this point, because the photographers Varnelis cites are primarily considered “art” photographers—the gallery system, curatorial authority, and a collector base dictate their industry (he probably also means the Düsseldorf School). But even in the post-postmodern tech+culture realm about which Varnelis lectures and writes, “architectural photography” proper still connotes a traditional client-driven practice straddling the architecture and publishing industries.

Architectural photography’s place of distinction in the contemporary visual environment is due to an apparent paradox: that for all its overwhelming physicality and spatiality, architecture has always been primarily experienced with the sense of sight. Humans are more mobile than ever before, yet we can never attend physically all that is within range visually. Architecturally voracious, our eyes are not just confronted by immediate built environments and distant skylines, but the continued propagation of images of buildings in a superabundant visual environment: online, in books, magazines, and other visual media.

One by Tim Griffith

As architecture evolved from a gentlemanly pursuit in the nineteenth century to a codified industry in the twentieth, photography’s role became critical to popularizing new development. During the era of high modernism, projections into the future near and far proliferated; radical new forms were introduced to the industry and the general public through trade and lifestyle publications, and photographs were key to the aims of the development and real estate sectors. Many of these photographers first trained as architects, and its practitioners achieved the status of specialist-experts, resulting in a putative opposition between “true practice” and “mere commerce.”

Architect-cum-photographer Joseph Molitor was a prime exponent of this self-accredited connoisseur outlook, down to the name of his signature monograph from 1976, Architectural Photography. “Granted an architectural photograph must truly interpret the structure; what else distinguishes a good architectural photograph from a good commercial one?” he asked, rhetorically reinforcing the professional gulf. His rules—foregrounding, dramatic perspective, optimizing texture through shadows, balancing isolation and environmental context of the subject, housekeeping both of environment (wires, cars, etc.) and interiors, balancing light, and creating excellent print quality—were characteristic of an era when buildings were hallmarks of an assertive modernist moment; a few years later such prescriptions could no longer obtain in a built landscape under heavy torsion from postmodernism and deconstructivism.

Varnelis indeed points to a notable development: the current practice of architectural photography has in many ways evolved toward artistic effect. Photographers such as Iwan Baan and Frank van der Salm are today regularly tapped by the titans of the architecture industry—OMA, Herzog & de Meuron—to create photographs whose mannerisms and ellipses seem to violate most of Molitor’s tenets.

A brief exploration of the work of contemporary architectural photographer Tim Griffith provides a case study of this emergent “artistic” approach to architectural imaging and the shifting state of practice today. Giffith’s work, included in the 2009 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, depicts some of the most prominent architectural projects of our age. Griffith presents the tensions inherent in this yoking of architecture and photography; his work is formed by professional rigor yet inflected toward art, hypertechnological in subject and approach, yet suggestive of an already fading moment.

Birdsnest by Tim Griffith

The portraits of this iconic generation of state- and corporate-sponsored architecture would not at first flush seem to fall within the classical rules. Yet his approach to the new canon of recent technological structures—the CCTV Headquarters, the Beijing National Stadium, Taipei 101—is not unlike that of any classical architectural photographer who must recognize and visually communicate a building’s exoteric and esoteric values both. He still devotes attention to timeless architectural qualities of strength, character, stillness, and formality through the paradoxical strategy of rendering these megaprojects diaphanous, immaterial, scaleless, unguarded. Griffith shows it is possible to attend the norms of conventional architecture photography while also subverting them, within the foursquare of the very image. Griffith’s pictures can also be read as history and augury of architectural photography as a specialized practice.

Whereas many artists conventionally take up the most obvious capacity of the camera and explore the range, nature, and effects of light, Griffith delves into the subtler and more arcane functions of time in the architectural subject and the photographic image. As the camera, in its inception, could reveal realms previously invisible to the human eye through varying exposure times, magnifications, and chemical processes, it was imputed to have pseudomystical properties: the ability to see through dimensions, and even into the realm of the dead. It could be a time machine.

Sentinel by Tim Griffith

These monumental projects and newly minted urban vistas are more than just reflections of the present moment; they are intricate bundles of temporality. The past tenaciously seems to outpace the present (there has been a series of four World’s Tallest buildings in the past decade). But moreover, the inherent future is already relegated to decay. Subject to elaborate design, construction, and publicity cycles, these megaventures are presented as “iconic” before they exist, and are outmoded by the time they are topped off. “Out of scale” beyond a preservationist’s nightmare, they are born into an urban and economic context that cannot assimilate them. Griffith’s images often take these monumental presences at a distance, producing vistas where the master edifice aggressively obtrudes—or in some cases, as in Taipei 101, causing the recent World’s Tallest record-holder to recede almost to quaintness.

The immanence of the ruin within these half- and newly built projects pervades Griffith’s work. It is impossible to consider these images without thinking of the economic atmosphere that produced them. If these edifices are indeed icons, perhaps the status to which they will forever aspire is an iconic ambivalence, a stage hovering between boom and bust, an apprehensive liminality. In some ways, these are monuments to a worldview that has already passed. Griffith’s photographic methodology affirms this uncertainty; the scenes are captured with large-format cameras with high-resolution digital sensors and the resulting information—pristine and finely detailed—subsequently exposed to a series of processes to degrade the image. The resultant disorienting pictorialist scrim imparts an ephemeral sense to these buildings, offering them less as icons of the future than memorials to an interrupted civilization.

The conventions of architectural photography were inculcated by the ruin from the earliest days of the practice. In Building With Light: An International History of Architectural Photography, Robert Elwall writes: “Apart from such major projects as the Crystal Palace in London or the new Louvre in Paris, it is immediately striking how few contemporary buildings were photographed during the medium’s initial decades.” Early photography’s ruin fetish is due to coinciding events of the era: the prevailing classical architecture revival of the time, and the rise of souvenir photography from Greek and Roman sites in the middle east opened up by the Napoleonic crusades. Some of Griffith’s images echo this history, exuding the quality of hand-tinted travel postcards from the Age of Empire, dreamlike documents illuminating exotic marvels of the world. Without the kind of cues found in conventional professional architectural photography that tell us when and where the subjects are situated, images such as One and Birdsnest could be respectively the ruins of a near-future Gothic Cathedral or Taj Mahal. Griffith’s visual tactics presage the inevitable decay of these structures.

Tjibaou by Tim Griffith

At the conclusion of Architectural Photography, Molitor writes

Someday another [pioneering architectural photographer Ken] Hedrich will come along and view architecture entirely differently than any of us today, and then architectural photography will enter its diamond age. Perhaps the architects themselves will bring this about by coming up with such dramatic changes in design that a whole new concept of photography will be necessary to record it properly.

The work of Tim Griffith and his contemporaries may be an incomplete rejoinder to Molitor’s speculation, but their images intimate that this Diamond Age is now upon us.


A compact gallery of progressive metal design: Justin Bartlett

December 31, 2009

Illustration for The Secret, by Justin Bartlett

The exploration of contemporary heavy metal design continues apace; why not end the year with a round of intense, detailed yet schematic, patently evil illustration?

This work, by the formidable Justin Bartlett, is not an explicit comment on the collective state of mind at the turn of oh-nine (unless you’re vibing that way, go there!). My research agenda includes advocating for the design subcultures that unaccountably persist in this visually omnivorous era. Music graphics are still a key source of graphic innovation, despite assertions to the contrary (confusingly, by the very designers who paved the way, like Peter Saville). Even in the vaunted iTunes era, a band’s visual output—identity, standard and limited-edition packaging, merch, etc.—can still be central to a band’s whole being; as listeners, we still mentally append images to the otherwise imageless, yet evocative, music.

For more extreme musics, this is moreso. I wrote a piece about progressive heavy metal design for Print, which I derived from an earlier podcast I produced on the subject.

Featured in the article are Stephen O’Malley of SUNN O))), Aaron Turner of Isis, and Seldon Hunt, a trio of excellent designers who occasionally contribute to each other’s projects. Also quoted are Ian Christe, author of the excellent Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and publisher of Bazillion Points, and Mike Essl, head of Graphic Design at Cooper Union. The Print piece doesn’t include links, so I took the opportunity to correct that here.

This is the first of a short series of compact portfolios of the main artists mentioned in the piece. As he said of the article on his blog Vberkvlt, “I will NOT be exiling Satan any time soon…” Justin’s high-contrast, pen-and-ink work is thematically perhaps in the most trad metal vein—corpses, goats, 666, Petrine crosses, and pentagrams abound. But the starkness of the work—the way the iconically occult figures stand solitary against the field, as in Aubrey Beardsley’s work—contributes to its ambiguity.

Justin is featured in the latest edition of Taschen’s Illustration Now series, and you can read an interview with him in a recent ILOVEFAKE (it’s a PDF). Plus his links page is an excellent resource to more amazing design and illustration.

Broad as it is, the graphic work featured in my article does not represent all the bewildering strains of metal design today; like the music itself, the design and illustration splinters in a hundred other directions. But as the Print article shows only a small sliver of the work mentioned, it makes sense to give a more extensive gallery here. Of course, the designers’ sites themselves are worthy of more exploration.

Justin Bartlett









Captions for the work above:

1. Away In My Hypergrave
2. Cthonicrites
3. The Raven
4. Pakt
5. Dragged Into Moonlight
6. The Sabbath
7. Dark Folke
8. Mind Roots

Earlier: The look of metal today