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


Inversely proportional: thoughts on the future of the photobook

December 17, 2009

In honor of the passing of the great Larry Sultan, all the images in this post are from the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. This was the one that showed me the possibilities of the photobook.

This post is late in the game, but I hope it can be part of the networked blog discussion about the future of photography books started by Andy Adams of Flak Photo and Miki Johnson of liveBooks’ Resolve blog. I have been away from blogging and many other things normal people do thanks to an intense few months in graduate school. I want to weigh in on this subject, which, having been a photobook editor at a trade publishing house for ten years, is dear to my heart.  This experience will also reveal my biases, no excuses.

I havent read much of what the other bloggers have had to say so far, so as not to get buffeted by the winds of the discussion as it is in the moment. I suppose that is not so much in the spirit of dialogue, but after I post this I hope to read up and catch up. I expounded on the  topic of self-publishing and the future of photobooks in an interview Casey Gollan conducted with me at the Hey, Hot Shot! blog. I don’t want to be redundant with the points made there, but some of them bear repeating: for one, it is not primarily production quality, which will continue to improve, that holds the key to how photobooks evolve away from traditional publishing models. I think it is distribution, in its meaning now and probable future implications, which is the main consideration. By extension, distribution will be the key to how all books evolve in the future.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

There is a wide assumption that distribution is all about how the consumer will find books in the future, but that is only one half of it. The other half is obviously, How will the author/photographer find projects worth publishing, balancing the effort it takes to make a good book under any model vs. the number of consumers ready for it on the other end? The answer suggests a certain leveling: the “emerging” photographer can go his own way and create a fairly well-printed book with an unremarkable design and “publish” it to the tune of the few dozen contacts and fans from his MFA program and Flickr friends.

But what about the “established” photographer? Even if this is her first publishing venture, will she be content with this model? Will the institution or gallery who hosts her high-profile coinciding exhibition be content with a self-published catalog that costs nearly twice as much as other comparable photobooks, due to the economies of manufacturing on an ultrasmall print-run scale?

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

Here Im suggesting that for all the duress the print publishing industry is under, a certain kind of patronage can keep the presses running. Those author/photographers for whom “a book” is not a single-minded goal, but who value all the aspects that come through the process—high-level creative collaboration, materials and production factor exploration, the reputation and history of the publishing house, fraternity with that publishers other artists, and yes, distribution—will be the ones making books with publishing houses.

Another point to reemphasize from the HHS! interview is that a huge drawback in the print-on-demand model is the lack of collaboration. Sure, never leave your workstation and youre still a blogger, music producer, filmmaker, etc. You are also a book publisher: the romance of the solitary genius. Whats lost here? The combination of differently specialized people bringing their expertise to bear on a project in the making. I assert that most books are multiauthored; from concept to object, several people—individually but interdependently—control the creative variables of the book.

The team that creates a book includes, but is not limited to, the author, editor, designer, and production person—and the manufacturers. Those Chinese guys that get slagged so much? They provide the majority of the color printing nowadays, and they are pretty brilliant at it. The point is that with mass-manufactured objects, which is what books are, sole authorship doesnt exist. Contemplating the book as product of an inspired photographer/editor partnership ignores the process of how the book was created in its materiality (though I will say—again revealing undeniable bias—the role of the editor is largely invisible, and often unacknowledged; thanks to Marc Feustel over at eyecurious for his insightful post on that very issue).

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

So for the next few years at least, I see a matrix of inversely proportional considerations in the trad publishing and the self-publishing models: I would chart them on x and y axes here for you, but I am a crap designer, so just viz it in your minds eye if you will.

Model I: The swarm. Increased access to self-publishing is inversely proportional to the consumers facility in finding books. In this case we see a market surge in photobooks, available through more sources (mostly photographers own web sites) than conventional distribution now offers. In the past a publisher’s list has been a scannable roster that  projects the publishers identity and is usually a handy guide to consumers who want a certain kind of book. In this model, the market is atomized and increasingly glutted; a subject search online is the principal way to find books, sucking any joy from the process. Or, someone undertakes a curated distribution center/online self-published book retailer, which helps the consumer browse books, but also helps establish and underscore a gulf between a trad-published book (even small run titles) that you find at, say, photo-eye, and the kind of book that for some reason doesnt seem to meet that standard.

Model II: Conquest of default formats, features, and materials. This graph is plotted with an increase in access to self-publishing on one axis and a decrease in variety of design and production features on the other. That is, the ascent of self- and print-on-demand publishing services coincides with the decline of exploration of the manifold materials and production possibilities afforded by most print vendors. I mean stuff many people will never noticedeckled edges, foil stamping, gatefolds, alternating stocks, thermoreactive inks,  and numerous other optionsbut which I believe make significant psychological impressions on them. These are not options that the top print-on-demand services offer. Will they some day? In principle, why not. Id love to go shopping—build a book online with a big menu of esoteric production options. However, even in bulk each of those features costs exponentially more than conventional ones, and in a small or on-demand run, the numbers are mindblowing.

These features are today exploited by the few clients who can afford them, and will in turn charge accordingly on the purchase level. They are largely available to the elite publishing stratum who work with the minority of manufacturers who can afford to offer them (through volume discounts from the batch buys which can keep supply chains open to specialty materials). Fewer publishers equals fewer experienced production managers, and therefore a decrease in exploration of the production and design opportunities overall.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

Or maybe I am dead wrong about all this. In which case we could see Model III. The punk era of books finally arrives (this is pretty much the bright side of Model I). Increase in self-publishing begets a scrappy new stratum of publications, unleashing the creative potential of artists previously locked out of traditional publishing. This could be the cusp of a kind of golden era, where all kinds of artists, naïve to the traditions and conventions of the photobook, create a boom in coarse but fascinating publications. The market begins to resemble the chapbook section of City Lights, or a record store. This would be a flowering of outsider talent that really comes from the ground up, not self-conscious production and design slumming, like the newsprint formats of  Grant Willings Svart Metall or Alec Soths Last Days of W., or Ari Marcopouloss photocopied The Chance is Higher, or Michael NorthrupBeautiful Ecstasy, compulsively guttered by the excellent designer Paul Sahre (all of which I love). The brand concept migrates from the publisher to the photographer, and as with so many things we find new filters for an increasingly atomized scene.

And through it all, books with pictures of  dogs and cats continue to drive sales.


Massimo Cristaldi: Simulacra

September 28, 2009
From the series <i>Simulacra</i> by Massimo Cristaldi

From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Massimo Cristaldi’s Simulacra depicts small-scale religious edifices in silent, nocturnal composure. Taken from an impersonal middle distance, the Sicilian and Southern Italian roadside shrines in these pictures are humble, sentinel. The icons within them are unseen, even preempting visibility with their own interior glow.

From the series "Simulacra" by Massimo Cristaldi

From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Whether freestanding and bound solidly to the earth, or tucked into massive exterior walls, these votive structures yield to Cristaldi’s subtle exploration of their latent luminous qualities via long exposures. There is a sense of loss, perhaps less religious than cultural, allowing to “galloping globalization and by general indifference,” as Cristaldi writes. Cristaldi adopts Baudrillard’s elaboration of simulacra as the theme of this body of work. Here there are levels of both representation and simulation (which Baudrillard distinguishes among): the subject of the photograph is an edifice to an invisible God (or Mother or saint thereof). In this respect, Cristaldi writes, “these photographs are simulacra of simulacra.” (To this one could add an additional level: the architectural. Comprised as much by the negative space of the arch as the columns which describe them, and topped by munchkin pediments, these structures are caricatures of classical architecture in miniature.)


From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

The tracery of automobile lights disorients the reverential purpose of these structures—they are little more than road markers. But Cristaldi also creates an additional irony: the head- and tail-lights describe numinous orbits around the shrines. These cars may be the last angels attendant to the divine.


From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Simulacra was recently been awarded an Honorable Mention by the International Photography Awards, and the New York Times recently included his web site in its round-up of compelling photographers sites. Equally oblique and haunting, for the human tragedy which he addresses, is his suite Lampedusa (Wrecked Dreams).


What the picture you’re looking at looks like

August 27, 2009

Tardy to follow up the “truthy lies” post with more opinions from photographers of the built environment, but never too late. In the intervening time, Edgar Martins broke his silence, citing Michael Jackson’s death, realizing that history is now unlinear, stating all facts are mediated, and referencing  Lacanian “lack”—all with only ten footnotes. I was back in Crit Theory class, circa ’91. Jörg published Edgar’s elaborate disquisition, then got a bit defensive for having afforded Edgar a one-way avenue for so little net explanation.

I’m guessing that the reason that this is all we’ve heard from Martins directly on the subject (long as it was) is to get to the other side of some kind of settlement with the Times. Regardless, when I read in a recent Sunday edition a little piece about photographic fakery, the irony was a tad too rich. A Dartmouth computer science professor (and fake photo sleuth) says, “The very nature of photography was to record events. . . . You’d think there would have been a grace period of respect for this new technology.”

I’m partisan on this issue, but this is an absurd statement for anyone familiar with the history and theory of photography. The science was born with a specific set of technologies so unlike contemporary faculties that we’re practically talking about two different practices. The ostensibly inviolable link between truth and photography cannot be traced to its earliest origins; the first Daguerreotype to depict a human famously records only the stationary man getting a shoeshine—the rest of the throng is invisible due to their motion over a long exposure. Photography’s preoccupation with mystical concerns throughout the nineteenth century, not to mention the photographic revelation of objects and events unobtainable to the unaided human eye, renders this line of thinking ridiculous to me.

As with many topics this can be qualified by intention and context. So here are several more photographers (and one “image creator,” see below) of architectural subjects and the built environment responding to the extremely reductionist question: Should photojournalistic standards of “truth” be applied to architectural photography? First there is Greg Girard, whose documentation of Kowloon Walled City is in my mind a major landmark in the history of architectural photography; his more recent book Phantom Shanghai is also amazing. Stanley Greenberg is arguably the foremost photographer of New York City infrastructure, and whose first two books will soon be joined by another next year, Architecture Under Construction.

Philipp Schaerer has a different creative and professional profile than Greg and Stanley, as he is not a photographer, but an architect, image manager, and ultimately, as he terms it, an “image creator.” His field is architectural visualization, and he has done so professionally for such firms as Herzog & de Meuron. His conceptual projects include Raummodelle, which explores “how conceptual images can be developed with classic rendering techniques” and Bildbauten, which collides disparate elements of buildings and terrain to create images of impossible and meaningless architecture. Visually and conceptually his work is fascinating, and explicitly treats these big issues. So without further ado:

Greg Girard:

Neighborhood Demolition, Fangbang Lu, 2006, by Greg Girard

Neighborhood Demolition, Fangbang Lu, 2006, by Greg Girard

I’m not sure that photojournalistic standards of truth have even been applied historically to much of photojournalism, let alone other areas of photography. I am thinking especially of the staged and lighted pictures from Life magazine in the 1950s and 60s, among other earlier and later examples. At some point along the way a code of what constitutes acceptable darkroom manipulation and photographer intervention was established by the “quality” magazines and newspapers. This code remains in place today, modified for the new digital reality, though unless one has a background in mainstream journalism one would not really know what lines can and can’t be crossed. “Photojournalism” is a pre-television term, and in one sense the practice has never fully come to terms with television, let alone the internet and digital imagery. It seems that an ever-smaller number of these quality/traditional publications and their online versions enforce a code of standards, essentially a pledge to their audience that: “This is what we say it is.”  Without that pledge all you can say about a picture, in terms of truth at least, is: “This is what the picture you’re looking at looks like.”

Walled City Exterior, 1987

Walled City Exterior, 1987 by Greg Girard

Stanley Greenberg:

Untitled, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, © Stanley Greenberg

Untitled, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, © Stanley Greenberg. From the forthcoming Architecture Under Construction, University of Chicago Press

While I am scrupulous about issues of accuracy and manipulation, I think it’s all about your intentions, either stated or implied. I don’t alter anything at the site of my photograph. I may dodge and burn to bring back what I remember (and how accurate is that) because film is not the same as your eye. If I photograph an interior with a window, it’s a safe bet that you can see through the window with your eye, but the film may not have the latitude to do that. If you were to shoot digitally and combine two exposures to make a picture more like what your eye sees, that’s fine. But I’m not comfortable with adding a tree that’s not there. I don’t consider my work documentary; even if it is done in that style. There are so many ways you can alter perceptions; what do you include, what lens do you use, how do you light the space, can you tell what the scale is?

Architectural photography often means using a stylist to set up a scene. Is the photograph an accurate depiction of what’s there? Yes. But it may not be an accurate portrayal of how a house is lived in. And if you’re calling it photojournalism, you should be faithful to what’s there.

There are many ways of telling the truth. A fictional film may be a better way to tell a story than to use the facts. A novel may be better than a memoir. It’s all about your intention. If you state it, then you have a responsibility to be true to it. If you don’t, then you may leave it up for interpretation. But context can change everything, and you can mislead just as easily by locating your pictures in a way that is bound to be misinterpreted.


Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 2005 © Stanley Greenberg. From the forthcoming Architecture Under Construction, University of Chicago Press

Philipp Schaerer:

Bildbauten No 6, 2007

Bildbauten No 6, 2007 by Philipp Schaerer

It’s an interesting and a difficult question, and hard for me to say yes or no in very clear manner. Let me explain:

I think it’s already difficult to talk about “veracity” and “truth” in the field of photography. Taking a photograph is to project a tridimensional environment on a two-dimensional layer by means of a lens. Depending on the lens you use, the projection can be significantly distorted (as with a wide angle lens). In the field of architectural photography this fact is already problematic for [the intent of such] photographs is to reproduce truly the dimension of a space. How many times have we had the experience of looking first at a photograph of an interior—for booking a hotel room or looking for a new apartment—feeling a little bit disappointed once we physically were inside the space because it felt much smaller compared to the distorted photograph. So, already at this point it’s difficult to speak about veracity and truth in architectural photography.

Looking at the postproduction, the question is much more difficult, because at this moment of your workflow, you are able to erase or add supplementary content to the photograph or the image. The major question here is, at which level of intervention does a photograph lose its status of being a photograph? I do not speak of cleaning a photograph of dust and little scratches— that isn’t the problem. The problem begins when you are touching the content—when you alienate or change the represented content in the photograph. What does an architectural photographer do in the situation of having taken a shot of a façade and unfortunately there are distracting and accidental elements in the image, like a moving person, a car, or a temporary fencing which hides an important fragment of the façade and has nothing to do with the building. In this situation is the architectural photographer allowed to retouch the distracting elements without violating the “veracity and truth?” I would say yes, because one moment later the person or the car would have vanished and the retouched photograph would be the “same” as the photograph which would have been taken 3 seconds afterwards. . . . I know, already in this case the concept of photography as a “documentary piece of evidence” begins to alternate.

But what about the instances when architectural components are retouched and suppressed —for example a disturbing socket or a distracting division of a railing or a window? This phenomenon can be observed more and more since the onset of digital image editing. I can’t really say if this is good or bad, but I would like to understand why and wonder where it comes from. Most architectural photographs come into existence due to a commission from an architect. But architects and photographers deal differently with the reality. While a photographer is constantly busy to see what is there, capturing the environment like a “seismograph,” an architect is more trained to think of what could be there. For the architect, reality—built or not—always has something alterable, changeable. His building is a result of a long line of decisions, drawings, image montages, which throughout the design process [contains elements that can be changed until] the very last moment, when the building is built. I think this moment, when things become immovable, is a very delicate situation for the architect, because it requires a “change of mind,” another “mentality” about reversibility. For the architect a photograph is not really different than a drawing, an image montage, or rendering—it’s just another medium of representation, which also has the capacity of being changed.

I think it also depends on the context in which a photograph is highlighted and is used for. I think each photographer or image creator has to ask himself when doing his job and working on the postproduction, for what is this photograph used, and what is the main purpose—documentary or fiction? What level of integrity does the distribution channel or the final reader expect from the image?

Personally I’m only half confronted with the question of veracity when working on architectural images. I’m working in the field of architectural visualisation, [creating] images which are not to be seen as a copy of a certain reality; rather, they try to render/visualise an imagined, possible reality, because the buildings don’t exist yet. The only contact point between my work architectural photography is that I use a similar photographic visual language. Today, digital image processing allows the design of images that can hardly be distinguished visually from a photograph. This creates confusion. Architectural visualisations—as a rule designed during the planning stage—usually had a conceptual, abstract character. With the advent of photorealistic high-end renderings, a new kind of image type was added: an image that seems to be a photograph. It becomes increasingly difficult to make the distinction between documentary image as an image of reality, and a simulated, possible image. How do we as professional image creators react to this development?

My main interest does not really consist in providing images that are as photorealistic as possible. Visualisations are created in the stage where the freedom or the potential lies in the possibility to really express what is useful for the understanding of the project. So my main interest is: How can I create images which try to reflect not only a neutral, clean copy of a possible, built architecture, but also primarily convey an architectural idea based on the visual language of photorealism? By means of a selective handling of the image elements I try to maintain this balance; perhaps a certain degree of abstraction helps to distinguish between architectural photography (documentary) and architectural visualization (fiction). And this is good so.

Raummodelle No 4, 2008

Raummodelle No 4, 2008 by Philipp Schaerer