Architectural Photography

Architectural Photography: Accomplice to Crime or Servant to Posterity

An architect once commented to me, upon viewing one of my photographs of a building that he particularly detested, that I had “…done the architect a great service, but done humanity a great disservice.” Whether one agrees or not with his statement, he raised an interesting question: can a photographer, or any artist, by beautifully rendering an aesthetically questionable building, serve as an apologist for “unimaginative” or “offensive” architecture?

Of course it’s quite possible for photography to aid in the furthering of any controversial project, whether it’s architectural, humanitarian, political, or corporate in nature. I gladly lend the use of my photographs to causes that I believe in, and work that I do on assignment is used by the client to further their need for advertising and promotion. There is always the chance that they can be used out of context, captioned or juxtaposed in such a way that they seem to support sentiments that I don’t share. Propaganda is an old science. While the possibility can be disturbing, I do not let it prey on my mind. The only way to absolutely insure that a statement will never be misused or misunderstood is to never make the statement. This is an unacceptable option to anyone who values honest inquiry and creative expression.

As a photographer, I approach all subject matter in much the same way. I confront a universe of chaotic lines, shapes, and masses; both man-made and natural. I attempt to extract some semblance of form from these random elements. This process is very much the same whether I’m working with trees in New England, a rock outcropping in the Sierra foothills, or an office tower in downtown San Francisco.

This approach, while facilitating getting things to “look right” on the ground glass, carries with it a built-in paradox: I don’t relate to the world solely as a mechanical creature who operates a camera. I have my particular tastes, feelings, biases, and preferences, which all play a critical role in what and how I choose to photograph. While photographs of an urban skyscraper and a mountain scene may present identical visual and/or technical considerations, it’s absurd to suggest that they evoke identical emotional respones, either in myself or the potential viewer.

But frankly, I don’t concern myself with the possibility that my photographs may offend an individual or group’s sense of architectural aesthetics (including my own). When approaching architecture with the camera, I feel no inclination or need to judge (at least not consciously). The buildings present line, mass, texture, color. My task is to approach them in a light revealing of those qualities, and arrange them meaningfully on the ground glass and, subsequently, in the final photograph.

Aesthetic judgments can be tricky things. I once showed my Hobart Building photograph to an old time San Francisco resident who recounted to me the controversy that stirred when it was built. Willis Polk’s quaint and lyrical (today’s general consensus)Hobart building was, at the time, assailed by many as the most horrendous structure ever to disgrace the city’s skyline. The lesson is a simple one: today’s “atrocity” may be tomorrow’s “classic”.

Current popular opinion (of any era) is a notoriously bad standard to use when evaluating contemporary architecture. (This might be said to be true for evaluating any medium, but people seem to have less tolerance, not to mention less sense of humor, about architecture. Maybe it’s because buildings tend to be rather large objects which are hard to ignore, and they tend to stick around for a while). The lexicon of criticism in all areas of the arts : literature, music, painting, as well as architecture, (and let’s not forget photography), can provide amusing and amazing reading. The great works of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Wright, and Weston, (to name but a few), were all subjected to hostile and virulent contemporary criticism.

Attempts to legislate qualitative considerations in architecture, (in other words, “what a building looks like”), seem to invariably lead to an overall blandness and “committee approved” mediocrity that is far worse than a few “ugly” buildings scattered here and there.

It is the responsibility of local governments to set quantitative limits on building that serve a community’s best interests. Height, density, setback, safety, open space: these are the legitimate concerns of regulatory agencies. It should not be aesthetics!

The worst results of incompetent (or corrupt) quantitative regulation might be inflated property values (to the point where people of moderate means are unable to own their homes), city services stretched thin, and traffic gridlock in downtown areas and on commuter routes. These are all very serious problems that effect everyone living in the urban environment.

However, the worst results of a lack of qualitative regulation would be the offended sensibilities of certain segments of the population. As we continually see, those sensibilities evolve and change, and any attempt to satisfy posterity based on such a fragile criterion is sure to create an architectural idiom totally lacking in spirit and character (as we have also seen). I do not personally view the offending of the legions of amateur critics (or even the professional ones) as such a serious problem.

As an architectural photographer , I refuse to “take the rap” for buildings that contribute to the growing litany of urban ills, simply because I may have rendered them in an appealing fashion. If the regulatory agencies have failed in their mandate to to the public, the photographer cannot be held responsible for simply documenting the results of that incompetence.

The irony is that in all the years I have been photographing buildings, no one has ever harangued me for that reason. It is always from the point of view of: “How could you have glorified (or similar verb) such an ugly (or similar adjective) building?” As I have already made reasonably clear, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when the buildings I photograph offend on that basis. (I even have to admit that it gives me a certain degree of pleasure).

Architecture is one of the great themes that runs through the history of photography, and that is taking a somewhat parochial view. It is in fact one of the great themes that runs through the history of human civilization. For the last 150 years we have had the great gift of photography to document, probe, and interpret both contemporary architecture and the surviving architecture of antiquity. At the very least, architectural photography has provided a record of this most provocative and powerful form of human expression. At its best, it has become an art form in its own right. The photographs of Eugene Atget, Thomas Annan, Charles Marville, and Frederick Evans, among others, eloquently demonstrate this. Their photographs not only provide fascinating windows into a time and place, but profound interpretations as well.

So in direct response to the comment of my architect friend that began this little digression, I would say that I agree and I disagree. I would agree that I had done the architect a “great service”, (at least I would hope that I had, since that is what I was hired to do). As for the other part about doing humanity a “great disservice”, I would ask him how an offense against his taste and aesthetic sensibility translates into an offense against humanity? Are we perhaps taking ourselves just a bit too seriously?

Mark Citret