The Carapetian Effect
Due to the relatively recent, but large investment in studying the history of architectural photography, we are now able to see architectural photographs as non-textual forms of architectural theory. The staging, manipulation, doctoring and transmission of photographs cycles content in ways analogous to those forms of architectural theory that appear, somehow, more about “content” than “image”.
We know so much about the history of architectural photography today, and yet I cannot think of a time in which architectural photographers appear to have so little to say about the potential intellectual contribution of their discipline to the ideas that adhere to buildings. And many of the images made by architectural photographers that have been venerated recently – images by Stoller, Korab and Schulman – appear to uncritically reflect the very types of images that architects are interested in producing with software. It seems the larger sentiments of historians of the architectural photograph (e.g. Colomina, Rosa and Forty) are somehow lost and the more marginal work of the mid-century photographers is somehow ignored.
In light of the peculiar present of architectural photography, we might take a new look at an architectural photographer who has not been discussed nearly as extensively as his American counterparts, but whose contribution seems so critical right now: the architect Michael Carapetian. Michael Carapetian took my (absolutely most) favorite photograph from those photographs that are now part of the history of architecture – “The Man on the Economist Plaza” (Economist Building, London, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1964) shown above. When most photographers were taking crisp photos of buildings with their characteristically strong shadows and deep perspective, Michael Carapetian demanded that architectural photography be filled with provocations and new ideas. In an email exchange we conducted recently Michael wrote to me about this important photograph:
“I was totally against the photography of buildings with large plate cameras where perspective was over corrected, the building was always in focus, top to bottom, and the clouds etc ‘fixed’ with filters… I just felt we did not perceive buildings in that way…I did not want to shoot the building in sunlight, and a good misty/wet day was ideal to show the materiality of the building , the sensitivity of the materials used, scale of the elements and how well they fitted in with the context. the misty day was almost accidental, but perfect. the puddles of water etc. were ‘found’…”
“So, I was setting my camera up, then I spotted the guy in a black coat, umbrella, and a bowler hat. He was walking towards me… I asked him if he would kindly walk away from me in the opposite direction… he did and walked in a great way… so I shot him… just once. like a film… unfortunately I never took his name, not thinking that he would be so famous… published in so many books and magazines.”
In what is the most “wet” photograph in the history of architecture, Carapetian discovered new peripheries in architectural photography; the mist creates new edges to that of the camera frame; and the puddles reflections produce images within images. The “man on the plaza” feels these things — in his seemingly shivering body– as we watch the larger discursive play of photographic image making. This is a photograph about the particular limits of architectural photography at this time and the role of the architectural photographer in “capturing” the building.
But equally as important as the image itself, is that this photograph produced a rippling “Carapetian Effect“ (consider the “Ken Burns effect” we see today in iphoto software). The Italian architectural historian Leonardo Benevelo used the Carapetian Effect in his development of the history of modern architecture (image above). Benevelo photographed the important buildings of European Modern architecture surrounded by puddles. Archizoom used the Carapetian Effect in its imaging of its non-stop city; and so on. Each used the Carapetian Effect to lessen the distinction that the architectural photographer often produces between the building photographed and its particular social milieu.
We need new iterations, and new contemporary extensions of the Carapetian Effect. The Carapetian Effect is that act in architectural photography that produces images in images, new fuzzy zones in architectural photography, that releases buildings into a previously unarticulated territory.
But perhaps we just need Michael to take more photographs again. For those of us interested in the limits of architecture’s “system” we can only hope that this happens soon.