Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category


this poster by the artist Matthew Buckingham — “The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E., 2002”

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I first saw this poster 6 years ago, and I finally bought it from Cabinet Magazine. This is Buckingham’s description of the image:

“This is what geologists believe the Six Grandfathers will look like in the year 502,002 c.e. Located near the geographic center of the United States in the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, this mountain has also been called Slaughterhouse Peak, Cougar Mountain, and is now referred to as Mount Rushmore. Cultural historian Matthew Glass writes that Mount Rushmore’s “distinction among the many symbols of patriotism marking the American landscape stems precisely from the lack of interpretive clarity surrounding the memorial since its earliest days. Just what does it mean?” Where does this inherent ambiguity originate? This photograph is part of a series of projects which work to reassess the cultural, political and social meanings generated by Mount Rushmore. The photograph asks the viewer to imagine Rushmore’s inevitable failure and slow return to ‘nature.’ As its representational powers become less clear, the paradox of Rushmore’s ‘meaning’ as a shrine to democracy carved out of stolen sacred Sioux lands by an artist who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan become more clear.”

If you have been following this site, you can probably appreciate my interest in this image. It’s a form of experimental history that entangles social and “natural” time, which in this context, further entangle ideas of restitution

Buckingham’s work is part of the exhibition — “Questioning History” — at the Netherlands Fotomuseum. The catalog (below) can be purchased from NAi publishers.

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Here is a description of the exhibition:

“History is increasingly central to public and political thought, and there is a growing interest in the representation of the past in contemporary visual art and photography. This extends to diverse facets of history, historiography, transmission, historical awareness and education.

The 17 visual artists and photographers presented in Questioning History have turned their attention to the genesis of historical narratives, how they are written and rewritten, and subsequently forgotten or even erased. They take the multiform, highly differentiated and sometimes paradoxical nature of ‘definitive’ history as their baseline for a critical examination of the way in which historical representations are propagated by the mass media and how
historical awareness is moulded and manipulated. In their work they endeavour to expose prevailing media strategies and dissect current representations of history. Some of the participants do this by critically analyzing and unravelling historical constructs in the media, while others create alternative historical narratives that undermine accepted conceptualizations. They draw from ‘small-scale’ personal perceptions as well as from the perspectives of global history.”

This description interests me; surfing through images by the artists in the exhibition, I detect a different take on the decline of historical awareness and meaning. History is losing its power because it appears everywhere; not because it’s hidden away in the academy. Historical imagery laces through TV commercials for ersatz-butter and on the front page of the Enquirer. It is artists like these that enable us to see the ubiquitous and pervasive historiographies that move through every moment of contemporary experience.  

PS. check out Matthew Buckingham’s website; and an expanded commentary on the image. I believe his work has influenced, and will continue to influence, emerging concepts of experimental history, preservation and geography.

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A few weeks ago I read Jeffrey Schnapp’s excellent essay “The Face of the Modern Architect.”  This essay is part of a small handful of essays and book chapters that examine the ways architects control the image of their discipline through portraiture. Schnapp traces the eyeglasses, ties, pipes and cigars that accompany most portraits of architects, finding within these items concepts of class, authority, introspection, and anonymity.  Here is Schnapp on eyeglasses for example: “The eyeglass teasingly establishes the architect’s depth, individuality, and authority, while also defining him as a pure surface that ideally merges with the public surfaces of his body of work.” He sees smoke as a nod to mass comfort, ties as images of bureaucracy; Anyway, purchase the issue it is in, read it, and enjoy.

Schnapp’s essay makes me wonder — what is the image of the architectural historian, the architectural writer?  This question is partially answered by Schnapp, as two of his contemporary examples — Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind — are, or have been, architectural historians. In their portraits we see the same ties and glasses as many of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection of architectural historian portraits. We can argue that such elements represent a type of bureaucracy of historical research or that the glasses are for the near-sighted historian versus the far-sighted architect (or perhaps that’s the reverse?) But the images of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection, and others, contain a stillness, a weight, missing in the corresponding images of architects analyzed by Schnapp. Architectural historians, who explore archives and who often “sit” on a building, are like architects except that they do not appear to move. And lets be honest, they generally don’t dress as well, operating with smaller salaries and a smaller audience.

But all of this is changing, especially as architectural historians and other architectural writers seem increasingly uncertain about their role in architecture culture. On the one hand, architectural historians simply appropriate the portrait image articulated by Schnapp. Architectural historians dress in ways that make them indistinguishable from architects and engineers; more interesting, is that architectural historians and theorists increasingly absorb the meta-image of the “kinetic elite” advanced by internationally succesful architects. Within early twentieth century photographs, architects would have portraits taken of themselves gazing with a look of surprise and fierce interrogation at some far off, but unseen structure. This signified that they were in a previously untraveled (by them) precinct. Today, architectural historians and writers increasingly portray themselves on the move. We can see this in the sidebars of architectural historian bloggers that keep us informed of their travels, or more aggressively with the global tracker that was once a prominent feature of Kazys Varnelis‘ site (I tried to find it, but that part of the site is gone now). 

But I think the architectural historian is due for a complete makeover. We should feel confident about our discipline and our stillness (Although I feel as if I have been living inside an airplane these past two years.). That image of stillness, of staying close to material in an archive is one that might be reconsidered; likewise, we should feel fine that we are, generally, not the most travelled in our departments. So, what might this new image of the architectural historian be? When I sit for a photograph, I hope to have some suggestions.

In 1996 a former architectural history professor of mine at Columbia asked me how I enjoyed being a student at the Yale School of Architecture, particularly how I enjoyed being an inhabitant of Paul Rudolph’s Architecture + Art Building. Like virtually all students who have been in that building, I think the building is an extraordinary feat of design and construction; The building was just renovated, expanded and renamed, and I can’t wait to see it.

But as a disabled person my relationship to that building was peculiar, to say the least. It’s not just that the building is set over many levels, and many levels on one floor. Navigating the interior spaces and the multiple floor changes and stairs was a pain. The “floating stairs” everywhere, particularly in the entryway leading to the building’s foyer, were particularly difficult to negotiate. What seemed like comedy to my friends, but really just a huge nuisance to me, was, my former professor argued, an avenue to architectural criticism. “You should write about it”, she said, and now more than ten years later I am.

But it’s not just the Rudolph building; I have literally rolled (in a wheelchair), limped and crutched in many “masterworks” of modern architecture. Here is my not-so-brilliant critical assessment of disability in architecture: Anything that claims to have been inspired by some type of architectural heroism or any building in which someone might describe the architect as “heroic” (as is virtually always the case with this particular work by Rudolph) will generally impart a bumpy ride for the disabled inhabitant. If I start an architectural tour and someone mentions one of these concepts as the inspiration behind the building, I generally brace myself for the inevitably intense walking experience. 

And this is no accident. The Romanticist theory that lurks behind the concept of a heroic architecture contains a strong masochistic streak. After all, the Romanticist writers who inspired the call to “experience” and “heroics” in the late 18th and 19th century were people who wrote about the intense effects of tuberculosis, war and other horrific assaults on the body.  In acknowledging this, we should seriously consider how many war-time and post-war-time architectural practices  (Civil, Spanish American, WWI, WWII, Korean, think also Jameson/Vietnman/Bonaventure) often unleash spaces in which the body appears to be pressed to some type of physical limit – pressed, one might argue, into the position of hero. As I recall, it was the historian of Rudolph, Timothy Rohan, who acknowledged a hyper-masculine and masochistic tenor to the spatial and material treatments of the Yale Architecture School. The space was about many things, including Rudolph overcoming his own subjectivity as a closeted homosexual man. But this heroic overcoming, articulated by Rohan, is certainly imparted to many of those (not just Rudolph) who navigate this space.

 

But to address my teacher’s call for “disability criticism,” I do not think the very act of struggling to move through a building can be read as an act of critique in and of itself. Do the struggles of a disabled person ever read as architectural criticism? The “failures” of the body/space interaction here always falls back either on the “disabled” person or the “larger social” milieu in which disability appears. The disabled cannot seem to speak through disability against particular theories of architecture.  What is demanded here is something that we might term “performance critique” where the interface between disability and space is continuously repeated to uncover the ideas I mentioned above. That is, through repetitive performance we see disability as an idea designed to be overcome in those spaces that appear inherently “insensitive”. In the case above, by demanding repetition, we uncover the hidden image of overcoming the “lesser body” that I really believe moves through the heroic theory of architecture.

 

To make all of this visible I will make sure to have a friend shoot some video of me climbing those steps – as many times as I can. And if I can do it without limping too much I will give myself a medal as an ironic, heroic critic of the Yale Architecture Building.

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.

 

A student of mine manipulated this famous image of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial for an assignment on myth and architecture. I had asked my students to read Roland Barthes’ Myth Today and to then select an important image from the history of architecture and to recode its “mythic” content based upon a select manipulation of that image. This student, Kylash Chintalapalli, dealt with the inherent nationalism of the original image. By removing both the Washington Monument and the family descending into the Vietnam Memorial, he highlighted the sense of loss and mourning of the soldier.

The assignment was inspired by Rachel Schreiber’s work with students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999-2007), where she asked them to transform the meaning of important images from the history of photography. I include a more extensive description of my architecture history/theory assignment below:

“Architecture, the Photographic Image, and Myth”

In his essay “Myth Today,” the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes described a type of symbolic communication method that he called “myth.” Myth, according to Barthes, relies on familiar, pre-conceived, and often clichéd imagery to communicate hegemonic social and political concepts. Myth relies on the supposed truthfulness of certain forms of communication — photographic images, journalism, cinema verite–to capture things “as they are.”  Myth relies on repetition to empower its own system of meaning. Myth, according to Barthes, is a depoliticized form of speech, an uncritical reflection of everyday practices and norms.  

The history of architecture is full of mythic photographic images—Corbusier’s placement of glasses and a hat on a table on the roof of the Villa Savoye; Mies staring at the frame of the Farnsworth House; Frank Lloyd Wright surrounded by adoring interns; Frank Lloyd Wright witnessing the indestructible columns of the Johnson Wax Headquarters; the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project.  These images often are, or were, used to communicate the ideas of modern architecture; through subsequent use and repetition many have become myth. 

The Assignment: 

The assignment consists of three inter-related parts: Select a photograph from architectural history for analysis and manipulation that contains “mythic” content (in the Barthesian sense). In the first part of the assignment you are asked to discuss the mythic quality of the photograph, using both direct observations and some research about how the photograph has been used to communicate ideas. 

In the second part of the assignment you are asked to manipulate your selected photographic image, either by digital or mechanical technique or by re-staging the scene, in a way that transforms the meaning of the photograph. In the third part, you are asked to discuss the changes you made, and why they transform our fundamental understanding of the image’s meaning.