Cities

Photographers

Albums

Complete texts

Photography for Architects: Prestige Publications

The perfecting of photoengraving, in phototype for example, made the development of new initiatives possible. Beginning in the 1890s, the Brussels-based architectural magazine, l'Émulation, began publishing what would eventually become a total of ninety handsome photographs, in large format. Printed separately on light, cardboard-reinforced paper, with attractive line framing, the objective was clear. Each photograph was not just a document, but also a prestigious printed object.

The photographs are of restorations and new building construction - this was a magazine for architects. The style of the pictures is extreme: perfect detail, precise framing and identification of the architectural object, at the expense of any references to the city or context, and an absence of any trace of city life, movement or activity. The lighting is even. The subject is firstly the façade, but often a vantage point was selected that accentuated the volume of the whole. These are not narratives, but strict, descriptive summaries, not dramatization, but an at once sobering and very exalting objectivity.

For the first time, photography here clearly spoke out on behalf and in the service of the architecture, not the tourist. In contrast to the city, which is a collective creation, architecture is the creation of an individual. It was precisely that collective and anonymous creator, the collective voice of the past, which was rejected in this new photography. The idea of the construct prevailed over the idea of the organism.

In the same triumphant style, under the leadership of Cornelius Gurlitt, the Historische Städtebilder published a series of interpretations of the historic monuments of Bruges. The sharpness and severity of these images (photographer unknown) gave all the monuments it included a contemporary patina. What felt like a very modern image outshone the age of the monuments themselves. No longer was anything being read in the past tense. Everything was in a timeless 'now'. In Der moderne Denkmalkultus, Aloïs Riegl discussed the contradiction between the value of age and the value of newness. In this architectural photography, the old appeared 'as new'. The value of age had been brought up to date by the very sobriety of the images. This created a play on time, a game not unrelated to that of photography itself. The past was not evoked in an historic fantasy, but had returned in the modern world. The photographic strategy dismissed every possibility of retrospection; the building had lost its power to attract the past and instead saw its historic character absorbed into the present. Urban photography is in fact chronotopic. This architectural photography cuts out all temporality. The dramaturgy of time had been abolished in an even and undisrupted 'now'.

These perfect images carried no ballast whatsoever, allowed no disturbance to enter their frame. They resonated in no conceivable sense, had been radically sanitized, disinfected. These are the cleanest, the most pristine of all the pictures taken of Bruges. In the same way that the restoration divested an edifice of its accretions, so too did these photographers strip down their subjects. The varnish is gone. The monument is in the nude, revealed. In these photographs, an entirely new visual presentation had been developed. It had shifted from city to building, from organism to construct, from time-bound to timeless, from dramatic synthesis to analytical formalism.

Back to top