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Photography and Architecture at the Getty: A Tale of Two Disciplines

by Anna Kats

15/11/13 7:59 AM EST
Photography and Architecture at the Getty: A Tale of Two Disciplines
William Christenberry, “Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama,” 1994 (detail)

(© William Christenberry / Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Nancy and Bruce Berman)

“In Focus: Architecture,” on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles through March 2, 2014, surveys the lengthy history of architectural photography, from the 1840s through the 1990s, at a time when both pre-digital architecture and photography are being radically remade by technology. Though film photography and hand-drawn building plans are becoming increasingly obsolete, the images featured in the show — the latest installment of the Getty’s “In:Focus” photography exhibition series — prove that the work of Henri Le Secq, Robert Adams, and other pioneers of architectural photography is relevant and affecting as ever. ARTINFO spoke with Amanda Maddox, the Getty’s assistant curator of photographs, who organized the show, about drawing on the museum’s permanent collection to chronicle the fruitful, interdependent historical relationship between two rapidly changing disciplines.

How did the show come about?

The “In:Focus” series is designed to showcase works from the permanent collection. The shows are generally organized thematically, in this case architecture (though some shows also feature single artists, like Ed Ruscha and Ansel Adams). A former curator in the department [Gordon Baldwin, who retired in 2012] was interested in exploring the relationship between photography and architecture, and knew the collection very well. He proposed a publication that featured 75 works from the collection along with an essay by him. Most of the works in this exhibition are also featured in that publication, Architecture and Photographs, which was released last month.

How did you select the images in the show?

We knew what the images featured in the publication would be, so we started there. I also separately started through what we had in the collection to get a sense of the range of work — everything from images of ornamental details, to picturesque views, ruins, interior scenes. It’s a real mix. There were a few, like the Peter Wegner series, a 32-piece work, that would be difficult to reproduce in a publication of the book’s size. There’s also a sculpture by William Christenberry that isn’t reproduced in the book.

The Peter Wegner photos are something that we had never shown before, and came into the collection relatively recently. He takes skyscrapers in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago and uses them as a kind of frame between which he captures the negative space of the sky, and then he turns the photograph upside down to see the silhouette of the building that forms from the inverted skyscraper. I think what he’s interested in is showing people a new way to look at a city, and it’s an unexpected viewpoint.

What are some of the ways that architectural photography is different from other forms of photography?

One thing that’s interesting is the appeal that it has to a lot of people for different reasons, in terms of the evolution of the camera. Drawing was the main means of representing architecture before photography, but the camera altered the nature of rendering buildings. So it’s an interesting to consider how it influenced the genre of architecture.

How would you say that the relationship between architecture and photography changes throughout the course of the images shown in the exhibition?

[In photography], it reflects different periods, styles, and approaches — and in terms of architecture, the images also reflect changes in landscape and the built environment. You begin to see more modern buildings captured with new technologies in photography as the modern era arrives.

It was important to show that the history of architectural photography does span the history of the photographic medium, and you see a lot of different approaches and functions of photographs. For example, you have images made for commercial purposes or for documentary purposes, or as keepsakes.

Can you give a few examples within the show of those?

Walker Evans and William Christenberry are interested in recording buildings at a particular moment and also interested in showing the decay that has taken place — or, in the case of Christenberry, that continues to take place. He records the red building [in Talladega National Forest] over time, returning to it regularly. You get to see how a particular structure ages. Then you have others like Durandelle, who photographed new constructions, like the Eiffel Tower, as they were being erected. And then you have an album by Roger Fenton of Russia, of a bridge that was being built. As he’s recording that, he’s capturing the landscape, but it’s also quite personal.

[In rough chronological order], the first 50 years of the medium are represented on the first wall; the first half of the 20th century is on the second wall, and the second half on the third wall. Wegner’s “Buildings Made of Sky III” takes up an entire wall.

Do you think we’ve had a drastic shift in the perception of architecture with the advent of digital photography and the Internet as a platform for consuming architectural photography? What do you see as the way in which the two-dimensional nature of photography alters or captures the experience of a building?

It is interesting to think about that idea when you consider works made by Bernd and Hilla Becher, or by Christenberry. Christenberry makes photographs of buildings and then decides to physically construct them in what he calls a “building-construction” — a kind of model, although it isn’t meant to be a replica, really inspired by the photographs he takes of the building. The Bechers called buildings “anonymous sculptures,” photographing buildings in the round. I guess just because an image is two-dimensional, it doesn’t necessarily undermine the three-dimensional qualities of a building.

What do you want people to learn from this show?

If people can really get a sense for how nuanced and how vast the relationship between the camera and architecture is — how photographers have really allowed us to look at buildings in unexpected ways — I’d be pleased.

To see a slideshow of images from “In Focus: Architecture,” click here.