Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: photography
February 7, 2012Posted by on
New York Times piece (09.12.2012): climbers clinging to the sheer granite face of a rock in the Yosemite Valley, some 365 meters up, used their iPhone (charged by small solar panels) to tell the world of what was going one, live. An editor of an alpine climbing magazine lamented that, “instead of actually having the experience be the important part, it’s the representation of the experience that becomes the important part – something is lost.” Another alpinist complained that such a media-driven exercise engendered ‘Kodak courage’: the idea that people tend to push harder when being filmed or photographed; its gets dangerous. But there was another side to all this. Worried about the risks in poor winter conditions, the climbers tweeted the universe and asked about the wisdom of what they were doing. The consensus was that they were being imprudent, so they backed off and climbed back down.
Yesterday, I should have been hurtling (if one can actually do such a thing) from one end of London to another with 55 Spanish students and their tutors, but it snowed last night, rather heavily (for London) … As you might guess, the city comes to a halt when snow falls. The coach company thought we were pushing our luck. We cancelled. (Perhaps I should have tweeted the universe for advice.)
So, there I was taking photos out of the window and furthering corrections on the first part of Meetings With Buildings inbetween episodes of Boardwalk Empire. And the Spaniards were doing whatever very cold Spaniards do in a snowy London on a Sunday when the temperature is zero degrees and the sky is grey. Even London’s architecture needs sunshine.
Their lost opportunity to see some architecture in the flesh reminds me of a conversation with someone who has suggested that I give a short talk on ‘representation.’ They think I have a hang-up about architectural photos, and this might add up to a bit of controversy.
And its true. My problem is that photographs can be wonderful as photographs and as architectural sales spin, but they rarely (if ever) tell one what the experience of a building really is all about.
See? Experience? ‘All about’? I get fed up making that complaint to magazines and award bodies: ‘Why do you presume no one wants to see the building you have illustrated? Why haven’t you given its address?’ They never reply. But I do admit to a rare and brief period when the Architects Journal experimented with some new photographers and I had to write and congratulate them. What was different?
To deal with that question I have to refer to the number of times I have seen a photo and then been to the real thing, only to find myself muttering, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that …?’ This ‘that’ can be a host of contextural factors that lend meaning to the experience and the facticity of the building, as it really is, warts and all. However, architectural discourse has become a photographic medium. Even awards are often based on photographs.
I have been locked into this wary attitude of mind for so many years that I take it for granted and simply look upon photos and the real thing as disparate realities. I don’t think about.
I recall discussing this difficulty with an ‘art photographer’ who was spending two years (!) combing London streets looking for photographs that captured the essence of … of something about London. Admirable. I showed him one of my guide books and asked him to comment, thinking he might say something like, “Well, if I was you I’d perhaps try and …” . But no. He paused, smiled condescendingly, put the book down and remarked that the photos were ‘descriptive’. Ah: the ultimate put-down. Oddly, I felt a perverse pleasure – well, not entirely, but (apart from a gulf in skills) I realised we were on different wave-lengths. That was what the short-lived interlude on the AJ briefly communicated: photographic descriptions that were simultaneously artful and moving. My photos were simply not very good, but to denigrate their ‘descriptiveness’ was to entirely miss the point.
But here I have to hesitate … What do I really mean?
My answer has nothing to do with an everyday factuality. No, it shifts toward some ambiguous charge, some quality of feeling that the photo connects to the building and its situation and the time of day and …. ‘Charge’? Yes: a shift toward what Ernst Cassirer dealt with as a felt mythic awareness and Charles Peirce dealt with as Firstness (or Quality). The language is one of feelings. We are shifted into that arena. This is not what most architectural photos are about. They give us artful form, but aesthetics are quite different from this primary ‘charge’ …
Do you know what I mean?
OK: perhaps this calls for another post on Cassirer and the deep waters of mythic awareness. But not now. Maybe never, because it’s so difficult to talk about; it eludes conceptual thinking … One ends up pointing: Do you get it? … Even then, to ‘get it’ depends upon the state of mind of those perceiving, as well as upon the work … It’s a difficult topic to handle. Yes, that would be ‘descriptive’, but not in any manner the above art photographer could ever appreciate.