Architectural Photography in the Age of Social Media


Photography, Walter Benjamin observed in 1935, unshackles buildings from their sites, and as a consequence ‘the cathedral leaves its place to be received in the studio of the art-lover’. But in the process architecture, which he called the prototype of a collective art, is privatised. And where it had previously been perceived tactilely, in a state of habitual distraction − a good thing, in Benjamin’s opinion, since this deflected the cult-like devotion lavished on artworks − it was transformed into precisely that: an object of contemplation, and a commodity to boot. If architecture was the prototype of a collective art, for Benjamin the up-to-date version was not still photography, but cinema. However his contemporaries cast doubts on his utopian dreams of film’s revolutionary potential − justifiable doubts, it turned out. Benjamin, a German Jew, was writing on the topic from Parisian exile, and five years later he killed himself as he fled a regime skilled as none other in the manipulation of images, not least images of architecture.

That photography − considered as art − continues to do dubious things to buildings is demonstrated by the current Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican, where buildings, famous or otherwise, are turned into icons, each housed in its own devotional aedicule. There are the Shulman photographs of the Eameses’ work, which look like high-class estate agents’ shots, and take architecture’s commodification to a delirious extreme, but even the everyday surfaces of Stephen Shore − even the conceptual, determinedly anti-aesthetic work of Ed Ruscha − are made to look like an affirmation of the title of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s book (which so appalled Benjamin): ‘the world is beautiful’.

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