Since being welcomed beneath the umbrella of “contemporary art” during the 1970s, the medium of photography has spread and infiltrated the art world on all fronts. One of the most important developments has been that many artists, trained in the so-called fine arts – painting, sculpture and so on – have adopted photography as another medium through which they can develop their work. Almost as important is the fact that photographers, who would formerly have been subsumed into the insular, isolated and narrowly defined world of “fine photography” with its limited outlets, are now being given exposure in the more dialectic arena of the art gallery. The spin-offs from this phenomenon are legion. The way painters work, and the subject areas in which they work, have been profoundly influenced by the ubiquity of contemporary photography.
Some British artists, such as Kiera Bennett, Mark Fairnington, Andrew Holmes, and Camille Katsuragi, have reverted to the genre of “photo realism”, which was big in the 1970s, and through which artists such as Richard Estes, Ralph Goings and Malcolm Morley carved international reputations. This has created a dynamic crossover between painting and photography – photo-real painting – used by last year’s Arts Council touring exhibition Postcards from Home, which included the work of Holmes, Fairnington and others.
Another area influenced by the crossover phenomenon is the representation of architecture in contemporary art. At the Architectural Association last year, a small, but important exhibition, Reconstructing Space: Architecture in Recent German Photography, curated by Michael Mack, featured the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Heidi Specker and Thomas Demand, among others. The show highlighted the importance of the built environment in the work of these cutting-edge, highly regarded artists. It is this more complex area – architecture-as-catalyst – that deserves closer, more focused examination.
The photographs of deserted Paris streets that became Eugene Atget’s hallmark have an extremely poignant and melancholic cast, yet despite this, you can’t help comparing them to the socially effusive paintings of Parisian street scenes by the underrated Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. Berenice Abbott’s iconic photographs of Modernist buildings and neighbourhoods in New York are paralleled by Edward Hopper’s paintings of diners and hotels in downtown New York. The mien of Abbott’s 1930s photographs of motels and hotels in Miami re-surfaces in Ed Ruscha’s famous typological series, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, of 1962 photographic studies of petrol stations situated between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Charismatic photographic studies of Modernist buildings find their embryonic expression in those atmospheric photographs of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, taken in the 1930s by Alfred Stieglitz and Abbott.
That genre has now been re-incarnated, albeit in a transformed state, by Gursky and Specker, with their sumptuous and highly focused colour studies, where the rhythms and textures delineate the language through which we can both read and relate to the images of these buildings. They have moved away from the distinctly documentary mode, typical of Abbott and Stieglitz, towards a more formalist, almost abstract, analytical approach to the representation of the modernist building.
The demeanour of the work of Gursky and also Thomas Struth is, ironically, inherited from the extremely influential work of the German husband and wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose typological survey of industrial buildings in Germany, France, the UK and US, during the past 30 years, employing a spare, documentary style, has created a benchmark against which much contemporary photography, particularly in Germany, is measured. However, although the formalist approach of the Bechers, who trained Gursky, is reflected in his and Struth’s work, documentary it certainly is not.
The Bechers’ sustained project could be seen as a teutonic elaboration of Ruscha’s typological, serial images of gasoline stations, whereby the exposure of the architecturally familiar through its repetition emphasises those subtle differences we might otherwise overlook. Their photographs of blast furnaces, pit-head winding towers, cooling towers and gas tanks, resurrect industrial landscapes we might have forgotten, paradoxically using a contemporary format to create rhythms reminiscent of those rows of obsolescent objects we once viewed through museum vitrines.
Gursky has changed the way we look at photographs, and in so doing, the way we look at the architecture that they depict. To say that his large-format photographic images are imposing is an understatement; they are, typically, 2 to 3m long or high. Gursky, along with Jeff Wall and his large light boxes, were the first to experiment with this scale of work, but, of course, the subject deserves this; spectacular architecture demands spectacular imagery to convey its scale. Gursky has set new agendas and extended parameters with his work. Some of his images of interiors are awesome, his Chicago Board of Trade, 1997, can encourage the onset of vertigo with its stunning aerial view of the immense open space of the trading floor, and the image itself measures more than 2m2. This not so much documents the impressive scenario, but creates a composition from its welter of detail. Likewise, Gursky’s diptych of the interior of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, from 1994, on account of its scale, becomes diffused into an almost abstract configuration of forms, transcending the real and entering the hyper-real. These images are large, both physically and conceptually, and this scale overwhelms the viewer to such a degree that Gursky’s style has been labelled the Industrial Sublime. It subverts that natural sublime summoned by such painters as JMW Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, John Martyn and Frederick Church, the dimensions of whose paintings parallel those of Gursky’s photographs.
Gursky is fascinated by the repetitive pattern of the grid that is ubiquitous in modern architecture. His works such as Montparnasse, 1993, General Assembly, Brasilia, 1994, and Ayamonte, 1997, emphasise the repetitive rhythms of the grid, using a clean, minimal aesthetic. They pick up on an aspect of Modernist form that was initiated early in the last century by painters Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Kasimir Malevich. This is a significant connection, as Gursky approaches his work with a painter’s eye.
Those repetitive patterns that adorn the faÃ§ades of modern offices and tower blocks, also occupy much of the work of another German artist, Specker. She photographs contemporary buildings, not from a face-on, perpendicular viewpoint, as the Bechers or Gursky might, but from oblique angles, recalling the Constructivist photographs of Alexander Rodchenko. The initial photograph, however, is no more than an armature around which Specker weaves a whole sequence of digital manipulations. Through this process, Specker softens the hard edges of these buildings, and adjusts the colour registers of their surfaces, so that their surfaces become radiant rather than passively reflective. Beauty is a word that elicits negative connotations in the world of contemporary art. But Specker’s images are undoubtedly beautiful. She gives these buildings make-overs, creating visions that only the architect’s dreams could match.
Two such images are her Brohaus Plaza Hotel, 1997, and Kaufhaus Bank Fassade, 1997, which have a hyper-real, computer-generated look, suggestive of a sci-fi film set. Specker’s references to hyper-reality are infinitely more painterly than Gursky’s, with his clean, crisp, hard-edged images. Specker’s use of the Iris-print breaks up the surface of the image, loosening its definition, softening the textures and blurring the edges, so that the connection between the signifier and the signified breaks down and the image enters the realms of fantasy. In Specker’s hands these buildings have become dream-like. We are reminded, perhaps, of Rapunzel’s tower, or the gilded ramparts of some mythical Emperor’s palace. The mediation of these images is, however, electronic and not literary, so such narratives must remain our own. Her images are just a part of a whole process of digital negotiation – documentation, storage, retrieval, transferral – in a repetitive process of visual-memory-visual-memory-visual, with all the adjustments of re-invention along the way. The images, then, are just one element, or strand, in a wider electronic work environment. A complex labyrinth which distances the viewer from the architect’s original concept, but never obscures its essence.
The photographs of another German artist, Demand, are not what they at first appear. They are not documentary photographs of office or archive interiors, nor are they details of buildings or civil engineering projects. They are photographs of exquisitely achieved, pristine models which Demand has constructed, referring in authentic detail to actual spaces, places and structures which he has researched and re-invented in miniature, but whose provenance is not alluded to in either the works or their titles. His love of detail, and his tendency to extract them from their context, is an aspect of his work that he shares with Specker. Demand’s models are slick in the extreme, clean beyond the digitally laundered, and so skilfully photographed that the discrepancy in scale is cleverly disguised.
Demand’s Parking Garage, 1996, features that ubiquitous object of the urban scene, the multi-storey car park. It is an unsung star whose hungry toll-booths and machines scavenge from millions of wallets each day across the western world. Intriguingly, Demand has cropped this view of his crisply presented model, cleverly denying its essentially functional nature. This subject is typical of Demand’s work: he likes to pick up on neglected, overlooked features of the cityscape, attempting to create architectural swans out of ugly, utilitarian ducklings. His Balconies, 1997, an exquisitely, lovingly rendered detail of a very average tower block, is another example of this strategy. There is a contradiction here, between the two sides of his work – those detailed interiors which fail to signal their historical or cultural significance, and the details of buildings which attempt to elevate the banal towards significance.
Spectral and white are the works of the British artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell. Furniture and buildings are transformed into eccentric sculptural works, constructed reliefs whose distorted, foreshortened and flattened furniture or buildings exchange identities – so a table might become a scale model of some hypothetical building, or vice versa. In a recent exhibition at Michael-Hue Williams Gallery in London, they showed some exquisite wall-mounted, framed reliefs of iconic buildings by Le Corbusier, including his Chapel at Ronchamps in France, and his UnitÃ© building in Berlin. These reliefs, made of plaster, giving them the smooth appearance of icing-sugar, have an exaggerated perspective, skilfully foreshortened, to create an illusion of depth when viewed straight on, while all the correct proportions are sustained. When viewed obliquely, however, everything goes haywire, and it is only then that viewers of the reliefs can appreciate the adroit way in which the illusions of depth have been achieved.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, exhibiting in the same London show, also featured modern buildings in his portfolio, but his photographs featured the flip-side of the coin, concentrating on the darkened interiors and shadowy exteriors of the buildings. So, whereas Langlands and Bell’s work was all light and levity, Sugimoto’s was dark and forbidding.
Sugimoto’s slightly-out-of-focus images have an enigmatic quality, contrasting strongly with Sugimoto’s usually pristine, sharply focused studies of museum dioramas and vintage American cinemas. His treatment of Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, however, achieves a strong empathy with the architecture and with the architect’s vision – the extreme contrasts between light and dark are emphasised, to dramatic effect – the cross of light which penetrates the interior of the church through a cross-shaped void in a transverse wall, is memorable. If the work of Langlands and Bell takes a spectral route into the uncanny, Sugimoto’s is more forbidding, shadowy and sinister.