When Nicéphore Niépce took what is thought to be the first ever photograph in 1826 or 1827, the long exposure time meant the Frenchman needed a static subject that wouldn't blow in the wind or get the giggles. So he took a picture of a building.
Since then, there has been a long tradition of architectural photography. Not only can the medium document our built worlds, but the very best will reveal something more about the societies in which they are taken, as well as what those societies are becoming.
It is, however, one of the more obscure genres. While others, such as wildlife, portrait, war and fashion are the subject of numerous shows, architectural photography remains a somewhat niche subject. Later this month, the Barbican Art Gallery at London's Barbican Centre will host Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, the first exhibition of its kind in the UK.
Alona Pardo, who curated the exhibition along with Elias Redstone, agrees that the genre is not widely discussed, which has led to misinterpretation in the past.
"It's seen as something that is practical and functional, with a specific purpose to reflect the architect and their intention, and it's rarely looked at within a fine art practice in terms of the photograph being a metaphor for our social history, which is the tack we're taking," she says.
Constructing Worlds will bring together more than 250 works by 18 different artists dating back to the 1930s. As well as charting the (literal) rise of modern architecture, it will also focus on the dramatic global shifts in society in the post-war period. "We wanted to look at the history of this discipline and think about how we got to the point where we are," notes Pardo. "How do we learn about architecture? How do we remember it? What impact has it had?"
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
1/7 Bas Princen, 'Mokattam Ridge', (Garbage Recycling City), Cairo, 2009
A real-life urban wasteland, Princen's surreal photograph shows the slum settlement of Manshivat Naser, located at the base of Mokattam Hill on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. Its economy revolves around the collection and recycling of the city's garbage
© Bas Princen
2/7 Nadav Kander 'Fengjie III (Monument to Progress and Prosperity) , Chongqing Municipality', 2007
Kander's series 'Yangtze - The Long River', 2007, tracks a part of the vast change that has radically altered the course of this great river. Travelling upstream from Shanghai, where the Yangtze meets the sea to its source in a remote area of Tibet, many of Kander's photographs show massive new developments, including the Three Gorges Dam, which involved the displacement of more than a million people, the remoulding of an entire region's environment and destruction of historical sites
© Nadav Kander, Courtesy Flowers Gallery
3/7 Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse, 1993
An infinite geometric grid and abstract form from the façade of Jean Dubuisson's Mouchotte Building. By combining two images into one composition, Gusrky presents us with a giant patchwork block of an apartment building and the representation of each little box within it
© Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst/DACS/Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London
4/7 Iwan Baan 'Torre David', 2011
Baan's photographs of Torre David, a high-rise office and hotel complex in downtown Caracas, Venezuela, which – abandoned in the mid-1990s – has been colonised by informal means into a vertical neighbourhood, convey scenes of quotidian normality: including young men pumping iron against a dramatic vista
© Iwan Baan, Courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles
5/7 Guy Tillim 'Grande Hotel , Beira, Mozambique' , 2008 diptych
This former luxury hotel in Mozambique is now home to more than 3,000 people. The dilapidated state of the International Style building, erected at a time when African nations were achieving independence - a period imbued with a sense of optimism - parallels the fate of this failed utopian moment
© Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
6/7 Julius Shulman, Case Study House #22
Julius Shulman was a powerful advocate for Southern-Californian modernism. Floating precariously above the Los Angeles basin, his iconic image of Case Study House #22 does more than just capture the allure of the architectural subject, seeming to distil the essence of an era and the dream of a new post-war American lifestyle
© Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10) © J. Paul Getty Trust
7/7 Berenice Abbott 'Houses, New York City', 1932
In focusing on the web of loaded laundry lines in the courtyard of the first model tenement block that was completed in 1882 after the 1879 Tenement House Act which sought to improve living conditions for New York’s surging population, Abbott’s image points to the high density of occupants
© Berenice Abbott/Getty images. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg
Organised both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition will open with Berenice Abbott's groundbreaking black and white images of New York, which capture Manhattan's transition from its relatively modest 19th-century cityscape to the era of the skyscraper. "She is revealing something about the American ideology at the time. It was about embracing modernity and it was seen as something really utopian. But this was alongside a rise in the homeless, so there's a duality to her work."
It is not just the pomp of modernisation that is covered, however. Stephen Shore, whose work also features, was concerned with the vernacular, photographing American suburban communities during the 1960s and '70s. "But [Shore] elevated it and made it feel beautiful," explains Pardo. "So the banal and pedestrian becomes aestheticised and quite something to look at."
Although the exhibition begins in the West, places all over the globe are featured. Guy Tillim's photographs of buildings in Africa, for example, tell the history of failed colonialism. "The international-style structures decaying across Congo, Mozambique and Angola are fascinating stories. I think most people would be aware that colonial domination was also expressed through architecture. But the question is, would the International Style have been appropriated if architecture hadn't had this symbiotic relationship to photography?"
"Architecture is the backdrop of our lives," says Pardo. "It impacts the way we navigate and interact with space; how we interact with each other. Then there's the division between public and private space and the political resonances that go with that. Looking through the photographs, there are so many riveting and complex, multi-layered stories to be unwoven and unpicked."
'Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age' is on at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2, from 25 Sept to 11 January 2015, barbican.org.ukReuse content