From Berenice Abbott to Nadav Kander, the Barbican's architecture photography exhibition is an alternative history of modern man

Architectural photography not only documents our built worlds, but the very best will reveal something more about the societies in which they are taken

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The Independent Culture

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?"

 

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.uk

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