Space Framed : In Conversation with Hugh Campbell
Hugh Campbell, author of upcoming book Space Framed, talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the complex and varied relationship between Photography and Architecture, and discusses the techniques and effects involved in the photography of Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Andreas Gursky and more...
MRG: You mention how the use of slides in lectures sparked the initial idea for Space Framed… Was there a particular set of images, or an individual photographer’s work which first provided this inspiration? And were you ever surprised by students’ reactions to certain photographers’ interpretations?
HC: As I mention in the introductory essay, Henri Cartier-Bresson was probably the first photographer I identified as having something of value for architects and, especially, for students of architecture. His photographs speak so eloquently about the idea of architecture as a setting for human life. That’s in the context of the design studio, where you are trying to get students to think about space and form in relation to patterns of inhabitation. Looking back, I’d say Andre Kertesz also appeared a lot early on – because his photographs are so formally strong, and often play with spatial composition, conflating foreground and background, for instance. I don’t cover his work in the book as I think ultimately I found it a bit too neat and self-contained. Then Walker Evans began to loom large…
In the seminar I taught on architecture and photography, what is interesting is the way students’ different sensibilities identify with different artists. It tends to be the more open, emotional work that they gravitate towards – so Alec Soth is always popular, and, in a different way, Rinko Kawauchi. A few years back a student did a piece based on a book of hers called Cui Cui, which is basically a long photo-essay about her grandparents. The student described each photograph in the sequence in just three words, so you got a sequence of 150 three-word sentences. That was definitely surprising – and a really effective piece.
Rinko Kawauchi, untitled, from the series of Illuminance, 2009, Courtesy Rinko Kawauchi. Taken from Space Framed.
Alec Soth, Peter’s Houseboat, Winona, Minnesota, 2002, digital chromogenic print, Courtesy Alec Soth / Magnum Photo. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: Space Framed covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and stylistically. When planning the book, how did you decide on the themes and individual photographers to address?
HC: The book collects essays which I’ve written over the past ten years. My initial idea had been to take these pieces as a starting point and subsume them within a new structure, but ultimately it seemed to make more sense to let the pieces stand in their own right, but try to organise them such that thematic overlaps could emerge. At its most basic level, the organisation gathers the pieces that deal most overtly with photographing architecture and with different photographic modes in the first part, and then in the second part, the focus turns to the city. Binding them both together is an abiding interest in the relationship between consciousness, photography and architecture. That comes through in varied ways: sometimes in relation to how the photographer relates to a scene, sometimes more to do with the subjects portrayed. At a very simple level, the book is also gathering photographic work that I like and respond to, and that I think is worth considering. So it’s great to be able to present so many of the images properly, in the way I could in a lecture or when looking at books. Ultimately, you’d hope there might be some value just in flicking through the pictures!
Helen Levitt, New York, 1988, chromogenic print. Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: Has there been a photograph which you remember changing your personal perspective on a building that you’d seen in person?
HC: Interesting question! For some reason the one that comes to mind is a photograph by Ezra Stoller of the Seagram Building, taken from inside the lobby looking back out across Park Avenue to McKim Mead and White’s Racquet and Tennis Club. It’s a shot which shows the building not as an object, as it’s usually understood, but as a space in an urban context. You understand the building in relation to the city. So, this is an image where the photographer is enlarging your understanding. In fact, it’s generally photographs that situate a building in its context which strike me – I am thinking of Iwan Baan’s tendency to pull back and take an aerial shot, which I think was something quite new. I think sometimes photographs can confirm something for you about a building or an architect’s work. I’m thinking of Phillipe Ruault’s photographing of Lacaton Vassal’s work, particularly the Palais de Tokyo. Those rich, populated pictures record the building, but also reveal the attitude of its makers, towards the fabric and the culture they were hoping to engender and sustain.
John Szarkowski, The Farmers and Merchants Union Bank, Columbus, Wisconsin, 1919, 1954, gelatin silver print. Photograph by John Szarkowski supplied courtesy of the Szarkowski Estate and the Pace / MacGill Gallery, New York. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: Often architects insist that physically ‘experiencing’ the built space is how it is best evaluated, best ‘seen’… But do you think there is something more critical, or perhaps 'truer', about the photographer’s gaze, and our experience of viewing space through images?
HC: I would certainly think the photographer’s gaze can be equally valid. When you are photographing – particularly in any serious way – you are spending a lot of time in and with a building and its users, so you are already engaged with it critically. Then you are asking your image to speak of that – of what you’ve noticed and analysed. Experience is more complete, you might think, but it is also in some ways less conscious, less coherent. A photograph can provide a deliberate, considered encounter.
At the same time, I do think it’s relatively difficult for a photograph of a building to cut through the prevalent visual grammar and really communicate something, either of a project’s phenomenological qualities or, more interesting to me, the ideas that underpin it. Candida Hofer sometimes does the former – I’m thinking particularly of her photographs of the Chace-Schindler house, which really capture its scale and slightly makeshift quality. And on the latter, Walter Niedermayr’s photographs of SANAA’s projects, which I discuss in the book, come to mind, because they seem to access the mindset which goes into the making of the architecture. Although interestingly, when I had to get permission from him to use his images in a lecture, he insisted that he not be described as an architectural photographer. That might be one reason why I don’t really deal that much with commissioned photography of architecture in the book: because it often isn’t the work which speaks most eloquently about architecture.
Walter Niedermayr, Bildraum-S-299, 2013. Courtesy Walter Niedermayr and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockhol. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: I was interested to read that Walker Evans referenced Flaubert as his literary model. When photography is seen as documentation, as 'description', it necessarily has to juggle the objective and the subjective… How does perspective come into this relationship?
HC: Perspective is interesting because it sits somewhere between the subjective and objective – like an agreed register for the embodied view that everyone knows is not really like the facts, but that approximates and stands for them. And of course the camera, with its single lens, just naturally produces this kind of view. So perspective is built into the camera as mechanism – Kirk Varnedoe called the camera a ‘little Brunelleschi box’. Any conscious act of documenting with a camera has to manage this aspect of the mechanism – either acknowledging it, or suppressing it, or heightening it. I think that can still produce what we might think of as ‘a consciously objective view’ – it is to do with harnessing the capacities of the medium, just as surely as if you were crafting a sentence. So, there is perspective at work in the Bechers’ views of water towers, but it is managed in such a way that it contributes to the documentation. The same might be said of many of their fellow exhibitors in the New Topographics exhibition – Stephen Shore particularly, who talks very insightfully about the ‘inherent architecture’ of a scene which the perspectival mode reveals.
Walker Evans, Houses and Billboards, Atlanta, 1936, gelatin silver print. Courtesy Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: In the chapter, ‘The Façade Fills the Frame’, I was particularly interested by Andreas Gursky’s photograph, ‘Paris, Montparnasse, 1993’ (of the ‘La Mouchotte’ block) as an early instance of photo-manipulation. Can you tell us what is so unusual about this technique and the effect it creates?
HC: This was one of the first images which he created by stitching digital photographs together. In this case, I believe it is only two elevational views, although subsequently he would use far more, and the manipulation would become more extreme. With the Montparnasse image, I think he is mostly trying to solve logistical and technical problems: he can’t get an elevated view from far enough back to take in the entire length of the block, hence the need to take two shots side by side and then stitch them. But taking this step does represent a break in his practice. As I discuss in the book, the resulting image lacks a middle register – it doesn’t offer the kind of graded view from foreground to background that perspective gives you. Instead you are either up close or at a distance, admiring the overall pattern or marvelling at the detail. And this sets the tone for a subsequent phase of his work.
MRG: Is the ‘dislocation’ that you discuss in relation to Gursky’s photography only a function of the medium? Or are there certain features of the architecture which lend themselves to producing this effect?
HC: I think it’s certainly the case that Gursky is finding conditions in the built environment which lend themselves to this flat up close/faraway view, or which already embody it in some way. There is always some uncertainty about whether he is producing a certain aesthetic or recognising it as already prevalent in late modern society. There was a TV documentary about him some years back, at the height of his success, in which the presenter began to develop ‘Gursky vision’, finding instances of his distinctive views everywhere, even in his local bingo hall, I seem to remember. So, the medium and how it is used can determine a lot. On the other hand, there is definitely a kind of commentary in his work on the scale, monotonousness and homogeneity of aspects of the contemporary built environment. His work helps us notice and recognise it.
Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse, 1993, chromogenic print. Courtesy Andreas Gursky, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / IVARO Dublin, 2019. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: Do you think that all the means of photographing architecture can be classified into two groups: either isolating the experience to a part of a whole, or augmenting experience beyond what its instantaneously possible in reality with the human eye?
HC: I think one of the differentiations you might make is between photographs which record architecture as is, and photographs which record architecture as experienced. So, from the outset of the medium, photography is being used as a kind of document, say of a façade or a detail – we might think of Baldus’s famous photographs of the Louvre. And at the same time you get photographers who are interested in describing what it is like to experience a site or building – I’m thinking here of William Stillman’s views of the Acropolis, or Frederick Evans’s images of English cathedrals. In both those cases, what’s interesting is that they use sequences of images to convey what it is like to visit the site (my colleague Dearbhla MacManus has done very interesting work on Evans’s slide shows, which acted as virtual visits to the building).
I think those two modes have persisted into the twentieth century, although of course the experiential view is carefully orchestrated to accord with the architectural intentions. Claire Zimmerman has written brilliantly about the photographic orthodoxy of the 1920s and 30s, most evidently in the images we know of Mies’s work from that period. But then at certain points, photography also wants to disrupt that orthodoxy – either because of new technical developments, or because the architecture seems to invite a different approach. This kind of ‘critical’ photography might want to drive towards more conceptual territory – think of the photographs of Mies projects by Thomas Ruff, undertaken for the MOMA retrospective. Or it might be about integrating the architecture with its surroundings and its everyday life – here you might think of the work of Iwan Baan, who came to architectural photography from a sociological standpoint.
But in all cases, I think, there is an understanding that the photograph is extending beyond, or augmenting, what is available to the eye.
MRG: Could you talk to us about Thomas Struth’s photograph, ‘Dallas Parking Lot, Dallas, 2001’, which you replicated yourself in the book? What was so engaging or surprising about this particular shot? And how did you go about recreating it?
HC: That is one of my favourite of his photographs, just because it is so beautifully balanced, and the colours are great. It’s very lucid and calm and dignified. I remember wondering whether that sense would actually accord with the ‘facts on the ground’ in Dallas – it seemed a little unlikely – or whether Struth was projecting this air of ordered quietude onto the place. I had to give a paper about him at a conference in Austin, so I thought I would fly into Dallas and go to where the photo was taken. Using the skyscrapers visible in the photo as guides, it was not too difficult on Google Earth to pinpoint the place where he took it from, although they had added a couple of storeys to the car park since he had been there.
Anyway, I got into Dallas, hired a car, drove first to Fort Worth to see Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (which was my real motive for going there) and then back into the middle of Dallas and eventually made my way up through the car park and found what I thought was his vantage point. I wasn’t trying to make a good photograph and I certainly didn’t, but that was the point. I was trying to show the gulf between what might ordinarily be available to the eye or the casual view, and what Struth had found and shown. I was also interested in why he had alighted upon this particular spot. He always talks about looking for the generic rather than the ‘anecdotal’, so he’s looking for something that’s typical rather than special but that seems at the same time quite particular to the place.
In the case of Dallas, he wanted to get an elevated view with a range of tall buildings at middle distance. Looking at the map I realised that the block was on a route from the Dallas Museum of Art, where he had a retrospective in 2002, to the Fairmont Hotel, where he probably stayed when preparing for the show. So, presumably the view started to present itself as a possible subject on his walk from his hotel. This is one of things that interests me: to tie photographs back to the space and circumstance of their making.
Thomas Struth, Dallas Parking Lot, Dallas 2001, chromogenic print, catalogue 7971, frame 176.6 ~ 247.0 cm. Courtesy Thomas Struth. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: Part II of Space Framed is entitled ‘The Inhabited City’, and individual chapters deal with both populated and unpopulated images. Do you think human presence or absence necessarily defines photographs of the urban landscape? And do you think this human focus changes the way we view the architecture?
HC: Calling it The Inhabited City was intended to suggest that it is the act of inhabiting which defines built settlements and cities particularly. When you photograph in a city, you are necessarily involved in recording inhabitation, whether or not there are people in the frame. So, like Struth, you can ask the built fabric of a city to embody the collective culture of its people. Or, like Helen Levitt or Garry Winogrand, you can register how it is that people behave and dispose themselves within that built fabric. They’re two sides of one coin.
And of course any photograph is also a record of the photographer’s presence in, and attitude to, the city, and we are witnessing their acts of inhabiting. William Klein’s great 1956 book ‘Trance Witness Revels: Life is Good and Good for You in New York’, which I didn’t get to write about, is worth mentioning here because he makes his presence felt in every frame – both in terms of how he manipulates the camera and in terms of how he engages with his subjects, confronting them aggressively, with no attempt at the kind of studied distance that would be more usual.
So, when human activity is in the forefront, what does that mean for how we view the architecture? I guess we understand it as the scaffold and the stage for life. It’s in the background, like the stoops in Levitt’s photographs, but it structures and supports activity. At another level, it also provides surfaces to be read as traces of occupation – whether that’s the swathes of facades we see in Michael Wolf’s Transparent City, or the billboards and signs that proliferate in many of Klein’s images. I would have liked to write more about the handmade signs and drawings that many photographers are drawn to – Helen Levitt’s focus on kids’ pavement drawings, or Klein’s eye for an urgent scrawled message, like ‘Closed on a kind of fire’. These are signs of the innumerable individual lives that constitute every metropolis. There’s a photograph by Lee Friedlander which I think encapsulates this – across the water we see Hong Kong, in the foreground a quayside wall on which a couplet neatly written in ink declares: ‘Every day I calls a phone to her; Every night I dreams for her’. That says everything about city life I think!
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Head #22, 2001, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner. Taken from Space Framed.
MRG: I also found your focus on Abelardo Morell’s ‘Camera Obscura’ images particularly interesting, especially in the way that the photographs merge inside and outside, frame and view. Do you think that this camera effect gives a more 'complete' impression of the space, if not the actual experience of being in the space?
HC: It’s interesting because, as I explain the essay, these are views which are produced automatically – a camera obscura is created, and then another camera is set within it to record it. So the registering of the city outside on the walls of a room seems almost like a naturally occurring process (which of course it is once you get the room set up). And through this process we do get a kind of intense encapsulation of what urban life can be like – the juxtaposition of the private world within and the built continuum without.
Except of course it’s not something you could ever ordinarily experience – in fact there’s something really disconcerting and uncanny about seeing an urban camera obscura, about walking into a dark space and gradually seeing revealed a swathe of what you’ve left behind outside, playing out upside down on the walls around you. By capturing that view and making it available, Morell is not only bringing photography back to its origins, he’s also distilling something of the giddying exhilaration of existing in the full flow of city life.
Abelardo Morell, Camera Obscura Image of Times Square in Hotel Room, 1997, gelatin silver print. Abelardo Morell Boston / Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich. Taken from Space Framed.
Space Framed by Hugh Campbell will be released on 1st October and is now available for pre-order from our website HERE.
If you're interested in Photography, check out all of our books on the subject HERE.
View the full list of Autumn books in our catalogue HERE.