In Place of Idealism: architecture and photography

Andy Lock, University of bergen, faculty of visualt art, music and design

This research project uses photographic practice to critically examine the role played by photography in representing architecture. The project begins from the proposition that most of the buildings which we encounter, we encounter through photographs and that the photographic representation of architecture is itself never neutral.

The project is specifically concerned with the relationship between architecture and idealism and with the role of photography’s representations of architecture in the context of that relationship. The project takes as axiomatic that idealism is a fundamental facet of architectural production; that architecture is intrinsically idealistic (frequently utopian) in its ambitions and that photography is typically co-opted into perpetuating a particular, idealised representation of architecture. This circumstance is not exclusive to,
but has arguably been nowhere more apparent than in the relationship between photography and architectural modernism, and it is examples of modernist architecture, which will form an initial focus for my research. In addressing these themes, the project will examine the consequences of – and alternatives to – photography’s frequent tendency, when recording architectural sites, to prioritise the intentions and ambitions of the architect over the roles played by other agents in shaping a building, over time.

A tradition of architectural-photography-by-other-means, consisting of diverse art photographic practices, concerned with place and with memory for example, has presented a tradition of counternarratives and alternative accounts of architecture, and continues to have the power to do so. The proposed research project draws on this tradition and employs just such an art photographic practice as the basis of its inquiry, using it to interrogate specific sites.

The project asks how such an “alternative” photographic practice might be used to create a more critical and nuanced account of architecture; one which considers architecture through such themes as place and dwelling, and explores the complex interplay between the idealism of architects, the often equally idealistic ambitions and aspirations of those who occupy and use a building during its life and the economic and social upheavals against whose backdrop the life of the building and that of its inhabitants unfold.

Working with a series of carefully chosen buildings in Norway and the UK, I will explore the way in which a mode of photographing, preoccupied principally with place and situated at the juncture of ethnography and the archaeology of the recent past, is capable of creating images, which reveal very different accounts of the buildings in question, when set against the evidence of the conventional, architectural photographic record.