As slideshows, audio and video clips are integrated with photography on the internet, and documentarians become more interested in the built environment, photographer David Cowlard looks at the effect this could have on the representation of architecture
The expansion of digital imagery and electronic media is transforming the world of publishing. As photographers and news organisations start to present visual stories as part of an integrated approach to online rich media and video documentation, the way that photography reaches new audiences is changing too. Running parallel to this is a broader trend within documentary photography and photojournalism to focus on the contemporary urban condition.
It is worth remembering a statement by the late photographer, curator and influential critic John Szarkowski, made in an era of ascendant American documentary. In the introduction to his own architectural study of Louis Sullivan’s work, The Idea of Louis Sullivan, 1956, he notes; ‘In our own day perhaps the best architectural photographs have been the casual products of the photographer-journalist, where the life that surrounds and nourishes the building is seen or felt. If to such an approach were added an understanding of architectural form, photography might become a powerful critical medium, rather than a superficially descriptive one.’
With an increased number of photographers covering urban issues, there is now a real opportunity to open up a narrative engagement with architecture that is informed by broader social questions. The issue of housing, for instance, is starting to figure dramatically within photographic coverage of the recession. The 2008 World Press Photo of the Year was won by Anthony Suau with his image of a house repossession in Cleveland, USA, while images of tent cities across America have become an important feature of news reports.
The difference now is that this documentary approach can be integrated with other forms of digital communication. Street photographer Bruce Gilden has recently published an essay on mortgage foreclosures in the US. Gilden works with the acclaimed Magnum photo agency and his work is part of a redirection within the agency to produce photographic slideshows with accompanying soundtracks and textual information including interviews with his subjects and contact sheets. Such slideshows are quickly being established as the best way to showcase new photographic material.
Magnum’s approach shows a potential for extending the narrative structures of news stories. Not only do slideshows increase the amount of information that can be presented on a building, but the shift also signifies the expansion of professional collaboration. Magnum’s In Motion section calls upon the skills of field recordists, multimedia producers, sound designers and creative directors in addition to the vision and tenacity of the photographer. This is something to be celebrated. Just as architecture is always more than the work of one person, similarly in publication, the best results are achieved when people’s contributions reach further than the sum of their parts.
But this movement towards the production of rich media is not confined to high-profile, established organisations like Magnum. In fact, the slideshow format is rapidly defining the immediate future of the newspaper photographer. Both the New York Times (NYT) and the Guardian had their departments merged in their new purpose-built offices so that new media technologists are alongside print journalists. This process is breathing new life into news organisations at a time when traditional print journalism is in decline. The US-based Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media report for 2009 noted that newspaper audiences in the US were bigger than ever if online readership is taken into account. These results show the potential for the development of new means of presentation.
The Guardian’s head of photography, Roger Tooth, oversaw this integration and now produces both image galleries and audio slideshows, which, Tooth admits is very much in its infancy at the Guardian. It was only recently, in the wake of the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy, that an eyewitness report was incorporated into a slideshow on the paper’s website. There is, however, increased cross-fertilization between the picture desk and the audio department with all photographers now trained in audio recording.
This same process can be seen in the way that stills photographers are now shooting video. Tooth confirms that in news coverage especially, video is increasingly irresistible. Although the Guardian’s video department is still quite small, he is clear that with advances in technology it may soon be the case that video will dominate. Evidence of this trend can be seen with the work of Guardian photographer and film-maker Sean Smith. His film, Inside the Surge was shot in Iraq and received the Royal Television Society’s Award for Best International News Film in 2008. This is the first time a newspaper has won an award for television.
These developments in digital technology and electronic publishing have so far been pursued much more thoroughly outside of architectural photography, but they demonstrate an opportunity to experiment and engage with new forms of publication. Indeed, adopting different viewpoints and photographic visions allows for a wider contextual understanding of architecture and the built environment. Architectural photography, on the whole, has become locked within its own narrow set of parameters at a time when most other forms of photography have seen a relaxing of rigid defining categories. This becomes apparent when looking at the photographers who produce work that is influenced by architecture but that operates within documentary or fine art genres. There are a growing number of professionals, such as Robert Polidori, Claudio Hils and Gabriele Basilico, who engage with architecture and the built environment on a narrative level.
Photographers who are concerned with the life that surrounds a building and are informed about architecture could be the life-blood for changing the way the built environment is photographed. Theirs is not a new approach, however. In 1969-1970 the Architectural Review published Manplan, a special photographic series that explored contemporary problems, from transport and health to more abstract thematic discussions such as ‘frustration’. It mixed the work of staff photographers alongside that of guest photojournalists including Ian Berry who, at the time, was working for the Observer’s colour supplement. But somehow the spirit that drove the Manplan series has been lost over the decades.
Many architecture practices want to see their buildings photographed in an informal way but, in most cases, these images are for internal use rather than publication. While publishers can play some part in this, more needs to be done by architects themselves to make this type of imagery pre-eminent over the ‘hero shot’. The consequence of the constraints imposed upon architectural photography is that it simply becomes visual propaganda.Art director at Property Week, Richard Krzyzak acknowledges that architectural photography plays a key part in the marketing of buildings, and concludes that commercial property is ‘all about image.’ He sees enormous scope in the possibilities of moving beyond the ‘empty frozen moment’ of much architectural photography and widening the focus to include photographers who explore urban landscapes.
While it is still the case that architectural photographers produce fantastic imagery that explores the space and detail of new buildings, the problem is that this only tells a part of the story. Rather than showing the coincidence of design and its humanistic potential, far too often the image is devoid of any life at all. Maybe it is time to widen the view and let in the unexpected.