Cultural Perspectives

Cultural Perspectives

A new book and exhibition delves into the recontextualisation of images, considering how photography creates layers of understanding and perception.

“Photography is not about capturing reality,” explains art historian Therese Lichtenstein of Image Building (Prestel), a book that accompanies shows at Parrish Art Museum, New York, (18 March – 17 June) and Tennessee’s Frist Arts Center (27 July – 28 October). “Even documentary photos are illusory because there’s always a separation between real and projected worlds as our perceptions shift between past and present.” These “transformative oscillations” move between the static structure in front of the camera and its subjectively decoded “look”, and demonstrate how mixing sensuous analogue and clinical digital techniques can transcend distinctions between design and art, hazily remembered nostalgia and potential.

For Lichtenstein, the medium creates and sustains a glamorous fictional space, using lighting and technological choices – vantage points, textures, planes, lines, size – to transfigure reality into a composition with a feel of its own. “Even if we have seen a building before the image,” she explains, “the photograph shifts our perception, either culturally or subjectively”. She suggests here that we are constantly revising our impressions of both the physical world and its intangible nature along two fault-lines: “modernity” and “spectacle.”

This can be seen in the juxtaposition of Samuel Gottscho and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s differing versions of New York’s RCA Building (now part of the Rockefeller Centre). Alongside each other, the already dissimilar feelings that accompany different versions of the same structure are intensified: a classic example of the muscularity of progress, almost 70 years apart. Alone, Gottscho’s New York City Views, RCA Building Floodlighted (1933) is an art-deco cathedral, an optimistic testament to the successes of American capitalism, pointing upwards and onwards beyond the Depression. Placed next to Sugimoto’s Rockefeller Center (2001), it’s a sober reminder that war, victory and America’s mid-to-late 20th century peak were all still to come, reflected in the use of analogue manipulation: a 19th century 8×10 inch camera using long exposure times to get tonal depths, the richly blurred composition conveying the crushing force of time and memory.

“The focus is architecture after photography, because our world is image-mediated,” says Lichtenstein. This captures what we might call structural “recoil.” Early experiments, like Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826/1827) used buildings as a stable reference point. Unlike people or nature, the constructions stayed still long enough for the long exposure times. However, as Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, the human mode of perception changes with technological advances and the eye has become co-extensive with the camera’s apparatus. Architectural photography has thus turned various spaces into phenomena, not just something with intense visual impact, but an art form that can (and does) offer a social relationship in Guy Debord’s classic sense. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, for example, can exist if only to be displayed and captured, and indeed, marvelled at. “We always add to our perceptions,” Lichtenstein says, “never abandoning them.” It’s important to also consider shared ideas of how a place might look based on the era in which we live or the contextual expectations that we maintain.

Time is a fluid concept that is deeply self-conscious and referential in the pieces; even the evolution of the camera and its possibilities is drawn into question across the timelines of artists’ careers. Thomas Ruff’s blend of analogue and digital techniques, for example, make the clean lines of his subjects look at once glossy and impressionistic. Documenting the Swiss cough-drops manufacturer Ricola’s headquarters in Mulhouse, France, includes drawing the eye to the edifice’s sculptural reliefs, made evident against a regal violet sky. d.p.b 02 (1999) and w.h.s. 10 (2001) from a series about Mies van der Rohe’s buildings splice together different versions of the Barcelona Pavilion and Stuttgart’s Weissenhof Estate, defamiliarising our ingrained ideas about the Bauhaus style, which reappears in Julius Shulman’s images of the style’s entry into the California hills in the 1960s.

For Lichtenstein, the point is that “juxtaposing time and memory,” lets one reflect the other, “producing a cinematic sensibility where the past becomes the present and the present becomes the future.” She notes that an analogue photograph lets us look back and see houses, cinemas or offices as “period pieces” with an era-appropriate aesthetic, whilst manipulated digital images create a sense of a life that is fleeting and based on chance. Gottscho and Shulman might give us modern rationality, but Sugimoto presents a sphere that encourages “time-consciousness” – opening up the possibilities for the future through constant renewal and rebirth in each new moment. Ruff, however, sits somewhere in between. w.h.s 10 shows the building out of focus, set on a diagonal against an artificially tinted blue-green sky, so it looks like a glimpse through the window of a fast-moving train. This ultimately suggests a sense of movement, speed and decline. Sugimoto’s Eiffel Tower, by contrast, takes a structure embedded with cultural references, synonymous with the notion of the mechanical paradise, producing something mournful, as if we didn’t really know it in the first place.

Period pieces reappear throughout the book in four renderings of post-war American suburbanisation projects, each emblematic of a “1960s look.” Lewis Baltz’s Tract House series (1971), for example, captures the almost pre-emptively unfashionable frontages and empty driveways of the east Los Angeles suburbs as if it were a ghost town. Meanwhile, Robert Adams creates stark uniformity in bungalows that pepper a valley in Colorado Springs, and James Casebere shows us cookie-cutter suburbia – the quasi-Alpine pastel-shade kitsch of Dutchess County, New York – just after the 2008 financial crisis dented dreams of home ownership.

Andreas Gursky’s Paris, Montparnasse (1993) combines two separate photographs of the Mouchotte Building, a classic example of post-war social housing projects, into one seamless composition. Collapsing the depth of field, the picture turns a grim edifice into a colourful patchwork full of life. Avenue of the Americas (2001) applies the same approach as Paris, Montparnasse, but sets it at night. However, Iwan Baan’s Torre David in Caracas, Venezuela, tells the story of this 45-storey skyscraper, named after developer David Brillembourg, which portrays the struggle and resilience necessary for collective housing. Construction began in 1990 but was interrupted by the collapse of the Venezulean economy, and the housing shortages that followed led to a building once intended to house financial institutions and luxury apartments being occupied and squatted by people who would rather live in a half-finished skyscraper than the dangerous favelas. Meanwhile, Baan’s The City and the Storm (2012), taken during the New York City blackout, shows how planned urban life is “teeming with irrationality” – the shades of light and dark as an index of economic inequality. Lichtenstein says these complex pieces have a beautiful exuberance; they offer us stark polarities like despair and hope, and represent the dehumanisation of the individual in contemporary life.

This is where Lichtenstein’s project might come unstuck. She’s right that photographs mediate fantasies about places we’ve never seen, projecting meanings onto locations we’ve never visited. This elaborates on Immanuel Kant’s classic distinction between “knowing the world” (the remote universe “out there” realised through stories) and “having a world” (the one which we experience in actuality). However, the substance of the modernity / spectacle juxtaposition is at times unclear. How does the “beauty” of the artworks co-exist with the “dehumanisation” of the people in them? There is perhaps something to be said for the critique of spectacle, falling afoul of the late theorist Mark Fisher’s comments on the problem of “formal nostalgia” at the start of the 21st century.

Lichtenstein’s “nostalgic sensibility” amounts to what Fisher called the “technologically burnished classicism” of retro products. For Fisher, the sheer prevalence of “time-montage” techniques make them unnoticeable, rendering Image Building’s non-linear organisation – the same practitioners located in different scenes, the exhibition’s three spaces of “modernism”, “public places”, and “domestic spaces” – merely what Fisher calls the “performance of anachronism” because the new is no longer truly “new” and the future does not really feel that out of reach. Far from making us question what constitutes our knowledge about the world, as Lichtenstein says, nostalgia in fact retreats from the challenge to “make it new”, embraced not merely by the artists, but permeating their whole ethos by using digital technology to obfuscate archaic forms or disavow any explicit references to the past.

The pieces chosen by Lichtenstein are certainly unabashedly beautiful, presenting our participation in “the seductive sensuousness of materialism” as something abstract from contemporary life. This may dampen her claim that the publication is a critique of late capitalism: if the camera turns architecture into an ornamental monument, then the documentation of structural photography only deepens the meaning. “The images are spectacles, and they are also about spectacles,” she says. “Large, colourful, abstract, disorientating, they’re fundamentally about how the individual is submerged in these structures, becoming symbolic for corporate systems.” Casebere and Shulman’s works make us think about the hopes and dreams of the residents, creating a sense of intimacy, but Lichtenstein warns us against taking these compositions for granted as naturalistic representations of a period. Instead of telling us the bare facts about a particular social setting, she wants these unique pieces to shift our thinking about how we relate to them and the shared world they create. The artworks aestheticise life, but she wants them to make us think beyond mere surfaces.

Ultimately, this publication and indeed the accompanying exhibitions reveal the interior lives of the subject matter, sitting on the boundaries that are set by other kind of image-making – between the sublime and the everyday, as in landscape photography, or glamour and expenditure as in fashion – and relentlessly questioning itself. Whilst there are multiple layers to be found in this deeply profound and thought-provoking text, the overarching result draws attention to man-made spaces as poignant creations, whilst allowing us to visit or revisit places where we have never been.

Max L. Feldman