Sunday, September 09, 2012

Architecture and the Photographic Eye: from iitExposure to Vivian Maier

People would say to me, “Nick, these pictures are lying . . . they're so heroic, so pristine that it's not the real experience of the building,” and my response was (that) of the thousand of possible realities that you could have, I picked the best possible one.  
Those were the words of architectural photographer Nick Merrick of Hedrich-Blessing, one of the best, at a session of the Chicago Architectural Club a few years back. 
click images for larger view
And here's a more recent statement:
A fifth of IIT’s students are pursuing a major in Architecture, but only a small portion of these students have the photographic skills needed to document their studio work, investigate the built environment through image-making, and critically examine published photographs of architecture. While there is widespread interest among the architecture student body, there is no formal venue to explore and investigate these issues. We hope to change that.
That's the manifesto of iitExposure a new group of IIT students whose laudable goal is "to cultivate a skilful and critical approach to photography of the built environment and its representations."  And towards that end, they've put together a lecture series, each event to take place in the Lower Core of Crown Hall, 3360 South State, in which leading architectural photographers will talk about their craft.  It kicks off this coming Wednesday, the 12th, at 12:30 p.m. , with Doug Fogelson, with Jon Miller of Hedrich Blessing scheduled for September 26th, also at 12:30 p.m., and Mark Ballogg, 6:30 p.m. on Friday, October 12.

Most people encounter new buildings, not through physical experience, where the observer has the freedom to constantly change the point of view as they walk around and in, but from the fixed perspective of individual photographs, usually carefully composed for a desired effect.  It's a bit strange, indeed, that architecture students are expected to gain experience making models, drawing, and designing on a computer, but not in the technique of how the images are made that will represent their work to the world.  The iitExposure seems a great start at remedying that situation. 

(It might also be a good idea to add future lectures from such disciplines as videographer, a 3-D artist, and an acoustician.  Could the most immersive experience be moving through a 3-D image on your computer while you wear headphones listing to the acoustic environment of the building you're exploring?)

Vivian Maier: an Alternate Way of Looking at Architecture

And while we're talking about photography and the city, a great new exhibition has just opened at the Chicago History Museum, Vivian Maier's Chicago, even as an amazing companion book Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows, is set to be published in the next few weeks.    The show is a must-see (head to the second floor, turn to your right, and walk past the '"L' car. ).  I had the opportunity to read the book over this weekend, and it's an incredibly moving document of the life and work of the unknown "amateur" whose often stunning photographs were discovered only after her death.  
from Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, © CityFiles Press (All rights reserved)
Looking at Maier's deeply expressive photos, I was reminded how some of them seemed to provide a much more "you are there" feel for the architecture of the city than the more idealized photographs of individual buildings.

We may, of course, study a building deliberately, as an isolated object composed of a combination of discrete elements.  But that's not how any of us experience architecture on a day to day basis.  Our experience is subliminal.  We see, but don't see, much like in a photograph.  What engages our attention directly appears in sharp focus.  Where we are doing it recedes out of focus, but it's still there, and it's still felt.  We sit in a room.  We stride through a building.  We walk down a street.  Architecture is all around us.  We may scarcely see it, but we feel it.

No one would call Vivian Maier an "architectural photographer".  The human being is often the primary focus; the architecture a backdrop.  Yet, that backdrop seems anything but incidental. Her photographs capture with pungent specificity that sense of place.  The built environment is so strongly integrated that it's as if she's captured in a bottle the visceral essence of a city and its architecture at a set moment in time.
I'm not sure what what would be an apt comparison - Alban Berg vs. John Cage?  If you want to know, "What does it look like," you go to a master like Nick Merrick or Doug Fogelson.  If you want to know the far more fundamental, "What was it like?", you go to Vivian Maier.

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