Epics in the Everyday: Photography, Architecture, and the Problem of Realism
Park Books, 2020
Jesús Vassallo’s brilliant 2016 book, “Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture,” examined remarkable consequences of recent collaborations between some very good architects and some very good photographers. What distinguishes these relationships from other and earlier cooperations is a new direction of influence. If the photographer traditionally served the architect, in the digital era the photographers Vassallo described are equal if not the more influential partners. This new power balance arises from the staggering degree to which photographs affect and define contemporary experience — along with architects’ awareness that critical photographers’ photographs, over those made by commercial architectural photographers, are a most desirable means of communicating, consuming, and positioning architecture today.
Vassallo focused in particular on the manner by which the teams “Seamless” documented intentionally add ambiguous richness to architectural experience through the use of photographs, and vice-versa, as they conceive and structure it. Vassallo’s important new book, “Epics in the Everyday: Photography, Architecture, and the Problem of Realism,” examines the evolution of this possibility in the period prior to that of “Seamless,” pushing back to the middle of the modern era, adding depth over time to Vassallo’s lucid exploration of architecture and photography’s consequential relationship at the level of discipline and practice.
In “Epics,” Vassallo, an architect and professor at Rice, again utilizes instances of architects and photographers working with or influencing each other. His architect/photographer pairings are Alison and Peter Smithson/Nigel Henderson; Venturi & Scott Brown/Ed Ruscha, then Stephen Shore; Aldo Rossi/the New Topographics photographers, in particular Bernd and Hilla Becher (though theirs is an association of parallel interests only); Herzog & de Meuron/Thomas Ruff; and Caruso St John/Thomas Demand; with an introductory chapter on concepts and terminology, and a final chapter that synopsizes the work covered in “Seamless.”
As this list indicates, Vassallo’s case studies hopscotch in architecture from the Team X pivot within high modernism through the postmodern, to the start of the after-modern. Vassallo traces an evolution in the primary relationship between critical architecture and critical photography. In the initial examples, the architects challenge their own method based on witnessing how fellow-traveling photographers wring content from the postwar urban condition – yet, they often mine that work for photographic image content to explain or mask deleterious architectural consequences in their own representations (the example is the Smithsons, but it could be Aldo van Eyck or Herman Hertzberger, with their faux-documentary shots of happy/inspired children playing in fields of concrete). The relationship then undergoes a nuanced shift of increasingly paralleling autonomous interests at the start of the postmodern, leading to the productive, self-aware, and medium-autonomy-questioning collaborative experimentation that defines the after-modern.
Vassallo is never as blunt as my over-simplified summary suggests, nor do the categorical differences align with architectural phases neatly. Vassallo avoids delimiting possibilities, instead focusing on nuanced interactions between architects and photographers — and architecture and photography — and he sets out competing theoretical/historical arguments before presenting his own reasoning. Vassallo’s pleasing written voice also avoids the pedantic, a trap in which writing on photography frequently dies. (His sentences often begin with clauses that include you in the know, before the rest of the sentence reminds you that you’re not quite as smart as you should be!)
There were obviously other architects and photographers working together over this period. As in “Seamless,” Vassallo limits his field of view to a type of practice he qualifies with the term realism. I would describe these photographers and architects as deep pragmatists. Their conceptual approaches arise from assessing how their medium — be it photograph or building — acts in the world. They do not ask a building or photograph to do something it normally wouldn’t, or be something it normally isn’t, as non-realists do by, for example, importing an exotic method of composition from outside their disciplines. That doesn’t mean any of the protagonists are necessarily practical, but they approach the world’s messiness and complicated operation with an essential acceptance, as opposed to, say, the mannered, resistant work of a photographer like Ezra Stoller or architect like Peter Eisenman.
What initially drew the author to this topic was an accountability to the real that would seem inherent in both architecture and photography. This accountability is actually evanescent — Vassallo explains how it’s based on several stacked assumptions — and one that would at first seem to have no realistic applications. But Vassallo handles the topic with remarkable assuredness and draws out surprising potentials, including ones that could impact that least interesting, most dated of all photographic forms: commercial architectural photography.
Two chapters seemed key. The first starts by exploring relationships between Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s work on “Learning From Las Vegas” and Ed Ruscha’s startling, bald, and profoundly influential photographic books that begin with “29 Gas Stations.” Theirs is not a collaboration: The architects and photographer do meet, and the architects hope to draft Ruscha into their Las Vegas study because his images seem to be about the same landscape that interests them. But Vassallo subtly examines how, despite the similarities, fundamental — but by the architects overlooked — distinctions in the way that art and architecture operate doom the relationship. In their drive to over-explain (both in their practice and in their designs), the architects, while co-opting Ruscha’s method, essentially miss the point of Ruscha’s remarkable muteness (both in his practice and in his pieces). That muteness allows Ruscha’s photographs to enter the world with a certainty the architects describe and desire for their own buildings, but cannot achieve.
A hallmark observation of after-modern criticism becomes clear in this chapter. Though the objects these makers produce clearly resonate with each other, the surface subject matter of artifacts does not alone explain their cultural impact. Vassallo hints that the architects’ blindness to this phenomenon is embedded in the medium-consuming attitude they adopt — that architecture has long adopted — toward photography: They erroneously concentrate on what is in a photograph that serves architecture, and in so doing they do not notice the manner by which capacity of photographs to communicate as things is affected by a mediated relationship to their makers and discipline.
Vassallo then describes how Scott Brown and Venturi turn to the (also great) photographer Stephen Shore to provide base images for “Learning from Levittown.” Shore, in all fairness, is only nominally a realist. Like other photographers associated with the New Topographics — an identifiable movement named after a profoundly influential 1975 exhibition — his realism lies in the sneakiness of the passive view. This apparently neutral viewpoint approach, while intentionally avoiding the advantaged view (think Ansel Adams scaling Glacier Point to photograph the moonrise over Half Dome), nonetheless consistently renders waste or dross landscape desirable — a method that has correctly been criticized as pornographic. The peculiar salaciousness the passive view achieves is, of course, also Scott Brown and Venturi’s aim, but it is precisely not the point of Ruscha’s imagery, which refuses to take any position for or against. Vassallo notes that once again the architects miss the point, as they debase the power of Shore’s photographs, onto most of which they graft their intentionally cartoonish semiotic explanation bubbles.
It’s a relief when you then come, after an important chapter on autonomy in the work of the Bechers and Rossi, to Vassallo’s description of the stunning collaborations between the photographer Thomas Ruff and the architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Underneath the blinding sophistication of their respective oeuvres, all three share probing intellects — and, in fairness to Scott Brown and Venturi, all benefited from educations in groundbreaking after-modern image theory. In setting out how to work together, these three established that, beyond shared interests (in this case, in surface and the inability of either media to penetrate beyond it) they would operate respecting clear distinctions in the autonomy of their disciplines and artifacts.
The chapter’s hinge is one of my favorite WTF stories (partly because I was pursuing photography prior to architecture, and still suffer architecture’s photographic vanity). Initially uninterested, Ruff only accepted the architects’ invitation to photograph their Ricola Storage Building on the condition that another photographer be hired to take pictures on site following Ruff’s written instructions, and that Ruff would generate the final photograph at a distance by combining these base images digitally into a photograph, the viewpoint of which is physically impossible. This useful parable reminds architects that we do not in fact understand all disciplines, and specifically, that there is always a gap between where critical photography (or art, or writing, or film, or dance, etc.) has evolved as a practice and where we assume it is or want it to be. Naturally, Herzog and de Meuron — they’re so damn smart! — had no issues with Ruff’s terms. The final photograph is a tour-de-force, as are later images by Ruff of their work, in some of which he combines photographs taken at different times of day (though you don’t notice this).
What follows is utterly fascinating. Having agreed to disciplinary autonomy, the architects and photographer decide to break this rule, or at least substantially bend it, in the influential design of Herzog & de Meuron’s Library of the Eberswalde Technical University (1994-1999). The gridded elevations of this box-like building consist of glass or precast concrete panels into which photographic images, curated by Ruff from his own archive of newspaper photographs, are silk-screened or imprinted in repeating horizontal bands. This collaboration was one of the first to point to the nature of new potentials for the creation and communication of meaning that are a hallmark of the after-modern. It utilized the relationship between the agency of photographs and buildings, side-stepping the documentary — photography’s traditional role vis-à-vis architecture. The intentional uncertainty of the Library’s presence falls somewhere between that of a fully tattooed human and a bus plastered with photographic advertising screens!
Here you can directly and literally see the strength of Vassallo’s argument, that examining the practices and cultural operation of these two fields — rather than concentrating overmuch on the specific form of photographic portrayal of architectural space, which constitutes the conventional history of architectural photography — yields rich, expansive contributions to architectural making and experience. Vassallo pursues this thesis further in his final chapters, the last of which serves as a bridge back to “Seamless,” in which similar experiments go in yet further directions.
Though a committed read, I can’t recommend “Epics” highly enough. Aside from the depth of information it purveys, the whole issue of how photography communicates architectural content is fraught. I firmly believe that the limits of commercial architectural photography stifle architecture as a cultural activity. Commercial architectural photography is mostly a form of flattery — the making of headshots, as the writer Mary N. Woods put it in “Beyond the Architect’s Eye” — limited to what a flatterer can communicate. But its crucial weakness follows from an oft-made observation: The limited image formats of architectural photography have barely evolved over its long history. While writers differ on the number of phenotypes — the range though is only two to five — they agree that most architectural photographs invariably favor form over other criteria by which we value architecture. Enter after-modern image and discourse theory. Since photography has become the primary means by which we communicate and consume architecture, any criteria beyond form — like environmental or social performance — remains marginalized. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that, because we cannot portray these other issues photographically, we cannot actually care about them enough.
So, the expansion of the relationship between architecture and photography that “Epics” addresses — and one way to read the book is as a form of liberating couples’ therapy! — is resoundingly welcome.
A few closing thoughts: Though “Epics” flows chronologically, I preferred shuffling the chapters on re-reading, breaking the historical certainty and overview that flow suggests. There were many directions critical photography explored during the period covered. The realism Vassallo prefers, for example, branched into a number of other limbs. Though these did not necessarily lead to collaborations with architects, I hope Vassallo will soon turn his incisive intellect to the photography of Lee Friedlander, Nathan Lyons, William Christenberry, and others who arguably inherited from Ed Ruscha and the equally influential photographer Walker Evans (about whom Vassallo writes at length in the introduction) a more fundamental capacity for artlessness — that strange key to apparent truthfulness in photographs and apparent authenticity in buildings — than Vassallo attributes to the photographers of the New Topographics.
I would also love to read Vassallo’s take on what is certainly the most crucial cultural development in critical photography during the period covered in “Epics”: the rise of the production and exhibition of photographs that clearly and intentionally lie (rather than knowingly lie, but hide it, as Ruff and other photographers in both books do) — work made relevant by the collapse of the belief that photographs have any capacity to reliably communicate anything truthfully. This basic acknowledgment of photography’s treachery was firmly established by Susan Sontag’s seminal essays, collectively published in 1977 in “On Photography” — which, like “Complexity and Contradiction,” remains a remarkably fresh read.
Vassallo here deals with this central theoretical development indirectly — partly because it mostly affects the photographers beginning with Ruff; partly (I suspect) because writing about Sontag is a sinkhole worth side-stepping (Vassallo comes at the issue in the introductory chapter through the more opaque writing of Roland Barthes); but largely because, though some happily stretch the truth — and in “Seamless” more obviously fabricate – most of the photographers Vassallo describes in both “Epics” and “Seamless” work within a thin but heavily populated vein of critical photography that tries to sustain the validity of the suspect documentary image format. The advantage of the potential of blatant fiction is not really Vassallo’s concern.
Yet the need for architectural photography to tell more gives rise to the question. Within critical photography in the era “Epics” covers, the potential for self-evident fabrications led, starting in the 1970s, to astonishing invention, from Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” to Barbara Kruger’s bannered images, to Sherrie Levine’s remarkably destabilizing photographs of Walker Evans’ photographs. Most important, all of this work brought to the surface pressing cultural content that had heretofore not been possible to express photographically, such as the groundbreaking calling out of the male gaze in Sherman’s and Kruger’s work. In fact, the blatancy of the fabrication made this communication possible, allowing for a startling expansion of photographic subject matter — an expansion desperately needed in architectural photography.
To be clear, these are not criticisms of “Epics.” Vassallo is working in fertile, open territory that should continue to produce the sort of incisive criticism “Epics” provides. I’m just a happy and satisfied architect asking for more, soon, please.
David Heymann, FAIA, is an architect and the Harwell Hamilton Harris Regents Professor in Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book, “John S. Chase — The Chase Residence,” co-written with Stephen Fox, was published in 2020.