Earlier this year I had the honor of selecting the attendees for one of the most prestigious photography review events in the United States, Review Santa Fe. With two other jurors, I culled through more than 400 entries to select the several dozen who attend the show, where they will sit down over the course of several days with top curators, critics, and publishers to have their work individually critiqued in successive twenty-minute sessions. For all parties it is an intense experience, and also a unique opportunity to behold, and participate in, a key cross-section of emerging photographic practice today.
Having reviewed work at events like this for nearly a decade, I have witnessed an intriguing trend, with several attendant rationales, in more work that departs from conventional art-photographic subjects toward concerns with the built environment. Not—I hasten to add—"architectural photography," the practice traditionally driven by architecture firms, publishing, and PR. The work of this new generation of architectural and urbanistic visualization exogenous to these client-driven industries looks more like a fever-dream than the rationalist perspectives and heroic depictions of earlier generations of architecture. Yet curiously, these more "artistic" takes on cities, buildings, and altered landscapes have decidedly crept into the industry's own conventions.
We see evidence of this shift in such relatively recent events as the Image.Architecture.Now symposium and exhibition at Woodbury College in Los Angeles late last year, on the occasion of the late, great Julius Shulman's centennial. Even as Shulman, whose archive is housed at Woodbury, did more than perhaps any other photographer to codify and promote the central tenets of architectural photography in the modern era, the ten photographers included in the exhibition and panels that attended this event create work that would be of seeming little value to a firm, a developer, or a publication. Some, like Jason Schmidt and Catherine Opie, are known for their extensive portraiture projects. Others, like Sze Tsung Leong, who creates far-horizon views of cities from around the world, disavow the phrase "architectural photography" relative to their work.
Yet their visions are increasingly influential not just in the way we see architecture today, but in how we understand it. On his blog, Kazys Varnelis, who participated in the Woodbury event, proposed that architectural photography has reprioritized its ostensible subject as a result of an emergent paradoxical status of architecture itself:
To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School [sic—he likely means to cite the Düsseldorf School] such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today.
Indeed, the photographic subject of the building itself dematerialized and gone transnational. And here again the nagging category confusion arises, because the photographers Varnelis cites are primarily considered "art" photographers—the gallery system, curatorial authority, and a collector base condition their industry.
This art sensibility is now to be found in the work of photographers who continue to be hired by top firms and publications. Frank van der Salm, Tim Griffith, and Todd Eberle (among many others), use radically unobjective techniques from selective focus, distortion, synecdoche, and perspectiveless composition that would make the photographers who set down the doctrines of the trade during the era of heroic modernism shudder and wince.
Which leads us to ask why this approach to urban visualization—which would have been seen as radical even a few short years ago—is happening now. As the professional practice looks to drift away from canonical objectivity it seems to reach toward the work of those art photographers whose subjects are urbanistic, yet not beholden to the needs of the architectural visualization industry. Where shall the two converge?
I argue that where these visions meet is representative of the extreme fluxes in both the architectural industry—whose ongoing mode of being is beset with multiple crises from the financial to the ontological—and photography, whose digitization has led to a previously unimaginable proliferation of images that we daily create, share, and comment upon. The classical architectural photograph is progressively being dismantled by photographers who started working in the wake of postmodernism and for whom the full digital arsenal of data-intensive image-capturing and processing tools are the norm.
But moreover, the hallucinatory nature that Varnelis alludes to is paradoxically the more realistic way of visualizing the built environment today. The canonical modernist subject attended the era of ascendant global technology, prosperity, and development. Today architects and photographers alike contend with skyscraper squats and other modern ruination, defaulting nation-states, non-place and junkspace. There is less rationale in trying to create iconic views, because our built environment seems increasingly actualized by a near-future dystopic imagination as volatile and open to boundless alteration as the digital image.
The contemporary architectural image presents a skeptical unseeing of modernist legacy, priming our visual palate for a future where architecture and photography's prevailing conditions are defined by global multipolarity and sociopolitical fluctuation. That is, where these visions meet looks a lot like where we live today.