‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ runs at the Barbican until 11 January and, with such a comprehensive range of work to see, this is the perfect holiday season show. Only closed on the 24/25 and 26 December it’s a good excuse to get away from your family for a couple of hours (or, hell, bring them if you’re still speaking to them) and is one of the strongest exhibitions seen in London this year.  Over the next two weeks I will be taking you on a multi part blog tour of ‘Constructing Worlds’, looking at some of the photographers and architects in detail.


Barbican install view 1.jpg

Installation view showing Hiroshi Sugimoto, Barbican
© Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Bringing together eighteen photographers and eight architects from the 1930’s to present, the exhibition is (as is the usual way with Barbican) organised into a series of alcove mini shows or micro pavilions with wall text dedicated primarily to a single photographers work and then display cases examining architectural context. Each photographer deals with the representation and perception of architecture and, progressing through the show, layers of influence and collaboration are revealed. The viewer is made party to how a whole community of photographers and architects are built from the seeds of each other.

We begin upstairs with America and Walker Evans and Bernice Abbot, the earliest photographers on show both making work in the 1930’s. Evans, of course, was on assignment for the FSA (Farm Security Administration) during this period, undertaking a survey of rural America as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative. Abbot was on an initiative of her own making, arriving in New York from Paris where her employer and mentor had been Man Ray. She became fascinated by the city and the radical changes that were occurring in the built environment. In 1935 she persuaded the Federal Art Project (part of the Works Progress Administration) to commission her project Changing New York which she described as ‘the past jostling the present’.


Berenice Abbott installation, Barbican
© Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Abbot ended up taking over 1000 images in this series between 1935 and 1939 although on show are several images from her earlier photographic forays into the city such as images of the The Rockefeller Centre under construction in 1932. Here we see new social realities playing out in the city as sections are cast into shadow by the dwarfing new sky scraper structures, light and space in the city changed forever. One print, Court of first model tenement house in New York, 72nd Street and First Avenue, Manhattan (March 16, 1936) shows a tangle of washing lines strung up around this pioneering tenement. After a plethora of such types of housing sprung up in the city in the late nineteenth-century, the Tenement House Act was brought into force in 1879 to improve living conditions. In reality, this was a way of trying to artificially rid society of the social problems that went along with tenements; drinking or unemployment for example. Often these model tenements requires occupants to be model examples of society themselves and it was required that a family must have two parents in employment and were screened for any behavioural issues that might upset the tenement as a whole.


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Court of First Model Tenement House in New York, 1936. Berenice Abbott

Walker Evans influence, particularly, on the next generation of photographers cannot be underestimated with work from Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Stephen Shore all included. While Abbott was documenting the city, Evans was out in rural America alongside other luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn carrying out ‘special assignments in the field’ and the result was an exhaustive survey of the realities and hardships of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in places like Alabama, Mississipi and South Carolina. Evans was interested in the architecture of the area as much as the people inhabiting them, abandoned farms lost into flood, shaded cabins in Mississipi’s Negro quarter, sugar-cane plantation mansions built by slaves in Louisiana. This series would result in a major solo exhibition at MOMA in 1938, the first ever awarded to a single photographer.


Walker Evans, Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana, 1936
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008060-E]
© Walker Evans Archive,The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans also used this early period to perfect his ‘straightforward’ frontal images which are uncompromising yet loving in their gaze. Particularly good to see is his series of churches which have so much personality and reminds of a silly Metro image doing the rounds a couple of months ago – the house that apparently looked like Hitler.  Evans interest and protective interest in architecture, preserving them not just in the image but also in real life continued throughout his career. He would go on to publish a controversial nine-page photo essay in 1963’s Life Magazine titled ‘America's Heritage of Great Architecture is Doomed … It Must be Saved’. This essay, featuring images of significant buildings threatened with demolition such as Penn Station resulted in a protest by 150 architects and critics outside the terminus. A key moment although the beaux-arts station would get pulled down regardless.


Several images from the Evans section relate to the photographers collaboration with writer James Atgee which resulted in the 1941 book ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’. Evans was seconded to Fortune magazine in 1936 with Atgee in which they lived with several rural farmers and their families in the South documenting their daily lives over a period of weeks. One of the most iconic shots is of 27 year old Allie Mae Burroughs, mother of four and wife of a sharecropper. Evans took four images of Burroughs, all mug-shot like against the clapper board cabin in which they lived. The prematurely aged face, with lips pursed, is concentrated but inscrutable. 

Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans. 1936. Walker Evans Archive, 1994. Accession Number: 1994.258.425 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


AuthorSacha Waldron

Open from this week (20 November) 'London/Pittsburgh' from British artist Mark Neville at Alan Cristea Gallery, London, examines the diverse communities living in the cities of London and Pittsburgh through a series of photographic portraits and studies.

Neville's work has always straddled the boundaries of art and documentary, highlighting conflict, social custom and the sociology of our times. Neville often bases his projects on newly published sociological research and topical issues giving his work an agency beyond their functions as artworks. For the 2011 project Deeds Not Words, for example, Neville focused on a case brought to court in Corby, Northamptonshire, by a group of families affected by toxic waste following land reclamation of an old steel works. Instead of making his resulting images available commercially, Neville instead distributed the images to local authorities and government agencies across the UK to raise awareness of the handling of waste and re-use of contaminated land.

'London/Pittsburgh' is Neville's first exhibition at Alan Cristea and includes thirteen works from two significant projects by the artist in recent years: Here is London (2012) and Braddock/Sewickley (2012). The first time these bodies of work have been shown side-by-side, the pairing highlights the similarities and contrasts between British and American society, social disparity and characteristics.

There is an emphasis on the division of wealth and racial segregation that is present in both locations. Predominantly white, Sewickley in Pittsburgh is a community originally made prosperous by the steel industry. In Neville's images we see the community socialising. The older generation hang out in exclusive country clubs decorated with very British scenes of hunting and shooting, propped up like pearly-queens in decrepid high-society. The young party at high-school proms, debutant-like balls with satin dresses and corsages. These is scenes are not so prim and proper, however, and we see a fair amount of sexual provocation going down on the dance-floor. Twerking and porn-faces galore.

In contrast, the neighbouring town of Braddock is a mostly black community going through some tough economic times. The failure of the steel-industry has not been so kind and the fall-out from an early eighties crack cocaine epidemic is still being felt. Yet there are similarities; the old ladies hats are just as big, the teens are grinding at their parties just the same.

In contrast to the clear divide in Pittsburgh, Here is London examines how the effects of class and wealth have changed little over the last 40 years. Originally commissioned as a photo essay for The New York Times, the twenty images show the diverse sprawl of the city and its messy contradictions. Grubby and thin children are shown in slightly Dickensian fashion at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground in Tottenham while hipsters dance at the Dalston Superstore and bankers party at Boujis. Clearly, it is class not race which is the decisive factor in these images but the space inhabited by both is more claustrophobic. Instead of different communities in London, it might be more illuminating to describe it as one locational community with multiple tiers.

Neville has been involved in several projects as of late; his recent body of work, made during his time as official war artist with the 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan closed in September at London's Imperial War Museum and, coming up, from the 2nd to 19th December, Neville's exhibition Art as Social Document will be on display at the London School of Economics. The latter will be followed by a Panel Discussion at LSE, which will use the themes explored in London/ Pittsburgh as a platform for a wider discussion about inequality within society.

London/Pittsburgh will be on show at Alan Cristea Gallery from 20 November to 24 January.

Alan Cristea Gallery, 31 Cork Street, London, W1


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AuthorSacha Waldron

On November 13th the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award, staged annually at The National Portrait Gallery, will open its doors to the public. The Prize, with a top award of £12,000, showcases sixty new portraits ranging from editorial to creative projects by photographers worldwide. The prize is significant in the photography world’s calendar and, this year, attracted more than 4,000 submissions completing for four cash prizes or a ‘New Work Award’ (given to a photographer under 30).

As 2014’s prize opens, last year’s prize is, curiously, still making the rounds and can currently be found on display at The Beaney, Canterbury. The reason for this is likely to be 2013’s top prize winner Spencer Murphy’s connection to Kent, having grown up in the region and studied for his BA at Kent Institute of Art and Design. Kent have reason to be proud of Murphy as his portrait of Katie Walsh marked the seventh time Murphy has exhibited in the Taylor Wessing Prize. In 2012 he also won second prize for his portrait of actor Mark Rylance. His winning 2013 portrait of female jockey Walsh was taken at Kempton Park racecourse whilst shooting a series of jockey portraits for Channel Four’s The Original Extreme Sports Campaign and was an attempt, says Murphy, “to show both her femininity and the toughness of spirit she requires”. The result is haunting. Walsh stares directly at the camera, her expression is both shy, slightly resentful but completely timeless. Shot directly after the race she is also exhausted, covered in mud and dishevelled. It is easy to forget her jockey outfit, its colour and shape have a Victorian crinoline feel – Walsh is rendered as Tess of the d’Urbervilles fresh from the Moor.

Taylor Wessing’s 2014 shortlisted photographers, Jessica Fulford-Dobson, Birgit Püve, Blerim Racaj and David Titlow have, interestingly as the prize does not normally focus on one specific theme, all been selected based on their images depicting aspects of childhood. Skate-girls in Kabul sit alongside twin boys at their home in Estonia, Kosovian teens and a new baby son being introduced to a dog.

I think it’s an easy one to call this year. A strong contender is Fulford-Dobson’s Skate-Girl from the series ‘The Skate-Girls of Kabul’ documenting young Afghan girls that attend the unique NGO Skateistan which started life as a small skateboarding school in 2007. The image certainly has the story and the political weight which could give it the edge but my bets are going on Titlow’s Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow. The photographer has captured the moment when, the night after a midsummer party in Sweden, his baby son meets a dog, the little child’s fingers touching the dogs black wet nose with delight. “everyone was a bit hazy from the previous day′s excess” says Titlow  “my girlfriend passed our son to the subdued revellers on the sofa – the composition and back light was so perfect that I had to capture the moment”. It is not just the slight oddity of the situation, the momentary recognition and understanding between baby and animal, but the atmosphere of the image that, in my mind, put this photograph in the lead. The composition, with its multiple players and narratives form a dramatic tableau that is both contemporary and historic. Timeless images often win out in this photographic prize; last year’s Katie Walsh, 2012’s portrait of Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera or 2010’s Huntress with Buck by David Chancellor to name just a few.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

You have until Sunday 2nd November to catch Taylor Wessing13 at The Beaney, Canterbury.



AuthorSacha Waldron