Well that was a long two weeks! Now after the Christmas break, the Point 101 blog is back with the second part of our look-at of the Barbican’s current exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’. This one closes on Jan 11 so not long left to catch it.
I ended the last post with some of the photographers represented who were making work in the 1920’s and 30’s; Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott. This post begins with the beginnings of a new generation of photographic practice from the husband and wife duo Bernd and Hilla Becher who are represented in the Barbican exhibition with a grid of their iconic water-tower series.
The pair, like Evans, were interested in the vernacular architecture of a region (this time the Ruhr) and its uncertain future. Their focus was on industry and the socio-economic implications of this particular architecture and, over the course of their career, they would photograph structures such as blast furnaces, cooling towers or gas holders all over the world. The images were always taken, or made, from a very particular straight forward and raised angle. Instead of the photographer looking up at these structures dotted high on the landscape, they were photographing them as structural equals. The Becher’s referred to the structures they photographed as ‘anonymous sculptures’ and the sculptural angle to their work was recognised in the Sculpture award from the Venice Bienniale in 1990.
The legacy of the Becher’s, both their style and work as a teachers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, is far reaching and well charted in the Barbican exhibition with students including Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. Gursky is represented here with two photographs. Paris, Montparnasse (1993) takes Jean Dubuisson’s Mouchotte Building as its subject. This 1996 landmark is Paris’ largest purpose built residential block (over 20 stories high) and, shooting as the Becher’s did from a raised angle and straight-on, the building seems literally too big for the camera lens to take in becoming abstracted by the hundreds of coloured shutters and windows.
In the second image, Sao Paulo, Sé (2002) we see the various levels of an underground station with people layered on its platforms and concrete swirls like a cake. Gurksy’s images seem to be pregnant with so much visual detail, yet also not be able to hold all this information which spills over the photographic dimensions.
Stephen Shore’s photographs are a welcome splash of colour in this part of the show. Present as a teenager on the Andy Warhol Factory scene in the early 1970’s, Shore had also been awarded, aged just 24, a solo exhibition at The MET. Following that accolade, inspired by the travels of Jack Kerouac and also on the recommendation of Hilla Becher who he met at an exhibition opening in New York, Shore proceeded to embark on a series of road trips across America photographing main streets. Shore was not interested in them as common locations (gas station, diner, general store etc.) but what made them ‘quintessentially’ common. The results are like constructed film sets, uncannily regular, oddly unreal. They are so generic as to make them not generic at all and the people inhabiting them seem lost, they could have just murdered their spouse, realised the pointlessness and insignificance of their existence or just be extras, not relevant to reality at all.
Stephen Shore, Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, LosAngeles, CA, 21 June 1974
It is a treat elsewhere to see Ruscha’s Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) which breaks from his ‘no-style’ style and photographs the parking lots from a helicopter in collaboration with professional aerial photographer Art Alanis. These prints are also a much larger format than we usually expect from Ruscha, who was a prolific book-maker producing sixteen smaller photographic books between 1962 and 1978. There aerial shots, at 8 x 10 are photographed straight down looking at the parking lots and have an abstract quality yet, in the context of modern warfare and surveillance society it is hard not to see something sinister in them, predatory. Now of course, we spend our time browsing top ten website’s of aerial photography obsessed with strange forms, unexplained architectures, secret North Korean gulags or barcodes etched into the Gobi desert.