Image Building: How Photography Transforms Architecture
THE PARRISH ART MUSEUM | MARCH 18—JUNE 17, 2018
Therese Lichtenstein’s sparkling exhibition, Image Building: How Photography Transforms Architecture, was in part influenced by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s unique barn-inspired design of the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill, New York, built to replace the 1897 structure in Southampton Village. In Iwan Baan’s catalogue photograph, the 2012 building is shown in a meadow surrounded by clusters of residential communities extending to the Great Peconic Bay. Functioning as more than a documentary photo, the image creates a visual narrative about yesteryear’s bucolic farm life, inevitably swapping its leafy fields for manicured lawns, and its gritty barns for sky-lit artists’ studios. The museum’s new position in a farm field boldly underscores a transformed lifestyle as it anoints the museum’s iconic presence as a bastion of art and culture. Thus, did Lichtenstein’s proposal for Image Building strongly resonate with museum director Terrie Sultan, who was instrumental in shaping the new museum, and is particularly sensitive to photography’s impact on the way we perceive the buildings we inhabit.
This idea drives the exhibition, with Lichtenstein diving deep beneath its surface to create critical juxtapositions, such as the side-by-side placement of Thomas Struth’s Dallas Parking Lot, Dallas (2001) and Andreas Gursky’s Avenue of the Americas (2001). Both artists emerged from the Dusseldorf School, profoundly influenced—as were many others in this show—by Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose works explored the relationships between architecture and the humanity it embraces. Struth’s rain-drenched, nearly empty parking lot abuts a row of antiquated buildings with glassy high rises towering behind them. Their dissolved reflections afloat in foreground pools of water, their postmodern cubes speaking volumes to the isolation haunting contemporary life. This late work, which documents the inability of twentieth-century architecture to construct a better world, visually contrasts with Gursky’s photo: a high-rise digitally flattened to near abstraction with a sweep of vibrant lights dancing across the picture plane. Here, Gursky comments on human impotence through the sizzle of technology—dazzling and seductive, but ultimately disarming our ability to sort the real from the fake.
Lichtenstein’s comparisons often target the American dream. Julius Shulman’s Case Study House No. 22 (Los Angeles, Calif.) (1960) was intended to advertise affordable post-World War II real estate. Photographed at night, the cantilevered glass home suspended above a view of Los Angeles aglow in the distance, positions two elegantly dressed women seated inside. The surrounding sixties furnishings pitch modernist design as a paradigm of twentieth-century living. Lewis Baltz’s Model Home, Shadow Mountain (1977), an uninspired cookie-cutter tract house, flies in the face of this ideal with its pared-down image of the “dream” short-changing the American middle class. This politically timely sense of disenchantment also pervades Stephen Shore’s US 2, Ironwood, Michigan, July 9, 1973 (1973), an image seemingly too banal to photograph, yet intriguing in its compelling focus on humdrum details: cheap motel marquees, seedy bars, and signs to State Road 2—a highway leading to another unremarkable destination.
Architecture was photography’s first subject, since 1826 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the first known photographic image: a view of rooftops taken from his window in France. Architecture has since remained among photography’s favorite subjects, enlivened in the early twentieth century by the International Style, the Bauhaus, and new camera technologies; all encouraged photographers to find the visual language of modern painting and sculpture within architecture. Lichtenstein’s pairings include Ezra Stoller’s 1958 hard-edge image of the Seagram Building and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s opaquely dreamy 1997 photograph of the same structure. Stoller’s building rises above its neighbors in crisp, assertive, and proud vertical lines; Sugimoto presents a flat, dark, and blurry Seagram building squeezed by new generations of skyscrapers—a lament on the invasion of glass and steel behemoths. The differences are between composition as solid form and composition as light and shadow; the former connecting to lucid, stunning prose, the latter ethereal poetry.
Others find abstract interest in architectural details. Luigi Ghirri’s Rimini (1977) is a progression of closed louvered windows playing against a patio walkway of randomly placed stones and scrubby grasses. Lewis Baltz’s Tract House #5 (1971) isolates two perfunctory windows and a cropped margin of doorway—the photographic equivalent of a minimalist painting. James Casebere’s digitally manipulated Yellow Overhang With Patio (2016) transforms an ordinary backyard plot into a surreal, unsettling stageset.
Architects think about humans moving through space, photographers about light moving through a lens. The magic in this exhibition is that it is a thought-provoking but easy journey through the documentary and aesthetic affinities uniting otherwise disparate forms of architecture and photography. Architecture doesn’t move or change by itself; it is the artist-photographer who transforms and nuances our evolving view of the constructed world.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.