The Power of Photography: How Images Continue to Shape the Built Environment

The Power of Photography: How Images Continue to Shape the Built Environment

In a culture dominated by smartphones and Instagram, with estimates that over one trillion photographs will be taken this year alone, it might seem impossible for photographs to make and shape issues in the ways they once did. Despite this, images still steer debates with shocking resiliency and, with luck, become iconic in their own right. As architecture is synonymous with placemaking and cultural memory, it is only logical that images of the built environment can have lasting effects on the issues of architecture and urbanism. It's never been easier for photographs to gain exposure than they can today, and with social media and civilian journalism, debates have never started more quickly.

Art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau asserts, “...what is registered by the eye of the camera has no sense in and of itself–or better, no signification in and of itself–other than those meanings brought to bear on it.”[1] Culled from a collection of essays titled “The Anxiety of Images” in Aperture 204, where authors contemplated the “contested terrain of images, ten years after the 9/11 attacks,” Solomon-Godeau may be reacting to a fraught decade of iconographic representation, but the implications still have an all-inclusive pertinence to photographic reception and meaning.

Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, April 22, 1972. Image Courtesy of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

For example, an image like the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, made simply as a historic document of the demolition by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Policy Development and Research, has come to define the failings of post-war urban renewal in America, and is intellectually regarded as the key-moment in the demise of Modernism - as consecrated by Postmodern champion and theorist Charles Jencks, who famously wrote that "Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3:32 PM (or thereabouts)."[2]

Even if opinions have softened in recent years, the demise of Pruitt-Igoe establishes the power and use of images in framing the debates and outcomes of the built environment. The complex was not alone in its failure, and although completed only in 2011, the demolition of Chicago’s equally infamous Cabrini-Green housing project was further evidence of the typology’s failings. It also indicates that Modernism did not die the definitive death proposed by popular culture: "It was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom," declared Charles Jencks. This, it turns out, is a dramatic oversimplification, yet the image of Pruitt-Igoe defines the event most clearly in our collective subconscious.

Today, new construction that emulates the scale of Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini Green is taking a very different approach, at least in the United States. In Los Angeles, Michael Maltzan’s One Santa Fe, a new apartment building, is as long as the Empire State Building is tall, but only six-stories high, and it does not isolate itself from the streetscape or neighborhood like its forebears.

Cover of New York Magazine, November 12, 2012. Image © Iwan Baan for New York Magazine

In our current era, one of the most widely recognized photographs of this decade is certainly Iwan Baan’s image of Lower Manhattan flooded and in darkness in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In the photograph, taken from a helicopter over the New York Bay, the city grid north of 39th street glows as normal, while Downtown is a black void, except for the World Trade Center site and parts of Battery Park City, lit with an auxiliary generator.

The photograph was featured on the November 12, 2012 cover of New York Magazine, called the best magazine cover of the year by Time, and was used by the Museum of Modern Art as a poster image for a fundraiser for hurricane relief. But wide-ranging publicity aside, Baan’s image gained traction because of the way that it portrayed New York’s woes as simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Showing a city of unrivaled cultural, political, and economic might from the perfect vantage, the image exposed inherent vulnerabilities and showed the magnitude of the storm’s destruction.

As eloquently stated by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites in their book No Caption Needed, the most lauded images “are used to orient the individual within a context of collective identity, obligation, and power. They come to represent large swaths of historical experience, and they acquire their own histories of appropriation and commentary...they have more than documentary value, for they bear witness to something that exceeds words.”[3]

Baan’s image of Lower Manhattan, while not singular in shaping the discussions of a more storm-ready city, has certainly been used as an icon for resiliency measures that will make New York better prepared in the future. As water damage became the chief issue of the storm, photographs like Baan’s certainly affected the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “Rebuild by Design” campaign, where proposals by BIG, OMA and others sought to ready the New York metropolitan area with flood prevention measures.

As aptly stated by Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of [a] photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.”[4]

A Tale of Many Cities: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil... by CLEMENCE.( photography by Paul Clemence)

Posted by Architecture Photography on Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The truth of this argument was in full view three weeks ago when Paul Clemence’s understated photograph of a favela reflected in the glass facade a modern tower in Rio de Janeiro, shared via his Facebook Page ARCHIPHOTO, received almost 32,000 likes, 19,000 shares and nearly a 1000 comments, fueling a debate about inequality in South America’s largest country. Brazil was the host nation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and with Rio as host in-waiting for 2016 Summer Olympics, commenters took to the image en masse to discuss the painful inequalities that persist in a city and country trying to make strides on the world stage.

Thomas Bach, current president of the International Olympic Committee, at an August press event in Barra da Tijuca’s Cidade das Artes, called the Rio Games “the most inclusive Olympic Games ever.” The current sentiment, however, is that the infrastructure boon of the Games will affect only those who need it the least, a factor generating even more pronounced hardship as the once-buoyant Brazilian economy fades, and it concedes to the recent growing pains of other nations with similar fates, like China and Russia.

In our era of trillions of photographs, it may seem more difficult to ascribe the weight and meaning of entire events to a single image, as was the case with Pruitt-Igoe, but photography continues to play an implacable role in the sharing and shaping of world issues. As architecture has been made accessible like never before with journalism that reaches beyond a niche audience, photography shapes perceptions of the built environment’s past and how architectural practices will change in the future.


  1. Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. "The Anxiety of Images." Editorial. Aperture Fall 2011, p58.
  2. Jencks, Charles. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-modernism. Yale University Press, 1977, p9
  3. Hariman, Robert, and John Louis. Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007, p290.
  4. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p39.

About this author
Cite: Vladimir Gintoff. "The Power of Photography: How Images Continue to Shape the Built Environment" 12 Oct 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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