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Photographic Language for Impermanence

Photographic Language for Impermanence

Photography is often likened to a visual language. The “most literary of the graphic arts”[i] is after all a formal system with commonly accepted structure and recognizable motifs.

Ezra Stoller, while using the ‘photography as language’ analogy, positioned the architectural photographer between architect and audience, in the role of interpreter and communicator of the architectural idea[ii]. Such an approach invites several questions: how idiosyncratic can that interpretation be, to what degree it depends on the visual language of the photographer and finally whether the particularities of an architectural space invite or prohibit the use of a specific photographic vocabulary. While in the fifty years since Stoller wrote that article, media platforms for Architecture have exploded in number and variety, it remains true that we communicate architecture mainly by image. Yet, instead of witnessing a parallel growth of photographic “dialects”the opposite is the case: increasing homogenization of image, oftentimes driven by the need to present architecture as an easily consumable visual product, expected to survive extremely short attention spans in an environment of information over-saturation. While alternative approaches do exist, they tend to operate at the fringe of commercial architecture photography, employing buildings as a pictorial element in a photographic practice that does not, in principle, concern itself with architectural communication. This kind of photography is seldom, if ever, commissioned by architects and mainly belongs to the world of fine art.

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Kengo Kuma Architects & Associates, Water Glass in Atami, Japan. Photography © Erieta Attali. Image

Rather than providing a descriptive representation of specific buildings and landscapes, I choose as a photographer to focus on relations between architecture and its continually shifting environment. Architecture in my practice as a photographer is used as a lens that reflects, filters and translates the landscape; at the same time, however, human constructs are treated as “found objects” that have surrendered to nature, leading the photographer’s gaze to explore and rethink the world.

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Kengo Kuma Architects & Associates, Glass Wood House in New Canaan, USA. Photography © Erieta Attali. Photography © Erieta Attali. Image

I often employ materials in architecture such as glass and overlapping layers of reflections in order to capture a multiplicity of standpoints. While this often happens when I photograph the work of the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the methodology is broadened by the inclusion of transparent natural elements as well as the juxtaposition and combination of several photographs into diptychs and the collage technique.

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Dan Graham, Heart Pavilion in Philadelphia, USA. Photography © Erieta Attali. Image

The idea of permanence and the related illusion of timelessness, is common in architecture photography; it often produces photogenic entities that are self-reliant, self-explanatory and disconnected from any notion of senescence. Architecture however, unlike its photographic avatars, does not seem to be permanent in any way; countless human geographies have come and gone, dotting natural landscapes with ruins as they follow an inevitable cycle of decay and renewal. Materials age and wither; plant life grows to reclaim any space bereft of human activity. It is the mediated icons of singularity and permanence which acknowledge neither temporal variation nor situated context, which the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma chooses to call ‘objects’. Architecture however, is not immutable; it reacts to daily and seasonal transformations, inevitably embedded in some sort of environment, be it natural or artificial as well as a cultural substrate. Performance demands are defined by local climate conditions, available materials and established lifestyles. While the image enjoys autonomy and can be evaluated as a stand-alone object, the reality of architecture is a messy network of dependencies, which change through time and without which we cannot have a complete understanding of built space. An awareness of that context does not only provide us with a better understanding of the architecture being photographed; it also offers a glimpse into the natural processes that act on it and, conceivably, shaped its original conception.

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Kengo Kuma Architects & Associates, Coeda House, Japan. Photography © Erieta Attali. Image

What I hope to contribute to the ever expanding but not necessarily diversifying field of architectural photography, is to communicate both the photographer’s and the architect’s concerns to a greater audience and open a dialogue for the use of photography as an interpretative tool in the study of space. Architectural photography has an under-used capacity to capture transitions and therefore inform the viewer -or architect- of the rich network of interrelations between the building and its context. The use of architectural photography as a tool of analysis furthermore showcases its potential as a visual language with considerable flexibility; a language that welcomes manipulation into ambiguous word-play, thereby testing not only the limits of the medium and its expressive spectrum, but also a perception of what is finally a real, faithful or useful photographic depiction of architecture.

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Kengo Kuma Architects & Associates, Private House, Japan. Photography © Erieta Attali. Image

[i] Evans, Walker. "Photography." The Massachusetts Review 19, no. 4 (1978): 644-46
[ii] Stoller, Ezra. “Photography and the Language of Architecture." Perspecta 8 (1963): 43-44.

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Cite: Erieta Attali. "Photographic Language for Impermanence " 20 Feb 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/977137/photographic-language-for-impermanence> ISSN 0719-8884

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