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Picture perfect

[THIS WEEK] When does architectural photography flatter to deceive? asks James Pallister

The AJ moved into new offices near London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ over Christmas, prompting some rooting through the archive. Two issues from 1979 were particularly striking. The cover of AJ 25.07.79 shows a selection of black and white architectural photographs overprinted with the damning title: ‘The Craven Image’.

Inside, an essay by Tom Picton kicked against the ‘necrophilic excellence’ of mainstream architectural photography, stripped of signs of occupancy, which ‘march across the pages of architectural magazines like tombstones in a graveyard’. Picton spares no one, damning glossy magazines: (‘illuminated manuscripts of consumerism’), editors whose budgets are aided by architect-commissioned photography, architects (‘archbishops of an impeccable orthodoxy’) and photographers themselves. Particular ire is directed at architects for ‘submitting to a hubris that did not want people in photographs but still claimed they were for them’. He signs off: ‘Arid and soulless photographs too often, on the evidence of the buildings, accurately portray an arid and soulless […] pompous profession’.

Similar concerns were raised in December by Owen Hatherley in a piece for the Photographers’ Gallery. He draws attention to the early feedback loop between Modernist architecture and architectural photography. Monochromatic reproduction led to Corb et al losing the colourful accents of early works for more austere, lense-friendly architecture, he argues. This, he goes on, makes the current success of sites like ArchDaily and Dezeen worrying. The flow of superficial, idealised imagery becomes, for Hatherley, ‘a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has interest in anything but its own image’.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Gavin Welch

    I've just read Tom Picton's two articles for an essay I'm writing on how architecture is presented in a fetishised manner in press and on websites through carefully selected imagery. What struck me about Picton's article is that although it was presented in the AJ 34 years ago with calls towards change, there is still so much in common with what he describes and what is shown in contemporary copies of the AJ and the new archiblogs such as Dezeen or Archdaily.

    I wonder if you could comment on the AJs stance towards architectural photography? Many of the photographs in your publications still feature either no people, or the minimal amount needed to convey scale, or signs that people have existed in the space at some point. The framing and angles of the views always shows the best of the building, and we never see photos of weaker parts, even if commented in the text.
    Is this an editorial decision to present on the best photographs or is it because you are having to use photographs from a independent photographer whose work has been received via the architect after being vetted and filtered?

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