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A Modern eye

review - Lucien Hervé: Building Images By Olivier Beer. Getty Research Institute, 2004. 224pp. £36

Born in 1910 in Hungary but based for most of his life in Paris, Lucien Hervé is one of the great photographers of architecture.

Although he recorded the work of Modern masters such as Nervi, Niemeyer and Prouvé, as well as historical architecture - most notably in his sensitive disquisition on the Cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet, La Plus Grande Aventure du Monde (1956) - it is on his association with Le Corbusier that his enduring fame will rest.

This began in 1949 when, commissioned by Le Plaisir de France, Hervé photographed the Unité d'Habitation, Marseille, prompting Le Corbusier, on seeing the pictures, to assert that Hervé possessed 'the soul of an architect'. Thereafter, Hervé photographed all the architect's new buildings and a number of existing ones. These photographs are now owned by the Getty Research Institute in California, which is responsible for the English edition of this visually ravishing book.

Generous full-page reproductions reveal Hervé's discerning eye for the significant abstracted detail, and his characteristic fondness for oblique angles (witness his 1950 Rodchenko-like portrayal of the Mill Owners' Association building, Ahmedabad), tight cropping, and dramatically intense contrasts between blacks and whites. These enable Hervé to suggest rhythmic movement and to delineate space, particularly interpenetrating volumes, in an astonishingly three-dimensional manner - as in his 1955 image of the High Court at Chandigarh. In addition, his photographs convey textures to an almost tactile degree: a portrait of Le Corbusier illumines the roughness of his taughtly drawn skin in a way suggestive of the coarse finish of his favoured béton brut.

Olivier Beer's relatively short text is informative, especially on Hervé's artistic influences, although a shot of a nun taken from Hervé's Parisian apartment window in 1947 recalls an iris-out from a Henri Clouzot film and suggests a cinematic inspiration not mentioned here. The book suffers too from the fault, common to photographic monographs, of failing to open out and truly place its subject in context; in this instance, architectural photography generally.

While Beer rightly positions Hervé in the Bauhaus tradition, he could have compared Hervé's response to Le Corbusier's work with that of the professional architectural photographers, such as Albin Salaün and Marius Gravot, who preceded him, and contemporaries such as Ezra Stoller, who made an evocative but very different portrayal of Ronchamp.

What of the irony that Hervé brought to architectural photography the experience and equipment of the photojournalist (small-format cameras, fast films), but created just the kind of highly graphic imagery against which contemporary photographers with a photojournalist bent, like John Szarkowski, were rebelling? Szarkowski's study of Louis Sullivan (1956) thus used the same techniques to the very different end of achieving livelier, more informal, pictures in which people and buildings interacted meaningfully.

One would also like some consideration of the way Hervé's photographs most exerted their influence - through publication. Scrutiny of Le Corbusier's Oeuvre Complète and other published works suggests the images were printed less intensely, and that cautious editors often chose the more matter-of-fact pictures. Nevertheless, this is a sumptuous book that anybody with an interest in architectural photography should have.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection

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