'Architects who go to Chicago don't really expect to see Mies' architecture - they expect to see Ezra Stoller's or HedrichBlessing's photographs. Here is a picture of Lake Shore Drive apartments not taken by either of them. . .Reality can be quite demoralising.' So said photographer John Donat in a lecture at the RIBA in 1967, screening a slide in which Mies' two towers looked decidedly mundane. Donat took issue with what he called 'the photogenic conspiracy', arguing that 'one scruffy live picture is worth 10 dead ones'. Architects, seduced by image, were partly to blame, but so were magazines. Keen to beat their competitors in featuring a project, they despatched photographers when contractors were still on site and the building was 'as empty of life as a tomb'.
Donat died in 2004 and his substantial archive is now part of the RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection. Hung densely on the walls of the RIBA until 4 July are some 80 images from it, with Willis Faber, the National Theatre, and ABK's Keble College extension (see picture) all showing signs of life. There's evidence too of Donat's range: his 1960s street scenes in the spirit of TV dramas such as Cathy Come Home; his photographs of Cretan churches with their mouldering frescoes.
Not all his pictures are populated and some seem quite conventional - just competent records that several of his contemporaries might have taken. But these 'empty' ones can be deceptive. A shot of Le Corbusier's Salvation Army Cité de Refuge, Paris, looks at first like one of the near-abstractions Donat supposedly abhorred - a vertical strip of red-painted wall on the left, an area of glass bricks on the right. Examine it closely, however, and you see many traces of wear and damage: it's a study of how the building has fared over time.
There's a cheap well-illustrated catalogue to the show, Image and Experience (RIBA, £9.95). It includes an informative overview of Donat's career from curator Robert Elwall and a revealing memoir by one of his longstanding clients, ABK's Peter Ahrends, who remarks on 'the unforeseeable insights that emerged in John's work'.