Michael Collins: Record Pictures At CUBE, 113 Portland Street, Manchester, until 17 March
When Dulwich Picture Gallery was being built in the early 19th century, John Soane would send his pupils out to make accurate drawings of each stage of its construction. It was no different for the civil engineer than it was for the architect at a time when the distinctions between the building professions were less marked than today.
With the arrival of photography, this tradition of record drawings - illustrated in this CUBE exhibition by professional topographical artist John Cook Brown's work for engineers such as Robert Stephenson - soon died out.
The seemingly dispassionate practice of record photography succeeded it, and it is this that informs the work of Michael Collins - building on his publication Record Pictures (AJ 03.02.05).
The visitor to CUBE is greeted by eight of Collins' large-format colour photographs of recent construction sites, before being given some historical context.
That latter section includes not only the earlier drawn and topographical tradition, but wonderful examples of record photography - such as the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal - from the rich archives of the Institute of Civil Engineers, supplemented by local Manchester sources.
Collins' photos share the same aesthetic qualities as these earlier images, but writ large.
You feel you can almost walk into his enormous images of the M6 toll road, or hang suspended amid the paraphernalia of contemporary construction sites at Spinningfields.
There is a quietness and stillness about them, which arrests by their seeming innocence. Made with a modern 8 x 10-inch plate camera combined with digital printing, there is nothing celebratory in Collins' work, but rather a hard matter-of-fact approach. There are no 'artful' compositions and the sites are photographed in a at, even light, minimising any sense of the artist's self.
As Nicolas Alfrey writes in the accompanying catalogue: 'He aims to offer description without commentary.' This creates a surreal emptiness that can raise expectation. Largely devoid of people, the photos present a landscape of either intrigue or bleakness for the viewer to fill with 'the beholder's share', and where the question 'so what?' can be replaced by 'what if?' There is also a wonder in the sheer scale of the prints and their high definition, which echoes the complexity of the construction itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recession and projection of grids in Collins' photograph of the new St Pancras station.
Today the formal record photograph examined by this show has largely given way to our individual use of the ubiquitous hand-held digital pocket camera. But as new technology makes it redundant, so an artist like Collins can revisit that lost tradition to produce deceptively moving work.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian in Manchester