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Light fantastic

review - Building with Light: The International History of Architectural Photography By Robert Elwall. Merrell/RIBA, 2004. 240pp. £39.95

It is probably still true that, when two or more architects are gathered together, trannies of the latest architectural tour are being readied for projection. As Robert Elwall points out in his wonderful Building with Light, photography has played a crucial role in disseminating ideas about architecture ever since it was invented - or at least since the unexpectedly early date of 1839 when this book begins.

Elwall is the RIBA's curator of photographs. In Building with Light he has written a remarkable study, which must come to be the standard work on the subject because of its completeness, its scholarship and the clarity of its writing. You start reading with a rare and pleasurable glow of discovery, which continues unabated as Elwall carefully unfolds a complicated story of technical innovation, of swings of fashions in taking and composing architectural photos, and of the significant names behind the lenses of picture-taking devices, from the portable laboratories of the early pioneers to the 35mm cameras of today.

The organisation of the text is well suited to the shape of Elwall's history. It begins with 'The Triumph of the Apparatus' and moves on in 25- to 30-year leaps, through an early sub-Claudian haze, through the literalism of record photography, the art photo, the topographical view, the new vision of interwar Modernism, the too-briefly shocking photojournalism of the late '60s, and - with the beginnings of colour printing in magazines ('wholly baleful', says photographer Cervin Robinson) - on to the present.

Each of the six phases is discussed in the kind of detail that comes, not from mugging up for the occasion, but from a profound knowledge of the subject, and is then illustrated in a sequence of stunning examples, each meticulously captioned. There are those haunting and highly detailed record photos by Edouard Baldus of the construction of the Louvre, Jacob Olie's atmospheric Dutch townscapes, Henry Fuermann & Co's evocative images of Sullivan and Wright's turn-ofthe-century work.

There is a poignant view by Frank Yerbury of rows of stone caryatids removed from Soane's Bank of England, standing like those Chinese warriors in Shaanxi province; EugÞne Atget's timeless architectural details; Charles Sheeler's American vernacular studies; and the photographers of Modernism - Werner Mantz, Moholy-Nagy, the AR's Dell and Wainwright. More recent is the American giant, Julius Shulman, who, untypically, was happy to include people; and there are the rest of the Moderns, known to us from the international magazines.

There is a long-standing and still active tradition of amateur architectural photography. But this book is mostly about professional photography. And the market for it among architects was early and strong. In 1857 Charles Barry and Anthony Salvin were among the founding members of the shortlived Architectural Photographic Association, which aimed to supply its members with 'photographs of architectural works of various countries by means of a moderate subscription'. At its peak in 1859 it had 1,200 subscribers around the world.

Today architectural photography is mostly done for architectural practices and magazines. In the past it was for the picturepostcard industry, and those 19th-century books of views of cities and places, now seen as an important quarry for understanding the society and architecture of the relatively recent past. But professional photographers were also deployed to record a nation's heritage:

Charles Marville documenting those parts of Paris that were to be demolished by Haussmann; George Koppmann & Co doing likewise in condemned parts of Hamburg;

the work of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. And almost a century before the wartime founding of our National Building Record, the French government had commissioned a nationwide photographic survey of its architecture.

If there is a criticism of the book, it is that recovering information from it is not all that easy. The index is overly mechanical and there are no crossheads in the text. For a book of this importance, so dense with information, it is critical that you should be able to put your finger on material without re-reading the whole text again, pleasurable though that may be.

Sutherland Lyall is a freelance journalist

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