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Obituary: Martin Charles (1940-2012)

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Martin Charles (1940-2012), who died last month after a long illness, was one of Britain’s greatest architectural photographers.

The son of architect FWB Charles, an expert on the conservation of timber- framed buildings, Martin initially worked as an editor in film and television on programmes such as Monitor before turning to architectural photography in 1974. His early clients included Camden Architects’ Department who at the time were building cutting-edge housing such as that at Alexandra Road (1979) but, unlike that of most contemporary photographers who tended to specialize, his work embraced both modern and historical architecture.

He thus proved equally at ease photographing the High-Tech futuristic delights of the Pompidou Centre, Paris (1977) or the romantically mouldering decay of the Ducrow Mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery. Similarly he was able to switch between black-and-white and colour with equal facility.

Ducrow Mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery London by Martin Charles

Source: Martin Charles

Ducrow Mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery London by Martin Charles

Some of his best work was done for the AJ Masters of Buildings series with evocatively crafted explorations of the Natural History Museum and the Reform Club, and Phaidon’s Architecture in Detail series which included a study of Edward Prior’s little-known St Andrew’s, Roker. 

His examination of CFA Voysey’s work published in Wendy Hitchmough’s Phaidon monograph (1995) also promoted a greater understanding of the Arts and Crafts pioneer. This coruscating imagery above all showed his photography to be imbued with a keen appreciation of the history of his medium. He especially admired those photographers who were less concerned with architecture per se than with evoking a sense of place and time – Frederick Evans, Eric de Maré and Edwin Smith. As he wrote: ‘You don’t actually have to have people in the shot but you do need to have the signs, the evidence of people’s work.’ A superb craftsman and generous helper to others starting out on their careers, he will be sorely missed.

Robert Elwall is assistant director, Photographs Imaging & Digital Development at the RIBA

Other tributes:

Timothy Soar, photographer: ‘Charles was, for me, one of the preeminent photographers of his generation. His apparently effortless grace and ease with composition produced rich, rewarding and insightful architectural narratives. Working at a time when architectural photography faced constant technical challenges  his photography transcended technique producing gleaming, seductive  images that described the making of human spaces with a refined vocabulary of intelligent observation and eloquent advocacy. 

Charles’s photographs had a degree of engagement and love of poetic discovery that mirrored work of other great photographers, de Maré  and Stoller. A world away from the current preoccupation with sternly objective deadpan imagery Charles’s photography explored the delight and joy to be found in architecture. His was an entirely subjective truth that found a glorious resonance in the work of a post war generation of architects to whose hopes and ambitions he helped give a clear and spirited voice.

Patrick Hannay, editor at Touchstone magazine and AJ Buildings Editor 1979-81,1983-89: ‘Charles was one of life’s great human beings, a moral photographer and a real craftsman who never succumbed to the agency mentality. He was utterly professional and a passionate admirer of elegantly crafted architecture.’



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Readers' comments (1)

  • While echoing everything said by your three memorialists, I would add his professionalism which so impressed me when we did an AJ Masters of Building together - the building was empty and unfurnished, but Martin, with his sleeping bag set up in one corner of the floor, could not be persuaded away overnight, if there were a chance of capturing better images by remaining.

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