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Obituary: Robert Elwall (1953 – 2012)

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Robert Elwall, assistant director of the British Architectural Library at the RIBA, has passed away at the age of 59, writes Irena Murray

Elwall passed away on Wednesday 7 March 2012 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

A champion of architectural photography for over 30 years, Elwall enjoyed a distinguished career as curator, author, critic, conservation advocate and lecturer. He built at the RIBA the largest collection of architectural photography in the world – over 1.5 million images, including the preservation of many important photographic archives previously at risk. In 2006, he created RIBApix, a digital image database that today has over 60,000 images available to researchers and the public at large.

He curated dozens of exhibitions exploring the relationship between architecture, photography and society in libraries, museums and galleries. His exhibition on photography and the architecture of Italian Modernism was the first British exhibition to be shown at Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, in the Spring of 2010.

The author of a dozen monographs, Elwall earned his reputation as an international authority in the field of architectural photography with his book Building With Light: the International History of Architectural Photography (2004) which was nominated for the 2005 Bruno Zevi Book Award and named as a ‘Book of the Decade’ in the magazine Wallpaper.

His most recent monograph, Evocations of Place: the Photography of Edwin Smith (2007) was shortlisted for the British Book Design Awards. Elwall contributed hundreds of articles, columns, reviews and, above all, little-known images to the media.

Elwall worked to bring architectural photography to the widest possible audience and at the same time to illuminate its importance as a powerful means of architectural and cultural expression. In his many public talks, he emphasised the significant contribution that architectural photography has made as an art form and as a means of enhancing of our sense of place and our collective cultural memory.

Elwall was made an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA this year.

He is survived by his wife and collaborator on his many publications and projects, Cathy Dembsky Elwall.


  • Irena Murray is director of the RIBA British Architectural Library
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