There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed.… Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.—Oliver Wendell Holmes,“The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” 1859
Histories of the built environment, like contemporary discourse on architecture, have been populated by photographic images for more than a century, even as photographic technologies have changed radically. For architects and historians, photographs offered seemingly evidentiary representations throughout the analog life of the medium (often dated from 1839 to roughly 1990) despite frequent doctoring of images in the darkroom or on the page. Products of an obsolete technology, photographs are yet fabulous discursive propositions as much as dry records of building. They are revealing diagnostic devices, speaking with more than one tongue to say more than one thing. Reading photographic evidence, then, complicates the architectural historian's task by adding multivalent, nonexclusive, sometimes contradictory visual “texts” to other information about the production and consumption of architecture. Photographs do tell us about the hard stuff of buildings on sites; they also tell us how that stuff is seen at a given moment in time, and how buildings are deployed differently through photographic means—whether in series, sequences, single instances, compilations, or montage. Such photographic assemblages elicit strikingly rich interpretations. In short, photographs are discursive, but in ways that differ profoundly from text or spoken word. We continue to seek analytical frames adequate to what photography historian Matthew Witkovsky refers to as “the game,” in addition to “the match” of this extremely heterogeneous manner of imaging.1
I recently asked Witkovsky whether photographs are like letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, or texts. “All of the above, at once,” he immediately responded—articulating my own thoughts about the medium. In addition to the multiplicity of “photography's discursive spaces” (Rosalind Krauss), its distinctive bilateral address (Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson), and its multiple historical forms (Kaja Silverman), we might add a pervasive communicative capacity that no text-based language possesses (although pictographic scripts may provide better models than phonetic ones).2 Photography's communicative modes encompass a range of written forms, as already suggested; in addition to lexical complexity (letter-word-sentence-paragraph-text), there is also genre, whether fictional, biographical, documentary, or some other. And finally, behind Witkovsky's response is his own work on the materiality and specificity of photographic images. The material substrate of photographs and the ground on or within which they are viewed critically affect how such images do their work, at the junction of historical text and discursive gambit.3
How does photographic architecture make productive use of photography's multiplicity, and what historiographical models does it make possible? Photographs of built things are often used as propaganda, celebrating photographic achievements as if they are architectural ones. Some view such “fake narratives” about buildings skeptically, as displays of false consciousness—the marketing of architects masquerading as the presentation of building. But rather than a perceived disciplinary split between responsible history and mythmaking advocacy, it may be that photographic media, as inherently multivalent representations, embody (em-image) splitting. They are inherently multivalent and flexible, both advancing careers and informing audiences; a single image can change its meaning and address according to context. The photographic text is not fully in the hands of the photographer, who can seldom control all of its modes in the way that a writer crafts words—not only because of the technical complexities of a multistage production process but also because of the heightened importance of word-to-image relationships, other editorial agents, and the changeability of audiences. Some historians have deployed this medium to good effect.
Like László Moholy-Nagy, Sigfried Giedion was among those who understood the power of photographs to mount arguments more compelling than words, and how to enlist that power in the construction of manifestos for modern architecture. Books such as Bauen in Frankreich (1928) offered compelling testaments to the motive capacity of photographic images.4 Here were “documents,” in the manner of Eugène Atget (recently discovered by the surrealists), able to “awaken” viewers to their own historical moment (following Walter Benjamin, himself following Giedion), yet eminently malleable with different enframing texts. Captioned photographs became powerful complexes with which to shape the future. The Bauhaus corner photograph taken by Lucia Moholy, for example, one of the best-known images of modern architecture, depicts impressive rhetorical counterpositions: glass, machinery, car, floating building, bridge, classroom, ground. Captioned one way by the photographer and in Bauhaus publications, it was scripted very differently by Giedion in 1941, when he published it with extended caption in Space, Time and Architecture.5
Already in 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed the primacy of form over content in the development of photography, and his well-known essay on photography thus supports a related point: photographs lifted form (visual appearance) from matter (the substance of a building), abstracting one characteristic of building from many others. Form, thus lifted away from its accompanying content, proved far more flexible to interpretation or mutable through words than buildings could ever be.6 In this way, photography added yet another system of abstraction to a plethora of others—from currency to text to language to representative governance to law itself—that govern and administer the world. And yet this particular way of abstracting the world into a two-dimensional surface also leads to acts of deconstruction.7 Photography can be used as a diagnostic device to decode remote abstract systems that buttress and construct the world. This deconstruction also requires historical reconstruction.
Recent reviews of my book Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century open up the very question of photography's agency in history.8 The notion that the book's primary focus might be more presentist—that is, engaged in current theory debates within and outside architecture—suggests that the polyvalence of photography is temporally restricted there, which is true. Indeed, I passed over contemporary interference, looking instead to open some long-shut windows on the past and to assess the agency of photographic architecture at the times of its intervention into specific buildings’ histories.9 Investments in media theoretical discourse and photography theory provided the book's discursive substrate but not its authorizing force.
Information about buildings is generally distributed through various formats. Drawings, models, construction documents, photographs, forms, letters, textual accounts, and buildings themselves all provide information critical to historical interpretation, restoring to buildings some of their original valence. To draw a bead across one of these media does not, therefore, elucidate particular buildings in their historical context especially well. Instead, using photographic architecture as the screen on which to project architecture's discursive apparatus sets the specificity of individual instances (specific buildings and their photographic images) together with the generality that characterizes classes of objects (photographs and buildings) to reveal consistent movements between two practices. This is the game, not the match. Thus photography, used as the datum by which to measure the architecture that it promoted, elucidates both practices as they intersect with larger ideological structures underpinning modern architecture over a period of roughly one hundred years. Above, I compared photography to currency. In fact, during much of its analog life in the world of architecture, photography provided promissory notes for buildings that architects would never realize. Uniquely qualified to promise a manner of “reality” in latent form, photography was also constitutionally incapable of supplying anything like “reality” of spatial experience, and the modernity of visible form that it did supply was no longer, as Holmes noted, closely annexed to matter.
Instead, “real” analog photographs offered dreams of a present architecture that had never arrived. Buildings depicted on the surfaces of images were not to be found behind them, as depicted, on sites. Instead, the approximations that could be found differed substantially from their published images. That was one of photography's paradoxical purposes, in the age of the analog photo—to make manifestos out of sketches or prototypes, and to make buildings into objects of desire by depicting them. Offered up as evidence, photographic images were also and more powerfully myth images. Today, the notion of photographic evidence has been displaced by an even more paradoxical faith in the concocted “realities” of photographic images of unconstructed things. In other words, we have left behind a market economy, where photographs were indexed to and assisted trade in constructed buildings, and entered a finance economy, where photorealistic renderings trade in other ephemera like journal publications and public lectures, constituting architectural discourse in the thin air of a virtual world. This is not a crisis—but it demands new analytical tools.
It goes without saying that history writes the present whether it elects to or not. Yet one can succumb to one's format, or one can resist it. For me, photography provided a blaze on the path of resistance by constantly confounding what I thought I knew. Intellectual work is future oriented—geared to opening up new possibilities rather than acceding to current limits. We better understand that power structures, temporal regimes, economic systems, and other kinds of systems tend to exceed the control of those who first devised them, or, indeed, of singular actors at all. There is no “operator” for operative history, despite overwhelming pressure to claim authorship, exerted as much by the impulse to capitalism as by individual artistic agency. For utopian contrarians, our own subjectivity and fallibility provoke a strong counteractive force against inevitability in historical writing. As we seek greater precision, new hypotheses about the past, the excavation of old hypotheses and new evidence, trickster photography provides a remarkable analytical tool.
JSAH is a great place to stage a debate about photographic evidence and its relationship to discursive history, past and future. In writing it, the historian-obsessive stretches out from the limits of the self to extend a hand forward across time, through writing, to those who will navigate the wormhole between past and future with the same ambiguous compass of the present that we carry with us today. In my case, the other hand is still entangled in the grip of historians such as Barbara Miller Lane and Adolf Behne, and theorists such as Reyner Banham and Giedion, as well as others who speak directly of current questions and concerns through their historical writing, their photography, and their photographic editing. In writing about this topic, my desire was to help unlock an abundant resource for diagnostic architectural history—the resource of photographic architecture, evidentiary and nonevidentiary at once.