Architecture photos show difference between drama, fact

John Conti
| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 7:33 p.m.

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-19th century, architecture and photography have been intertwined.

It has, most often, been a rewarding relationship, but, sometimes, a problematic one, as well.

Photography is often the only way we have of seeing buildings and places that we could never get to personally. Yet, in pursuit of beautiful pictures, photographers often present work that doesn't adequately illustrate the real experience of a building.

A new exhibition at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art illuminates some of the issues with a fascinating trip through nearly a century of architectural photography. The aim of the exhibit is to explore the “symbiosis” between the two forms of art. It will be open through May 26.

Curator Tracy Myers and curatorial assistant Alyssum Skjeie have imaginatively divided the show into four parts:

• A recently acquired portfolio, dating mostly from the 1950s and '60s, of the work of Ezra Stoller, a famed photographer of modern buildings. A favorite of the architects whose works he photographed, Stoller could render buildings with considerable drama. He was a recipient of the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1961, the first photographer so honored.

• Twenty-five photographs of historic architecture in Charleston, S.C., taken in 1937 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of the country's earliest female photojournalists. Such documentation is still today the first step in meaningful efforts at preservation, and Johnston's documentary vision was particularly acute. Though she traveled through the “Old South” and made thousands of images of historic buildings, she often waited patiently for just the right play of light on a building's details to create emotionally effective views.

• Selections from what was called the “Carnegie Art Set,” straightforward photographs by anonymous photographers of historic sites and structures around the world. The photos were assembled and distributed by the Carnegie Corporation to colleges, high schools and libraries throughout the country in the 1920s and used as teaching tools in history and art. The images include one strikingly detailed view of the Allegheny County Courthouse taken in the early years of the last century.

• An assortment of photographs from various photographers in various nations that demonstrate how architecture is often used to provide a dramatic backdrop or inspiration for views of other subjects. One of the most affecting of these images was created by W. Eugene Smith, the great documentary photographer, who came to Pittsburgh in the 1950s to photograph it for the Stefan Lorant book, “Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City.” Smith shows an informal gathering of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) drama students in an upper hall of the Fine Arts Building with receding rows of arches behind them.

This part of the exhibition also includes images made by Pittsburgh photographers such as Luke Swank, Harold Corsini and Mark Perrott.

It's the works by Ezra Stoller, though, that best show the possibilities and the perplexities of even the best architectural photography. Two photos highlighted there — both from New York City — show how Stoller could use striking patterns of sun and deep shadow to create almost abstract black-and-white renderings of modern buildings. One photo is looking out from the lobby of the rigorously modern Seagram Building across its plaza toward an older Renaissance style building on the other side of Park Avenue. The second is looking through the lobby toward an entrance canopy on the brutalist-style Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan.

Both of the photos give you appreciably strong impressions of the two buildings, but neither, of course, gives you very much of an idea at all of what the whole building might actually look like. If you don't know these buildings from other photographs or in person, the two photos are just wonderful photographic art.

In a way, that's fine. You need strong images to attract attention in the first place. But lacking additional perspectives and knowledge of the two buildings, you really don't know what the architecture is about. That is the weakness of highly dramatized architectural photography, and, sometimes, that is all that we get from articles or books: great pictures, but limited understanding.

Stoller himself knew this. He once said of photographing Fallingwater — one of the most photographed buildings anywhere — that, though he had seen many pictures of this house “it was only exposure to the real thing that brought home how great a creation it was.” He similarly said of another Frank Lloyd Wright house — Wright's own home in Arizona — that he wished he could show 80 pictures in sequence in order to explain the spaces of the house.

With all that said, if you like architecture or like photography, this exhibition is the place to go.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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