September 24, 2013

Getty Exhibition Explores Over 150 Years of Architectural Photography

In Focus: Architecture Includes Recently Acquired Works and Rare Early Nineteenth-Century Photographs

October 15, 2013–March 2, 2014
At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center


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Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1994. William Christenberry (American, born 1936). Chromogenic print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Nancy and Bruce Berman. © William Christenberry

LOS ANGELES—Soon after its invention in 1839, photography surpassed drawing as the preferred artistic medium for recording and presenting architecture. Novel photographic techniques have kept pace with innovations in architecture, as both media continue to push artistic boundaries. In Focus: Architecture, on view October 15, 2013–March 2, 2014 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, traces the long, interdependent relationship between architecture and photography through a selection of more than twenty works from the Museum’s permanent collection, including recently acquired photographs by Andreas Feininger, Ryuji Miyamoto, and Peter Wegner.

“Architectural photography was an integral part of the early days of the medium, with the construction of many of the world’s most important and magnificent structures documented from start to finish with the camera,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This exhibition demonstrates how architectural photography has grown from straightforward documentary style photographs in its early days to genre-bending works like those of Peter Wegner from 2009.”

Beginnings of Architectural Photography

Recognized for their accuracy and precision, photographs could render architectural details as never before and show the built environment during construction, after completion, or in ruin. Nineteenth-century photographers were eager to utilize the new medium to document historic sites and structures, as well as buildings that rose alongside them, or in their place. In 1859, Gustave Le Gray photographed the Mollien Pavilion, a structure that constituted part of the “New Louvre,” a museum expansion completed during the reign of Napoleon III. Le Gray’s picturesque composition highlighted the Pavilion’s ornamented façade and other intricate details that could inform the work of future architects. Louis-Auguste Bisson, a trained architect, worked with his brother Auguste-Rosalie to photograph grand architectural spaces such as Interior of Saint-Ouen Church in Rouen (1857). The Bisson brothers produced a monumental print, derived from a glass negative of the same size, to feature the nave of the structure in an interior view rarely depicted in 19th century photographs.

Mollien Pavilion, the Louvre, 1859. Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820–1884). Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

A burgeoning commercial market for tourist photographs emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century. Views of architectural landmarks and foreign ruins became popular souvenirs and tokens of the ancient world. Artists such as J.B. Greene, who ventured to exotic destinations, provided visions of historic sites in Egypt, while Louis-Émile Durandelle took a series of photographs that documented the construction of the Eiffel Tower in the years before it became a symbol of the modern era at the World’s Exposition of 1889. Durandelle’s frontal view of the structure underscored its perfect geometric form, and his photographs were the earliest of what became a popular motif for amateur and professional photographers.

Other noted photographers of this period included
Eugène Atget, who obsessively documented the streets and buildings of Paris before its modernization, and Frederick H. Evans, who created poetic photographs of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals.

The Rise of Modern Architectural Photography

As the commercial market for photographs expanded and technologies advanced, representations of architectural forms began to evolve as well. In the twentieth century, images of buildings developed in conjunction with the rise of avant-garde, experimental, documentary, and conceptual modes of photographic expression.

Portal in Greifswald, 1859. Andreas Feininger (American, born France, 1906–1999). Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the Estate of Gertrud E. (Wysse) Feininger. © Estate of Gertrud E. Feininger

Andreas Feininger, who studied architecture in Weimar, followed what Bauhaus instructor László Moholy-Nagy called a “new vision” of photography as an autonomous artistic practice with its own laws of composition and lighting. In
Portal in Greifswald (1928), Feininger created a negative print, or a photograph with reversed tonalities, resulting in a high contrast image that enhanced the mystery of the architectural subject and removed it from its ecclesiastical context.

“The experimental spirit that permeated photography in the first half of the twentieth century inspired new ways to look at architectural forms,” says Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition. “As photographs could present buildings in abstracted, close-up, or fragmented views, they encouraged viewers to see the built environment around them as never before.”

At the same time the Bauhaus was influencing photographers throughout Europe, Walker Evans was at the forefront of vernacular photography in the United States, which elevated ordinary objects and events to photographic subjects. In keeping with this trend, architectural photography shifted its focus to ordinary domestic and functional buildings. Derelict and isolated dwellings feature prominently in the work of William Christenberry, whose photograph and “building construction” of
Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama (1994) will be on display in the exhibition.

Architecture as a photographic subject became more malleable at the end of the twentieth century, as artists continued to explore the symbolism and vitality of the modern cityscape. This transition is exemplified in Peter Wegner’s 32-part
Building Made of Sky III (2009), in which the spaces between skyscrapers in New York, San Francisco and Chicago create buildings of their own. Wegner described the series as “the architecture of air, the space defined by the edges of everything else.” When presented as a grid, the works form a new, imaginary city.

In Focus: Architecture is on view from October 15, 2013–March 2, 2014. The exhibition is curated by Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Architecture in Photographs, with an essay by Gordon Baldwin, has been released on the occasion of the exhibition. A lecture by Dietrich Neumann, Royce Family Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, organized in conjunction with the exhibition, will take place at the Getty Center on Sunday, January 5, 2014.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations:  the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts, and photographs gathered internationally. The Museum’s mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.

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