Transcription of a talk by James Brittain on architecture and photography at the Bulthaup studios on Sunday 29th April 2018
It’s great to see you all here this morning – thank you so much for coming.
I’d like to begin by sincerely thanking Stefan and Bulthaup for inviting me to present my work here as part of the Contact Photography Festival. It’s been great fun hanging out with Stefan over the past few days in preparing for this morning. As I’ve got to know him a bit better I’ve learnt he has a real passion for photography and fine art. He’s a collector himself and is genuinely committed to supporting artistic endeavor and in making this space available for showing new work. Stefan, your encouragement is hugely appreciated.
I’d also like to thank Naomi and Elyse Clinning from Kriss Communications for all their hard work and encouragement in putting this whole thing together. Just to add that Naomi has been a great source of inspiration, wisdom and support to me over the years I’ve been based in Canada, for which Naomi, I am sincerely grateful.
It’s also a great pleasure to welcome Alex Bozikovic here this morning.
Alex is the architecture critic for the Globe and Mail and is a prolific writer and thinker about architecture and urban life in Canada and beyond.
Rigorous public discussion is so crucial to how we design and make our cities, and in particular how we keep our architecture grounded and relevant to the people who use it.
What I admire in Alex’s writing is the way he views architecture and urban design through this human prism, and it’s a great privilege, Alex, to have you here to share thoughts on photography today.
Revisited: Habitat 67 – some of which is on the walls here – is a series of photographs I’ve made at the residential complex in Montreal, designed for the world fair in 1967.
I began the work because I wanted to thoroughly review my own photographic practice and think more deeply about the way in which we present architecture in photographs. So in approaching this extraordinary piece of architecture I’ve been less interested in its formal qualities - though of course the complex is formally breathtaking - and more in seeing if there were other ways to look at the building that might reveal clues, or a the beginnings of a new blueprint for communicating architecture in photographs.
To step back for a moment, I’ve been photographing architecture on commission for almost 20 years and it’s been my perception for quite some time that much of mainstream architectural photography – in which I myself am of course implicated - is somehow stuck at a crossroads.
Over the last few years, there’s been an incredible explosion of image sharing on the web, and a massive growth in social-media and websites dedicated to covering architecture and design. We‘re bombarded today as never before by a tsunami of digital imagery of architecture.
In many ways this can be seen as a good development. We are now instantaneously aware of new projects as they emerge from all over the world. The web has undoubtedly brought previously unimaginable capacity for sharing thoughts, ideas, and images.
However, I think it also has had some less positive effects.
Not all, but a good portion of contemporary imagery of new architecture is beginning to look and feel the same. It has always been somewhat like this, since architectural photography has from the start had its own distinct language. This can be very broadly explained by two viewpoints - the single point perspective to show elevation, and the ¾ point view to show volume. Both originate from the language of architectural drawing that was used prior to the invention of photography in the mid nineteenth century, and then adopted by early photographers recording buildings and cities.
In the language of architectural photography today, these two key viewpoints are still very present. But the proliferation of imagery on the web has sped everything up and seems to be having a homogenizing effect.
For instance. Buildings and spaces are today mainly presented in a manner that is impossibly clean and tidy. Views are also generally presented in wide format. Skies are mainly shown blue. There’s a proliferation of images captured at dusk – helpful for hiding awkwardness in architectural finish, but strangely disconnected from regular day-to-day experience.
From time to time there may be a blurry figure or two wondering around in the frame – but when people are included in photographs they often seem either on auto-pilot, or looking like figures placed in a digital render.
The result is two-fold. First, the overall effect is a feeling of detachment. The photography often feels lacking in life and soul, with an almost super-real quality about it. Polished certainly, but not grounded in anything that can be related to on a human level.
As an additional observation, there’s been a blurring of the lines between digital render and photograph. It’s sometimes almost impossible to tell whether an image is a digital mock-up or has been captured on site.
The second result I think is that the projects themselves, the architecture itself, is in danger of looking and feeling the same. Over-polished imagery can make architecture itself difficult to decipher – almost as if the buildings are merging into one-another.
The question I therefore ask myself as a photographer. Is it possible to photograph architecture usefully, informatively and with relevance - both to our own profession and to a wider audience?
And if so, how do we do this?
For my own response and for inspiration for my project at Habitat 67, I began by looking back at images by photographers and artists I’ve admired.
This photograph is by Canadian Jeff Wall:
Wall is a fine artist based in Vancouver who regularly uses the built environment as canvas for exploring his ideas.