Stephen Shore, in describing his work, once spoke of ‘showing people what they were not seeing.’ In these deceptively simple words, we can find a rationale for photography’s status as an art form.
Shore is just one of the 18 photographers whose work is on show at London’s Barbican as part of the “Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age” exhibition. The exhibition covers a wide range of styles and eras but it starts with two very big names: Berenice Abbott’s project “Changing New York” and Walker Evans’ iconic work for the Farm Security Administration.
Abbott and Evans influenced a generation of photographers in the US and Europe who imitated their documentary style while also striving to emulate their talent for gesturing towards meanings that are never explicit but which reside quietly in depictions of the built world. Belonging to this tradition are Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth and some of their best work features in this show.
The exhibition gathers pace and punch power as the contemporary world comes before the lens and it is this second half of the presentation that takes the viewer by storm. Guy Tillim’s shots of what happened in Angola, Congo and Mozambique when notions of modern architecture were transplanted are outstanding, adding a fresh visual dimension to the notion of post-colonialism.
Vying for your attention are images of built structures by Nadav Kander, Iwan Baan and Bas Pincen, especially Baan’s shots of Torre David, a 45-story office tower in Caracas which was almost finished when it was abandoned following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. It now houses some 700 families who began moving in as squatters in 2007.
“Constructing Worlds” is the first major exhibition in London exploring the relationship between architecture and photography and as Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, remarks, “it is a must see for anyone interested in how we understand architecture and equally the dramatic shifts in society in the post-war period.”
Seeing these pictures provides an opportunity to view the Barbican—London’s own contribution to Brutalism—prompting the thought that photographs of this building would not have been out of place in this exhibition. But of course, feel free to bring your camera when you come visit and give it your best shot!
Editor’s Note: The exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age showed at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in late 2014.
Sean Sheehan is a freelance writer and the author of Jack’s World, with photographs by Danny Gralton and Ciaran Watson.