Le Corbusier had Lucien Hervé, while Julius Shulman was responsible for some of our most enduring images of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings. Despite these photographers' genius in capturing and disseminating their subjects' beauty, the buildings' architects remain much more resonant with the wider public. In most, if not all cases, the photographer is rendered an afterthought or footnote. Although it is the photograph that serves as the medium through which countless people encounter an architect's work, the image is considered merely a tool that conveys the real genius: the building and its design.
The latest show at the Musee ICO in Madrid (part of PHotoEspana 2014) attempts to rectify this oversight. Through the excellent curation of Iñaki Bergera—fittingly a professional architect and photographer himself—we come to understand the beauty and power of the photographs that disseminated modern Spanish architecture to the world.
To be sure, the buildings are beautiful. From the well-known paragons of Spanish modernity to some less well-known but equally worthy structures, we have the chance to see the full range of Spanish buildings from the middle of the 20th century. These range from a fantastical looking gas station (slide 2) to majestic churches, sleek department stores and a humble school. As we see over the course of the exhibition, the subjects vary as widely in form as they do in function.
But as the exhibition makes clear from the start, we are meant to value the photographs as photographs, not only as a means to appreciate these buildings. By putting the photographs on the wall, in frames, we are able to appreciate them as the artistic images that they really are. But where the show further shines is in contextualizing the photographs. Beneath many of the framed photographs are vitrines, which contain the images as they were originally disseminated: in magazines, in textbooks, even in colorized postcards.
The pleasure of the exhibition comes in this combination and juxtaposition: the images are beautiful in and of themselves but they also represent an invaluable catalogue of modern architecture's wide-ranging expression throughout Spain.
Editor's Note: This show, along with many other fantastic exhibitions, can be seen at PHotoEspana 2014, which is running in locations all over Madrid from June 4 - July 27, 2014.
For those particularly interested in the project, be sure to check out the extensive catalogue, published by La Fabrica, as well as the blog of FAME, an ongoing collective research project on the same topic.