The world's architecture has always been one of photography's great subjects, and this was especially so in the 20th century, amidst the flowering of Modernism both in architectural design and photo-aesthetics. Whether focused on the classical structures of the past, the skyscrapers of the 1930s and beyond, or the vernacular of bus stations, industrial locales, or apartment houses, the most inspired photographers of the last 100 years explored architecture with ever-faster films, more portable cameras, and an expanding stylistic repertoire that continues to this day.
Indeed, architecture is a durable subject for experimentation--from Edward Steichen's famous 1932 multiple exposure of the Empire State Building, to the blurred double-vision of Krzysztof Pruszkowski's Egyptian obelisks or Charlie Schreiner's symmetrical studies of streets and office towers. In these and the other startling views featured in this exhibit, towering masses of stone, steel, and glass take on a new expressiveness, texturally richness, and suggest a fresh relationship not only to the viewer but also to the surrounding world.
For example, the Gothic architecture of a great New York cathedral becomes a symbol of aesthetic evolution when viewed alongside a 1930s office tower that is nothing less than a no-frills emblem of international style. And a pastoral view of a humble New England church--partially obscured by trees, and shot from a foreshortened perspective--attests to the secular, formalist approach to subject matter that was one mark of early Modernism. At the same time, the sheer visual rhythm and intersecting planes of architecture lent movement and structure to still photography, resulting in powerful studies of contrasting light and mass, whether in Jerry Spagnoli's contemporary daguerreotypes, James Craig Annan's 1924 study of the Parthenon or Frank Harbidge's 1935 overview of a British waterway lined with deserted buildings.
In the 20th century, architectural photography lent itself just as much to a modernist sense of alienation and spiritual exhaustion as to the documentarian impulse to capture great landmarks in fresh or subversive ways. Shot from ground level, an image of a tall apartment building with an airplane traversing the sky above becomes a disorienting, dizzying marriage of stasis and motion, suggesting the new angularities and deceptive distances of modern life. Similarly, an image of a solitary man reading a newspaper--glimpsed from a high vantage point between the imposing straight lines and zig-zags of building walls and stairwells--is a study in the urban dwarfing of the human presence.
Less metaphysically, 20th-century architectural photos can be wonderful studies in sheer detail, mood and texture, as in Eugene Atget's rich, full-frontal 1905 image of an ornate façade at the Hotel de Lauzun in Paris, or Timothy Rice's equally head-on 1998 appreciation of a Greyhound Bus Depot in West Virginia, lit like a beacon for all the transient souls of America.
As this exhibit makes clear, the best photographers will never cease to make powerful images out of the functional and decorative forms that shelter and surround us, helping us to see them in an unexpected light.