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Not All Photographs Lie

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I learned to distrust architectural photographs at a very early age. The first photograph I thought looked a bit odd was the one below. It looked like something had been airbrushed out from behind the house. This was back when “airbrush” actually meant an airbrush.

This version of the same image has been ‘retouched’ better but the sky at the rear is too white and there’s too much of it.

Sure enough, something was being hidden.

Later, with the advent of Wikimedia Commons and Flickr and other photo-sharing sites (not to mention inexpensive digital cameras, etc. etc.) it became possible to see buildings as people really see them and without the truth being altered or distorted by art directors, editors, publishers, photographers or architects. This is something new in the world. The architectural photograph that “captures the essence” of a building does not have the authority it used to.

Mostly. Photographs like this are still possible. Note that this photograph is ‘for training purposes only’ [?], and copyright resides in the Frank Lloyd Wright [Building?] Preservation Trust.

The reason for disappearing the building at the rear is to sustain the conceit that the owners had more money and land than they actually did. Or that the house is perhaps meant to be imagined solitary and commanding the prairie as per FLW’s marketing monicker. Fair enough, but trees aren’t part of the prairie experience either. Or ever were.

Moving things forward a bit, here we have The Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor. The photograph is from the aptly-named

what you are shown
what you are not shown

Notice the circlesque house on the left – the “Villa Vals” – it made a bit of a noise on the internet a couple of years ago. The press release always mentioned it being “in the same village” as Therme Vals and indeed it is, although, from the following image you’d think it was probably on the next mountain.

what you are shown
what we are shown
what we aren’t shown

To a certain extent, it’s fair enough for architects and photographers to want their  photographs of buildings to be pleasingly framed and composed. This will often mean excluding unsightly distractions but distractions – unsightly or otherwise – are a part of life, especially in urban environments. Excluding them is likely to create a false impression – if not be an overt lie. Take the following photograph for example. This is the New York Guggenheim Museum as it used to appear in many a history textbook. It is how it was.

(Just fyi, this is it being built – you don’t get to see stuff like this too often.)

OK? Now this is it along with Gwathmey–Siegel & Associates‘ rather handsome 1992 addition.

This next photograph is typical of recent ones. The addition is no longer in the picture, in the frame, part of the story. People aren’t given the opportunity to appreciate what a difficult job the architects had or to judge how well they succeeded.

To me, this says that it’s okay to appreciate ‘the masters’ but it’s not okay to appreciate how others can also do their job well if – and probably better because they have factors other than their own ego to consider. Grrr.

Here’s an example of what I mean when I say that the internet stuff gives us the opportunity to see many unapproved views that have their own truth.

As my final example, when I was an architecture student, I used to have a picture of Richard Meier’s Douglas House 1971-1973 pinned above my studio desk. Many years later I had the disturbing thought that, just outside the frame, there might be neighbouring buidings. By that time, I was prepared to be disappointed but some part of me still didn’t want to believe that might be the case.

Only recently did I googlearth it. I was pleased to discover that not all photographs lie.

But it’s best to assume they do. We may never commission a building but, since we are subjected to an endless barrage of images that we are expected to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ at the very least, then our opinions must matter to someone. It’s good to be critical of what we see and, if we are looking at an image, it’s good to be cynical as well.


  • says:

    despite having been living there both pre and post GS, however, I cannot from memory comment on the extent of demolition, what is worse cannot remember anything at all about 89th. although there is a vague mist that the addition is not visible form 88th

  • I never knew the squiggle was by Gehry, although I should have guessed. I do remember noticing it and frowning. I’m glad it’s gone. But yes, I think that’s true. If you put new york guggenheim museum into google images you’ll get a selection of images, about half of which have their viewpoint and angle of view contrived to minimise or mask the addition. Usually, this means a rather wide angle shot from the 88th St. corner, making the galleries look rather bulbous – fashionably so, it seems. Just looking at the current aerial view, it seems that quite a considerable chunk of it was demolished. (I’ve added some more pics as a follow-on.)

  • in the Gwathmey Siegell addition there is also the squiggle by FO Gehry, now gone. while in the image appearing to a metallic silver colour generally appeared as iridescent purples due to the finishing of the titanium
    with urban Gwathmey Siegell projects seemingly out of favour with the current media, returning to the cropping and angles of the classic view is back?