The Best Photobooks we saw at UNSEEN Book Market, 2015
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The Best Photobooks we saw at UNSEEN Book Market, 2015

Last week we returned from an inspiring long weekend at Unseen Photo Fair Amsterdam. Amongst the programme of events on offer, we were particularly excited to spend some time in the UNSEEN Book Market. With major art book events occurring in both New York and Japan during the same weekend, the market at UNSEEN was small but lively with around 60 publishers taking part and filling a lovely glass room full of printed matter. Here we share some of our favourite new (and re-) discoveries from the weekend. 

Vincent Delbrouck was this years’ recipient of the Outset Unseen Exhibition Fund, being awarded the grant for work shot in Cuba and Nepal across a ten year period. We were struck by the colourful, intense and highly intuitive portrayal of life in Kathmandu in Delbrouck’s newest photobook Dzogchen. His analogue process involves collaging, superimposing and scanning images. Alongside Dzogchen were a couple of other great books by Delbrouck, most notably Some Windy Trees, which is well worth looking out for.

Thomas Albdorf – I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before

Thomas Albdorf’s new publication – published with TPG Bookshop favourites Lodret Vandret – looks at the construction of Austria within common image spaces and plays with the country’s alpine landscape rhetoric, in classic film, advertising and political propaganda. This beautifully printed book collects Albdorf’s experiments in constructing mountainous spaces through various methods of image production. Besides being one of the books everyone was talking about this year, Albdorf’s photographs were also part of one of our favourite displays within the fair, installed at the Webber Gallery Space booth.

Maurice van Es – Now Will Not Be With Us Forever

Maurice van Es – Now Will Not Be With Us Forever

Maurice van Es originally self-published Now Will Not Be With Us Forever in a tiny edition of fifty copies, editing the whole thing himself. We were pleased to hear that a publishing house would be taking on the book and producing a larger edition and who better to take on this ambitious project than RVB Books? Debuting at the Unseen Book Market, the publication (or ‘bookcassette’ as van Es calls it) is made up of eight small books, each one focusing on a different subtlety or nuance from the artists’ everyday life: his brother leaving the house each day, the textures of his childhood home and the accidental sculptures his mother makes while undertaking her household chores. The book is a touching and impressive body of work.

Melanie Matthieu – Lamo Lava

Melanie Matthieu – Lamo Lava

Lâmo Lâva, which is old French patois for “ Up there, down there” follows artist Melanie Matthieu’s journey to the site of Our Lady of La Salette in the French Alps, where an apparition is said to have taken place in 1846. The black and white images are spare and evocative, and the book is beautifully made – combining photographs, textual fragments and a print within a navy blue hand-folded cover. Other books we loved at the Alauda Publications table were the research books on Robert Smithson and Moldovan museums.

Bruno Ceschel – Self Publish, Be Happy: A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto

Bruno Ceschel – Self Publish, Be Happy: A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto

In celebration of their fifth birthday, Self Publish, Be Happy just released Self Publish, Be Happy: A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto, co-published with Aperture. The book is a wonderful, affordable object that offers an honest and exciting take on the self-publishing scene of the last five years with a cacophony of great voices involved. To celebrate its launch, SPBH embarked upon an ambitious project to create a photobook live in 24 hours across three time zones in Amsterdam, Tokyo and New York. The Amsterdam leg of the project was a fantastic addition to the atmosphere of the book market and included artists Isabelle Wenzel, Justin James Reed and Jaap Scheeren.

Yoshinori Mizutani – Yusukira

Yoshinori Mizutani – Yusukira

After the incredible success of Tokyo Parrots and Colours, we were eagerly (if a little nervously) anticipating Yoshinori’s next photobook release, but he hasn’t disappointed with Yusukira. In what seems to have become a distinct style that the artist has cultivated for himself, the book – following Mizutani’s quest for nature in the dense city of Tokyo – is bleached in colour, with the same magical qualities as his previous publications.

Taisuke Koyama – Rainbow Variations

Taisuke Koyama – Rainbow Variations

Having previously published Viviane Sassen’s Lexicon and Daisuke Yokota’s Site/Cloud, we would say that the Japanese publishing house Art Beat Publishers know how to make a good photobook. One of their more recent offerings, Rainbow Variations, impressed us at the fair for its graphic simplicity. Koyama’s various rainbow projects and experiments are kaleidoscopic and sparkling. This book can only be described as delicious!

Klara Källström, Thobias Fäldt & Johannes Wahlström – A Beach

Klara Källström, Thobias Fäldt & Johannes Wahlström – A Beach

This book was released back in 2013, but we thought it worth mentioning the presence of B-B-B Books at the fair, run by artist couple Klara Källström and Thobias Fäldt, because of the sheer pleasure of experiencing photography through printed matter that they offer in their pubications. A Beach consists of photographs of the Arab city of Jaffa and as an object it’s truly brilliant: through interesting accordion-fold binding and folded poster inserts, it offers a uniquely tangible and physical way of discovering the most simple but crucial of things, narrative.

Laurent Chardon – Dédale

Laurent Chardon – Dédale

At the Poursuite Editions table, Laurent Chardon’s Dédale stood out for us. Released earlier this year the book documents the transformation of the city during the years 2003 to 2013. It’s a book full of gorgeous black and white pictures of architecture in Paris: dark, sculptural and reminiscent of Lewis Baltz’s Tract Houses.

Caio Reisewitz – Disorder

Caio Reisewitz – Disorder

Brazilian photographer Caio Reisewitz focuses largely on the changing relationship between the city and the countryside in a period of economic development in his photobook Disorder. Reisewitz presents photographs, landscape works and Dada-inspired photomontages and the result is a rich publication spanning a remarkable body of work.

Ilkin Huseynov – Mühit

Ilkin Huseynov – Mühit

RIOT Books is a really exciting small publisher (check out You Haven’t Seen Their Faces and Euromaidan for some of their best titles) and their modest catalogue of handmade publications features a particularly compelling publication called Mühit. Now in its second edition, Mühit sees photographer Ilkin Huseynov trace back to his childhood in Azerbaijan and the result is a heady and bittersweet journey in photography.

John MacLean – Hometowns

John MacLean – Hometowns

Over at the Flowers Gallery booth in the main section of the fair we had a chance to catch up with exhibiting artist John MacLean and he showed us the dummy of his new publication, Hometowns. MacLean journeys through the places that shaped the artistic visions of artists that have influenced him and endeavours to depict each place by stylistically referencing the artist in question each time. Every image corresponds to the initials of that artist, for us to then decipher. The photographs are brilliant – keep an eye out for the book to be published!

The Unseen Dummy Award 201

The Unseen Dummy Award 201

In the centre of the book market was a display of the finalists of Unseen’s photobook prize – the Unseen Dummy Award. On Friday afternoon, the winner was announced (by a jury including Paul Kooiker and Simon Baker) as Yoshinori Masuda’s Tiger 2. The book is strange, confusing and weirdly brilliant. Other books in the shortlist that particularly stood out for us were Nico Krijno’s New Gestures, Fabricated to be Photographed; Francesca Tamse’s Young men on the English terrain; and Alexander Basile & Alwin Lay’s Landscape of Desire. You can see the entire shortlist

Spherical Harmonics: Alan Warburton interviewed by Katrina Sluis
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Spherical Harmonics: Alan Warburton interviewed by Katrina Sluis

Alan Warburton’s Spherical Harmonics is a new project co-commissioned with Animate Projects for The Photographers’ Gallery media wall. Developed entirely using computer generated imagery (CGI), the film features an off-the-shelf female ‘model’ in an entirely digital set, which acts as a showroom for a sequence of surreal and mysterious events Ahead of his talk at the Gallery on 13th March, our digital curator, Katrina Sluis, interviews Alan Warburton to find out more about commercial visual effects, and how software is increasingly called upon to mimic the massive complexity of photographic ‘reality’.

Katrina Sluis: Your approach to the commission has been to explore the technical and cultural ‘coding’ of CGI. What is it that fascinates you about the form?

Alan Warburton: So many things! I’m interested in how it looks when it does what it’s supposed to do – when it’s shiny and perfect and sleek and realistic. Clients selling products love this look. None of the cars or shampoo bottles or trainers you see in ads are real, they are all these perfect ideas of products that CGI has made. Conversely, I’m also interested in how it fails – when it’s too perfect or when it goes wrong.

I’ve fallen for CGI the same way lots of traditional photographers have fallen for the formal characteristics of the camera and film processing – like multiple exposure or flash or the graininess of a certain film. For me, CGI is filled with formal qualities that define what it is. For example, when you light a scene in a 3D animation program, you get the choice of a few primitive geometric light ’emitters’. Spherical lights show up in the scene as primitive glowing orbs. There are no light bulbs in CGI! And these glowing orbs can be hidden but still emit light, making them invisible light sources. That’s just not something that exists outside CGI. Lights without a source! Copies without an original! Effect without cause!

KS: Whilst there has been a 20 year discussion around the Photoshopping of the images which scroll past us every day (most recently the debate around Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover), most people are still unaware that the slick images of the advertising world are entirely synthetic – even the most banal images, as you point out. In a panel last year at the Gallery, Rainer Usselmann explained the impact CGI is having on commercial photography – and noted how photographers with the specialist skills to light and shoot cars are a dying breed.  Previously, an ad campaign may have involved the expense of sending a photographer to the Namib desert, and shipping a over a freshly manufactured car from Europe, at eye watering expense. Today, a desert image might be bought from a stock HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imaging) library instead, and a CG model of the car (which has not even been made yet) might be sent over from the car manufacturer to create the ‘photograph’. Rainer spoke about how photography is no longer versatile enough for the needs of commercial image production – a CG composition has become a flexible engine for the production of multiple photographs, visualisations and videos from a single source file.

AW: First off, your point about Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover is only the tip of the iceberg. Think of the recent controversy over the press photographer struck off AP’s register for doctoring an image of a Syrian rebel or the Reutersgate scandal in 2006. Or even the viral created by Canadian animation students a while back that faked footage of a golden eagle swooping on a child in a public park. If you look at all these examples together, you see that CGI is not just affecting body politics and global politics… in the case of the golden eagle, it’s our sense of wonder. The currency of the photographic image as reportage depends on its veracity and that is now totally unstable. It’s almost like the more shocking or beautiful or meaningful an image is the more we will come to distrust it. That’s the most important thing about CGI: it likes to insert itself into places where it can co-opt the willingness to believe, which makes it a political tool of huge potential power. My concern is that it will devalue truth to the point that nothing seems real, especially the special. One the other hand, I’m reminded of a trip I took to work on a big CGI project in Beijing, where someone told me that even though the local markets were flooded with knock-off Burberry bags, people still made expensive trips to Hong Kong where they could spend thousands of dollars on the real thing. In some cases indistinguishable from a fake, the authentic retained a power that no counterfeit could touch. So maybe CGI counterfeiting is raising the value of the real?

Your second point is more to do with the commercial qualities of CGI, namely its flexibility. What you suggest is true – CGI does have the edge on traditional product photography, but I think it’s dangerous to assume that the rise of CGI is solely due to how easy and flexible it is to produce multiple versions of something. Sure, it’s much easier to ship a 50MB digital file online than ship the real car to the Namib desert, but one of the misconceptions about CGI is that the only reason it’s used over real photography is that it’s cheaper and simpler to iterate. The real difference is that the Namib desert is harsh and unfriendly and dusty and you might have to live with the shots you get when you’re out there. Whereas the post-production studio can reshoot, refine, relight, rerender to a point way past what was acceptable for a photographer. There’s less acceptance of messy, chaotic reality. Even CGI dust clouds are finely tuned with stray particles excised by hand. My point is, more control means more work and more skill, not less. And often, CGI produces weird, empty-feeling images where nothing accidental ever happens. This feeds into our ideas of aesthetics, creating a set of platonic ideals. An index of phenomena.

Alan Warburton, Assets (ongoing series)

This index is evolving, too. An experienced CG artist can spot stock assets in films and TV title sequences and ads. That sunset. That flickering flame. That smoke trail was made in FumeFX, that confetti comes from Maya, those titles were rendered in Cinema4D. It’s a hothouse of evolution where good assets are reused and then our ideas of what smoke should look like, or how a building explodes, or how a car should reflect a sunset, or how cartoon characters walk become fixed – idealised. Good models survive and are reused and refined, creating this kind of archetypal library of 3D assets and techniques, free of their original context. I’ve explored this in my Assets series, which documents various stock 3D assets that exist in readymade form online. They are divorced from their original contexts and somehow exist purely as dematerialised ideals, though you can never quite wipe them clean from their origins.

KS: In Spherical Harmonics, you use a number of stock ‘digital readymades’, including the ambiguous character ‘Maya’. Can you tell us a little about her role – and the process of constructing the film itself?

AW: Maya is like the eye of the storm in Spherical Harmonics, an anchor for the action. She’s somewhere between a protagonist, a muse and a prop. She’s almost like a placeholder for a memory – an understudy for a real memory. I don’t know if she’s based on a real person, but her skin textures and characteristics suggest that the artist who modeled her had a lot of real-word reference. I selected carefully when casting my model – Maya was one of only a handful of models online that weren’t ultra busty caricatures.

Working images from Alan Warburton’s Instagram Takeover for @thephotographersgallery

Working images from Alan Warburton’s Instagram Takeover for @thephotographersgallery

I sourced quite a few stock 3D assets online – in the same way a filmmaker or photographer might source props. Once you download these assets, you usually find that they are poorly constructed or have been saved in the wrong file format, that they don’t deform well or are provided in disorganised pieces like a box of flat pack odds and ends. So there was a lot of custom work getting the props render-ready. I spent about a week sourcing, cleaning and modeling assets, a week roughing out a structure for the piece, a week rigging, skinning, lighting, texturing, simulating and animating and then two weeks preparing the 20 or so separate scenes for rendering at various render farms. It took between 5 minutes and 2 hours a frame to render, depending on what was in the scene. The final step was to assemble all the renders together in a 2D compositing program. In total, about 6 weeks work produced about 200,000 frames, 1TB of images from about 100 computers rendering over 3 weeks. If one computer had rendered everything, it would have taken about 18 months.

The project was seriously intense. Animated films usually take months or years to complete, whether that’s hand drawn animation or CGI. Making something like Spherical Harmonics in six weeks meant I had to plan everything (including spontaneous decisions!) and babysit the computer to make sure that what it was calculating was correct. I’d often leave the software rendering overnight and wake up every couple of hours to check it hadn’t crashed. I don’t think people quite realise that CG artists put so much labour and commitment into their work. The tolerance for error is so low and the likelihood of error is so high that CG artists can go for months without seeing their families and friends. The reason VFX artists are striking and unionising all over the world isn’t because they don’t love doing the work, it’s because their work is chronically undervalued. Maybe it’s because valuing something that is supposed to be invisible is so difficult? There’s this idea that good CGI should disappear into the photographic image seamlessly… I think sometimes the complications of labour disappear with it.

KS: This question of digital labour is explored by Adam Brown, in an essay which accompanies the commission. He asks how it might be possible to introduce resistance into the frictionless world of CGI where ‘dirt is there because someone put it there’ and ‘flocks of birds forget to shit like real birds’.

AW: I really enjoyed Adam’s perspective on the piece. Introducing dirt and imperfection into the perfect world of Euclidean geometry can be the most intensive process in CGI. I try and hold back on that urge wherever possible.

Installation View of ‘Spherical Harmonics’ on The Photographers’ Gallery media wall

Installation View of ‘Spherical Harmonics’ on The Photographers’ Gallery media wall

KS: One of the challenges of the commission involved working with the specificity of The Wall at The Photographers’ Gallery – a video wall that is both seductive and Orwellian, located in the heart of London’s postproduction scene and a stone’s throw from the ubiquitous retail screens of Oxford Street. How did this inform the project?

AW: From the start, I was aware of the specific challenges of The Wall. There’s nowhere else quite like it. I knew that I had to aim for something that entered into a dialogue with photography whilst also acknowledging the site-specific nature of the gallery.

I think that in many ways, Spherical Harmonics almost sits stylistically at a halfway point between the glossy product displays of Oxford Street and the workhouse construction of Soho’s post production scene. It’s a fantasy under construction. It’s a play between glossy surface and behind-the-scenes complexity. It advertises beauty but undercuts that beauty in a way that suggests it’s unstable or subject to the whims of an invisible authorial force.

KS: In your blog you have discussed the work of other artists – from Simon Starling to Richard Kolker who are using CGI – and distinguish between artists using CGI invisibly and those who show the ‘seams’. In your previous work, such as Z, you have specifically used and transformed overlooked image formats from the CG pipeline which rarely get seen outside the postproduction studio. Can you tell us what you feel are some of the key problems, issues and opportunities for the medium’s use outside of a commercial applied context?

AW: I think that CGI is incredibly important in many ways. As an ideological tool it is powerful, versatile, ubiquitous and (most importantly) it obscures its own origins. I’m pretty sure that anything powerful that is designed to be invisible should be made visible! That’s one of the reasons behind my distinction between artists who use CGI invisibly and those who show the seams.

In a broader historical context, I think CGI is crucial to the development of computing. World War 2 is credited as the flashpoint for the first big boom in computing, and I think the computer graphics industry at the turn of the 21st century is the source of the second. That sounds a little unlikely, but here’s the rationale: a company like Nvidia, which has gradually evolved their GPUs (graphics processing units) in response to the demand from the CGI industries (films, commercials, games and architectural visualisation) for more accuracy and realism, is now responsible for the world’s most powerful supercomputers. The Cray Titan, only recently superseded as the world’s most powerful supercomputer, is one of many similar machines that run on Nvidia Tesla GPUs. These processors solve problems that nothing else can and they were developed in large part to compute CGI special effects.

For example, look at digital crowd simulation. It was used most recently to simulate millions of stampeding zombies in World War Z and was initially developed by Weta Digital for Lord of the Rings. The same type of crowd sim engines are now being used by the military, scientists and researchers to simulate real evacuations, emergencies and city planning models. Their work informs real world policy and real world emergency response. From World War 2 to World War Z, from real warfare to simulated warfare, this is the strange trajectory the second wave of computing has taken. It’s an almost farcical process: CG artists faking water splashes are creating the conditions for scientists to understand how real fluid dynamics occur. It’s progress via reverse engineering. It reminds me of something I read a while ago – scientists say if you smile more you start to feel happier. I think we’re doing something similar with CGI. We’re faking phenomena and in doing so creating the conditions to understand the real thing. It’s all very Baudrillardian.

Now to the ‘overlooked image formats’ you mention in your question. The by-product of the CG pipeline is that the computer can interpret a 3D scene in any number of ways. I used the z-depth pass for Z. I’ve also used the normals, velocity, occlusion and diffuse passes in Spherical Harmonics.

These are all data-driven formats that visually codify the spatial characteristics of a 3D scene. They are beautiful, strange, and compelling image formats and need not be anything more. However, when you consider the direction that computer vision is heading, with IR, facial recognition, remote warfare, the internet of things, big data and data mining, AI, state surveillance, wearable tech, 3D scanning and printing, you can see that there will be a point of convergence where computer vision starts to integrate with human vision – not in a improbable dystopian way, but in a very practical, purposeful, logical way. At that point, the myriad techniques a computer has to interpret visual data will start to feed into more than just post-production pipelines. Render passes are important – really important – when you look at them in this context. They are significant to scientific research in ways that we can’t yet predict. I think it’s the job of artists, writers and technologists to step outside this commercially-focused inexorable march of progress. We’re often the only people who take the time to experiment open-endedly with technologies and reflect on the unique historical moment we find ourselves in.

Spherical Harmonics continues at The Photographers’ Gallery until April 9th 2014.

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Owen Hatherley on Photography and Modern Architecture

We commission emerging and established writers to respond to themes in our exhibition and education programme, or to address something important to the history of photography or photography in the 21st Century. In this instance we have asked Owen Hatherley to write about photography and modern architecture. Initially this was inspired –  on our part – by Open City, the ever popular weekend where iconic and idiosyncratic buildings are open to visit. This year we took part and Brett Rogers, our director,  judged their photography competition. However, the piece has outgrown our ambitions and is a much wider critique of the symbiotic relationship between photography and architecture. Enjoy.

Modern architecture was the first architecture to really market itself, so it makes sense that it has become an architecture largely consumed through photographs. The internet has intensified this to a degree that the main architectural websites – the likes of Dezeen and ArchDaily – provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining. In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image. How did this happen?

As with much else, it can be traced back to the 1920s, to the moment where modern architecture, as ‘the modern movement’, was created, spread and transformed. Even the actual colour of modern buildings changed to accommodate photographic media. The modernist idiom of the 1920s, with its planar geometries, clean, rendered walls and pared-down simplicity was always a gift to photographers, at least if the weather was good – what was new, however, was the way in which photography altered the buildings themselves. Many of Le Corbusier’s early buildings were covered in bright, artificial washes of colour. The Pessac housing scheme, for instance, gloried in lurid blues and pinks. In the work of the architects of the De Stijl movement, like Gerrit Reitveld, the use of bold primary colour was intrinsic to the architecture. Most extreme of all, Berlin housing architect Bruno Taut covered his cubes in alternating, clashing colour. Yet by the start of the 1930s, the ‘modern movement’s most famous buildings, like Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, were almost exactly as monochrome as the (many) photographs taken of them. When modern architecture was exported, for instance to Britain in the mid-30s, the white wall and the black window frame had become practically compulsory, with the equally austere, monochromatic and photogenic bare brick wall a distant second.

Centre Le Corubusier (1967), Zürich-Seefeld, Switzerland

Centre Le Corubusier (1967), Zürich-Seefeld, Switzerland

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1928), Poissy, France

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1928), Poissy, France

What of the role of the photographers in all of this? Again, the answer can be found in ’20s Germany. Probably the most influential of modernist architectural photographers, although never a direct chronicler of architecture as such, was Albert Renger-Patzsch. His precise, elegant and haunting images of factories (and their machinery) presented a city that seemed to have been denuded of its people, with the machines working ceaselessly by themselves. As images of buildings, they have the virtue of their clarity, sharp detail and vividness, but as images of use, of buildings that are lived in, worked in and experienced, they are notoriously evasive. Renger-Patzsch’s commissioned series on bauhaus director Walter Gropius‘ Fagus shoe factory, for instance, not only edited the factory buildings to stress only their glazed, typically modernist aspects rather than the messy, functional back end, but they also avoided any images of labour, or labourers. Accordingly, and maybe unfairly, Renger-Patzsch became a favourite target of left-wing modernists. Walter Benjamin mocked the title of his book The World is Beautiful, and Bertolt Brecht surely had him in mind when he wrote ‘a photograph of a factory tells us almost nothing about that factory’. There was however an alternative approach.

If the cold eye of Renger-Patzsch exemplified the ‘New Objectivity’, then other modernists favoured what Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called the ‘New Vision’. Modern architecture’s free spaces and machine-made angles opened up new possibilities for the eye and body, that couldn’t be represented simply by pointing the camera at an empty factory or a depopulated, freshly-built new estate. For Moholy-Nagy, and contemporaries like Jaroslav Rossler or Aleksandr Rodchenko, that new experience had to be made palpable, by angles, juxtapositions, abrupt cuts – a dialectical approach to the image. In the Soviet Union, Rodchenko’s anti-literal approach to buildings caused some controversy. We rarely see now the kind of photographs that Rodchenko was reacting against – and that reacted against him, which is a shame, as they had a very particular approach in architectural terms.

Rodchenko’s architectural photographs were mostly at their best when depicting fairly prosaic buildings – the famous, vertiginous image of the balconies on his Moscow tenement, for instance – but when faced with a talent equal to his own, they faltered. The Rusakov Club in Moscow, a striking, tense piece of architecture, was complex enough when baldly shot face-on, but when wildly tilted in Rodchenko’s shots of it, it became illegible. He abstracted the pilotis of Moisei Ginzburg‘s Narkomfin apartments in a way no contemporary architecture magazine would tolerate. These were noble failures, attempting to photograph modernism in a modernist way, and as a Marxist, Rodchenko would have appreciated the fact that the dialectical tensions in his modernist photographs of transformed 19th century cityscapes carry more vigour and drama. If you compare them with the recently republished photographs of Naum S Granovsky, like ‘Urban Landscape at Night’, of the Vesnin brothers’ ZIL Workers’ Club in Moscow, you can see why this happened. This 1934 photograph is a perfectly clear image of modernism, with a harsh, bright light shining out of its glass expanses. But the photograph’s composition is entirely traditional, a panoramic, architecturally informative view. It has atmosphere in abundance, but its main function appears to be one of record, not experience. But in both Rodchenko and Granofsky’s architectural photography, we seldom see people, except sometimes a lone figure in counterpoint.

Today, this depopulation is echoed often in the many photographic books on Soviet and East European modernism – from Richard Pare’s The Lost Vanguard at the scholarly end, to the melodramatic socialist schlock of Gabriele Basilico’s Veritiginous Moscow or Fredric Chaubin’s CCCP – Cosmic Communist Constructions. Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism is an interesting outlier in this, both in the way he shows the unsympathetic alterations, adverts and clutter the buildings have attracted, and the people who work in or live in and around them – and in the knowing way in which he then bathes the images in a sepia-like yellow glow. The blocks that appear and reappear in the photographic work of artists like Nicholas Grospierre or Cyprien Gaillard form part of an aesthetic as stark, blank and monumental as the buildings photographed. Is there another possible approach, one where buildings appear as used?

Some of the photographers associated with the ‘townscape’ movement in British architecture tried to combine their humanist, tamed version of modernism with an appropriate photographic approach, which probably reaches its peak in (professional) Eric de Mare and (non-professional) Ian Nairn’s images for the latter’s book Nairn’s London, where a moment in both social and architectural history is captured with equal acuity. The opposite approach is taken to its furthest extent in the truly monumental urban landscapes of John Davies, whose images of the modernist rebuildings of Sheffield or Birmingham provide the planner’s eye view – or at least they at first appear to, until you peer closer and find loiterers, drivers and even football players lurking in the shadows of his concrete monoliths. As recommended by Brecht or Benjamin, they manage to approach a way of making social processes visible.

©John Davies, Netherthorpe, Sheffield, 1981

©John Davies, Netherthorpe, Sheffield, 1981

©Rut Blees Luxemburg, A Modern Project, 2008

©Rut Blees Luxemburg, A Modern Project, 2008

There is a hint of this, too, in the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg. In something like her image of the Westway, ‘London – A Modern Project’ she approaches modernism without concern for ethics or moralism. She never appeared to be interested in modernism as utopianism, totalitarianism or an emblem of stalled social progress – it was just ‘there’, not a subject for hand-wringing or celebration, but portrayed coldly as an amoral and thrilling landscape. Interestingly, her long-exposure work on London tower blocks was recently echoed by the Australian artist Simon Terrill, in a specially commissioned photograph of Balfron Tower, Erno Goldfinger’s tower block in the East End of London. He managed to get most of the tenants to appear in it, by asking them to leave their lights on, or wait at their balconies or on the walkways. It’s a remarkable image of a building and its users, for sure, but also of a building which was about to be denuded of that community, ‘decanted’, by the housing association who own the building – who also commissioned the image in the first place. It’s complex, uncomfortable events like this that make architectural photography uniquely slippery – and which makes the seamless, conflict-free world of architectural pornography all the more seductive.

Owen Hatherley is the author of the acclaimed Militant Modernism, a defense of the modernist movement, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britiain. He writes regularly on the political aesthetics of architecture, urbanism and popular culture for a variety of publications, including Building Design, frieze, the Guardian and the New Statesman.