Photography whispers seductively at architecture: "You look terrific. I can make you famous." Architecture responds in a sigh, "I'm ready for my close-up."
Get a room, you two.
Actually, at the Heinz Architectural Center, architecture and photography have four rooms — or sections, really — as part of an exhibition of the same name, with Tracy Myers as curator and Alyssum Skjeie as curatorial assistant. Notably, all the material for Architecture + Photography comes from collections within the Carnegie Museum of Art.
You could have imagined that such a topic would be too sprawling for a single exhibition. After all, photography so pervasively influences our perception of architecture that we claim substantively to know buildings that we have seen only through photomechanical reproduction.
"Aha," I said with self-satisfied recognition in the section of work by photographer Ezra Stoller. "There is his photo of Alvar Aalto's iconic Finnish Pavilion from New York's 1939 World's Fair. I know it well." Actually, I know only the image well. The building is long gone. But Stoller's exquisite black-and-white image captures light and shadow as if they were orchestral tones. For this and works from other iconic modernist architects, Stoller's work helped define an era of mid-century Modernism. Richard Meier's intricate Atheneum, in New Harmony, Ind. (which I have also never visited), never looked so good. We love some of these images so much that we can forget to wonder about the rest of the building. Architecture, paradoxically, disappears behind photography.
Yet, simultaneously, just like Mick and Bianca Jagger, architecture and photography have an either titillating or creepy resemblance to each other. "Camera," we know from the shopworn definition, means "chamber." When you describe a device by which an image, beamed through a lens, appears on the wall of a darkened chamber to create some kind of electrochemical stimulation, you could be describing a camera, an eyeball or an art-history lecture room.
Accordingly, it's all the more brilliant to see in one of the exhibition's sections images from the Carnegie Art Reference Set. Andrew Carnegie sponsored these cardboard-mounted images of the great buildings of the world for reproduction and use as study aids at learning institutions everywhere. Then, at some point in the 1990s, the Carnegie Library encountered the Internet.
"I've met someone else," we can almost hear the library saying to the forlornly discarded stack of architectural photographs. Now, though, the Heinz Architectural Center is seeing them, and they've become a pin-up all over again. Unlike Stoller's works, these come from unheralded photographers. And they are handled as reference material rather than adulated as artifacts. Why such a difference, the exhibit encourages the viewer to ask.
And why is architectural photography so special? If it's the work of Frances Benjamin Johnston in Charleston, S.C., the answer seems clear. With funding from the Carnegie Corporation, Johnston brought the values of historic preservation to a project of capturing Charleston's architectural heritage in a series of nuanced gelatin silver prints. The perspectives are especially close and human-scaled. The aging textures, all chipping paint and gathering moss, make the passing centuries seem physically palpable.
Of course, the relationships between revealing and concealing are always contradictory. We share the stoops and gateways with Johnston in such delicious privacy — where is everyone? — that we could forget to ask about her remarkable career as a high-powered Washington, D.C., portrait-taker. And issues of race in 1930s Charleston? They are effaced, not emphasized, in this kind of black and white.
The photography that tells us the most about architecture is the photography that is not really about architecture at all, as curatorial text indicates in well-observed fashion. These images are more likely to have people portrayed humanely, as in Harold Corsini's "Parking Lot at Bigelow Boulevard and Sixth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA" of 1953. Or to have buildings and spaces used for social value, as in Barbara Morgan's "Peace March–Madison Square–New York" (1940). Or maybe to have photography used with a greater degree of subtle, masterful manipulation than you thought possible, as with Tetsugo Hyakutake's "Nihonbashi #2, Tokyo, Japan" (2010).
The four chapters of this exhibition are compelling individually, but they also add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Whether the images are distant and objectifying or intimate and personal, this show welcomes a contemplative viewer, novice or expert, to whom architecture and photography's best secrets are exposed.