Picturing Place

Noa Bronstein


Architecture and photography have an entangled history, made evident by the earliest of photographic images turning their attention to buildings and facades. Architecture made for an obliging sitter – its stillness perfectly suited to the particularities of the first cameras. Yet it was not merely its co-operativeness that made the built environment such appealing fodder for these early images. The documentation of architecture translated modernist aspirations and imperialist ambitions – amongst other things – into consumable records. Then, as now, we experienced architecture photographically; we consumed architecture visually. We most often enter buildings through their representational forms rather than their front doors. Put another way, we recognize and know iconic, classical, or the newest of spaces from images, not necessarily from our bodies coming into direct contact with a structure or place. This proved useful from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century in introducing the ideologies and desires embedded in certain architectures to those who might not have direct access to these sites of significance.

Whether Édouard Baldus’s photographic surveys of France’s architectural patrimony, Philip Henry Delamotte’s documentation of the reconstruction of the Crystal Palace, Charles Clifford’s views of the royal palaces in Spain and commissions for Queen Victoria and Queen Isabella II, or Berenice Abbott’s depictions of iconic edifices of New York, architecture as subject has deeply and recurrently informed history’s photographic catalogue. While the picturing of architecture has certainly not abated, its tenor remains ever-shifting as contemporary artists work to address the social structuring embedded in physical structures. One approach has been to move away from the monumental towards the mundane, from sites of power to the power of site on an individual or community level. Another is the enduring interest in liminal space, signaling a desire to see beyond image and form into sites of new possibility. 

Hannah Collins’s recent still and moving images constituting her exhibition I Will Make Up a Song (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020) offer examples of these photographic impulses. The work focuses in on two major sites designed by Egyptian modernist architect Hassan Fathy: New Gourna and New Baris (both in Egypt). Fathy was interested in addressing concerns related to housing, poverty, and environmentally responsible design, and Collins’s images suggestively trace his “utopian experiments in sustainable architecture and rural community building.”1 In the video I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head (2018), we move deliberately through New Gourna, which Fathy was commissioned to build in 1945 for the relocation of the 7,000 residents of the village of Old Gourna. Constructed using local materials and a process analogous to permaculture, Fathy had hoped to establish a materially and aesthetically inspired settlement as compared to the original Gourna, but the project ultimately fell short of his aspirations.2 Collins’s protracted and patient images show both emptied and occupied spaces, subtly pointing to how many residents never fully embraced the development of New Gourna, opting to move elsewhere. The remaining residents appear making use of interstitial spaces, occupying the architecture on their own terms. Overall, these images do not propose a definitive account of triumph nor failure, offering instead ingress to consider “the materials and structures that constitute and support our lives…[and] questions about how humans can make a home for themselves and a livable world for one another.”3

Taking a relatedly poetic and nuanced approach to contending with built forms is Taqralik Partridge’s artwork akunniq. Her images of structures and infrastructure taken in Iqaluit, Nunavut and Dorval, Québec present portraits of place through the reveal of subtle details, including the roof of a green-painted structure set to a snowy expanse, or a lone figure walking through a brightly lit underpass at night. Partridge terms these “throwaway spaces,” clarifying that, for many, they fall within a consumptive worldview of natural and constructed space. She states, “Their only function is to connect more important spaces; otherwise, they’re forgotten about. [My] contention is that Inuit move through and inhabit these landscapes with the same awareness of our connections to land as we do in so-called pristine landscapes.”4 Shown as lightboxes, these “throwaway spaces” are elevated through Partridge’s camera (sometimes her cellphone) and the tending glow of their framing, reversing the normative value proposition of what sorts of spaces may be thought worthy of documentation and, therefore, of consideration and care. akunniq challenges notions of disposability and what might otherwise be taken to be disregarded or imperceptible places by making visible Inuit self-determined space. 

What unites contemporary efforts such as those of Collins and Partridge is a means of relating counter- or underrepresented histories and realities with propositions for how to visualize alternate social orders. In our current moment, then, many images resist the dominant narratives attached to the built environment – to streetscapes and cityscapes, to neighbourhoods and dwellings, to alleyways and rooftops – preferring to offer incitements into divergent modes of living or imagining the world otherwise. Elsewhere, photographs reveal architecture that already inhabits its own space of refusal, or even resistance. These compelling encounters traverse public and private spaces, geographies, and assorted scales to bring us into close contact with the social production of space in all its multitudes and reverberations. Shared between these and countless other examples is a deep concern for how we inhabit the world, both through and beyond images. Within such expansive modalities and imaginings, images serve to reframe the spatial and social experience of architecture. Rather than flatten the built form, contemporary lens-based artists construct dimensionality – demonstrating that the experience of an image can change our understanding of a space, and asking that we recognize the material conditions shaping our lives and our capacities to shape these in turn.

1. “Hannah Collins: I Will Make Up a Song,” SFMOMA (website), accessed October 10, 2022, https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/hannah-collins-i-will-make-up-a-song.
2. Monica Westin, “Hannah Collins’s ‘I Will Make Up a Song,’” Art Agenda Reviews, published November 14, 2019, https://www.art-agenda.com/criticism/300668/hannah-collins-s-i-will-make-up-a-song.
3. Ibid.
4. Taqralik Partridge, quoted in exhibition didactic for ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home, Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2022.
Hannah Collins, I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head (video still), 2018, HD video with sound, 20:34 min. Courtesy of the Artist

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