‘The long exposure time required by the first cameras favoured the static attributes of buildings, making them a far more reliable subject than the human figure,’ reads the dry introductory text to this extensive and actually quite moving show of photography from the past 80 years. The statement is true, up to a point. Barring disaster, buildings don’t tend to move. But the effects of light, weather and most noticeably, human activity, make architecture anything but a static subject.
A case in point is Berenice Abbott’s most famous photograph, ‘Night View, New York’ (1932). She worked out that, in order to get the shot of the illuminated city she was after, she had a small window of opportunity: it had to be dark, but the image had to be taken before 5pm, when people began to leave work for the day and turn off their office lights (those were the days), while leaving enough time for a requisite 15-minute exposure. Abbott realised that 4.30pm, during the week before Christmas was her only option.
Like Abbott’s electrified city night-scape, humanity courses through this show. As German photographer Thomas Struth says, buildings ‘express pride, anger, ignorance, love – everything that humans are capable of expressing.’ What these photographs mostly reveal, though, especially en masse, is the space between architectural fantasy and lived reality. Julius Shulman’s ‘Mad Men’-era images of gleaming West Coast modernism peddle a (long lost) lifestyle fantasy and Lucien Hervé’s shadowy photographs of Le Corbusier’s Indian dream city Chandigarh, taken in the 1950s, are like beautiful futurist paintings in which humans appear like willing parts of the machine.
In stark contrast is Bas Princen’s 2009 shot of Mokattam Ridge, Cairo, known as ‘Garbage City’ for the refuse sacks that festoon every balcony and rooftop, and Guy Tillim’s 2006-7 series focusing on the crumbling remains of government buildings and luxury hotels built in post-colonial Africa. Both reveal how architecture often winds up being used in ways that its designers could never have foreseen.
There are notable omissions – including William Eggleston and Roberts Adams – as well as some unnecessary inclusions (Walker Evans’s portraits of Depression-era sharecroppers seem superfluous). Apart from Struth’s 1977 shot of a desolate Mile End terraced street there’s no London architecture on display, which seems odd, especially given Barbican’s iconic status. Look around you, though, and the gallery itself becomes an integral part of the show. Walls have been extended to make dramatic double-height spaces and apertures have been created to frame extraordinary glimpses of both the pictures on the walls and the Barbican’s unflinchingly modernist interior. As well as being one of the best photography shows in a long time, it must also be one of the most photogenic – just as long as you like concrete.