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beyond the architect's eye

12 october 2014

Mary Woods says that her book Beyond the Architect's Eye was provoked by a discrepancy between the content of a book on architectural images and its cover illustration. Even alternative histories of architectural imagery, Woods says, tend to clothe themselves in canonical photographs of masterworks. This put University of Pennsylvania Press on the spot to choose an appropriate cover picture for Beyond the Architect's Eye. Woods and her editors ended up choosing a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, of a Depression-era juke joint in the farm country of South Florida. It fits her themes well.

Woods's subtitle reinforces her focus on the whole fabric of American architecture, both inanimate and human: "Photographs and the American built environment." As with Mick Gidley's Photography and the USA, the conjunction is significant. Photographs are not merely "of" architecture, or even of people. Life imitates art, and buildings imitate photographs – or are designed with a photographic realization in mind. Woods quotes H.S. Goodhart-Rendell's acid observation that architects too often work from drawings toward photographs, and that "the building is an unfortunate but necessary stage between the two" (258). Like architecture critic Rowan Moore, Woods is interested in how buildings get lived in: and then, centrally, in how photographers make art out of that lived-in-ness.

Woods presents three case studies, framed by a sharp theoretical introduction and a somewhat more esoteric, tangential epilogue. I learned an enormous amount from the three main body chapters of Beyond the Architect's Eye. Woods studies three different locales (New York, Miami/Miami Beach, and the rural South) in terms of photographers who took pictures of buildings there between the World Wars. Some of the imagery documents the Depression; some stands in vivid and escapist contrast to Depression worries.

The canon of architectural photography is an issue in Woods's book, and is on display from the start, in her chapter on much-imaged New York. She puts hyper-familiar views of the Flatiron Building and other famous skyscrapers in counterpoint with lesser-known pictures of humbler places. The balance between physical fabric and population is a constant concern in Beyond the Architect's Eye. There may be eight million stories in New York, but at times in its classic photography, it can seem naked of people altogether.

So I learned about Alfred Stieglitz – and familiar as he seems, it's not like my knowledge of even Alfred Stieglitz is so exhaustive that I'm not eager to learn more. With Stieglitz as with several other photographers she studies, Woods stresses economic contexts for art. Stieglitz could afford to be a pure artist, and his choices could therefore manifest a certain aestheticism. (Though aestheticism can be lucrative. Woods shows how art-for-art's sake images of the Flatiron Building by Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and others, became bestsellers with many commercial applications.)

Overtly commercial photographers produce less arty imagery, but of course our sense of the arty is always informed by the marketplace. A work for hire is going to be perceived as less artistic than an unbespoke piece, even before one sees it. Documentary work, overtly rhetorical art commissioned by government agencies, photography done directly for architects and collectors, can all be seen as less disinterested and/or more purely functional.

Stieglitz, the aesthete, anchors Woods's New York chapter, but she complements his approach by looking at the quieter, more street-scaled art of Berenice Abbott and Helen Levitt. Sometimes literally street-scaled: more than once in Beyond the Architect's Eye, Woods reproduces an image made by a woman photographer literally from ground level. Lisette Model's Running Legs captures the feel of the city as well as any commanding distant view; later on, Woods prints Marion Post Wolcott's view of Migrant Agricultural Workers Waiting in Line. One of Woods's themes is that while male photographers (and some women like Margaret Bourke-White) looked up at, or down from, the towers of places like Manhattan or Miami Beach, female artists often made a choice both aesthetic and practical: to look across the plane of the sidewalk.

Marian Post Wolcott, the "protagonist" of Woods's chapter on South Florida photography, worked for the Farm Security Administration. This Depression-era agency, committed to documenting American rural lives and providing visual support for the New Deal, produced the truly iconic, argumentative art of photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Post Wolcott's work is comparatively obscure. But Woods finds, in Post Wolcott's prosaic, matter-of-fact, sometimes oblique images, an attempt to capture a less dramatic, but more comprehensive picture of the Depression in rural America. Post Wolcott was interested in groups of people instead of portraits or small groupings. As a result, as in the cover juke-joint photo here, she captured many images of people in their "built environment." Pictures of camps, workplaces, and leisure facilities of the migrant-worker milieu, filled with the people who lived in them, give a different view of life than people or places in isolation.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, the other of Woods's protagonists, worked in an entirely different context from Stieglitz or Post Wolcott. Johnston did architectural documentation, and for handsome fees. Her work was in a vein of nostalgia for the Old South that drew collectors, archivists, reactionaries, and designers to the rich vein of crumbling old buildings in the Depression's poorest region. But in contrast to other artists in that vein, who aimed for technical accuracy or romantic embellishment – in contrast even to Walker Evans, who often pointed up ironies, with a hipster's eye for contradiction – Johnston worked in images of gorgeousness and despair. Her work is hard to place ideologically, as Woods notes, and has been neglected in part because of its ambiguity. And in part because she was a mercenary old lady who worked slowly and idiosyncratically, without much connection to contemporary high-art circles. Not a feminist, not a civil-rights activist, not a historiographer, Johnston nevertheless made a striking professional career as a woman artist in the service of an intensely personal vision.

Beyond the Architect's Eye is deliberately limited in scope. It offers a wealth of insight into three local and temporary venues for seeing America. Woods's work also suggests that she's showing us the tip of the iceberg of a fabulous range of social and material documentation of the wonderfully various 20th century.

Woods, Mary N. Beyond the Architect's Eye: Photographs and the American built environment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. TR 659 .W66