Exhibitions: Architecture in Photographs

Louis-Émile Durandelle (French, 1839 – 1917); Exposition universelle de 1889 / État d’avancement, November 23, 1888; Albumen silver print; 43.2 x 34.6 cm (17 x 13 5/8 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.In Focus: Architecture, a small, but exquisite exhibition at the Getty Museum, samples a favorite subject of photographers, from the invention of the medium in 1839 to the present. Architecture in Photographs is the title of a book by Gordon Baldwin, comprising 75 images from the Getty’s fabulous collection, and assistant photography curator Amanda Maddox has selected a third of these for her exhibition. Book and show offer a fascinating commentary on the evolution of the medium and the speed of its growth. Within a decade of the first images by Daguerre in France and Henry Fox Talbot in England, photographers had fanned out across the world, recording monuments, people and natural wonders. The cameras were cumbersome, the processing laborious, but these pioneers were undeterred, and they created a priceless record of a now-vanished world. Monumental buildings were favorite subjects, because they were static, could be pictured in constantly shifting light, and offered a ready-made composition for the photographer to interpret.

Here is the Temple of Dendur on its original site, in 1853, before it was transferred to sterile isolation in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Eiffel Tower under construction. Here are the cobbled streets of great cities as they were before the automobile, and the Flatiron Building as a solitary monolith emerging from nocturnal mists in Steichen’s classic portrayal. Maddox has added images that would be hard to reproduce; notably a grid of 32 images by Peter Wegner, titled Building Made of Sky (2009), which hangs across the room from a Bernice Abbot view of Lower Manhattan in 1934. Both focus of the slot of space framed by narrow streets; his turns this composition upside down to suggest that the blue space is a tapered tower. There’s a Paul Strand rooftop view that verges on abstraction and a Jun Shiraoka view of Manhattan that is as enigmatic as a darkened room on first sight and slowly reveals its subject. 

When you go to see In Focus: Architecture, which is on view through, March 2, be sure to visit Canterbury and St Albans, a memorable exhibition of stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral and pages from the St Alban’s Psalter, masterpieces of 12th-century English art that are being restored and have been temporarily disassembled and loaned for this exhibit. They are on view through February 2 and these jewels of color and graphic invention will never again be so accessible.

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