The Devil is in the Details – Buffalo Downtown

The relationship between architecture and photography has always been a complicated one.  Early modernists, like Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelsohn, quickly grasped the value of photography, and the mass dissemination of photographic reproductions through popular media, as a means for distributing (and thus popularizing) certain kinds of architectural artifacts.  Their understanding of photography was at once critical – they used photographic representations as a way of advancing very specific architectural agendas – and naïve, insofar as they used photographic content as equivalencies of the structures for which they stood study.

Perhaps the major exception to this rule is Le Corbusier, who, as Reyner Banham and Beatriz Colomina have pointed out, was both much more media savvy than his German counterparts, and much more graphically capable.  Le Corbusier not only understood the malleable nature of photographic material (which he almost religiously cropped and doctored), but also its value as image-content within the broader context of mass-media – most importantly advertising.  Corbu’s use of photography is thus much more nuanced and (arguably) advanced that either Gropius’s or Mendelsohn’s; and his manifesto – Vers Une Architecture – pays tribute both to the objects that he uses, and to their function as messages, amplified through incredibly adroit strategies of graphic design in which the juxtaposition of text and manipulated images build to the crescendo of his way of seeing.

This is not to argue that Le Corbusier was the only early modernist to understand photography as fundamentally a way of seeing; a way of focusing one’s view.  As Reinhold Martin argues in The Organizational Complex, both Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Georgi Kepes were actively involved in photographic experimentation.  However, their experiments were focused on emerging technologies of seeing as they related to contemporaneous epistemologies of pattern recognition.  Thus, they viewed new photographic technologies as means for understanding the world in new ways; as a means for generating new architectural vocabularies, whereas Le Corbusier was much more invested in the popular strategies of advertising as a means for advancing an agenda.  While Kepes and Maholy-Nagy might have been more technologically savvy, Le Corbusier was much more media savvy.

The consequence of all three strains of architectural speculation on photography was a lively mid-century debate on the relationship between photography and architecture, focused on the way in which architecture was being represented in popular design journals.  This debate exacerbated the fundamental fissure between architectural objects and their representations.  On the one hand, there was a criticism of the misrepresentation of buildings, frequently photographed under ideal lighting conditions, on idyllic days, and by professional photographers that could emphasize, through their art, the best aspects of the building – something that was viewed as a falsification of the phenomenal experience of the structure.  On the other hand, there was the (quasi-traditional) argument that the lens captured (as a minimum) very real aspects of buildings that should be recognized for their inherent worth.

This photographic essay, like those that I will be producing throughout the summer (if not longer), takes a middle approach.  The context is Buffalo, NY, a city that has alternately suffered and thrived based on mass media representations of it, representations that range from the late nineteenth century (Frank Hayward Severance’s Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo), to the early twentieth century (Walter Gropius’s and Erich Mendelsohn’s images of its grain elevators and day light factories), to today (images that both extol its preservationist efforts while castigating its state of relative dereliction).  The images that I hope to present sit in the center of the maelstrom; they attempt to focus the view of my (albeit limited) audience on the current attributes of the city, in whatever state they may currently be.  The goal is not to belie, nor emphasize, preconceptions pertaining to the city itself, but rather reveal interesting attributes of what exists.

The images reproduced here were taken in October, November and December of last year; Buffalo’s lake-effect sky is omnipresent, but provides an interesting contrast to its architecture’s interesting chromatic content.  The city, as a whole, is to my eye, quite beautiful, but this is not always a readily accessible beauty; it is something that, depending on where you are, requires at least some looking.  Many of the images reproduced here are of details, some of very famous buildings, some of buildings considered by most decidedly ugly, some of buildings as yet unrecognized for their inherent worth.  The current installation is based in downtown, and includes images of late nineteenth masterpieces, like Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, and the nearby Dunn Building, to 1930’s buildings which show the telltale “streamlining” with which this decade, in particular, was fascinated.

Many of the details are of buildings that are currently abandoned, but there is an almost sublime nature to their quality as architecture, and to their state of dereliction.  There is much in this city, if you only have, in Le Corbusier’s terms, “Eyes that See;” there is also much that shouldn’t be seen at all.  Sadly, most of Buffalo’s worst architecture is new, which is, perhaps, more of a reflection on the contemporary state of architecture, than it is on the architectural heritage of this particular city.

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