At the turn of the 20th century, architectural photography was just emerging as a subfield
of photography and ever since has affected the practice of architecture and its
representation. Governments and organizations made accurate photographic records of
historic buildings, whereas architects found the photograph to be the perfect medium for
sharing their exotic travels with colleagues. Today architectural photography is its own
industry, an inseparable part of the architectural profession and the primary vehicle
through which the public receives information about the built world.
The century began with a type of architectural photography very different from the
precision-obsessed documentary style of the 1870s and 1880s. These new photographs
gave viewers much less detail about the architecture, instead preferring to elicit an
emotive response about the atmosphere of a place. The work of the “Photo-Secession,” a
group led by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), characterizes this approach.
As a result of this expanding definition of photography, new equipment, such as
lighter, faster lenses and smaller, handheld cameras, started to appear. Travel
photographs by Le Corbusier illustrate the spontaneous aesthetic of easier-to-use
equipment. Similarly, the snapshots by architect Erich Mendelsohn and others, compiled
in a publication titled Amerika (1925, rev. 1928), were taken from nontraditional angles, featured
people, and considered a wide range of vernacular subjects in an attempt to describe the
architect’s physical and conceptual impressions of the United States.
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It was in the late 1930s that the history of architectural photography made a dramatic
shift. Until this time, although many photographers excelled at making images of
architecture, no one had yet dedicated their entire career to this task. Like Margaret
Bourke-White (1904–71), whose powerful 1936 photograph titled “Fort Peck Dam,
Montana” appeared on the first cover of Li fe magazine, some photographers worked as
journalists for a variety of publications. Others, such as Berenice Abbott (1898–1991),
who spent years photographing New York for the Federal Art Project, eventually moved
on to other subjects. Toward the end of the decade, however, there appeared professional
architectural photographers whose only business was to make photographs of buildings,
primarily for use in publications and by architects as marketing tools.
Magazines and journals produced internationally in major cities were quick to include
architectural photographs with their articles. These mass-produced images circulated
widely in magazines such as Architectural Record and Architectural Review, to name only two, and kept clients and the
profession informed of new trends, emerging architects, award-winning designs, and
buildings that were important at local, regional, national, and international levels. With
the emergence of architectural history as an academic discipline in the 19th and 20th
centuries, the important history texts illustrated the canonic works of architecture with
photographs that in some cases would become iconic representations of famous
It is not coincidental that the International Style gained popularity and influence at the
same time that a few talented photographers started to specialize in architectural images.
Among the many factors that contributed to this, two are particularly noteworthy. The
first is that, generally speaking, the representation of modern architecture was inherently
well suited to the formal language of modernism. Photography seemed well suited to
showing either layered planes or the subtle lights and darks of curved surfaces. Because
color had not yet become the standard, black-and-white photography’s emphasis on tone
and depth worked well with modern architecture’s use of translucent materials and
interest in space. Moreover, photography’s ability to isolate a single viewpoint provided
endless possibilities for abstract compositions. Some historians argue that the widespread
acceptance of black-and-white photography in the early days of the International Style
encouraged and perpetuated the movement’s monochromatic aesthetic. Photography
surely served to distribute the movement’s imagery and ideals to an international
A second factor appearing simultaneously with modernism and professional
architectural photography was the rising status of commercialism in society. Editors and
advertisers hungered for images of modern life, giving rise, particularly after World War
II, to an immense market for architectural photographs that could be serviced only by a
new group of specialized photographers. In the United States, this was particularly true of
photographs of the “American dream home,” which were in high demand and resembled
fashion photographs in style and attitude. The potential for images to become marketing
tools for architecture as a whole was recognized by Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright,
and others, who immediately used architectural photography to promote their ideas.
Several figures of the architectural photography community emerged in the late 1930s
and early 1940s, including Ezra Stoller (1915-) and Julius Shulman (1910). The first
well-known architectural photography firm, Hedrich-Blessing, also came about during
this period. Begun in Chicago by Ken Hedrich (1908–72), Hedrich-Blessing has been
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known for dramatic composition, a high level of craftsmanship, and an understanding of
architects’ need for marketable images.
The introduction of color photography in the 1960s and 1970s presented challenges
and opportunities that earlier photographers had not encountered. In addition to an
image’s formal composition and the craftsmanship of the final product, photographers
now had to consider the color of every element that fell within the photograph’s
boundaries. This was made more complicated by the nature of color film, which is slower
than black-and-white film and sensitive to differences between daylight, incandescent,
and other types of light. Despite the technical difficulties, color photography became very
popular among architects and publications because it provided a new, important layer of
information. Two photographs by Richard Bryant (1947-) illustrate how color
photography has been used effectively. In his 1983 photograph of the Camden Town TVam
Building, the slower film speed records an object emitting light passing across the
bottom-left corner of the frame as a zigzag line of light that becomes the photograph’s
only suggestion of life or movement. More recent photographers, such as Norman
McGrath (1931-), Tim Street-Porter (1939-), Timothy Hursley (1955-), Cervin Robinson
(1928-), and Yukio Futagawa (1932-), have spent much of their careers in the age of
color photography.
Today, architectural photography, particularly in color, has also become the dominant
mode of architectural representation in publications. This is because it is perceived as
more accurate and immediate than sketches or renderings. However, with the increasing
number of photographers and the rising importance of the photograph to the business of
architecture, the inability of photography to represent reality has become a significant
issue. Most agree that architecture is unique among the arts because it uses the passage of
time and all the audience’s senses in combination to create an unreproducible, threedimensional
experience. Photography, on the other hand, isolates a single moment and
view in two dimensions, often giving the viewer an inaccurate idea of how a building
looks or what it is like inside. Still, photographers have been able to create many
wellknown and highly published photographs by making educated decisions about
distortions and working closely with architects and publishers to create photographs by
understanding the medium’s limitations and creatively using its distortions to
communicate ideas about buildings.

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