Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The photograph, round 2

“Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me, there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me (and even then, boredom follows quickly). The erotic photograph, on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me...the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it…” – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, 1981; New York: Hill and Wang)
To understand whether architectural photographs are erotic or pornographic, Barthes would ask us to assess two things. The first is the degree to which the architectural object is fully and formally represented, and the degree to which is it obscured, hinted at, presented mainly as a scene. The second is the spectator for whom it is primarily intended.

Architectural photographs are noted for rarely including either people or signs of habitation. As Cervin Robinson noted in his 1975 essay “Architectural Photography” (Journal of Architectural Education, 29:2, 10-15),
“If asked to explain why he photographs as he does, the architectural photographer could justify most of it in the name of clarity. The wide-angle lens he uses helps distinguish planes in his picture; it tends to play down distracting surroundings; and, when his back is up against a wall, it allows him to show more. Furniture that is out of line will be more distractingly apparent in a picture than in reality; people who are asked to hold still for a photograph are likely to appear distressingly unnatural. The building which is his main subject may stand out clearly only if neighboring structures do not appear with equal prominence and clarity” (p.10).
This is the pornographic impulse: to display the fetish object fully and completely, with as few distractors as possible. The planes and the light are fundamental to both the original conception of the work and its representation; furniture, people, and surroundings play a minor role, if any at all. (In fact, the degree to which an object can even be said to have a context limits its interest among the design community, which largely canonizes second homes, museums, monuments, college buildings and other freestanding, sculptural forms.)

The architect, looking at the photograph of a building (in Architectural Record or Metropolis or some other design-focused publication), is likely to see it as merely an instance of his or her general interest in building design. That is, its importance isn’t in its specificity so much as its embodiment of certain trends, principles, styles and so on (and the degree to which it conforms to or mildly challenges those trends is exactly the grounds on which it was chosen to be photographed in the first place). The layperson, looking at the same photograph in the same context, is likely to be bewildered by both the object and by architects’ interest in it. To make this fetish argument more complete, imagine a catalog of leather bondage-wear. For those who are part of this fetish community, a particular corset might be a particularly nice example of corsets in general, but the category of corset still holds the spectator’s primary devotion. If the spectator isn’t part of the particular fetish community, then he or she has no means of applying emotional import to the fetish objects, either in general or in particular. Thus, the formal photograph of an architectural element is pornographic or arousing to the architect, and opaque to the layperson.

But what happens when the building or building element is used not in full self-exposure, but rather as a hint, a setting, a reference? These photographs are designed to enhance some sort of narrative, to evoke an emotional state. There are at least a couple of reasons for doing this, both having some persuasive end in mind. There is, of course, advertising, which (as John Berger says in his book Ways of Seeing) is intended to place us in an imagined setting made possible by the product, and to make us envious of that imagined self. Thus the photograph of the Tuscan villa or the Bahamian beach or the Manhattan apartment library or the Los Angeles nightclub, depending on our inclinations, is intended to make us say “I could be there… and if I was there, I would be the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be.”

(Architects are also the targets of architectural advertising, which often seems to imply the imagined self as more profitable and less beleaguered. Some building material or graphic software or professional development course promises to make the architect’s particularly difficult professional life become manageable, perhaps even pleasant.)

There are also photographs that argue from pathos, that attempt to persuade through the appeal to emotion. This is related to advertising through its intention to create an imagined setting within which we can place ourselves, but different in that its ultimate end is that we change our practices to attain that end state rather than merely buy something to temporarily fill the emotional need. For instance, the photographs that fill Jan Gehl’s book Urban Spaces, Urban Lives are illustrations of the appealing street life of Copenhagen: bicycling commuters, lively sidewalk cafes, casual walks along the waterfront. These are intended to let us vicariously experience what humane urban development feels like, and to instill in us a desire for that kind of experience. This complements the more intellectual argument (the logos) of the book, which offers claims that this is a smart form of urban planning and methods for how to achieve it; and the ethos or embodied authority of the book, which relies on Gehl’s status as a professional urban designer who was significantly responsible for making Copenhagen have the form that it does.

To use Barthes’ analysis, the photographs that constitute both the advertisement and the emotional argument are versions of erotica. They imply something beyond themselves; they entice us to imagine ourselves as part of another place, community, way of life. They are rhetorical devices put to use, rather than inert images inviting involuntary arousal.

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