The role of photography

Today I posted the photographs I was hired to take of Mathew Brady's studio in the Apex Building on Pennsylvania Avenue (in Washington, DC of course). (Check the favorites page.) This was in, say, 1986, and the historic Apex Building (most recently a liquor store) was to be renovated and incorporated into a massive office development. DC is unique in that there is clout which forces real estate developers to preserve significant structures and design new buildings so that they are contextually appropriate for their sites.

The contractors took the existing building materials down to the original condition, whatever that was: rough framing, plaster, etc. I was let in, alone, to go about my affairs. The experience was moving. Here I was, an upstart photographer in DC making "official" documentary photographs of one of the nation's first, and most famous, documentary photographer's own studio! Many things contribute to the emotional and spatial perceptions of space, but the history of this place was overwhelming. I was not shooting just 2x4s and plaster walls and dusty windows with pigeon skeletons on the sills. I was documenting a past of some 120 years before which included ghosts and President Lincoln himself.

I see the task of photographers to present images which convey more to an audience than merely what things "look like." Architectural photographers specifically must convey the essence of the experience of a space, capturing the subtle elements that make a particular place feel like what it feels like–communicating the "there" to reference Gertrude Stein's famous observation of Oakland, California (which lacked one–a there, I mean).

Having said all this, I come back to the matter at hand. When I look at these images, I am reminded of the experience and meaning of the subject matter. It is encumbent on photograph-looker-atters to invest a little time and study and emotional energy to absorb and understand the creator's intent. Having done that, if the image is still just a picture of 2x4s and plaster (or whatever a building is made out of), then perhaps the enterprise has failed.

This is a point I have made to all the students I have taught photography to over the years. When you look at a photograph you made, you have the benefit of memory to fill in lots of blanks about the content of the picture. You can even "see" or remember things that are not in the picture! Us poor bastards who were not there can only go by what we see in your picture. This is why composition, timing, cropping, lighting, and all the rest are so important. Would that technology were the driving force in effective image-making. It never has been and never will be. Brady was coating glass plate negatives in a wagon for godssake and shooting the Civil War, yet his images are compelling and moving. We don't have to do s**t these days. Are our images as succesful?

#photography #brady #apex #hambright #architecture #bradystudio #washington #HABS #HAER

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