Photo Essays

Excavating Architectural Photography

by Michael Gabel on November 11, 2013

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(all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — A small room at the Getty Center in Los Angeles contains the entire history of architectural photography. In fewer than thirty photographs, In Focus: Architecture charts the timeline of the medium since it usurped drawing as the primary means of building documentation in the mid-nineteenth century.

At one end of the room, camera-savvy Egyptologist John Beasly Greene documents a Nubian temple discovery. At the other, Peter Wegner photographs architecture where there is none. Somewhere in the middle, Louis-Emile Durandelle presses pause on the Eiffel Tower’s construction and Jaromir Funke proves that — when it comes to architectural photography — composition follows subject.

Originally conceived in 1983, the Getty Center was a product of expansion. The late J. Paul Getty’s art collection had outgrown his Italianate villa in Pacific Palisades, so the Trust charged with its management purchased a 24-acre plot of land in the Santa Monica Mountains. Intending to build a serious center full of serious buildings, they contracted rationalist architect Richard Meier for the designs. Meier built upon the conceptual groundwork laid by his mentor Marcel Breuer and other modernist architects by nestling a dual-axis plan within the naturally occurring ridgelines and overlaying it with a grid system that divides and defines the space of the campus. A similar grid system and the color white are heavily featured in the design language of the individual buildings — an elegant balance of recti- and curvilinear masses reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Fourteen years and $1.3 billion later, the Getty Center opened to the public.

Perched high above Interstate 405, the center now houses the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Center, the Getty Foundation, the administrative offices of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and, of course, a gift shop.

Gear

The author’s sometime rig. (click to enlarge)

I left the In Focus: Architecture exhibition and drifted by this retail nook to browse the art books and kitschy mugs. I gave the saleswoman a stern ‘I’m just looking’ nod, but a shelf lined with cameras drew me further into the point of sale. Lomo fisheyes, oktographs, a Japanese DIY pinhole camera kit — these weren’t your grandfather’s rigs. I held up the pinhole kit. “You ever get any feedback on these?” The saleswoman spun on her stool. “Not really. Most people who buy them are traveling, so … ” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. I turned the packaging over in my hand and then glanced out the glass double doors into the center’s plaza. Meier’s stark right angles gave way to big beautiful curves that disappeared in the sun’s atmospheric glare. I set the kit down next to the register, adding two rolls of film and a nifty smartphone negative scanner for good measure.

I assembled the pinhole kit at a table in the café, loaded it with a roll of film and spent the rest of the day wandering around the campus scouting ledges to place my cardboard camera on while I opened the trap door shutter and counted out the exposure times in my head. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, shut. I developed the film that night, slid the negatives into my new scanner, attached my iPhone and uploaded the photos with the corresponding app. It’s perfect, really. Architectural photography from whence it came.

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In Focus: Architecture continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles) through March 2, 2014.

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  • Darlene Laguna

    absolutely lovely on so many levels!

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