Three Dimensions -- A Vestige of Time and Space in Architectural Photography
by Nicolette Wong
Between functional and artistic abstraction, architectural photography is centered in a depiction of perspectives that redefines the dynamic of its subjects1. Beyond the interpretation of locations and structures, architectural images often reveal temporal realms that are previously invisible and allow the viewers to see through dimensions2. In subverting temporality, photographers employ distinct visual languages grounded in personal and cultural backgrounds, to create new vistas of the ever-shifting cityscapes.
Peter Margonelli’s photography of deserted industrial locations projects a world without time. The Invisible Geographies series are captures of industrial sites of flat light and grayish hues, devoid of recent human presence. The photos allude to film sets fallen into disuse, with a surreal ambience that resembles Edward Hooper’s paintings at times. The echoes of a distant past come from the artist’s childhood, and they are subtly stilled by the symmetry of objects, colours and typography in the images. The buildings are squarely exposed in their isolation, since Margonelli does not optimise them against the surroundings with compositional techniques such as dramatic texture or shadow.
Decontextualised, the industrial landscapes become abandoned sites where the past obliterates the present and any possible future, and the viewers are offered no emotional entrance into the architectural subjects. Margonelli’s paradoxical strategy is precisely what makes Invisible Geographies metaphysically provocative: the photos propagate hidden architectures into a wider world where they normally cannot be seen.
The manipulation of time and space takes the opposite direction in the Landmark series by Hong Kong photographer Eason Tsang. Taken at night from an upshot angle, these photos of Hong Kong skyscrapers give only small hints of their true identities, which are mostly famous landmarks like the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Jardine House in Central. The compositions of these images revolve around emphasis and omission, while extending the subjects’ spatial dimensions beyond their physical settings. Conventional architectural qualities like stillness and formality are replaced by a striking sense of movement, as the buildings move vertically up toward the sky and become new landmarks on their own vertical planes.
Tsang’s creation of these imaginative landmarks is a statement on Hong Kong being a densely populated space. It also unmasks an intriguing temporal dimension of the city: its architectural space thrives through the night, in moments that elude the viewers who perceive architectures as static human constructions.
In the words of architect and cultural critic Kazys Varnelis, architecture has become a way to represent the delirium of globalised space today, and the visual impact of architecture photography is divorced from its ostensible subject3. Dick Chan’s latest series The Familiar Peculiarity, which encapsulate the transformation of old districts like Kowloon Bay and Wong Tai Sin in Hong Kong, offer a succinct example of this accelerating modernisation and an alternate view on Varnelis’ critique on the art form. The panoramic images highlight the physical, intrinsic characteristics of buildings like deserted factories and traditional public housing, and modern skyscrapers springing up over the areas. The interpretation of architectural structures, as well as their relation to the environmental contexts, remains one of the central elements of the photographic works. Chan’s juxtaposition of the historic and the modern is a familiar theme to city dwellers, whose existence constantly unfolds in unfamiliar moments as the city changes every day.
For the conceptual and stylistic differences between their works, Peter Margonelli, Eason Tsang and Dick Chan present highly individualised and imaginative interpretations of cityscapes that alter audience perception of their immediate surroundings or distant environments. By bringing together the distinct sensibilities of these artists, "Three Dimensions" showcases the cultural and artistic diversity inherent in architectural photography.
1 Architectural Photography: Composition, Capture and Digital Image Processing by Adrian Schulz
2“Is Architectural Photography Art Photography?” an essay by Alan Rapp in Critical Terrain, Jan 2010
3“On Architectural Photography Today”, an essay by Kazys Varnelis on varnelis.net, July 2009