The Architect as Photographer

by Jim Cornfield

© Le Corbusier

“The Pantheon,” from the book Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography

April 28, 2013

The 2,000-year-old circular building known as the Pantheon is easily Rome’s best-preserved and most splendid antiquity. It is technically and esthetically a tour de force of Roman passion and genius. You can fill volumes with the superb, richly detailed images that have been made over the years of this architectural marvel.

Recently, I came across yet another jewel of an image: an uncharacteristically modest black and white that, despite a certain roughness and a few blown-out highlights, captures the essence of this great building. The image puts you beneath the Pantheon’s lofty concrete dome, looking up through the open-air oculus at the dome’s apex and letting the light and breath of the world flood over you. The credit line reads, “Charles Edouard Jeanneret,” known to most of the world not as a celebrated photographer but rather as Le Corbusier, the pseudonym of the man who founded modern architecture.

Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography
Edited by Nathalie Herschdorfer and Lada Umstätter
Thames & Hudson
256 pp.

A Master of the Eclectic

Le Corbusier was, in fact, a virtuoso at manipulating planes and shapes with the camera as well as with a T-square and drafting table. His connection to the two-dimensional universe of photography and the vision that allowed him to do things like coax the Pantheon’s core personality into a single modest snapshot, are the subjects of a new title, released this month: Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography.

This book is a remarkable essay-driven picture collection, edited and annotated by a select group of photographic historians, curators and academics. It fuses together a diverse assortment of formal and informal architectural studies, casual portraits and abstract photographic musings made with early versions of the handheld camera—still a novelty at the beginning of the 20th century. During this period—the formative years of Le Corbusier’s multi-faceted career—photography was emerging as one of the watershed phenomena of the industrialized world. It was, the book’s editors enthuse, “the medium of modernity par excellence and a perfect response to the aesthetics of the machine.”

Like other avant-garde artists of his time, Le Corbusier reveled in the promise of this medium. “I spend the day taking photographs,” he wrote to a friend in 1911, “Oh the miracle of photography! Brave lens, what a precious extra eye. I treated myself to quite a camera [most likely referring to the expensive medium-format Cupido 80 he purchased early that year]. Working with it isn’t easy. But the results are perfect...” This gusto fueled an eclectic collection of creative imagery and photographic note-taking that became a driving force in Le Corbusier’s multiple personas—as artist, architect, urban planner, critic and essayist. These [thousands of recently discovered] pictures, claim the editors, represent this artist’s earliest experiments with the notion of framing and isolating “fragments of reality.” And from this impulse, we’re given a sampling of Le Corbusier’s canon of early images: the bloom of light through the ceiling of the Pantheon; the hundred-step staircase at Versailles; a lonely street in a remote Bulgarian village; a montage of abstract machinery close-ups aboard the steamship SS Conte Biancamano; a series of random patterns made by wind and tides and human footprints in the sands of the beach at Le Piquey, in southwestern France. These last were among several sets of images that Le Corbusier made using a motion picture camera. He’d dabbled for a time with filmmaking and saw the practical value of the still-frame capability of his Siemens 16mm movie camera. In a way, it prefigured the motorized film transports of still cameras that were, at the time, years away from the drawing board. Le Corbusier called his sequenced frames “cinematic photographs,” and, almost to put an exclamation point on the diversity of his résumé, he used some of these same images as study models for paintings he created later on.

“L’Esprit de Paris Photo Collage,” from the book Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography.

Creative Resonance

Published to coincide with the 125th anniversary of his birth, Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography makes no pretense that Le Corbusier is anyone’s obligatory name-drop in a conversation about early 20th century photography. Le Corbusier’s principal legacy is in his visionary architectural achievements. To cite a handful: the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France; the groundbreaking “international style” of the Villa Savoye outside Paris; Japan’s National Museum of Western Art; the public buildings of Chandigarh, India; and New York’s iconic United Nations Building. These structures represent a few of the revolutionary experiments that form the backbone of modernism in world architecture. But none of Le Corbusier’s designs were formulated in a vacuum. All of this complex artist’s creative channels seemed to resonate in unison, and perhaps the most strident harmonic was photography.

The camera engaged Le Corbusier’s architectural efforts at many levels, most obviously as a tool for recording his finished structures. His collaboration with photographer Lucien Hervé became a major conduit for disseminating the results of his designs to the rest of the world, and the editors of Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography devote an entire chapter to powerful photographic interpretations of his finished buildings by a prestigious list of contemporary photographers that includes Hiroshi Sugimoto, Olivo Barbieri and Matthieu Gafsou.

Photographs themselves, in the form of frescoes, occasionally played a role as design elements in Le Corbusier’s work. His 1933 photo collage of abstract natural and manufactured shapes in the Pavillon Suisse of Paris’ Cité Universitaire was one of his early solutions for softening the impression of a hard-surfaced, modernist environmental space. In later designs, he often incorporated quirky mural-sized photomontages to achieve a similar effect. Toward the end of his career, Le Corbusier even forayed into the realm of electronic media with his photographic “Poéme Electronique” an elaborate audiovisual spectacle created for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It combined projected black-and-white images with a changing array of colored lighting effects all synchronized to synthetic electronic music by sound designer Edgard Varèse.

The whole show was housed in a strange, freeform pavilion that combined concrete, metallic cables and silver painted surfaces. Poéme Electronique was largely—and untypically—a critical failure. But, architecturally, his exotic pavilion design presaged the neo-expressionism that would follow years later in the work of Frank Gehry and his contemporaries. And, inside the pavilion, with his innovative environmental montages of projected photos, Le Corbusier anticipated the multimedia revolution that was only a few years in the future.

Renowned architect Norman Foster says of Le Corbusier, “[He] was…the first architect to understand that image, idea and message are wholly interdependent. In that, as in so many other ways, he was far ahead of his time.”  

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