When Danny Lyon moved into a small loft overlooking the corner of New York’s Beekman and William Streets in 1966, he unwittingly determined his next major photographic project – The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. He chose the location for its seclusion – strange as it may seem today – as a means of getting away from people; to be fair, he had spent the previous two years with a gang of Illinois bikers, the Chicago Outlaws. Lonely and with time on his hands, he began to find that his new neighbourhood’s boarded-up and condemned warehouses, hotels, shops and hospitals exerted an unexpected pull.

View south from 100 Gold Street (from The Destruction of Lower Manhatan, 1967) – Danny Lyon

‘I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past,’ he wrote at the time. Later he added, ‘…as I dwelt upon the fact that they were doomed, I wanted to inhabit them with feelings and give them and their demise a meaning, which in fact they did not have…They were condemned and were mute in regards to their fate. Worse, they were completely silent about their history.’

The relationships of photography, buildings, history and meaning is explored in Joel Smith’s thoughtful The Life and Death of Buildings, published to accompany a broad-sweeping exhibition (at Princeton University Art Museum from 23 July – 6 November 2012) that featured work from Fox Talbot to Thomas Ruff, by way of Lyon, Zse Tsung Leong, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Misrach, Robert Doisneau, Laura Gilpin and Lynne Cohen, amongst others.

White Man Contemplating Pyramids, 1989 – Richard Misrach

Why might photography’s relationship with buildings be of particular interest though? Smith suggests answers and parallels. They can both be read as historical records, or deposits, ‘impure fragments of the churn of time;’ and Smith sees a continuity between the ‘brute factuality’ of the camera and the ‘physical continuity’ evidenced by a building. Furthermore, both can be described as embodying time: one – durational, the other – momentary: ‘Photographs and buildings are at once the products, the vessels and the cargo of history.’ So Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids dramatises an individual’s engagement with the weight of history entombed in a built structure. Yet the picture does so by virtue of its ‘capture’ of a fleeting, momentary photographic instant.

Given their function, and lingering decay, pyramids are particularly literal memento mori, twice over; inevitably, photographs of them – consigned to the past the moment they are made – can only add to the evocation of transience and mortality. Put another way – you needn’t necessarily point a camera at a burial mound to produce a record of decline and fall. As Bernard Crick once wrote about the flats at Quarry Hill, Leeds, ‘It is all just rather sad. All buildings die in the end.’ Not surprisingly then, there is much in Smith’s collection – not least Lyon’s work in Manhattan – that focuses on the prolonged deaths of buildings.

Demolition – World Financial Center, Beijing, 1998 – Zhang Dali

Indeed, so prolonged are some ‘deaths’ that Smith suggests the metaphor is itself endangered. The glut of photography delighting in the ruins of industrial Detroit, for instance, is a consequence of the potent and vivid afterlives available to at least some ‘abandoned’ buildings. Moreover, Smith notes how atrophy and destruction can offer opportunities for subsequent intervention. Robert Macpherson’s deserted photograph of Rome’s ancient muro torto includes an almost overlooked graffitied, architectural chalk drawing – ‘Atop its historical body… every city wears a fast-growing, fast-peeling skin of Now.’ More recently, and certainly more knowingly, Zhang Dali has photographed the scenes of his own additions to that urban skin: in Beijing’s Dialogue and Demolition project he painted silhouettes on the walls of demolition sites, or created silhouette-shaped openings through crumbling walls. For Zhang, his photographs function merely to record his encroachments. But they contribute also to the richness and diversity of photography’s enduring fascination with buildings.

9780300174359The Life and Death of Buildings – On Photography and Time
by Joel Smith
publ. Yale University Press, $40.