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The architect as photographer

Italo Zannier

There is no profession so susceptible as that of the architect to encouraging and stimulating the almost parallel profession of photography. The photographer is above all an interpreter of architecture and landscapes. This is the case of Joaquín Bérchez, just the latest example in a long line of historic examples, but whose achievements make him significant.

The history of photography has, in fact, involved the “architect” right from the beginning. Daguerre could also have been defined in this way for his work with Degotti as a scene painter in the Paris Opera, and for inventing the “architectonic” Diorama, examples of which were erected throughout Europe and even beyond.

In the pioneering years of calotype, Alfred-Nicolas Normand, a French architect, came to Rome as a “pensionnaire à l’Académie de France” to study the mythical monuments of antiquity, and immediately decided to use photography to analyse and record them, starting with the ruins of the Forum. And not only to “document” them, but to interpret them in metaphysical terms, even their details and possible angles, almost as if wishing to reconstruct their noble origin and bring it alive in a dialectic with drawing, of which he had always been a master.

But after he left Rome (where he was a member of the Roman Circle of Flacheron, Constant and Caneva, the latter a Venetian painter sent to Rome by the “architect” Jappelli and immediately converted to photography) Normand developed calotype photography in Pompeii, Palermo, Athens and Constantinople, and surely this technique gave him knowledge that he could not otherwise have gained, and revealed the new iconic beauty of photography, itself encrypted architecture.

The “camera obscura”, which had been enthusiastically used in the Renaissance studios of painters and architects (Alberti, Brunelleschi…) was finally enhanced, in 1839, with a magical surface that could fix the image formed on the plate, as it was devised by Giovanni Battista della Porta, and which, as Daniele Barbaro had observed in 1568, looking into the back of the “camera” and almost seeing truth, succeeded in capturing “twinkling water and flying birds …”. Animated details that brought alive the rest – static architecture and landscape in constant flux – which would have been lifeless before the advent of photography, transcribing conventional graphics, the sacred art of drawing.

Joaquín Bérchez certainly felt the same curiosity when, camera in hand, he set out to “look at” architecture, immediately finding in photography a versatile device to accompany him on his visual quest. A dynamic itinerary of space, like that of a “visitor”, but directed again and again by Bérchez at a sequence of “static” viewpoints bestowed by the eye, that is, by the intellect. Starting with his first unequivocally photographic work, his “Compressed Spaces” shown at the University of Valencia.

It is a title that itself explains his concept of photography, or a typology of image into which three-dimensional real space is radically “compressed” – with the complicity of perspective – into a two-dimensional plane, to be unfolded and reopened later by the reader of the photograph, an image in which he seeks to trap, in its realist ciphers, the world as it is for the senses.

It is, however, a photographic truth that is never relentlessly “documentary”, but is entrusted to the photographer’s point of view and conceptual gaze, to his emotions, which are ultimately imposed on it, for better or worse, by the orgasmic click of the shutter.

It is, therefore, the photographer who decides how to reveal the subject, in a certain space and a certain light, that might appear conventional and therefore banal, if there were no Author behind the viewfinder capable of critically analysing space, which is essential to architecture and its raison d’être. It seems to me that Joaquín Bérchez is one of these photographers, because he is capable of being inspired and making not only his excitement, but also his critical judgement, understood.

“The photographic aberration,” wrote the architect Gio Ponti in 1932 in the review Domus, with surprising lucidity and ahead of his time, in one of his now famous axioms, is for many reasons our only reality: it is all we know and thus becomes our opinion. It constitutes a major part of our visual knowledge.”

Among the first to understand the importance of photography for studying architecture, despite the traditional mistrust of its apparent “mechanicalness”, must be counted some brave historians, such as John Ruskin. Even in the 1840s he began to collect daguerreotypes for his studies and even wrote to his father that he had “bought in Venice, very cheaply from a poor Frenchman, the whole of the Grand Canal from the Salute to the Rialto …”. These “small plates”, or “little gems” as Ruskin called then, were without equal for recording the city’s decay – “the cracks in the crumbling façades of the palaces”, that could only be discerned in the daguerreotypes – despite his skill as a draftsman.

Joaquín Bérchez has obviously overcome these descriptive concerns and elected instead a critical exploration of the space that, as an “architect”, he tries to identify in the architectural works he examines with the camera, used with the rigour of a specific discipline, defined by the need for a perpendicular geometric structure that in photography primarily means the parallelism of vertical lines.

It is a typology linked to man’s physiological, visual perception, contradicted to some extent by the lofty arrogance of László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, by proposing instead “distorted” points of view “from above” and foreshortening “from below” in order to violate the conventional rules of perspective, and also the theory of light and shade, but above all to differentiate photography from drawing.

It was a constuctivist provocation that, however, bore fruit, changing the traditional visual lexicon used to represent architecture and that, in Europe, had in Alinari, Brogi and Baldus advocates of this photographic typology of the monument, in which critical intention is apparently excluded in favour of a hypothetical documentary description of relentless precision: “everything” is seen, “the details” are interpreted, etc, but they are images that live and exude a metaphysical atmosphere, sometime even of the tomb.

Moholy immediately put absolute trust in photography, fundamentally as the “Art of representation” and in 1925 he observed that “a new sensibility is on the point of emerging towards the quality of chiaroscuro, brilliant white, grey-black landscapes flooded with light, the magical precision of the most delicate values of surfaces”.

Meanwhile, colour was added, which for Bérchez has added another non-“realistic”, perhaps lyrical, element of perception and insight, because photography arouses – or ought to stimulate – this kind of emotion, not because of the desire to be Art per se (and naturally it is when it is), but because it just wants to be Photography, period.

Amongst the architect-photographers (and we could list hundreds of them in Italy too: Peressuti, Mollino, Latis, Sissa, Grignani…, even Basilico!) we must not “forget” Le Corbusier, who also offers surprises in this occasional activity, as when, in 1912, he made his mythical voyage to the Orient down the Danube to Constantinople, and then to Athens and finally Italy, to take photographs of the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara from what was at the time a very daring perspective, from the bottom looking up, emphasising its “distorted” ashlar-work right in the foreground, and thus gave us an original visual interpretation.

Architect-photographers, or rather photographer-architects, when they use the medium of photography instead of binoculars, ultimately produce, in one “form” or another, a visual autobiography, because photography is also a projective test, it says a lot about its author, who can inevitably be detected in the final image through its dynamic vision in space, by his choice of perspectives, by where he stops along the way, even what he leaves out, over and above the viewpoints and details he selects.

The images of Joaquín Bérchez should be read in the same way, if possible, and this will certainly help comprehend his cultural background, his desire to understand, even his existential judgements, always implicit in the photographer’s gaze.

In this respect the photographer-architect Carlo Mollino, in his essential volume Il Messaggio dalla camera oscura, wrote that “photography is the result of a relationship that is always established between the photographer and the object-subject of the photograph. And it is in the difference between the original and the photograph that the element of transfiguration must be sought”.

The transfiguration obtained, point by point, or rather photograph by photograph, by Joaquín Bérchez – who is part of the history of Spanish photography from Charles Clifford to Jacob Lorent, the great “classifiers”, but perhaps less so in the pictorialism of José Ortiz Echagüe – during the immobility of the exposure, is rigorously anchored, each time, in decisive points of view, chosen after intense reflection, and never left to chance.

And it is there that the Photographer ultimately takes precedence over the “Architect”, who for a fraction of a second forgets his profession and turns instead to the noble art of photography, at times even musical in its silence.

[Italo Zannier, “The architect as photographer”, Proposiciones arquitectónicas, Consorcio de Museos de la Comunitat Valenciana, Generalitat Valenciana, Valencia, 2006]