In 1851, the French Commission des Monuments Historiques, formed by historians and architects, decided to undertake an ambitious documentation of the architecture of ancient France. So to carry out the project known as Mission Héliographique, five photographers, Hippolite Bayard, Henri Le Secq, Auguste Mestral, Gustave Le Grey and Édouard Baldus, were sent to different regions of the country to compile a body of information for their preservation. The intention of forming a consistent body of work was utterly hopeless because upon their return it was realised that each photographer had a completely different technique and approach to the subject matter. The choice of camera angle, positioning, lighting and framing, all influence how the subject of the space is portrayed. This careful precision undertaken by the photographer grants an alternative approach to architecture that is far from real life. It is clear human agency plays a vital part when it comes to photographing buildings. Therefore, the response of the Mission merely illustrates the significant differences in style and emphasis between photographers.
This becomes especially evident in the comparison between Henri Le Secq and Édouard Baldus. On the one hand, Le Secq’s images were characterised by a fascination with chiaroscuro, which is the dramatic effect of contrasting areas of light and dark. This is shown by the way he controls the fleeting effects of the sun against the complex forms of Gothic decoration. On the other hand, Baldus’s photographs were appreciated for the conveyance of information that is less about the atmospheric contrast of light and shadow. In their different ways, Le Secq concentrates on details that inform part of the whole, while Baldus prefers to isolate the building from its surroundings.
What was considered a more architectural vision on the side of Baldus, identifies the key components of architecture and realism. Baldus adhered to specific ways in which architects of the time expected to visualise these monuments. He fulfills their aspirations by using a precise set of techniques. Firstly, he selects elevated vantage points for minimum distortion of perspective lines and maximum legibility of profile. Secondly, his preference for even light distribution was another method to gain the highest level of detail. And thirdly, he removes the skies or any unwanted contiguous features during the processing of the negatives, to emancipate the architecture from its context. All of these techniques create the illusion of a duplicate world of reality.
As Susan Sontag argues in On Photography, photographs can disrupt what we think is real: ‘Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.’ Indeed, it may be the flatness of the medium which places the photograph in the realm of fiction. The subjective viewpoint of perspective, in contrast to an objective approach, carries with it an inherent distortion. The perception of three-dimensional space is a complex process that does not happen statically – we are continually moving through space.
In opposition to Baldus, certain photographers consciously avoid representing architectural form in an objective way and instead introduce their own subjective viewpoint. It is an approach that Hélène Binet alludes to, as she has struck out an entirely new approach to documenting the works of Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and others, through acting on the premise that a photograph is never an objective truth. In contrast to the act of building, where concrete materials are assembled and erected to form part of a whole, photography is a subtractive act.
For example, Binet chooses to subtract space from her photographs. Her act of framing rearranges forms, altering the relationships given by the architect. To a large degree, the strategy of stripping back extends to the suppression of technique. The black and white filter allows for a focus on the interrelationship of light and volume.
As a subjective representation of architecture, Binet’s sensitive work is in opposition to the bold architectural photographs in the mass media, where colour is often used in a hyper-real manner. Spaces are photographed wholly at extreme wide angles. Tilt-shift lenses are used to correct the inherent distortion and create an image of space as it would never be experienced on a human level. This approach is reliant on visual abstraction, rather than an attempt at documenting the experiential capacity of architecture.
Certainly, photographic visions put buildings into complex temporal situations. To experience a photograph is to experience an image appropriated not only from a building or a site, but also from the passage of time. Photography, in turn, removes architectural work from the dimensions of time and introduces the image into a new place. This new place, where the likes of Binet has discovered, has been used to generate new expressive ideas about architecture.