Published in Aperture 206, Spring 2012.
During the mid- to late 1960s, photographer Danny Lyon chronicled the “slum clearance” required by two enormous infrastructure projects in New York City: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center. The results were solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings, the men responsible for bringing those structures down, and, in interior scenes, the accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. After the violent obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, renewed attention to Lyon’s project, evocatively titled The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, was perhaps inevitable; indeed, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. In 2005 PowerHouse republished to wide acclaim Lyon’s original book of the photographs. The series was also the primary inspiration for the 2010 Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which surveyed artists’ interactions with postindustrial New York’s buildings and spaces. Finally, last summer and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presented The Life and Death of Buildings, which curator Joel Smith was motivated to organize after a collector donated to the museum a complete set of Lyon’s pictures.
Smith’s curatorial effort, drawn largely from his museum’s collection, was a meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history, Smith notes, but each embodies a different sense of time. Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present. (Certain examples even make explicit their history, like the Bundestag in Berlin, the redesign of which deliberately left its walls pockmarked with World War II–era bullet holes and covered in the graffiti of Russian soldiers.) Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date. To analyze these differences, and to focus viewers’ minds on the concept of time, Smith deployed his copious material, which ranged across the entire history of photography and several continents, in a somewhat unusual manner. He intentionally disavowed the divergent aims of the photographers included in the show—amateur and professional alike. Everything, then, became more or less “documentary.” Similarly, because no building appeared repeatedly, and we were thus denied a full understanding of its “life,” each skyscraper or cathedral represented the category “building” as much as or more than it represented itself.
Though at first I chafed at this selective curatorial framing, Smith’s criteria gave coherence to his expansive selection. Under such constraints, formal connections suggest themselves immediately, as between a detail of thirteenth-century brass work on a door of Notre Dame cathedral, captured by the Bisson Frères circa 1854, and the foliate handiwork in John Szarkowski’s Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1951). But unexpected links revealed themselves as well. The surface of walls was given close scrutiny in a section labeled “The Sentient Wall,” which featured midcentury abstractions depicting buildings ravaged by time. In these works, by Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Doisneau, and others, the “sentience” accumulates after the building is erected. Yet this arrangement prompted in me a reconsideration of the decorative patterning in the Bisson and Szarkowski photographs as a kind of sentience of its own. (Think of John Ruskin’s description of Gothic builders as free to creatively employ their talents; the resultant walls literally embody their craftsmen’s knowledge.) If, as this thought suggests, the lives of buildings begin before they are completed, evidence abounded in this exhibition that it likewise extends beyond their deaths. Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids (1989) and Philip Henry Delamotte’s 1856 picture of the dilapidated cloister at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey both remind us that a structure’s affective potential can far outlast its original uses. So, too, does Tim Davis’s witty photograph of nearly two dozen tourists’ cameras resting on the pavement, their viewfinders displaying just-snapped shots of the Colosseum in Rome.
What did this collection of pictures suggest about time? A basic lesson came insistently to mind: time exposes the frailty inherent in all human endeavors—even the grandest and most secure-seeming ones. In some instances that frailty was evident in the images themselves. The first gallery included century-old photo-postcards depicting homesteaders posing with their ramshackle homes. “BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE…” reads the ironic handwritten inscription on one, its sender surely aware of the insecurity of his perch on the plains. In most cases, however, the recognition that what is depicted no longer exists imparted the same message. Though both life and death appear in its title, the general drift of this exhibition was toward ends, toward ruins.
Many of photography’s earliest practitioners, such as Delamotte, had a Romantic predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death upon which Smith focuses is encoded in the medium. But this is perhaps fitting, as an additional level of melancholy inheres in the recognition that photographs themselves are extremely fragile. Those early photo-postcards are rare survivors from an era that saw the creation and delivery of millions just like them. Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces. Thomas Ruff’s jpeg co01 (2004), in the show’s final gallery, draws together these themes. The wall-size print depicts the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the iconic structures enveloped in a haze of smoke, ash, and dust. Yet because Ruff made the photograph by scaling up a compressed JPEG file, pixelization further obscures its ostensible subject. The momentous event, the erasure of the towers that had replaced what Danny Lyon so carefully captured on film, recedes from us ever further.