I came across a very interesting essay by Jonathan Massey in the online architecture journal Aggregate last week, on the Norman-Foster-designed building at 30 St Mary Axe in central London, popularly known as The Gherkin (the building, not the paper). Massey understands the building design as a sustained material engagement with various kinds of “risk imaginaries”, and it’s a very interesting argument.
Embedded in the essay, though, was an image by Bryan Scheib, which I found equally fascinating, though Massey doesn’t discuss it in detail. It’s called ‘The Gherkin”, and is one of a series of images created by Scheib as part of a series called Tableau Vivants. The series is photographic, in that it’s a series of images that are created from photographs: from the most popular user-uploaded photographs of iconic architecture on Google Images. For each building, Scheib has (presumably) transformed them into black and white images and them superimposed them. As well as The Gherkin, I could identify the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house; others I either didn’t recognise or they’d become so blurred by the repeated overlapping photographs that the building itself was hardly visible any more.
These are complex images. For Scheib, they hark back to the ‘tableau vivant’ photographs that were popular in the late nineteenth century as a form of historical narrative (and which were also often composed of multiple photographs collage-ed together). He describes his own images as similarly evoking a narrative, as the buildings are photographed again and again, from a similar angle, so that the images “embody a history of documentation and perception”. For Scheib, then, these images are about temporality. For Massey instead, Scheib’s image captures something about spatiality, in particular the spatiality of urban perception, because they show the “consistency and variation in visual representation that characterizes urban icons”.
Both of these interpretations point to some of the effects of these images, for sure. For me there are others too. In particular, they also seem to be negotiating the status of the photograph as a particular kind of object. Constituted from photographs, it’s not at all clear to me that this image of The Gherkin can itself be described as a photograph. On the one hand, as a collage of other photographs – and collage has always been used by photographers – it must surely be a photo. But as both Scheib and Massey emphasise in their comments about the mutability of both the temporality and the spatiality of this image, its relation to the object it pictures is much more attenuated than a photograph generally assumes. And while the image is based entirely on what Google can find, Scheib himself seems to be doing some work to assert the image’s status as precious art object: the transformation of the online photographs into black and white surely speaks to the history of architectural photography that played a large part in constituting Modernist buildings as cultural icons in the first place, and his webpages also show the Tableau Vivant series framed on the wall of a the classic white cube gallery.
So these images are sliding about all over the place. Slippery temporalities, multiple spatialities, embedded in Google and The Gallery… this makes them very typical of so many images now. And it seems appropriate therefore that Scheib isn’t a photographer: he’s an architect. His website carries several beautiful visualisations of his building projects which also move apparently seamlessly between what were once distinct visual media and genres. Proof, if any more were needed, that, if software isn’t exactly taking command, it’s certainly enabling the dissolution of many of the distinctions between high and low, image and object, then there and now that the photographic bit of our visual culture has depended on for so long.