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Photographic joy.

BUILDING WITH LIGHT: THE INTERNATIONAL HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY

By Robert Elwall. London: Merrell. 2004. [pounds sterling]39.95

It is now nearly seventeen years since Robinson and Herschman's monumental Architecture Transformed. A new account of the continuing relationship between architecture and photography is therefore to be welcomed, particularly one written on this side of the Atlantic and with the added bonus of colour reproduction.

Elwall's previous work in this field was a small paperback, Photography takes Command, 1994, to accompany an RIBA exhibition. Although its scope was supposed to be limited by both date and geography, it managed to ignore its boundaries and cram in virtually the whole history of architectural photography. The new book tells the same story, albeit in a considerably more luxurious setting.

The main feature of the book is most obviously the multitude of pictures. Elwall has put together a marvellous collection of which the whole is considerably more than the sum of its parts. The quality of reproduction is excellent, with colour occasionally, and unexpectedly, used to suggest the qualities of albumen prints and daguerrotypes. Photographically, the book is a joy.

But therein also lies a problem. Although the text has been allowed to expand to encompass the international, there is just not enough space for words as opposed to pictures. The story hurtles onward, leaving the reader desperate for the occasional breather, for an opportunity to explore.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Just one example, Elwall says that in the 1860s architectural photography took on 'a pariah status'. It would have been good to have some evidence, and even better to have been given an idea of what was going on in other areas of photography. A comparison between Bedford Lemere's blandness and, say, Peach Robinson's multi-negative sentimentality might suggest that the former had actually more influence on the development of photography than the 'serious' practitioners.

However, to pursue such an essentially pictorial question, illustrations and text need to be integrated. Here, apart from a few very small ones, all the photographs appear together at the ends of chapters. The result is a book of pictures with rather a small text (only 54 pages) attached. or rather, detached. This no doubt pleases the marketing department, but it plays havoc with trying to read it (not at all helped by the weediest of sans serif typefaces).

But while Elwall has had one hand tied behind his back by the designers, at least it is not his writing one. As with his carlier book, his knowledgeable enthusiasm certainly keeps the momentum going, and the later sections are especially good. Architecture Transformed, being American, ignored European post-war reconstruction, a hole which is here nicely filled. And the story to the present, with colour, is something not to be found elsewhere. Although why is it that of all the colour pictures only one (maybe two?) would not have said exactly the same in black and white? Discuss.
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Author:Charles, Martin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:487
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