Saturday, May 21, 2011

White Walls, Double Negative (Part 3)

The hand of the shooter; Jacob Riis, Scrub Woman (1892); Unforgiven (1992)
(Part 2)
The post War embrace of the NEW was a very real need to drive out all shadows, to forever wipe away the disorder and corruption of the old world that had produced the Great Depression and the two world wars. The Modernists promised to make an orderly clean world. For a time they were able to deliver on that promise - but in no way could they do it if they had stuck with a program of white exteriors as they did in Wiessenhofsiedlung.

In fact, Wigley explained more recently, in discussion with the MoMA's curator Danial Burbaum and the artist Olifur Elison, white exteriors have only reemerged very recently:
The polemical exhibition of modern buildings in 1927 had a kind of off-white. It takes a long time to become white - white, like that of a Richard Meier building today which is completely unlike the white of classic modern architecture. The pioneering buildings had more like an eggshell color, so there is a way in which modern architecture whitens over time. One could argue that it does so as a reaction to the black-and-white photographs...The famous black-and-white photographs make white famous, and then the buildings try to look more like the photographs and become really white and all the other colors are removed.
Tom Sachs, camera; Dream Team


The link Wigly makes between photographs of Weissenhofsiedlung white and modern architects is the weakest aspect of the case he makes in his book. It's not that there is no relationship at all, its just that Wigley in no way acknowledge that photography came first. He imagines the relationship as totally asymmetrical. While a romance with the Weissenhofsiedlung white captured in photographs after the fact may influence more recent desires of architects to develop durable and stable white materials suitable for the exterior of buildings, it does not explain how the technologies and aesthetics of photography pressed down on the architects of Wiessenhofsiedlung in the first place.

Like modern architecture itself, photography as a constellation of material science, processes and aesthetics. There is every reason to believe that Wiessenhofsiedlung photographed so well, and still look so relevant, because it was created with photography in mind, but also because the architects like the photographers were working under new lighting conditions.
Thomas Edison, Electric Light (1879); Jacob Riis, Badit's Root (1888)

I agree that the whiteness of Wiessenhofsiedlung has its origins as a reaction to photography, but not photography of Modernist architecture. In 1888 Jacob Riis took advantage of a newly available technology, flash powder, to photograph the low light conditions of New York slums. His photographs sent shock waves around the world. At the time Riis' book, How the Other Half Lives, was published new York wasn't even the largest city in the world, London was, with 6.5 million people. Almost 40 years later when the Modernist premiered their flat roofs and white walled Wiessenhofsiedlung, New York was the largest city in the world with 10 million people, over three quarters of New Yorkers lived in tenements and shanties.

Because of the newly developed technology of flash photography, modern elites were confronted with images they read as objective (Riis posed his pictures - an photojournalism ethical no-no that had not yet developed) of filthy light less spaces that, until then, had been hidden from view from polite society. Everything the early moderns wrote about was founded in socially progressive rhetoric and focused on the problem of housing on a mass scale. Even if those arguments were entirely cynical, which it is impossible to imagine, the atmosphere that made those arguments compelling was one clearly concerned with reforming the squalor Riis and other muckraking photographers had brought to light.
Original Edison light bulb; Weissenhofsiedlung (1927)

The modern architects working in 1927 weren't all that much more distant from the widespread availability of photography and electric light than we are from the inception of the mobile phone. They were the first generation to build with the imagination of their spaces being photographed. The white wall was born out of new relationship to light. Already in 1947 Ansel Adams wrote that, "thinking of Riis's achievement in terms of comparative equipment and materials" was a "line worn thin by now," but if I can be forgiven, it is a meaningful line when it comes to whiteness and technology. 

Looking back on the work of Riis and Adams, it is hard not to see their work as aestheticized and arty because it is black and white. But Black and white photography only began to be seen as Fine Art, in the contemporary sense, very recently. It was only in the 1980s that black and white photography began to garner high prices (not the only indicator of how seriously we take art, but one of the most important and easiest to track). Friedrich Kittler argues in his book Optical Media, that photography did not become "famous as 'art' (in the old European understanding of the term) until or rather precisely after" it proved its worth as an objective forensic devise, used for identifying criminal, and "that all talk about photography as art actually conceals its strategic function."
Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen, Fusil Chronophotograhique (1874); Thomas Edison, Kinetoscope (1888)

Kittler enjoys enjoys highlighting the more sinister military aspects of technologic development. He makes a lot of the importance of ballistics in particular. Equally clear is that one of the reasons Riis' photos were so compelling is because Daguerreotypes were immediately valued as objective scientific evidence, replacing the arbitrary "falsifying hand of the painter" Kittler writes, with "modern scientific reading." 

That "nature could be brought to create a black and white image of itself" was powerfully linked in the minds of nineteenth century thinkers with mechanically scribed recordings of the human heart, the human voice, and animal movements. Kittler reports that in his eulogy for Daguerre the physicist Arago "emphasized the scientific applications of the first medium for storing images and completely denied that it would exert competitive pressure on painters. Kitler seems to take some pleasure in noting that this "was the understatement of the century."
Karl von Vierordt, Sphygmograph, (1854); Alexander Gardner, Lewis Paine (1865)

The para-scientific words created by early photographic innovators, like Eadweard Muybridge's "zoopraxiscope" betray the objective recorders they believed themselves to be - and were believed to be by their audiences. Kitler writes that after Muybridge's success proving the theory of unsupported transport, he wanted to reform painting:

His magnificent volumes on "animal locomotion" were published for the express purpose of presenting artists from drawing or painting false positions, like the galloping horse. Muybridge's nude photographs provided them instead with a scientific model model of all possible body movements. Like the renaissance perspective and the camera obscura, instantaneous photography was supposed to discipline art.
Kittler is hilariously dismissive of art, writing that modernist painting "had practically no effects on everyday life," and asserts that no perfecting of painting would "have been able to the transition from visual arts to optical media. In spite of all beliefs in progress" he writes, "there is no linear or continuous development in the history of media" (not even 1% for art it seems). To become photography image-making had to become "the half-military, half-scientific technology of instantaneous photography." For those working to use and develop new technologies in the early twentieth century, like the modernist architects and the German V-2 rocketeers, white was not classical essence, it was scientific rigor. (Continue reading Part 4.)
Unsupported Transit: Eadweard Muybridge, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878); V-2 Launch

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