Seeing Slowly. Markus Brunetti’s Facades.
Markus Brunetti, FACADES, self published, 2016
‘Seeing Slowly’ is an essay written for Markus Brunetti’s book FACADES, self-published by Brunetti 2016. Text in English, French and German.
Seeing Slowly. Markus Brunetti’s Façades.
by David Campany
Sitting to write about Markus Brunetti’s remarkable series Façades, I have on my desk a nondescript little photograph of the front elevation of Notre-Dame, the cathedral in Paris. It is a mass produced albumen print, roughly 7 by 5 inches, dating from around 1880. It was found in a flea market in London for £9. The name of the photographer has been lost (only the initials ‘LP’ are visible) but perhaps this does not matter. The image conforms, more or less, to a way of photographing historic architecture that was already widespread by the late 19th century.
The construction of Notre Dame began in 1163, under the reign of Louis VII. Over time, the design changed substantially. Several chief builders were involved, including Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil, Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy and Jean le Bouteiller. It was not until 1345 that the cathedral was thought ‘complete’. Soon after, the reformist Huguenots declared several features to be idolatrous and destroyed them. Changes continued, and during the revolution of 1789, the 13th century spire was toppled and various statues, presumed to be of royalty, were beheaded soon after. A decade later, the giant figure of St Christopher that once stood at the western entrance was pulled down. In the mid-18th century the stained glass windows that had existed for nearly five hundred years were replaced with white windows. The 19th century saw a program of restoration. In the 1960s more stained glass windows were commissioned. And so on. Like so many cathedrals, Paris’s Notre-Dame has reflected changing attitudes to architecture, religion, culture, power, and money. Subject to weather, pollution and the attrition of use, Notre-Dame persists not as a fixed testament to its origin but as an archive of its own complicated and ongoing life.
The first stone of Notre Dame was laid long before the advent of the way of thinking and modeling space that came to dominate western visual culture: perspective. Only in 1415 did Fillipo Brunelleschi depict the Baptistry in Florence from the front gate of the city’s unfinished cathedral, using ‘vanishing points’ to which all the picture’s lines converge, at eye-level, on the horizon. By obeying laws of geometry thought to be above and beyond individual attitude, perspective permitted three dimensions to be standardized and mastered. It revolutionized not just the picturing of space and the objects within in it, but our very conception of those spaces and objects. And, as is so often recounted, perspective would find its ideal expression in optics, first via the camera obscura (the dark chamber into which, through a tiny hole or lens, light will pour and form an inverted image of the external world) and then in photography, which fixes that image. Let us bear this in mind when we look at representations of Notre-Dame and other buildings from before 1415. While the architecture predates perspective almost none of its familiar representations do. And consider this: the whole history of photography, from the 1820s to the present, from those tentative early experiments to the latest digital technologies, is around two hundred years, which is about as long as it took to build Notre Dame.
Looking at my little print of that cathedral, you can see it is not a conspicuously perspectival image. The façade is flat to the picture plane and there are few receding lines to give much of a sense of depth. It is as if the photographer has cut out and miniaturized an elevation, making it a portable reference work or souvenir. Of course the cathedral did not, does not, really look like that. Photographic convention had determined that vertical lines should not converge. Either the photographer had to find a vantage point that was half the height of the building, or move the front lens plate of his camera to keep the verticals parallel and leave the vanishing point nearer to the horizon than the middle of the picture. If the photographer could not stand directly in front of the building, he could slide his lens plate a little to the left or right to centre it. Look closely and you can see that our photographer of 1880 was at ground level and actually standing off centre, facing the arched doorway on the right of the building. He was reasonably lucky with the weather. Soft light models the fine details. Harsh sun would have confused the reading of such a complicated surface.
Edouard Baldus, Pavillon Colbert, Nouveau Louvre, Paris , c.1855. Salt print.
To this day, these remain the dominant conventions for architectural photography. In many respects they are ideals and as such are rarely lived up to in the real world, with its unpredictable contingencies. The light is usually less than perfect. People and other obstacles may get in the way. The optimal viewpoint may not be easily available. Despite the highest achievements of the best architectural photographers (Édouard Baldus, for example) the medium is bound to fall short. But the failings, both technical and aesthetic, have always driven it onwards. Can perfection ever be attained? Will the ideals for photographing buildings ever be fulfilled? Will they remain constant as architecture and photography change?
The work of Markus Brunetti offers us some answers that are by turns surprising, suggestive, satisfying and profound. Since 2005, Brunetti and his partner Betty Schöner have been hard at work making photographic images of the façades of cathedrals, churches and cloisters all over Europe. They are on the road for much of the year, travelling by van with their equipment. They have no overall system, no fixed agenda. The project proceeds on a case-by-case basis. It has already encompassed architecture from many periods and styles: Moorish, early Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque. Some are typical examples, some are more singular, and some are hybrids of various influences. It is an unending project.
After much research and some preliminary photographic studies, a façade is selected. Over a few weeks, or even years, it is then documented part-by-part, photographing no more than a few square meters with each exposure. The separate elements are then assembled digitally into coherent whole. Although each final image is a subjective interpretation, it is also a hard-won document of unprecedented clarity. Never before have these buildings been rendered in such a way. The fine mosaics, intricate carving, filigree metal work and stained glass are there for us to see, along with the cracks, deformations and decay.
Like all innovations in photography, this project has required great persistence, vision and a lot of problem solving. It involves a method of picturing that actually departs in profound ways from the logic of optical perspective, if only to return to it anew. While photographic in origin, the final images feel as much like facsimiles or elaborate photocopies, as if the building had been mapped or scanned. Indeed, scanning might be the best term here, since it implies a mobile and yet systematic point of view that takes in the subject matter evenly and all-over. The results are not unlike 2D images of detailed replicas produced by a 3D printer. While these images fall within the ever-looser parameters of realism they can feel strange, uncanny even, striking us as much like apparitions as records.
We may find ourselves pondering what exactly these images are, and what they are for. Are they documents to be used? Is there some potential scientific value? Are they for future reference? Are these images acts deference to the buildings they represent? Are these images for aesthetic contemplation in themselves, or are they portals for the contemplation of the buildings? Are these images affectionate? Cold? Romantic? Enigmatic? Crazed? Sober? Euphoric? Melancholic? All of the above.
Today photography is overrun by forced artiness, the determination of the photographer-auteur to leave a mark, to make his or her sensibility the dominant impression. You can see this tendency as much on Instagram as in the gallery system. In this climate the idea of photography being an act of homage to its subject matter may seem distant or even quaint. Back in 1928 the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, who was capable of photographing just about anything, including historic architecture, wrote:
There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.[i]
He argued for photography of servitude and worship. Taking pleasure in the medium for its own sake risked competition with the subject matter. For Renger-Patzsch the task of the photographer was to imagine and then master an art of selflessness. The joy taken in photography would then be inseparable from the joy taken in the worldly things chosen for depiction. The more selfless the photography, the more the joy would appear to derive from the subject matter and the more enjoyable the making of the image. Ideally the viewer would be able to feel this too. In a similar vein the British photographer Edwin Smith once described his relation to the photographic documentation of paintings:
Making an accurate color transparency of a painting is perhaps one of the least creative of a photographer’s tasks. If he is sensitive to the painting, there will be, if the work is admired, the consolation of having it to himself and of paying it the ritual homage of his own craft; though this pleasure may turn to torture when the work is despised—a condition not infrequent enough to be ignored![ii]
Servitude can be a source of great anxiety. ‘Copy work’ can feel at odds with the creative or artistic impulse. In 1933 the photographer Walker Evans confessed: “I could support myself copying paintings but I don’t relish the work,”(although that same year he seemed happy enough to photograph Victorian architecture on commission).[iii] Likewise, Man Ray once declared: “The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist,“ although he regularly documented his own paintings and sculpture for reproduction.[iv]
Brunetti’s case is somewhat different. It is fair to presume he has great affection for the structures he has decided to image for us. It seems clear that he has taken great ‘joy before his objects’ and has had these buildings to himself, paying them the ‘ritual homage of his own craft’. But the transference of the joy is not simply a matter of liking or admiring a building and then photographing it. The method of picturing demands intimate familiarity with every little aspect of these structures. And yet, one of the remarkable aspects photography is that it can offer a means of representation that allows the photographer to capture appearances without such intimacy. As the photographer Lee Friedlander puts it:
I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.[v]
Brunetti negotiates this generosity detail by detail. Some things must be removed (scaffolding, lampposts, people and other distractions) to better attend to the features and textures of the façade itself. Then, the long process of piecing the final image together requires an intimacy and understanding rivalled only by the long-forgotten craftsmen who constructed and decorated the buildings in the first place. These are not simply photographs of facades; they are reconstructions ofthem, attending to every last idiosyncrasy. (It should be noted here that before beginning this series, Brunetti had twenty years experience working with digital imaging. And before that, his family life was steeped in architecture and building. His grandfather and father would take him to construction sites, where principles and processes would be explained to him. Clearly he’s the right man for his self-assigned task, building images that will image these buildings.
In 1946, Jorge Luis Borges published a remarkable single-paragraph tale, titled On Exactitude in Science:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.[vi]
Borges wrote his allegory as if it were a fragment from a long-lost book by a forgotten author. What will the future make of Brunetti’s obsessive yet generous images? Will they outlast the façades of which they are detailed maps, or fade back into the architecture from whence they came?
There are more questions. What should we make of the fact that as Brunetti was beginning his project, Google Earth was launched online? Millions of separate images collaged into a patchwork photographic map of the surface of our planet. Then in 2007 Microsoft announced Photosynth, a piece of software that could combine photographs found online to produce three-dimensional virtual models of real places and buildings. The more images available to the software, the better the result.[vii] Not every surface of the world has been documented with equal intensity. The most photographed belong to the best-known historic buildings (the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, Big Ben and so forth). These all have surfaces that are intricate and distinctive enough to be unique, and they are present enough in online images to be rendered as virtual 3D collages.
Needless to say, Brunetti makes use of no ‘network’ or ‘point cloud’ of images beyond his own. Moreover the care, attention, craft and artistry of his working process far exceed the algorithms of populist image processing. Nevertheless, there have always been complex parallels between the work of specialized artisans such as Brunetti and the practices of industrial/corporate imaging, especially in the field of photography. Brunetti’s final images are exceptional things, and clearly the work of an authorial voice but they also suspend authorship, appealing to a kind of model consciousness that belongs both to the buildings themselves and the abstracted ideal of a universal picture that we find in the story by Borges and intuit in the realm of Google. Brunetti’s technical means might be connected to the image world at large but his project is a result of a glorious single-mindedness that is quite the opposite of faceless corporate algorithms.
The digital files of Facades are large (very large), and this permits the production of large prints for display in museums and galleries. Some of the prints are as much three meters tall. Photography has always had a particularly complicated relation scale. Although a painter might make preliminary sketches, he does not paint his painting and then decide how big it will be. A sculptor may at first make a maquette but he does not carve or assemble his final piece and then decide its dimensions. An architect may build a model or make drawings but he does not construct his building and then finalise its scale. But a photographer may well take their photograph, or assemble their digital montage and leave the question of ‘output’ for another day. In other words, photography’s relation to scale is not sovereign. As a result, whenever we look at a photographic image we know, or feel, that the scale at which we see it has been a matter of choice. Of course, it can be artistically necessary to print at a particular size, and it seems reasonable that the detail and workmanship of the Façades demand a scale at which these qualities can be seen and engaged with. Unlike the buildings themselves, the prints do not have to accommodate a large congregation of worshippers, or be visible for miles around but they do accommodate several viewers at the same time. In this sense they retain that idea of the communal that informed the intentions of the buildings themselves. To watch as viewers approach and become absorbed in these imagesis to witness an informal sociality that flows around these questions of scale and belonging.
In the summer of 2015, the scale of the Façades could be felt even more acutely, when a selection were shown alongside artworks in many different media from many historical periods in the ambitious thematic exhibition Proportio, presented at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice.[viii] In one room an image of the cathedral in Chartres was placed in relation to Eduardo Chillida’s 1990 Elogio de la Luz XX (81 x 120 x 60cm). This sculpture is a boulder of raw alabaster pierced by a square hole with polished sides. One of these sides is pierced by a further, smaller square hole. It is almost impossible to contemplate this object without imagining the holes as passages or corridors. The 700 kilogram stone appears to be a proposal for something much larger, something human beings could enter walk through. Its dialogue with the image of Chartres circles around questions not just of scale, but materiality, transformation, objecthood, illusion, and imaginative projection.
Proportion and dimension are different but connected concepts. Proportion concerns the internal relation between the different parts that make up a whole. Dimension concerns physical size in the real world. Proportion is a matter of ideals, whereas dimension is matter of actuality. A model of a building might have pleasing proportions when contemplated in the architect’s studio, but the final construction might be much less so. Our cities are now full of buildings that may well have seemed attractive as dimensionless photorealist renderings on architects’ computer screens but look preposterous when realized in urban space. In privileging the image over built form, such architecture loses the nuanced and complex understanding of scale that had taken centuries to grasp.
Although the Façades make use of state of the art imaging practices, theyreturn us to the moment before this sense of scale was lost, but do so in a circuitous and unpredictable way. Firstly, you will notice that many of his images lack clear indications of architectural scale and we are left wondering exactly how big these buildings are. Look for example, at Cortegaça, Paróquia de Santa Marinha (2013-2014). There is much to enjoy in the blue-white surfaces and the shapes of this unusual Portuguese building, but that enjoyment takes place within an uncertain sense of dimension, and a vague sense of place and history. Do those palm trees offer us a fixed point of reference? Not really: they could be six meters tall or twenty-six. Moreover, even when the Façades do contain indications of scale, the method of picturing seems to make the buildings appear almost like remote replicas of themselves. They are suspended, plucked out of the flow of life, and yet the viewer is given the space to reflect on what all this might mean. The complex sense of time and social symbolism embodied in architecture is played against the equally complex time and symbolism of photography in its present moment of aesthetic and technical transformation.
Most of the time our culture uses photography a substitute for the world it purports to represent. However, it rarely encourages us reflect on what is at stake in this act of substitution. The matter is particularly acute when photography as an art form takes another art form as its subject matter. For the philosopher Gilles Deleuze,
The encounter between two disciplines doesn’t take place when one begins to reflect on another, but when one discipline realises that it has to resolve, for itself and by its own means, a problem similar to one confronted by the other.[ix]
In other words, photographic substitution can be opened to particularly rich contemplation when the medium represents other media such as painting, sculpture or architecture. Photography might have qualities of its own but these qualities are nuanced and shaded by its representation of the qualities of other media.[x]
On one level Brunetti’s Façades approach the purity of the architects’ original drawn plans, but the similarity can be taken only so far. In very few cases would plans be followed to the last detail. As we have seen, pragmatic changes often occur during construction. Plus of course, the work of commissioned sculptors and stonemasons can never be prescribed exactly, can never be represented accurately in advance. The Façades have just as much in common with drawings made after the buildings have been completed. So there is no easy category for these images. This is their appeal and may well be their lasting significance. They mix the ideal and pragmatic, hope and realism, poetry and prose, artistry and craft, homage and suggestion, past, present and future. We may know what we are looking at but we must discover for ourselves how and for what we are looking.
I began with an anonymous still photograph of Notre Dame in Paris. I end with a scene from a movie by one cinema’s great auteurs, perhaps the greatest. Aesthetically, this scene is a long way from Brunetti’s work but it is actually the closest comparison I can think of. Orson Welles’s 1974 film F for Fake is a meditation on the arts of realism, documentary and montage. It takes as its subject creation, authorship, seeing and knowledge. With masterful technique Welles asks a blizzard of questions. What do we want from art? What do we want from artists? Can we know the deepest secrets of creativity? How far will dedication and technique carry us? Can we ever know the full meaning of what we create? Why do we value the maker when what they make is intended to outlast them? What is a collective artistic endeavour? Around these questions F for Fake spins endlessly playful tales. But one passage of the film stands out in its deep sincerity. Over a slow sequence of static shots of a cathedral, we hear Welles’s inimitable voice:
Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life … we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.[xi]
[i]Albert Renger-Patzsch, ‘Joy before the Object’ 1928, reprinted in Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, Aperture / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1989, pp. 108–109.
[ii]Edwin Smith, ‘The Photography of Paintings, Drawings and Print’ in John Lewis and Edwin Smith The Graphic Reproduction and Photography of Works of Art, Cowell and Faber, 1969.
[iii] Walker Evans, letter to Hans Skolle dated April 20th, 1933 excerpted in Walker Evans at Work,, Thames & Hudson, London 1982, p.95. Also in 1933 Evans’s commissioned photographs of Victorian architecture were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. While Evans was credited, the images were presented in the architecture galleries (the museum had no ‘photography’ galleries at that point.)
[iv]Man Ray, Self Portrait, Andre Deutsch Limited, London 1963, p. 78-80.
[v] Lee Friedlander in Peter Galassi, ed, Lee Friedlander, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2005.
[vi]B. Lynch Davis [Jorge Luis Borges], ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’, Los Anales de Buenos Aires, año 1, no. 3, March 1946. Published in English as ‘On Exactitude in Science’ in J. L. Borges, A Universal History of Infamy (translated by Norman Thomas de Giovanni), Penguin Books, London, 1975.
[vii]In 2006, a piece of web-based software named Photo Tourism was presented at SIGGRAPH, the annual conference on interactive computer graphics. It could create a three-dimensional photographic collage from images uploaded to the Internet. Photo Tourism was snapped up by Microsoft, developed and announced as Photosynth in 2007. In 2010, Photosynth was the subject of a TED Talk, presented by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, who demonstrated the technology with a composite rendering of … Notre Dame in Paris.
[viii] Proportio, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, May 9 – November 22, 2015. Curated by Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti.
[ix] Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Brain is the Screen. An interview with Gilles Deleuze.’ Gregory Flaxman, editor, The Brain is the Screen. Deleuze an the Philosophy of Cinema, Routledge, 1997
[x] As the art writer Denis Hollier puts it: “Like the mutilated classical statue, a photograph seems to result from the artwork’s encounter with a scythe of real time, showing the bruise imprinted upon an artwork by a clash with a time not its own.”Denis Hollier, ‘Beyond Collage. Reflections on the Andre Malraux of L’Espoir and of Le Musee Imaginaire‘. Art Press, no. 221, 1997.
[xi] Orson Welles, F for Fake, screenplay, 1974.