"Building Images" offers a rare opportunity to see the work of America's first great architectural-photography firm.
Palmolive Building in Night Skyling. Photo: Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Architech Gallery
"Did modern photography beget modern architecture, or the converse?" P. Morton Shand asked in a 1934 article in The Architectural Review. He never answered the question, but concluded, “Without modern photography modern architecture could never have been ‘put across.’ ”
A pioneer in the business of putting it across was a young photographer named Ken Hedrich. He took as his subject the Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933 and 1934 and introduced an element lacking in most architectural photography at the time: drama.
A photograph of the fair's Chrysler Motors pavilion is “almost a perfect shot,” said Chrysanthe B. Broikos, coordinating curator for “Building Images: 70 Years of Photography at Hedrich Blessing,” which runs through July 27 at the National Building Museum here. “To light that building up, and use the reflecting pool — nobody had ever really done anything like that before.”
Hedrich saw the propaganda possibilities of architecture, bouncing beams off the smooth Art Moderne facades to make them loom, illuminating the glass showrooms from within to make them glow. People and Chrysler's cars, become stylized silhouettes within the thin metallic grids, so that the photograph celebrates the building rather than a documentary moment.
“Building Images” offers a rare opportunity to see the work of America's first great architectural-photography firm and perhaps, to answer Shand's question. Founded in Chicago in 1929 by Ken Hedrich and Henry Blessing (who decamped for California in 1931, leaving only his name), Hedrich Blessing soon became a family concern, eventually employing four Hedrich brothers (Ken and Bill as photographers, two others as managers) and two of their children. The 80 images in the exhibition are a tiny fraction of the 500,000 photographs acquired from the company by the Chicago Historical Society in 1991. These represent 55,000 assignments: work for Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eliel Saarinen, Albert Kahn and Paul Rudolph, among others and including projects through the 1970's. Jim Hedrich, Ken's son, still shoots for the studio, which maintains its Chicago base. The exhibit's most recent image is from 2002, of the Racine Art Museum by the architects Brininstool & Lynch.
Again and again, in the show's century of buildings, one sees Ken Hedrich and the stable of photographers employed by the firm channel reflected or direct light to set off the best parts of a building, just as a George Hurrell studio portrait might capture a starlet's best angle. To maintain that consistent vision over 70 years, the firm instituted an apprenticeship program; before a new photographer was allowed to go "on camera" he (and in one case, she) had to work with two staff photographers for several years.
The movies also provide a parallel for the solitary, Hitchcockian man who turns up in images by Ken Hedrich and his colleague Bill Engdahl of the work of Kahn and Mies. Against both architects' dark, repetitive facades, the anonymous man, like the buildings' long diagonals, pulls you in. Look closer, he seems to say, drawing your attention to the subtle rhythms of the architecture while serving as a prosaic scale figure. Equally seductive is Giovanni Suter's 1938 take on the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass showroom at the Chicago Merchandise Mart: two women in silhouette against an illuminated wall tend a vase of exotic blooms.
These pictures offer a marked contrast to the earlier documentation of Modernist architecture exemplified by the 1932 "International Style" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To transform the works of disparate architects into a coherent style, the curators chose images of the buildings photographed like pieces of evidence: centered in the frame, shot from across the street, white walls illuminated by a pale, raking light. The message — of dynamism, or the machine aesthetic or new ways of living — was not put across.
The Hedrichs, on the other hand, "shared a design sensibility with the architecture itself," said Robert Sobieszek, curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and curator of a 1984 exhibit and book on Hedrich Blessing.
“They did not just say, ‘O.K., I've got to do another house,’” he continued. “They tried to design the image and make the image resonate with the design features, whether it was 1930's or 1960's architecture.”
Along the way, Hedrich Blessing created a new audience for architecture. “All of a sudden it became important for modern architects to have their buildings professionally photographed to get them into magazines,” Ms. Broikos said. “It is Ken and Bill Hedrich's images that start that whole process rolling and enable the architects to understand what that printed image can mean for their buildings and their careers.”
After the Depression, more new work in the new styles was being built in the United States and magazines like Architectural Forum and Arts & Architecture were willing to publish it. To record their work architects turned primarily to three studios: Hedrich Blessing in Chicago, Julius Shulman on the West Coast and Ezra Stoller in the East.
In and around New York, Stoller captured the crisp, abstract shapes of glass skyscrapers by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and glass houses by architects up to and including Richard Meier. In the catalog for an early 1980's retrospective of Stoller's work, Arthur Drexler, longtime director of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote that Stoller's “photographs have been more real to architectural students and more intensely experienced, than most of the buildings they memorialize.”
The danger of the images is that their drama may replace the real thing. “If you haven't really thought about the photographs in the first place, you're getting both the history of architectural photography and the history of architecture,” said Terence Riley, currently chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “It is like the byline on a newspaper article — once you understand the point of view of the writer, it means a lot more.”
Bill Hedrich's 1937 image of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater may be “the most reproduced architectural photograph ever,” Mr. Sobieszek said. Architecture tourists who find their way to Bear Run in Pennsylvania end up, consciously or unconsciously, following in the footsteps of an image. In the woods below the house, there is a well-beaten path to the point from which one can shoot an amateur version of Hedrich's stack of balconies, staircases and waterfalls. Wright criticized the image as “acrobatic,” but maybe he was just jealous — the photograph, rather than Wright's strikingly similar rendering, is said to have given the house its name.
This review originally appeared in the New York Times, May 18, 2003.