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Monday, August 01, 2011

Book Review: Erieta Attali: In Extremis

Erieta Attali: In Extremis: Landscape into Architecture by Erieta Attali
GSAPP Books, 2011
Hardcover, 160 pages

The state of architectural photography today can be seen simultaneously in two different yet related ways: Images of particularly buildings are increasingly sophisticated and refined, highlighting architecture against an urban or natural backdrop; but also these photos serve the building at the expense of that background of which they are a part, giving the impression that a skewed eye is trumping "objective" photography. Of course skewed is the right word, because most images that fall under the rubric "architectural photography" are by professionals hired by architects to present their projects in a persuasive and flattering way. Yet a strategy that serves to present one object amongst its context in the most favorable light is not the only way. For one, the New York Times praised Iwan Baan's photographs for, among other things, offering "untidiness, of the kind that comes from real people moving though buildings and real cities massing around them."

Mr. Baan is certainly not alone in embracing the things that most architectural photographers eschew as distractions from the main "subject." Erieta Attali's photos can be seen in a similar light, though her photos are as different from Baan's as his are from more mainstream architectural photographers. As the essays in this handsome collection of Attali's photographs attest, her distinctive approach can be partially attributed to her background as an archaeological photographer, which she did for a decade before segueing into architectural photography and teaching at Columbia University. While I'm not familiar with her early pre-architectural photography, archaeology can be seen as building rising from the landscape via gently digging back in time; architecture and landscape are fused until the latter makes itself known. This melding can be seen in a number of the photos collected in this book, horizontal canvases of black-and-white and color that often place the building in a subsidiary position to its natural surroundings; some photos even make the landscape appear architectural, as if a building lies beneath in wait. Many of the locales are extreme -- cliffs overlooking an ocean, remote mountainscapes, arid landscapes -- which certainly accentuates the role of the natural landscape, but Attali's choice of framing, color or b/w, exposure, etc., present architecture in a way that its role as subject isn't always so clear. The subtitle "landscape into architecture" is definitely fitting.

How Attali's photos are presented in this wide-format book is important, reinforcing the positions she takes with her photos. First, the names of the building and/or the context (not all photos feature buildings, some are purely landscapes) are positioned at the back of the book, not adjacent to the photos. Second, the various buildings and locations are not grouped together or placed in a strict order; they are spread throughout the book, much like the essays by Alessio Assonitis, Dimitris Philippides, Kenneth Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa, Jeanette Plaut, and Jilly Traganou. Third and last, a number of spreads pair photos with formal or thematic similarities, such as an on-ramp in New York City echoing a river in Norway; the first is obviously man-made, but it is infused with something natural by its location opposite the river, on the edge of which sits a building by Bearth & Deplazes. It is an impressive collection of beautiful photos and landscapes where the buildings are often secondary. Yet by taking part in the framed beauty, the buildings are still presented favorably, just in a different way than most architectural photography. There is a lot to absorb and learn in these pages.

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