They say a picture is worth a thousands words. Such is its visual nature, this sentiment couldn’t be more true when it comes to architecture. While most would agree that architecture is best understood when it is experience in person, a good photograph can illuminate an architect’s ideas and tell a compelling story about a building, revealing something profound.
That’s what the inaugural One Photo Challenge is all about: Can you tell a powerful story about architecture with a single image? Submit a photo before the Regular Entry Deadline on April 17th for a chance to win $2,500 and have your work seen by millions.
For inspiration, it’s worth looking back through time at some of the most influential photographs of architecture ever produced. The following images all had an impact on architecture in some way, causing us to rethink the way we view our built environment and generate new ideas about the role photography plays in the profession.
It’s worth noting that these photographs span every stage of a building’s life, from construction, through inhabitation, to demolition. As you decide what type of photograph you’ll submit, explore these iconic images to see architecture from a fresh perspective.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (1932)
Photographer: Unknown (probably Charles C. Ebbets)
Architect: Raymond Hood
This image, taken on the 69th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, is surely one of the most iconic photographs ever taken in New York City. The photograph epitomizes the boldness and bravery of ironworkers on the front lines of Manhattan’s skyscraper boom of the early 1900s, and is an enduring symbol of New York’s irrepressible architectural ambition. What you may not know, though, is that the photo was staged as part of a promotional campaign for the building. Despite this, its powerful juxtaposition of hair-raising height and camaraderie makes it one of the world’s most beloved images of the built environment.
How it changed architecture: “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” brought high-rise typology to a mass audience, as well as shining a spotlight on those that make skyscrapers a reality. With this photograph, pride for the city and its builders became inextricably linked.
Fort Peck Dam (1936)
Photographer: Margaret Bourke-White
Engineer: Lieutenant Colonel Richard C. Moore and others
Seeking to carve out a new path in journalism by covering a diverse range of stories in a “uniquely visual way”, LIFE Magazine looked to talented Fortune magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Focusing her lens on the striking, sculptural form of the newly constructed Fort Peck Dam, Bourke-White’s cover image sparked a whole new era of photojournalism, proving that images could tell a story just as powerfully as words. Rather than attempting to capture the entire dam in a single frame, the photographer zoomed in, emphasizing the contrasting light and shadows cast across the immense structure. Tiny figures at the bottom of the image brings home the dam’s monumental scale.
How it changed architecture: Bourke-White’s image, together with the accompanying article inside LIFE Magazine, highlighted the art of engineering in a wholly unexpected and compelling way. In doing so, it forged a new link between architecture, engineering and popular culture.
Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (1955)
Photographer: Irving Penn
Akin to a band on the cover of a music album, two architects strike ultra moody poses, asserting an authority in keeping with the uncompromising nature of their work. Irving Penn’s portrait of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson with a scale model of the Seagram Building is significant for who took it, as much as who features in it. Penn’s portfolio includes portraits of iconic figures spanning fashion, art and film, and his playful shot of these serious architects aligns them with other stars of pop culture.
How it changed architecture: Irving Penn’s portrait firmly established architects as personalities worth knowing, rather than anonymous authors of the world’s buildings. Its ties to ego and the cult of celebrity foreshadowed the ‘Starchitect’ phenomenon that would permeate the profession later in the century.
Case Study House no. 22 (1960)
Photographer: Julius Shulman
Architect: Pierre Koenig
Shulman’s photographs of the experimental “Case Study” houses in Los Angeles, California, are widely credited for bring modernism into the mainstream. This image of Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House is arguably the most iconic of them all, striking a perfect balance between the building’s bold, cantilevered exterior with a chic yet comfortable interior. Shulman’s use of models — complete with sophisticated cocktail dresses — helped to humanize modernism, while adding a touch of glamor synonymous with Hollywood.
How it changed architecture: Shulman’s photograph raised the bar for property marketing, proving that modern architecture could help sell the “American Dream” to consumers just as effectively as clapboard houses with white picket fences. TIME Magazine has called it “the most successful real estate image ever taken”.
Blast Furnaces (1969-95)
Photographers: Hilla and Bernd Becher
German conceptual artists and photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher worked as a collaborative duo, building up a huge collection of images depicting industrial buildings such as cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers. The couple developed a distinctive style for recording these structures, capturing each building from a consistent angle and with the same lighting conditions to highlight the subtle similarities and differences of their designs. Founders of what became known as the “Becher school”, their work went on to influence a whole new generation of documentary photographers.
How it changed architecture: By focusing their lenses on these long-overlooked buildings, the Bechers showed that the design of industrial architecture and infrastructure could be an art in its own right.
The Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe (1972)
Photograph Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri
Architect: Minoru Yamasaki
It is arguably the world’s most well-known photograph of a demolition. Pruitt-Igoe was a huge multi-unit housing development designed to create a vibrant new home for thousands in a deprived area of St. Louis, Missouri. However, after its completion in 1956, the 33 apartment blocks quickly began to deteriorate, with poor maintenance and rising crime making them unhealthy and dangerous for residents. When the entire development was demolished in the 1970s, this image became — rightly or wrongly — an enduring symbol of architectural failure. Some of the complexities and misconceptions about Pruitt-Igoe are addressed in Chad Freidrichs’ documentary “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”.
How it changed architecture: While most of the aforementioned photos helped architecture achieve fame, this image demonstrated the ability of photographers to create architectural infamy just as effectively.
Morning Cleaning (1999)
Photographer: Jeff Wall
Architect: Mies van der Rohe
Wall’s remarkable photograph of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona Pavilion turns a familiar, flawless space on its head with a single addition — a cleaner with a mop and bucket goes about his work, ensuring that this architectural icon retains its spotless appearance. The photograph juxtaposes the sublime with the everyday, contrasting the pristine nature of Mies’ structure with the humble objects necessary to maintain its supposed perfection.
How it changed architecture: Through the medium of art, Wall’s image confronts the glorification of minimalism, providing a startling reality check for those with a romanticized view of modern architecture. The photograph is intended as “a ‘countermonument’ to the reconstructed pavilion as fetish, emptied of social meaning and the traumatic history of modernity.”
Koluma 01 (2007)
Photographer: Hélène Binet
Architect: Peter Zumthor
Binet’s images of Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, sought to capture the understated power of Zumthor’s intervention, showcasing the subtle brilliance of both architect and photographer. Binet took a series of tightly cropped photos, each focusing on the interaction between structure and light. In this case, Zumthor’s unique Kolumba bricks form a magical composition that is an antidote for the endless walls of glass wrapping most modern museums.
How it changed architecture: Through this and many other photographs, Binet pushed light and shade to the forefront of architectural design. The photographer’s representation of Zumthor’s work illustrated the immense power of light to elevate the atmosphere of a space, influencing countless young architects in the process.
Torre David (2011)
Photographer Iwan Baan
Architect: Enrique Gómez
Torre David is an unfinished skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, which was occupied by thousands of squatters after construction was halted due to financial problems. This infamous ‘vertical slum’ came to symbolize the systemic failures of the Venezuelan government, but also illuminated the resilience of transient communities that created a life for themselves inside this looming edifice. Baan’s photo of the building’s exterior perfectly captures this, its patchwork of makeshift windows and balustrades hinting at activity within.
How it changed architecture: Baan’s images of Torre David showed the value of documenting accidental and imperfect architecture as well as the pristine structures we are accustomed to seeing. They told a story about a building and its inhabitants in a way rarely seen before. This series also won Iwan Baan global acclaim at the 2012 Venice Biennale — he is now arguably the world’s best known architectural photographer living today.
Photographer: Michele Palazzo
Architect: Daniel Burnham and Frederick P. Dinkelberg
When Michele Palazzo ventured outside with his camera in January of 2016 to document the Jonas Blizzard, he had no idea that his photograph would soon be seen by millions around the world. His haunting yet romantic shot of the New York’s iconic Flatiron Building was posted online and quickly went viral, receiving coverage from dozens of outlets from Colossal and My Modern Met to The Telegraph and the Saatchi Gallery. With its swirling snow, picturesque storefront and the obligatory food cart — a quintessential part of the New York streetscape — the photo was likened to an impressionist painting. It became the definitive image of #Blizzard2016.
How it changed architecture: The incredible reach of Palazzo’s image showed that, with the advent of social media, a single architectural detail can now become emblematic of a monumental event. All it needed was a great photographer, a good story and the inter-connected power of the internet.
Now it’s your turn: Submit an architectural photograph of your own for the One Photo Challenge for a shot at $2,500 and global recognition!