Louis Kahn (1901–74) was an architect who designed buildings that looked like castles; this was true whether they were small Philadelphia villas or vast institutions such as his parliamentary complex in Dhaka. His style – which he arrived at only in his fifties – is characterised by what look like thick fortified walls of massive masonry pierced by simple geometrical shapes and sometimes topped with turrets, as if they have been designed by a necromancer or numerologist in the 13th or 14th century. The architectural historian Vincent Scully, an admirer, thought these buildings an intimation of divinity, and much writing about Kahn is overblown: ‘inventive power’, ‘personal discovery’, ‘fundamental geometry’ – that sort of thing.
Alongside this lies the fact that he was a charismatic teacher given to gnomic utterances – a stream of consciousness about bricks, for example, went thus: ‘The brick was always talking to me, saying you’re missing an opportunity. The weight of brick makes it dance like a fairy above and groan below but brick is stingy…’ It means nothing, but students in Kahn’s circle were entranced: Anthony Wade, a young British architect, returned from studying under Kahn in Philadelphia to design Eliot College (1965), a large residential building on a Kahnian plan at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Nearly 1,200 of Kahn’s present-day admirers, some in the top tier of architectural academia and practice worldwide, signed a letter at the end of last year protesting against the proposed demolition of dormitory buildings at his Indian Institute of Management complex in Ahmedabad (IIMA) in India. The IIMA has rowed back, for the time being, but the episode demonstrated the power of his incantations: the construction of his wonderful library at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire – blatantly a castle keep – seems to have been accompanied by a continuous flow of these characteristic aphorisms.
Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–72), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden
He looked the way he sounded: in Native Stone, Edwin Gilbert’s Yale-based roman-à-clef of 1956, the Kahn character is ‘an almost gnome-like figure encased in an oxford-gray suit’. And there was occasionally a sense of incredulity, too, at Kahn’s challenge to puritanical, mainstream modernism. The front elevation of his performing arts centre at Fort Wayne, Indiana (1961–73) has a funny face with explicit eyes, nose and mouth, a fact that modernist critics could never address directly.
Kahn’s career as an independent architect began in the late 1940s but the turning point in his life had come 20 years earlier, when he travelled to Italy and made beautiful atmospheric drawings and paintings of buildings. What Kahn and the Kahnites called his ‘tartan grid’, a mesh of ‘master’ and ‘servant’ spaces, was his updated response to Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s Précis of the Lectures on Architecture (1802–05) and Beaux Arts planning. So there too he was consciously reaching back into the past, something that no other heroic-period modernist ever admitted to; and as modernism is increasingly re-evaluated in architecture schools today, his work provides a useful illustration of the ways in which traditional forms can be constantly updated and referenced. Philip Webb, who in English architectural history was similarly revered by contemporaries, looked back to find an ‘Idea’ – that is, a historical building type – for each original new building; Kahn likewise re-envisaged medieval monasteries as an assembly of distinct volumes that recall chapels, halls and cells.
The IIMA could be seen as either a monastery or a collection of castles; it has barbicans, defensive walls and outer forts – those being the threatened dormitory buildings. At La Jolla on the Californian coast, Kahn designed for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies – founded by the polio-vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk – what looks like a single massive defensive wall that has been cleft down the middle, each half placed either side of a rill that runs towards the Pacific. The basic elements of the design appear to be frozen as though in a balletic tableau. This equilibrium had appeared in a group of open, atavistic temples that form part of Kahn’s first ‘Kahnian’ project of 1954–58, a Jewish community centre in Trenton, New Jersey, and towards the end of his career at the barrel-vaulted Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1969–72). Here the vault is split lengthways with a rooflight running down the middle; it’s not really a true vault, although it resembles one. All Kahn’s completed buildings are visually stunning, and have been recently captured by the photographer Cemal Emden in a book published by Prestel this month.
A dormitory building at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (1962–74), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden
Kahn’s design for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem was never built, but this too would have reached out towards the elements, in the manner of the sublime – in this case upwards and downwards rather than outwards as at La Jolla. Denys Lasdun’s successor scheme for the Hurva was not built either, and thus Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s somewhat Kahnian Nebenzahl House of 1972 has remained the only building of any architectural quality whatsoever built within the Old City in the 20th century.
The British architect James Stirling met Kahn in Philadelphia in 1959, and Kahn immediately became a hero: Stirling thought his work was ‘very English’, though in fact Kahn told I.M. Pei that his inspiration had been Scottish castles. Stirling’s own WZB Social Science Centre in Berlin is planned in the form of a monastic dormitory, an amphitheatre, a chapel and a castle keep (unbuilt), and seems to be derived from an early scheme for Salk’s institute. Stirling shared Kahn’s imperious attitude to everything and everyone other than the building itself, which in Kahn’s case included a failure to recognise the work of engineers who made his buildings possible: August Komendant, for example, who designed the cycloid section that made the Kimbell’s vault stand up, was omitted from the building’s published credits.
The reason for the IIMA dormitories’ demolition, according to the institute’s board, was that their unsatisfactory construction had become a danger to residents – a point that the signatories to the objecting letter notably failed to respond to. What is a leaking roof, however, when a building speaks of the mysteries of the universe?
Essential Louis Kahn by Cemal Emden and Caroline Maniaque will be published by Prestel in April.
From the March 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
If you have ever approached Termini station in Rome, you may have noticed a frieze on the edge of the slender canopy. It is quiet and subtle, a discreet touch of abstract ornamentation on the leading edge of a slice of otherwise unadorned and exquisitely mid-century modernism.
Think back to The Godfather Part II, and you may remember a silent, unsettling character who acts as bodyguard and hitman for Michael Corleone. Seen wearing only a black hat and black rollneck, the taciturn assassin cuts a sinister figure. He was played by Amerigo Tot (1909–84), a Hungarian artist (he was born Imre Tóth), part-time actor and one-time Italian resistance fighter who was responsible for sculpting the frieze on the front of Termini.
There is something flamboyant about a frieze. It seems appropriate that Tot, who also appeared in Fellini’s Satyricon and Mike Hodges’ Pulp, should have had a sideline as an actor. But Tot’s frieze for Termini also gives the lie to the misconception that friezes somehow died out with the ancients and the neoclassicists who built the rest of Rome.
Photomontage of Amerigo Tot (1909–84) and the plan of his frieze for Termini station in Rome, created by Cosimo Boccardi in 1949. Photo: © Amerigo Tot Foundation
The frieze has been a recurring feature in the history of architecture. But it is also true that since the end of brutalism, sometime in the early 1980s, it has almost disappeared from modern architecture. The reasons for its disappearance seem obvious. The frieze originated in classical architecture with its trabeation (columns and beams) and decorated the beams above the columns and the tympanum within the pediment. Its appearances on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Mayan, Indian and African buildings suggest that architecture’s flamboyant hatband is an almost universal element. The frieze was the narrative element of the architecture, a sculptural strip that could be read for its mythical themes, or it could just act as decoration. The long controversy over the British Museum’s Parthenon marbles illustrates how the frieze transcends both architecture and art to become a medium in its own right. It can be understood as an artwork yet should probably be rooted in place in a particular architecture and location.
The conventional narrative is that modernism’s enthusiasm for stripping away ornamentation (and its abandonment of the classical norms of columns and pediments) spelled an inevitable death for the frieze but, as the example of Termini shows, this was far from the case.
After the historicist excesses of the 19th century, when elaborate friezes were applied to Greek and Roman Revival buildings as well as to new typologies such as the Royal Albert Hall or Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers in the United States, the frieze came back in a big way. Art nouveau and Secessionist buildings sprouted fanciful friezes of leaves, vines, wilting maidens, tendrils and whiplash lines. Joseph Maria Olbrich’s Secession building in Vienna (1898) features a frieze of golden leaves, a graphic device that presents the building as a frontispiece for a new art movement. Olbrich had in turn been influenced by the British Arts and Crafts architects, notably Charles Harrison Townsend, designer of the Bishopsgate Institute (1894) with its faience tree-of-life motif.
The Secession building in Vienna, built in 1898 and designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich. Photo: Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo
The frieze found its apotheosis in the decadence of art deco, the exuberant expression of the Jazz Age and the subsequent, more sober responses to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Stepped, Aztec-inflected towers, movie palaces and exhibition pavilions were crowned with layers of polychromatic motifs, acanthus leaves, rising suns, machine parts, scrolls and zigzags. The Chrysler Building (1930) features stylised tyres and hubcaps (so high up you can barely see them) and the darkly glamorous Richfield Oil Company Building in Los Angeles (1929) had its friezes picked out in gold to stand out against its oil-black cladding. You can still see the same effect in London’s only authentic splash of US deco, Raymond Hood’s and Gordon Jeeves’ Ideal House on Great Marlborough Street, another building from 1929.
The Depression didn’t halt the proliferation of the frieze. Cinemas, hotels, department stores and restaurants continued to use decorative strips and fascias to create a landscape of interest above the shopfronts, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in the US employed thousands of artists to create friezes and murals across the country. The buildings were mostly austere but enlivened by strips of vivid carvings with murals inside. With their scenes of powerful workers, agricultural abundance, technology, trains, cars and planes and with the occasional stylised eagle or wheatsheaf they often appeared unsettlingly similar to the socialist realist reliefs of the Soviet Union and the fascist friezes of Italy and Germany. A typical example might be Vladimir Shchuko’s workers in relief atop the Lenin Library in Moscow (1941), but we might also look at the Casa del Fascio in Bolzano, Italy, designed by Guido Pelizzari, Francesco Rossi and Luis Plattner and completed in 1942. The vast, ugly and stiff frieze The Triumph of Fascism has been a feature of the city ever since, but in 2017 it was overlaid by an LED-illuminated quotation from Hannah Arendt. The words ‘No-one has the right to obey’ are a riposte to the frieze’s ‘Believe, obey, combat’ and the foregrounding of words over images is a welcome relief from the fascist relief behind it. It is also, perhaps, a glimpse of the frieze’s future. The words that move across the facade of Christ & Gantenbein’s Kunstmuseum in Basel (2016) function as both frieze and signage. They also nod to Jenny Holzer’s unforgettable scrolling scripts resembling news feeds or Times Square news tickers.
Post-war reconstruction was rich in friezes celebrating the act of rebuilding itself. Renderings of workers stripped to the waist, cranes, machinery and women carrying buckets of cement can be found in sites from Coventry to Chernobyl. Many of the best are currently under threat, from the brutalist abstractions of William Mitchell in the UK to the crumbling works above museums and monuments in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Yet despite the apparent favouring of LEDs and mute facades, friezes still pop up in curious places. Richard Deacon’s enjoyably garish work runs across the front of Eric Parry’s One Eagle Place building in Piccadilly, picking up how the colours of the LED advertising in Piccadilly Circus is reflected in rainy London streets. At the Olympic Village in Stratford, Niall McLaughlin turned the Parthenon marbles into a series of repeating friezes for an apartment block, to surprising and amusing effect. The contrast between the cast horses and warriors and the bikes and washing on the balconies is a constant source of visual delight. The frieze is not, perhaps, dead – just a little frozen. It will, surely, defrost again.
From the February 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
This article was published in the November 2020 issue of Apollo. The Pump Room and visitor experience at Buxton Crescent are currently closed due to Covid-19; visitors are advised to check the venue website for further updates.
The 5th Duke of Devonshire was a man with little self-doubt. His vast wealth from the local copper mines bankrolled the transformation of a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District with a source of mineral water into a fashionable spa destination. Buxton would vie with Bath, at least in architectural terms. Built in the 1780s, Buxton Crescent was at the heart of the duke’s grand plan. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, it has emerged as a luxury hotel, spa and heritage centre, allowing it to resume its role as one of the great Georgian architectural set pieces.
Buxton’s sweeping crescent was designed by John Carr of York, who admired the classical urbanity that had been achieved in Bath. In that city the Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder and built in 1754–68, consists of three curved segments of townhouses – described by the writer Mark Girouard as ‘like the Colosseum turned inside out’. The Royal Crescent followed, designed by Wood’s son and built in 1767–75. Made of local millstone grit, Buxton Crescent originally accommodated two hotels and six lodging houses, lavish assembly rooms and, in the ground-floor arcade, specialist shops. Nearby was St Anne’s Well, where warm mineral water from a subterranean geothermal spring bubbled up. (In 1783 Carr designed an elegant drinking well.) Completed in 1789, the crescent proffered a muscular, expressive sweep of masonry – less refined than its golden counterparts in Bath but markedly confident.
Royal York Crescent, Bristol, built in 1791–1820 (photographed in 1999). Photo: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A crescent – in which a number of houses are laid out in an arc to form a continuous facade – can refine and enclose an urban prospect or, inversely, embrace a wider landscape or view out to sea. Regency developments from Brighton to Bristol jostled to outdo one another; the Royal York Crescent in Clifton, Bristol – a terrace of 46 houses begun in 1791 – extends to 1,300 feet (Buxton is 360 feet). Yet with grand ambition came financial difficulties; few structures emerged as planned. In 1766, Robert Adam was commissioned by Sir James Lowther, later 1st Earl of Lonsdale, to create a new design for Lowther village on his Westmorland (now Cumbria) estate. Adam’s design on paper was a diminutive urbs in rure, featuring a number of cottages arranged into a Greek-cross shape with matching segments of a crescent forming the central circus. After revisions, a small part was built in the 1770s, including two curved sections, sitting prim but charming in their rural setting.
John Nash made the circus a central element of his vast Regent Street development. Yet only Oxford Circus and two quarters of the intended Regent Circus were built – Park Crescent east and west (continually rebuilt after war damage) remain without their reflections to the north of the New Road. Even so, properly semi-circular rather than elliptical, set upon a ground-floor colonnade, the ensemble was described by Nash’s biographer Terence Davis as ‘perhaps Nash’s greatest single stroke of urban architecture’.
Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, London, designed by Chamberlin, Powell Bon and built in the 1970s. Photo: Howard Morris; © Greyscape.com
There was little appetite for curves in modernist design. But the long arc of Jewin Crescent in the City of London, heavily bombed during the Second World War, inspired the curved Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon and built in the 1970s. Comprising nine levels, the building was originally intended to incorporate ground-floor shops, with flats above. In the end, it provided offices for local arts and educational institutions. Without shops the rhythmic half-circle of bush-hammered concrete columns became a brutalist feature in its own right. In 2009–10, the top three floors were turned into 69 flats, in line with its planned use.
It is, however, the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill who has seized the crescent as a hallmark, applying it over the decades to sites in France, Sweden and Italy. In the 1980s, asked to redevelop the area behind the Montparnasse train station, he used prefabricated concrete to create a postmodern rendering. Recently, he has monopolised the waterfront in Salerno with a massive arc-shaped structure, drawing loud (and, it seems, justified) local criticism. In opposition to such monumentality is tiny Keystone Crescent, built in the 1840s for multiple occupation very close to King’s Cross in London. Its inner and outer circles lead to complicated geometry. The result is delightfully eccentric and, nowadays, highly desirable.
View of Keystone Crescent in Kings Cross, London, built in the 1840s (photographed in 1971). Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By 1992 Buxton Crescent had fallen into near dereliction. In 1970, Derbyshire County Council took over the eastern end of the building to use as offices, and a public library was housed in the assembly rooms. The hotel in the west pavilion had closed in 1989; High Peak Borough Council bought it in 1993 and from this point, for the first time, the whole building was in public ownership. Driven by Richard Tuffrey, the conservation officer on High Peak’s council, the tide began to turn over the next decade. In 2003, High Peak and Derbyshire County councils partnered with Trevor Osborne, a property developer with a local heritage background, and plans were made to turn the crescent into a luxury hotel and spa.
The restoration proved complex, dogged by funding problems and delays. The plight of such a significant building persuaded key funders, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to grant aid for urgent work. In 2006, the fund awarded £12.5m to the project and another £11.3m in 2014. (The total figure from all public and private sources – including more than £600,000 from Historic England – is around £70 million.) Condition surveys by conservation architect Nicholas Jacob, completed in 2014, revealed a labyrinthine interior, resulting from multiple adaptations over two centuries. A lack of maintenance had led to severe water damage, from above and below, with significant incursions of dry rot. Finally, and inevitably, the building had suffered from vandalism.
Planning permission was granted in 2010 following a seven-year legal battle over licencing of the spa water (involving Nestlé), and since then the project has faced further setbacks, including complex regulations within a Grade 1-listed building requiring public access and, now, the chaos caused by a pandemic. In June, the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust was awarded a ‘Lifeline’ emergency fund grant from HLF, allowing it to reopen the Pump Room and launch the new visitor experience, which had been delayed by Covid-19, and which takes place in eight of the historic rooms in the restored building. The newly opened five-star hotel and spa return the building to its original use and nod to the duke’s desire to put Buxton on the map. One of the most drawn out and expensive architectural conservation sagas is finally nearing its conclusion.
From the November 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
Berlin is a city in reverse, if its buildings are anything to go by: each year great swathes of it are transformed into an approximation of the imperial capital it once was. This process has come to a head with the resurrection of the Berlin Palace, which, after numerous setbacks, is due to open in December as a museum, but its effects can be seen throughout the capital, and indeed the country as a whole. Palaces are rebuilt, as are entire medieval quarters, and new development is prescribed a strict historic drag. Why is modern Germany, by some measures the most successful European state of the 21st century, so consumed by nostalgia for the city of the past?
The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace is the most obtrusive instance of this tendency. The enormous baroque structure currently nearing completion at the capital’s centre stands on the site of the Palast der Republik, an equally vast modernist complex built between 1973–76 by the government of East Germany as a combined leisure centre and parliament. That structure stood in turn on the site of the imperial palace, which had been damaged during the Second World War and pulled down by the GDR; their own replacement for the building was demolished after reunification.
Although the campaign to rebuild the old palace was first waged in the early 1990s, a lack of funds delayed this Cold War project until recently, and the intended function of the building was never clear. Finally, it was decided that it should host the Humboldt Forum, a museum and research institute displaying ethnographic collections largely assembled during the empire. Unsurprisingly, a new-build imperial palace has proven to be a provocative home for colonial booty, especially given the increasing momentum behind the campaign for restitution of such artefacts.
In Germany, as the ongoing controversy over the palace demonstrates, the struggle of the present with the past is endless, and its implications for the city delicate; particularly so in Berlin, a city still tormented by its 20th-century wounds. Critics have observed that the erasure of East German traces such as the Palast der Republik is, like the filling of lots left vacant by the war, designed to produce a false historical unity: the expression of an urge to forget the unhappy episodes that have been the focus of much official Erinnerungskultur, or remembrance culture. Debate over this strategy has been fierce, with some residents of the former east (for example) feeling that their own pasts are being erased in the process.
Furthermore, this smoothing of traumatic ruptures does not seem overly concerned with Nazi relics – the current German finance ministry occupies the erstwhile headquarters of Göring’s air force, for example. Indeed, quite the contrary could be asserted. While modernist structures are being demolished around the country, as in the case of Frankfurt’s brutalist town hall, new construction is bent not only on recovering the imperial city: it often looks disconcertingly like the architecture of the National Socialists. The water separating the architecture of these two eras is dangerously murky. Although its current advocates, such as Hans Kollhoff and David Chipperfield, may claim they are harking back to the great early 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, this turn to neoclassicism tends to evoke the 1930s, inevitably since the last turn away from modernism to columns in the city was undertaken at that time. In some cases, this ambiguity even seems intentionally cultivated.
The new-old palace, for instance, is not a perfect simulacrum. The east facade is devoid of ornament, offering instead a bare grid that nonetheless suggests the proportions of classical architecture. This etiolated classicism, stripped of ornament except for the implication of columns, is not inherently fascistic – it can also be found in London and Washington – but it was the preferred mode of fascist regimes, and the monumental reappearance of this trope in the centre of Berlin can hardly fail to recall Speer and Hitler’s design for a new world capital. The palace is not the only instance of this tendency: the German intelligence service’s huge new headquarters which opened in 2019, the largest such facility in the world, meets the street with two severely classicising pavilions. These are reminiscent of the long-demolished Ehrentempel in Munich, twin monuments to the Nazis killed in the Beer Hall Putsch.
The Gropiushaus in the Hansaviertel quarter, Berlin, which was reconstructed in the late 1950s and early ’60s and includes apartment blocks designed by Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. Panther Media GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
Berlin’s retrograde motion can be attributed in part to its post-reunification building codes. The enforced maintenance of pre-1945 rooflines, materials, and street patterns has resulted in the city’s relative coherence, which was the proclaimed intention of this strategy. Instead of the chaos of more liberally regulated cities such as London, and the supposedly dehumanising post-war towers at Berlin’s edges, the advocates of what is called ‘critical reconstruction’ – developed in the 1970s by architect Josef Paul Kleihues – argued for an architecture of modest regularity and continuity.
However, one must ask why this search for lost order overlooked other, less tainted models, such as modernist estates of the 1920s by Bruno Taut, or projects of the 1950s such as the Hansaviertel, with blocks designed by architects including Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. These were hardly chaotic or ‘dehumanising’, whatever that means in the context of architecture. Despite objections from the planners of reunified Berlin that modernism had no concept of public space, these lushly wooded estates seem more suited to our own ecologically sensitive age than the ‘stony Berlin’ of Prussian militarism (or worse) that is favoured by its current architects.
Instead we have Kollhoff’s Walter-Benjamin-Platz, a colonnaded square constructed in west Berlin at the turn of the millennium which echoes the severe, grey regularity of the fascist city – ironic, to say the least, given the fate of its namesake. To drive the point home, part of its paving was originally inscribed with a quotation from Ezra Pound’s ‘Usura’ Canto. Benjamin, of course, died fleeing the Nazis; the offending text was removed only this January.
Walter-Benjamin-Platz, Charlottenburg, Berlin, designed by Hans Kollhoff and built in 2000. Arco Images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
Kollhoff’s design is unusually frank in disclosing its precursors; most of Berlin’s recent classicising architecture is, like the Wilhelmine-esque villas of Petra and Paul Kahlfeldt, or the commercial nonentities around Leipziger Platz, more ambiguous. Yet all of them express a desire to turn back time. The association for the reconstruction of the palace, for instance, is open about the aims of the project: to ‘complete [Berlin’s] historic centre and heal the previously wounded cityscape’. But the desire to live in the past, taken to the extreme of rebuilding an earlier version of the city, can, in a place like Berlin, never be unproblematic. Furthermore, the money and the power to build in Berlin evidently lies in the hands of those who hanker after a very particular version of the city’s story. The reason for this preference is never explicitly stated. Perhaps that is because the implications are still – as yet – unspeakable in a country with Germany’s past.
From the October 2020 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here. More
- in Photography
The California-based artist Sam Contis talks to Fatema Ahmed about ‘Day Sleeper’, her recently published book of photographs from Dorothea Lange’s extensive archive, and about her first book, a photographic study of life and the landscape at a single-sex liberal-arts college near the Sierra Nevada.
Dorothea Lange’s personal archive of about 40,000 negatives and a few thousand prints is at the Oakland Museum of California. What led you to the archive, and how this book came about?I moved to California in late 2012 – I live in Oakland – but it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when I saw that the Oakland Museum of California was doing an exhibition on Dorothea Lange. I’ve long loved Dorothea Lange, so I went to the show and discovered that they [the museum] were the keepers of her personal archive. I was simply curious what that meant, and so I emailed and made an appointment […], with no project in mind other than to satisfy my own curiosity, and it was there that I saw pictures of hers that I had never seen before and that I was really excited about.
I had no idea that when Lange first moved to California in the first few years she opened a studio and really spent the first decade of her career as a portraitist. There were beautiful pictures of her family that I had never seen before, and hand studies of her first husband, Maynard Dixon, who was a painter. I think I had had a very limited view in terms of not realising that the government work really spans a short period of time in her life. For example, the FSA [Farm Security Administration] photographs are only four or five years of work. I was excited to find an artist in the archives who was new to me.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy of MACK and the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
The only reason I know that the archive is in Oakland is because the museum organised a show that travelled to the Barbican here in London and then went to the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The title of that exhibition was ‘Politics of Seeing’. It was a big show, but what’s so interesting about your book is that it presents not a different photographer, but images made in very different circumstances. When did you know that you wanted to put them in a book?I was going home from the archive and telling friends and other photographers, ‘I just saw the most beautiful Dorothea Lange pictures that I’ve never seen before’. I had wished there would be a book of these pictures, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that I would be the one to do it. Then I started talking to Sarah Meister, the curator of the exhibition that’s on right now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York [until 19 September], and they’re doing a different sort of Dorothea Lange show from the Jeu de Paume/Barbican show, one that focuses on works from MoMA’s collection. It was through those conversations that the book came about; book-making is an important part of my practice, and that felt the natural way to allow other people to see a lot of this work.
You used the word ‘beautiful’, and that’s a really striking aspect of some of the pictures. They’re also surprising. One of the things that Dorothea Lange does, and maybe you do it in some of your work, is that she can make bodies quite sculptural or parts of bodies quite sculptural, and then make inanimate things look full of life.I think that’s where I saw a strong kinship or correlation between the way we work, the way we approach the world photographically – the ways that the landscape or these inanimate objects can look like the body and the body can have this sense of the landscape in it. That really struck me and – just to go back to your note about the ‘Politics of Seeing’ show – one thing I wanted to emphasise in the book is to look at these more personal pictures, for example the family pictures, next to work that’s more overtly political or work that was made on assignment for the government; to have those kinds of images more strongly co-exist together, to get rid of chronologies and to allow the images to be removed from their original context and have these new relationships emerge. There’s the same artist in all of these kinds of pictures – just because you’re on assignment doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to look at the world differently. […] So I’m glad you’re seeing trees become bodies – or the veins, for example, in a pair of hands start to look like trees.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy of MACK and the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Dorothea Lange once said that she’d learned to move in a certain way so that people wouldn’t look at her when she was doing a lot of her work. I wonder whether you noticed anything particular about how she was working.It’s very physical making photographs, and she was quite a small woman and had suffered polio as a child. I think even the way she moved as a result of polio changed her relationship to the world dramatically, and the way she was just able to move physically through it. In spite of that she often carried three cameras. She would have two large-formats and a medium-format camera – and this is very heavy, laborious equipment.
I’m somebody who also works with a handheld camera and a large-format camera, which fits on a tripod; and you can see in some sequences of images when she’s working with a camera on a tripod – a large-format camera where she’ll put the camera down in one place and stay at a distance where she’s able to observe. That’s the interesting thing with a large-format camera, you can’t not be seen. There’s no way to remain invisible, but there is a way to allow yourself to become part of the scenery and, over time, if you set up and allow people to get used to your presence, then when you move through it with a bulky camera people don’t notice you as much.
I saw her sort of starting at more of a distance, seeing exactly what she was interested in but then slowly moving closer and taking a few photographs along the way. It almost felt like a warm-up exercise, a conversation with the subject as she slowly got closer to what it seemed like she was interested in all along.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Library of Congress/courtesy MACK
Are there any images that you were particularly pleased to have found or were surprised by?There are some beautiful portraits. She was known for her portraits but, for example, there’s a portrait of a young girl where she’s raised her hand to her mouth and she’s giving the camera quite a provocative look. I was floored when I saw that picture. Every time I encounter it, I feel like I’m stopped in my tracks. There’s also this beautiful, tender little photograph where she’s photographing her daughter-in-law cutting her son’s hair.
The book focuses on California, so when I was talking about the personal and political, this is all in the state that she’s made her home, where she’s living and working, and a lot of the pictures in the book aren’t very far from her house. There is a picture that I really love of a man in a coverall suit wearing a hat and these dark glasses. He’s working in a port in Richmond, which is actually right next to Berkeley, so again that’s definitely a picture that was made a few miles from her house.
You write in your afterword that she seems to be very interested in hands.There is a passage that I’ve included in the notes of the book, where she talks about an early childhood experience. I think a lot of artists, or a lot of visual artists, have these profound visual experiences early on, and in some ways the work you make is a constant reflection of that. She talked about as a child going to church with her mother, because her mother was interested in listening to the music. She was too small to see the musicians, but what she does remember is above the church crowd the hands of the conductor waving wildly. In a way I feel like she’s seeing those conductor’s hands for the rest of her life – but with her interest in labour, too, the hands are a great reflection in some ways, even more than a face, of a person.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy MACK
If we come to your own work, can you tell me how you got interested in Deep Springs, the subject of your first book? For readers who don’t know it, it’s a tiny liberal-arts college in California on a cattle ranch. It’s still an unusual college, but it was even more unusual when you were taking photographs there…It had been single-sex for 100 years and has just recently gone co-ed. Initially when I heard it was going to go co-ed, that set up my desire to approach it as a place, but it was a place that I had heard about probably five or six years before I started making pictures there. I think my interest in it was a larger interest in the West and thinking about how the West has been gendered.
We’ve seen certain depictions of masculinity in the visual culture of the West and there’s a long photographic history, too. I’m interested in pushing back against certain established views, whether it’s around a single person or maybe a larger culture. I was interested in the myth of the American West and the iconography that has emerged through that mythology and had come, in my eyes, to be a sort of dominant visual reference for the West – particularly as I had recently moved to California, and as a woman trying to think about my place within that larger history of the West, and even just in terms of that photographic history, I was interested in asking questions around what it meant to be a woman making work in this landscape. That physical space, the college and Deep Springs Valley gave me a place to explore those ideas.
When I approached [Deep Springs] I thought perhaps I might only have, say, a year to make the work, that it might go co-ed more quickly. But then I ended up spending almost five years there – it was a long, drawn-out process for them to go through – but I was happy to have a longer period of time to explore. I wanted to explore what it actually felt like to stay in this space and see the landscape change over seasons, and work with the young men who were students there over longer periods of time.
There are two strands in the book that speak to each other really well – you combine archive photographs with your own pictures. Were the old photos of Deep Springs and the landscape part of the plan from the beginning, or were they something you came across once you were there?I had no idea those images existed until I had actually visited a couple of times. Most of those pictures come from old personal photo albums that have been given back to the school [for its] archive. The pictures weren’t meant to service an official document in any way, but they were made as personal pictures by some of the first students at the college. I was really interested in looking at how they were looking at themselves at that time and how a lot of them were coming to this place, like me, from somewhere else. They weren’t native Californians necessarily, and so what it meant to find themselves in this landscape and what it meant to use photography – for them it was a new tool, and I was really struck by the way they were using it.
The college is a very physical place – the students farm, they look after animals – but your pictures are very gentle in many ways and the people seem very comfortable being looked at. There are hardly any with people who are looking directly at you – and then there are some extraordinary ones, like the guy who’s sprawled out reading on a sofa or a bed, and he’s naked. How did you get to that level of closeness without them being fussed about your presence?That picture that you mention, that felt like a dialogue with the young man in that picture and it was made after I’d known him for a couple of years. I wanted to feel, in a way like I described Dorothea Lange slowly moving through the landscape, I wanted to get to the point where I was just there, like a piece of furniture, or a tree in the landscape, but we could interact as much as they or I wanted to. That sort of relationship, I think, develops over time. I wouldn’t just drop in for a day or two – it’s actually quite far from my house, and in some weather it’s a nine-hour drive, so I would go for weeks at a time. It’s a very close-knit community and so it was important for everybody, including myself, to feel really comfortable.
You talked about being interested in ideas of the West, which are almost created by our collective image banks. There’s also a domesticity in the pictures because of the tasks that people are doing and have to do, so it seems very masculine but also very pastoral.It’s not necessarily an all-male community – it’s an all-male college, but there are women present like professors; for a long time the ranch manager was a woman. But because it’s a work college the young men are asked to do different kinds of tasks, ones that might traditionally be gendered as more feminine tasks and some that might be more traditionally gendered as masculine tasks, and they do both. They’re milking the cow, they’re hanging the laundry, they’re cooking for each other. They’re also raising and butchering animals, they’re collecting eggs. […] I really wanted to reveal the fluidity in the work that they did in that environment.
With the archival photos, do you think people had images in their head that they were responding to? Were they deciding to frame something in a certain way because of something they’d seen, or is it much fresher than that?I think they probably had certain images in their minds. There was a lot of painting of the West, and they were there in the early 20th century – they started to take pictures in the teens and early 20s and in the few decades before that – but photography was invented around the time that new settlers in America started migrating westward. Photography really was used as a tool to sell a certain version of the West to get people to move west and to get these settlers to come […] to sell as an idea of Come West, start over, reinvent yourself. That idea of the West has always been synonymous with photography because it came into being at the same time.
Practically, most of your photographs are black-and-white, but there are a few colour images. What kind of choices were you making both when it came to taking them and including them?Originally, I wasn’t sure what my photographic approach would be in this place, so I wanted to keep an open mind and approach it more experimentally. I was working with different kinds of cameras, different formats of cameras, and different films, black-and-white, colour; I was also using digital cameras. Initially I thought I would choose one to tie it all together, and then I realised pretty quickly that what was interesting to me was working in different ways and making different kinds of pictures, from landscapes to portraits and maybe closer studies. But then having this multitude of formats, and colour and black-and-white, and then when the archival pictures came into the mix – they’re technically black-and-white photos but they have a certain patina of time and the time has a colour to it – that also became a helpful way of linking the black-and-white and colour in my mind.
I wanted to be able to speak out in these different registers or languages and I felt like the colour was really important. It was really important, for example, if you see the red blood on a sheet that came after a slaughter and to see the colours of the land, the colours of the flesh. But the black-and-white images were equally important as a way of referring to the history and the way we see this landscape, and blurring the lines in a way between the past and the present.
Day Sleeper: Dorothea Lange – Sam Contis and Deep Springs: Sam Contis are both published by Mack.
‘Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures’ runs at MoMA until 19 September. More