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Documentary Photography and Preservation, or The Problem of Truth and Beauty


Many architects in recent history have been obsessed with documentary photography. This is true to the extent that we can identify an undercurrent of architectural realism that revolves around a certain involvement with photographic practices. We could think, for instance, of the impact that Nigel Henderson’s photographs had on the young Alison and Peter Smithson, or in Venturi and Scott Brown’s infatuation with Ed Ruscha and later Stephen Shore as visual models to approach American car urbanism. Similarly, and closer to our day, the collaborations between Herzog & de Meuron and Thomas Ruff or Caruso St. John and Thomas Demand call our attention to the recurrent way in which architects and photographers have felt drawn through the years to engage in increasingly collaborative projects.

In this short text we revisit the historic process through which documentary photography was slowly defined as a fully fleshed genre over the course of a century, in an attempt to unravel what it is that these two disciplines have in common, and what it is that architects and preservationists see when they look at documentary photography.