Beyond the Architect's Eye
Photographs and the American Built Environment
Mary N. Woods
Typical architectural photography freezes buildings in an ideal moment and rarely captures what photographer Berenice Abbott called the medium's power to depict "how the past jostled the present." In Beyond the Architect's Eye, Mary N. Woods expands on this range of images through a rich analysis that commingles art, amateur, and documentary photography, genres usually not considered architectural but that often take the built environment as their subject.
Woods explores how photographers used their built environment to capture the disparate American landscapes prior to World War II, when urban and rural areas grew further apart in the face of skyscrapers, massive industrialization, and profound cultural shifts. Central to this study is the work of Alfred Steiglitz, Frances Benjamin Johnston, and Marion Post Wolcott, but Woods weaves a wider narrative that also includes Alice Austen, Gertrude Käsebier, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Eudora Welty, Samuel Gottscho, Walker Evans, Max Waldman, and others.
In such disparate places as New York City, the rural South, and the burgeoning metropolis of Miami, these unconventional architectural photographers observed buildings as deeply connected to their context. Whereas Steiglitz captured New York as the quintessential modern urban landscape in the period, the South was its opposite, a land supposedly frozen in the past. Yet just as this myth of the Old South crystallized in photographs like Johnston's, a New South shaped by popular culture and modern industry arose. Miami embodied both of these visions. In Wolcott's work, agricultural fields where stoop labor persisted were juxtaposed with Art Deco hotels, a popular modernism of the machine age that remade Miami Beach into a miniaturized "Manhattan on the beach."
Beyond the Architect's Eye is a groundbreaking study that melds histories of American art, cities, and architecture with visual studies of landscape, photography, and cultural geography.
Mary N. Woods is Professor of the History of Architecture and Urbanism at Cornell University. She is the author of From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America.