Unwrapping ‘The Life and Death of Buildings’

I found Joel Smith’s The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time at a Half Price Books some months ago. It was still shrink-wrapped from the publisher and looked like it might fit in with something I’ve been thinking about lately (and that Jim Grey touched on recently at Down The Road), so I snatched it up.

In The Life and Death of Buildings, Smith looks at photographs of buildings from multiple angles: as architectural studies; as documents of some specific place of some particular and/or peculiar importance; as memorials, mnemonic devices, and memories, and I should really read it again.

At times, he can be a bit pedantic, perhaps, when, for example, on page 30, he shares this photograph from ca. 1860 of a house in the French countryside by some unknown photographer, and then says

The ideal of aristocratic splendor, if not the idyll of communal integrity, is echoed in a… [photograph] depicting what is clearly a brand new residence in the countryside. The design of the house, from its chimneys and turrets to the decorative “arrow slits” punctuating its walls, is plainly indebted to the stately chateau. The camera operator may well have been the homeowner; the surplus of lawn that is allowed to fill the foreground suggests an amateur is feeling his way, and photography was a suitable hobby for the kind of haut-bourgeoisie who built his family a castle at the end of the branchline.

So if your pictures are not good enough you’re not close enough? Or would he prefer a surplus of sky, some more heroic or classical proportion? This particular view gets the whole family in the frame, plus the house and the little garden to the side… Perhaps a horizontal format would work better, and, sure, closer, and, yes, I’ll try to remember this when photographing my own “ideal of aristocratic splendor” such as it is, but Smith isn’t trying to pull any punches, for sure, and I guess I wouldn’t be afraid of some unknown French photographer who probably died 100+ years before I was born either. Still.

Thankfully, the argument laid out is much more involved and thorough than empty jabs at dead amateurs, and I should really read this slim volume again, with a bit more focus. I zipped through it in a couple of weekend mornings: it’s an easy, breezy read, and contains some things worth thinking about.

I have a little side project ongoing to photograph old chain restaurants and stores before they all disappear. Like old Dairy Queens or Taco Bells or 7-11s, for example. Around North Texas, they all looked the same for many many years. You could spot a Taco Bell from half a mile away, and you’d never confuse it with a Dairy Queen or a Fast Signs. These days, most of those have been torn down or converted to something else, and all the chain restaurants look the same: a tallish rectangular slab-built box with some ornaments glued on the sides, thrown up in about 3 weeks, and likely built to last maybe 20 years at the most, while their predecessors were built to last and to be noticed and recognized wherever you were.

When I take a  photograph of, say, an old 7-11 that I once sat in the back of an idling car out front of one night while a roommate ran inside for a case of beer, or the old Taco Bell next door that I used to beg Mom to pick when she would drag me along to lunch with her friend from church, I’m creating, haphazardly, feeling my way, and with a surplus of street out front, the beginnings of a typological study, building a memorial, a cabinet of memory; I’m mourning the loss of the past, wallowing in nostalgia, while the city moves on.

Buildings rise and fall with the times; memories are imprecise and prone to error; photographs, while always already constructed, persist.

Joel Smith goes through this much more throughly and eloquently than I.

So if you find a copy in a Half Price Books (and I’ve seen them in several different stores recently, so the publisher had some overruns, I guess), pick it up. It’s worth a read if you have any interest in buildings, neighborhoods, cities and how they move around and change over time, how you move around and change over time, but while you remember, cities, buildings, are vehicles of forgetting, built to change (especially these days: we’re not making Parthenons anymore) without any regard for us or our memories.

Unrated.

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