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The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time

Overview

Buildings inhabit and symbolize time, giving form to history and making public space an index of the past. Photographs are made of time; they are literally projections of past states of their subjects. This visually striking meditation on architecture in photography explores the intersection between these two ways of embodying the past. Photographs of buildings, Joel Smith argues, are simultaneously the agents, vehicles, and cargo of social memory. 

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Overview

Buildings inhabit and symbolize time, giving form to history and making public space an index of the past. Photographs are made of time; they are literally projections of past states of their subjects. This visually striking meditation on architecture in photography explores the intersection between these two ways of embodying the past. Photographs of buildings, Joel Smith argues, are simultaneously the agents, vehicles, and cargo of social memory. 

In The Life and Death of Buildings  photographers as canonical as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Laura Gilpin, Lewis W. Hine, and William Henry Fox Talbot enter into visual dialogue with amateurs, architects, propagandists, and insurance adjusters. Rather than examine photographers' aims in isolation, Smith considers how their images reflect and inflect the passage of time. Much as a building's shifting function and circumstances substantially alter its significance, a photograph comes to be coauthored by history, growing layers of meaning to which its maker had no access.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This thought-provoking book, like the photographs it features, invites multiple readings. Its images inform each other and make a powerful argument for the power of the building and the photograph to uniquely preserve memory, to preserve even time. “Civilization grows around the building like coral around an island. A new-laid foundation expresses hope…an abandoned building signifies a surrender,” writes Smith, photography curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and author of Edward Steichen. Like Steichen’s photographs, these photos show actors in various stages of undress, unlike him, the “actors” are buildings in various stages of growth, decay, evolution. “Whether pyramid or gas station, a building, in its immobility, imbues its locale with accumulated years, connecting the present to its moment of origin.” Smith writes with poetic precision and his carefully selected images are both a world tour and a survey of photographic masters from Antonio Beato to Sze Tsung Leong. Like Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, the book’s title is a bit of a fake out. Even if “nothing sets the scene for redemption like the right kind of ruin” these photographs ensure that a building, like a city, never truly dies. (Sept.)
Library Journal
In 1967, the Princeton Art Museum received a gift of 72 photographs entitled "The Destruction of Manhattan." The portfolio by Danny Lyon documents the demolition of antebellum buildings to make room for new construction, including the future World Trade Center. An exhibition and this catalog were inspired by Lyon's work and serve as commemorations of 9/11—thoughtful representations of photography's role in capturing a building at a single moment in time as well as reflecting time's passage. Smith (curator of photography, Princeton Art Museum; Edward Steichen: The Early Years) has culled from Princeton's rich collection of images from the 1840s to the present, juxtaposing works of Alfred Stieglitz, Bernice Abbott, and Fox Talbot with lesser-known contemporary photographers like Andrew Moore and Tim Davis. Only the most serious of readers will take time to check the unnumbered endnotes, which present a slight annoyance. And although no standard bibliography is provided, this catalog does include a checklist of exhibited works with details of size, process, date and provenance. VERDICT Of interest to photographers and architectural historians.—Nancy B. Turner, Syracuse Univ. Lib., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300174359
  • Publisher: Princeton University Art Museum
  • Publication date: 7/31/2011
  • Pages: 104
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel Smith is the Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum. His previous publications include Edward Steichen: The Early Years and Saul Steinberg: Illuminations.

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