COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Ripon Cathedral, by Peter Burton ' the romance of black and white. (S)
Ripon Cathedral, by Peter Burton ' the romance of black and white. (S)

David explores capturing the riches of architecture on camera:

When did you last take a photograph of a building – or a photograph with a building in the background?

With the digital revolution having opened up photography cheaply to everyone, there must be hundreds of millions of pictures of buildings lurking in computers and in mobile phones.

Photography and architecture have always been closely linked. The very first photograph – by which is meant the first permanent record of a scene created by light on a sensitive medium – was of a building.

It was taken in the 1820s (the exact year is disputed, but is likely to have been 1826) by a Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in the village of St-Loup-de-Varennes.

Niépce had been experimenting with photography for a decade before he succeeded. He coated a pewter plate with bitumen of Judea, a light-sensitive form of asphalt, and set it in a box with a lens, which he then placed on a windowsill of the family home.

The exposure was a long one – eight hours – but what resulted, when Niépce had revealed the image by washing the plate with oil of lavender and white petroleum, was both the world’s first photograph and the first architectural photograph.

It was, perhaps, not the most exciting start; it shows the family barn, bakehouse and pigeon loft.

The problem with the Niépce photographic process, as of that other French invention the Daguerreotype, was that each picture was unique –there was no simple way of reproducing the image without taking the picture again.

Louis Daguerre also took pictures of architecture – much easier than people, who tended to move during long exposures unless (as happened as photography developed) their heads were held motionless by skilfully-hidden clamps!

It was left to an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, to come up with a process that allowed copies of photographs to be made from negatives.

In 1835 he took a picture of a window at his home, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire (now a National Trust property with a photographic museum in the adjoining barn).

It is the world’s second surviving photograph, and the first negative, and set the art of photography on the course it was to follow until the digital age.

These early photographers often took pictures of the buildings around them, just as we do today, but soon there developed a particular class of photographers who were especially interested in taking architectural pictures.

One of the earliest was another Frenchman, Hippolyte Bayard, whose picture of the windmills of Paris’s Montmatre district –taken in 1839 – may perhaps claim to be the first architectural photograph taken with any attempt at making both a record of the scene and a pleasing composition.

Soon photographers were pointing their cameras at buildings all around the world. These early pictures are an invaluable source for architectural historians, who can see how towns and cities, and the buildings within them, have changed – or stayed the same – over more than a century and a half.

Old pictures of Ripon have shown us the buildings the city has lost – and gained – since the earliest cameras were pointed at the city.

Today we may well see the work of specialist architectural photographers without realising that theirs is a particular skill.

So what makes a good architectural photograph?

The first question to ask is – black and white or colour? These days, when nearly everything around us is printed in colour, the answer may seem to be obvious – colour every time!

But this is not necessarily true for architectural photographs. One of the 20th-century’s greatest British artists, John Piper, was also a photographer, who believed that monochrome was much better at showing architectural details. He was wary of colour because he believed that it distracted the eye from the forms and intricacies of architecture.

What Piper liked – and what he encouraged in the Shell Guides that he edited – were photographs in which the contrasts of black and white were pronounced and which showed a building in some sort of context.

The Shell Guide pictures are not the slightly-clinical and depressingly-grey images that the contemporary Pevsner ‘Buildings of England’ architectural guides favoured.

So in a Shell Guide you can find photographs of buildings with rain-gleaming streets in front, monuments with harvest festival gifts occupying their ledges, churches with sheep-scattered grass surrounding them.

Piper was a ruthless cropper of photographs – he would select a section of picture, his own or those of other photographers, to make a more satisfying and telling composition. Sometimes that resulted in pictures that became almost abstract but which still had an immediate impact on the viewer.

One of the photographers that Piper relied on for many of the Shell Guide pictures is Scarborough-based Peter Burton, whose pictures, Piper said, are “some of the best topographical photographs I have seen”.

Burton, who once taught English at Ripon Grammar School, has published his own Shell-Guide-style book, North Yorkshire, which is illustrated with his own photographs.Black and white, he says, gives a more romantic air – romantic in terms of working on the imagination – than colour.

Because it is now so easy for us to snap away at anything that takes our fancy, and, should we so wish, to share our pictures with the whole world, it is easy to lose that critical eye through which we should view the best pictures.

But next time you pick up a magazine or a book of photographs that has pictures of buildings look carefully at how the photographer has treated them.

The best will open your eyes to the riches of architecture though a subtle use of an individual viewpoint, the emphasis of texture or a focus on a telling detail.

And when you take your own pictures, remember the lessons the past masters of photography have taught you.