It is a curious and often-noted irony that the majority of published architectural photography depicts buildings that have just been completed and that are yet, in every sense of the word, uninhabited. These spanking new constructions are poised in a breathless moment of perfection which occurs only this once in a building’s life. From there, we may infer, it’s all down hill – soon will come people and activity, use and wear, weathering and inevitable decay. The moment at which the new, empty building is captured by the photographer fulfills the idea of architecture as perfect, timeless object. In these terms, the signs and marks of human inhabitation, the accumulated patina of everyday use, represent a fall from grace.
For this reason alone, it is refreshing to see an exhibition of photographs that deliberately refuse a heroic or beautiful view of architecture, instead documenting a well-loved building in all its worn and shabby glory. Such is the collection of photographs – a collaboration between photographer Skeet Booth and producer Damian Brinley – which was exhibited at the Global Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, in December. The subject of the exhibition was the former headquarters of the Bondi Icebergs winter swimming club, perched above the Bondi sea baths on the Southern headland of Australia’s most famous beach. The building was demolished not long after the photographs were taken, to make way for a much larger and immeasurably more swanky restaurant, bar and club complex that has since been constructed, and opened, on the site.
The Bondi Icebergs club has become internationally famous by virtue of its media-perfect mix of masochism, blokiness, eccentricity, and local colour. It was founded in 1929 as a means for local surf lifesavers to keep fit during the winter months. Its membership rules, then and now, require swimmers to compete on three winter Sundays out of four, in the frigid open-air pool, for a period of five years. The club’s annual open day, where blocks of ice are ceremonially thrown into the water, is a fitting expression of just how foolhardy this seems to the unconverted.
But just as the club itself has a true existence which is much more than just a neat human-interest snippet, the photographs in this exhibition bypass the packaged, postcard version of Bondi, in favour of a closer, more intimate but less glamorous view of the traces of life and age in the building. They are interesting as much for what they exclude as for what they show. The site’s much vaunted view over the beach and out to sea is almost nowhere to be seen – it appears only as a reflection, or the bleached-out backdrop to more prosaic objects in the foreground. There are also no overall shots of the building itself, and barely any images of its exterior at all – instead the series concentrates on details of the interior, its worn fixtures and finishings, and a more abstract series of images of the emptied ocean pools.
The exhibition’s claim to be simply an objective documentation of a doomed building is somewhat disingenuous – the fact that the colour balance and grain of some of the images have been digitally manipulated is evidence of other agendas at work. The sepia-tones of ‘Cossie’, for instance, strain for pathos, the melodrama of the abandoned. While it is easy enough to succumb to the melancholy pleasures of nostalgia, the more successful images avoid such romanticism in favour of a relatively straight, archaeological record. This approach includes images such as ‘Door’, which could take their place in the long tradition of social documentary photography, while ‘Blue Stairs’ records the weathering produced by years of corrosive salt spray.
Of course, the inherent risk in photographing a deliberately mundane subject is that the representation, too, will be banal. Of the twenty-two images in the exhibition, there is certainly a high level of sheer ordinariness. But this could be seen as precisely the point – for a documentary photographer to find the universal and profound in the specific and prosaic requires a level of redundancy, it demands not only technical brilliance, but doggedness as well. While such profundity proves elusive in much of this exhibition, this in itself reveals the tensions between photography as documentation and photography as art. The most powerful images in the collection are so abstract that they can no longer be regarded as evidence, but are instead formal compositions following the principles of non-figurative art. In this respect, ‘Lanes and Spray’, ‘Green Mould’ and ‘T’ are the highlights of the exhibition. Photographed so close that it loses all sense of scale and context, ‘Green Mould’ has a kind of formless, stippled patina that recalls Cindy Sherman’s photographs of mildew, while the enigmatic cropped letter in ‘T’ provides an exquisite play between the figurative and the abstract, the ‘as found’ pool floor and the carefully composed camera frame.
As a whole, the exhibition can be placed within the tradition of the picturesque, with its aesthetic appreciation of dilapidation and decay. Wolfgang Kemp has written of the historical connection between photography and the picturesque:
‘Three hundred years of Western painting had taught us to perceive and appreciate signs of decay, of age, even scenes of neglect and impoverishment from a distanced perspective. Then photography took up this task – and with such eagerness and sense of purpose that we may assume there was something about it that was, and is, of special concern to photography’s own interests.’
Photography, because of its ability to capture the fleeting instant, is thus a particularly powerful medium for the representation of age and ruination. In the juxtaposition between the slow wear and decay of a mutable architectural object and the instantaneous closure of the camera shutter is a powerful diversion, if not an antidote, to the dominant cult of newness, perfection, and timelessness in architectural photography.