Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
Stanley Greenberg is a photographer of architecture, but from very different angles. Geoff's post at BLDBBLOG gives a good background to Greenberg's work, which has focused on the infrastructure of building and the city, such as Invisible New York: The Hidden Infastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey Through New York's Hidden Water System.
Greenberg tried to investigate and photograph the city's water system to the point where he was pretty much considered a terrorist threat! He knew more about it than the city did. He managed to finish the project in Spring 2001, which he points out was pretty lucky, as it would be difficult to get to those places now, post 9/11. He showed some amazing pictures of the subterranean New York, including some unbelievable photos of the valve chamber, about 300 feet deep.
He's recently been working on photography of buildings by 'starchitects' – Holl, Hadid, Gehry, Libeskind, Foster etc. Initially, Stephen Holl got in touch, so he got to photograph the construction of MIT Simmons Hall. They look remarkably different to the final structure, providing very beautiful photos of the skeletons of buildings, which can't be perceived with the naked eye. They almost look like Lebbeus Woods structures, particularly the free-flowing forms of buildings like the Stata Center at MIT and Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinatti. (He hasn't actually been to any of Hadid's completed buildings.)
(Aside: Greenberg noted that there were different ways of pouring concrete in different cities i.e. different from the MIT buildings in Cambridge, Mass. to buildings in New York.)
None of the photographs were commissioned by the architects. The kinds of pictures that the architects wanted was completely different to the ones Greenberg wanted to take.
Hearst Tower on 57th St, by Foster + Partners. Difficult shoot as the firm didn't really want him on site. Only had the engineers' lunch break to take pictures. Of course, the resulting picture hangs in the Hearst HQ.
He usually does a fair amount of homework, looking at plans beforehand, and also architect's previous work. Also has a safety briefing, which is a useful way of casing the building.
In his most recent work, he's moved from how buildings and cities work to, as he puts it, "how the universe works", by photographing research into neutrinos and other sub-atmoic particles. This means working with massive structures. As he points out, "the smaller the particle we're looking for, the larger the apparatus looking for it". Some photos are of the 20-mile in radius CERN research lab, which "if it's successful, it'll be the biggest science experiment ever, and if it's not successful, it'll be the biggest earthwork ever." Also the Stanford Linear Accelerator. He points out that physicists are much easier to work with than his previous subjects.
He showed some electron accelerators - clearly from the 1960s. They had a Brussels Atomium feel to them. Geoff and I wondered whether there were aesthetic choices in the devices. Greenberg points out that they were essentially made by engineers, and that probably the inherent qualities of the materials and components would've defined the look primarily. (Just as aesthetics of an age are defined by inherent properties of materials, components, as much as purely aesthetic choices.)
While on aesthetics, Greenberg notes that particle physicists have been worried that the cosmic physicists are getting all the press at the moment. So the fact that all the new kit at CERN is rendered in bright colours may not be entirely accidental.
Greenberg finished with some quite beautiful pictures taken by the equipment, of inside "the bubble chamber", detecting sub-atomic particles. I guess there's a relationship between trying to show the internal structure of buildings – as per the skeletons of Simmons Hall – and the internal structures of material itself.
It's interesting that there isn't much information in the pictures to denote scale, and I asked about this. He suggests ttht there are some hints to convey scale in there, but it's almost subconscious now as to how and when they go in. He likes the fact that not having these obvious references to scale makes you work more - draws you into the picture; doesn't give you a foothold. I also find it a nice nod to some aspect of the original notion of 'the sublime' i.e. something almost fearfully beyond human comprehension in terms of scale.
Greenberg's an engaging speaker about his distinctive and important photography. Another great talk. The video of Stanley Greenberg's presentation is here.
(Aside: I bump into Stanley's friend Evan Eisenberg after the talk, who had introduced himself to me after I'd mentioned his amazing book 'The Recording Angel', and drawn from it here.)