LONDON (Reuters) - It is an arresting image for anyone who has been in New York anytime since 1960 - a long row of three-storey buildings with a lone skyscraper at the end of the block, looking almost like an alien presence.
This is a view of a New York - and of a world - that has vanished under the breakneck pace of urban construction that was beginning in the 1930s when American photographer Berenice Abbott captured that black-and-white picture.
Her iconic work is only part of a fascinating exhibition of over 250 images by 18 photographers now on show until January 11 at the Barbican Gallery in London.
“We thought it would be really dry,” co-curator Alona Pardo told Reuters during a tour of “Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age”.
There was no need to worry. The exhibition fills the gallery with the works from the 1930s to the present that at times are so spectacular they almost jump off the walls.
From a distance, a huge colour picture by Andreas Gursky looks like the interior of a glittering opera house, but it’s actually the multi-story Se metro station in Sao Paolo. An extra level of crowded platform has been inserted to emphasize what one reviewer described as the station’s “Dantean circles”.
Nearby is the unforgettable sight of Mokattam Ridge on the outskirts of Cairo, identified by photographer Bas Princen as “Garbage Recycling City”.
The birds-eye view reveals a district full of grimy low-rise buildings where every available balcony, rooftop or vacant lot is filled with garbage. The people who live and work there are all but invisible - which is perhaps the point.
“What’s interesting is that social history kind of courses through the show,” Pardo said. But the exhibition is not just about the world’s spectacular shift from rural to urban living.
What Pardo calls the “complicity” between the camera and architecture, which dates back to the time when shutter speeds were so slow that fixed objects like buildings were preferred subjects, is updated to the modern age.
Italian photographer Luisa Lambri is represented with a series of fascinating, almost entirely dark colour photographs taken inside the master bedroom of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo, New York.
Lambri shut off all light so the only rays penetrating came through “slot” art-glass windows. The photographs seem to burst open with a dazzling shaft of colored light.
Julius Shulman’s gaudily colored images show an idealized modern lifestyle for the “Case Study Houses” program in California from the 1940s through the 1960s. In this model postwar world, a dapper man mixes cocktails while an elegant woman peels oranges in the kitchen.
As Pardo put it, you can almost hear the Frank Sinatra record playing on the stereo.
If pictures are worth a thousand words, the photos in this exhibition say more than most about how our world has changed.
Editing by Tom Heneghan