Collecting images to help viewers see more

Phyllis Lambert in conversation with Stefano Graziani and Bas Princen

This oral history was filmed by Jonas Spriestersbach in October 2022 in Montréal. It is part of the CCA project The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project, an open reflection on how past and contemporary image-making practices serve as critical tools to read our built environment and design today’s world.

Bas Princen and Stefano Graziani visit Phyllis Lambert
We’ve been exploring the CCA photography collection over the last five or six years, finding more surprises every time we visit. We’d like to know from you why it was started, how it was built, and especially why you decided to collect photography of architecture. By this, I don’t mean architectural photography but photography that deals with the city and the built environment. We also want to know what drove you to collect complete projects by artists rather than single photographs.
The collection began when I started to work on the Seagram Building around 1954 and with my interest in architectural drawings. I love drawings because they show how artists think. With the Seagram Building, I wanted to find out how architects draw. What subjects did they draw? What constraints did they face? These concerns inform the development of architectural projects and oriented the types of documents I collected.

I also started collecting architectural books around this time through Lucien Goldschmidt, a fine rare books dealer in New York City, and he occasionally had photographs. Richard Pare and I began collecting photographs for an institution I was forming that had no name yet. At the same time, we collected photographs of New York City for the offices in the Seagram Building as part of its collection of contemporary art so that those who worked there could see the city through different eyes.
Richard helped you put together the collection in its early stages?
Yes. We didn’t collect as a university would, by covering a field. We collected what was available to us, without specific geography, time frame, or specialty in mind—daguerreotypes, nineteenth-century photographs, contemporary works, trade albums of the Middle East. The only images we didn’t want to collect were sentimental photographs and those made for architectural magazines. I wanted to collect images to help viewers see and think about things. You can tell a story about a drawing or a photograph that has an openness to it; otherwise, it’s not an interesting object.

Bas Princen, Photograph of Lynne Cohen’s Classroom in a Mortuary School (1980), 2022, PH1986:0930, CCA. © Bas Princen

I met Richard at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and began working together on photography projects. We also undertook photographic missions together. After my studies, I began photographing with a 35-millimetre camera out of curiosity to explore what I learned in architecture school in Chicago—to make sense of the city by looking through the lens.

I decided to come up and look at Montréal and asked Richard, whose work I knew and liked, to join. I didn’t know much about Montréal, so it was a learning process. I was open to it all. I think you should know what it’s like to feel a city on the ground, so I foraged around for different buildings, observing them at different times of the day.
It’s hard to convey or to explain to someone how a city grows, even on a map. But photography can visualize the development of cities. It adds a temporal frame to architecture. If I think about Lewis Baltz’s The new Industrial Parks or Gabriele Basilico and Stefano Boeri’s Italy: Cross Sections of a Country, it’s almost as though you can only understand the argument of their projects through the photographs. Photography has the capacity to add new perspectives to architecture, on the ways we understand cities and their development.
We were looking to do exactly that with our photography collection. In the book I did on the Seagram Building, the story doesn’t end once the building is built. I continued to ask what it was about, how it was used, and what happened around it. And the whole process of photographing a city in development, as with the Montréal project, involves different stages of interpretation. The photographs aren’t simple documents. They’re an inducement to find out more information, a way of learning about the complexity of architecture.

Stefano Graziani, Photograph of Lewis Baltz’s The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California: South Wall, Resources Recovery System, 1882. McGaw, Irvine (1974), 2022. PH2001:0189, CCA. © Stefano Graziani

So, in this way, the CCA Collection includes references to architecture’s possibilities and impossibility. I’m curious about how visitors relate to seeing photographs in a centre for architecture.
A lot of people say, oh, architecture is too technical for me. When I assembled the Seagram collection, I looked at work by some contemporary artists that were impossible to understand for those unfamiliar with art discourse. But then I decided to focus on images of the city because everybody can understand pictures of manhole covers or trees and churches. Through imagery that they connect with, viewers can appreciate and relate to the experience of being in the city.
You could argue that collecting photographs that are not directly about architecture helps to understand architecture from a different perspective.
I’ve always considered architecture in the context of the built environment. You have a city if you put two buildings together or maybe a few more. To me, architecture has never just been a facade. It’s more about people and the groups of buildings you walk by and through.
Photographers often approach their projects with the idea that they are making a statement or reflecting on the present or immediate future. But, very quickly, their observations become more static documents. After five or ten years, projects that commented on a specific moment almost become historical documents. So, the author’s original idea transforms into a historical document that exceeds what the author wanted to say.
Oh, yes, always. With photography, we’re always dealing with time. But, of course, the photograph also exists as a document that leads you to look at history in new ways.

Bas Princen, Photograph of Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s Interior view of the Second Room of the New Palace (New Goten), Kyoto, Japan (1982), 2022. PH1986:0218, CCA. © Bas Princen


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