The Pevsner way of seeing – ADC

For Martine Hamilton Knight, contributing to a revision of Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ prompted a re-evaluation of the notion of ‘timelessness’ in architectural photography.


Clipston Colliery Headstocks and Powerhouse (1953)

To an architect, and by proxy, an architectural photographer, ‘Pevsner’ represents a very particular style of documenting buildings: rigid, precise and devoid of physical or historic context.

An eminent German professor of art history, Nikolaus Pevsner came to England in the 1930s and began researching the ‘Buildings of England’ series in the 1940s. First published in 1951 by Penguin Books and currently being revised by Yale University Press, the guides were conceived as ‘glove-box gazetteers’ to the built environment of the counties of England, and subsequently of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Nottinghamshire, my home county, was published in 1951, reprised by Elizabeth Williamson in 1979 and by Clare Hartwell in 2020. Pevsner and the team at Penguin Books sourced the black and white plates for the original titles from a number of different archives, most notably local studies libraries and national record collections. I was commissioned by Yale University Press to take the photographs for this most recent revision, depicting the county’s churches, civic buildings, houses and monuments in a style I have come to term ‘the Pevsner way of seeing’.


Boots D90, a fine example of 20th century modernism by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Yorke Rosenberg Mardall (1966-8).

The longevity of the Pevsner guides (the previous edition was in print for 41 years) means that each picture needs to be devoid of anything – cars, fashion, signage – that could date, and hence outdate the image. From a practical point of view, this is often difficult, at times almost impossible, without digital manipulation.

This raises questions about authenticity and truth. The debate over the morality of removing ‘life’ from photographs of architecture is well established and ongoing. In 1979, The Architects’ Journal ran a scathing essay by Tom Picton that criticised editors and architects for commissioning images devoid of life that “march across the pages of architectural magazines like tombs in a graveyard”.

This approach was largely a result of technical constraints. Until the mid 2000s, when digital capture was finally embraced, most architectural photographers used large format cameras to give the appearance of correct perspective for structures, and exposure times on all analogue emulsions (regardless of camera size) were prohibitively long.

Photography can be architecture’s guarantor. It can enable buildings to live on beyond their point of destruction or demise”

I personally have been guilty of rendering a busy airport terminal shopping mall lifeless; the movement of many people over several seconds of exposure time required for the transparency film stock, simply emptied it of life. Only odd individuals sitting on terminal seats can be clearly made out, whereas the mall’s concourses were captured with few faint apparitions floating across the tiled floors. I struggled with this predicament of‘ ghosting’ throughout the 1990s, and fought hard to address such problems, always trying to cast willing passers-by to stay and animate the large-format transparencies I shot for the architectural press.

Advances in technology have seen a move towards an understanding of architectural photography as documentary. I have had three decades of being tasked to show buildings at work, rest and play, with users busy going about their daily lives. Yet the Pevsner way of seeing calls for a different kind of ‘truth’.

The historian, Kate Bush states “Photography can be architecture’s guarantor. It can enable buildings to live on beyond their point of destruction or demise”. The longevity and status of Pevsner’s guides means that the selected images do just this, bestowing the featured buildings with a canonical status that is distinct from changes in appearance and use that occur over time. I was tasked to be truthful to the buildings themselves, but equally mindful of the fact that historic structures tend to go through a cyclical experience of construction, use, adaptation/extension, re-use, decline.


Willoughby Almshouses (1685)

The majority of the 120 or so buildings predated 1900, and some found themselves midway between decay and (anticipated) restoration. Two buildings – The Willoughby Almshouses (1685) and Clipstone Colliery Headstocks and Powerhouse (1953) – were derelict. Despite being listed their futures are uncertain, and yet they needed to be objectively recorded for their architectural design. They could not risk becoming emotive causes, whose broken-down appearance at the point of documentation would become wholly ‘wrong’ in times to come if they did indeed find intended re-use and subsequent refurbishment. Instead, they had to be seen empathetically, and with clarity, but without overt emphasis on their abandonment.

The style of Pevsner, as beautiful as it is, is hard to reconcile with my personal aesthetic. However, in this instance, the need for longevity trumps the possibility to embrace a more overt documentary approach. In part, this body of work is ‘fiction’, but indeed no photograph can ever be truly objective if it is created by a human, as it always bears the attributes of the photographer’s conceptual and contextual judgements. The brief for Pevsner, is so tightly formed, by its history, its legacy and its future, that every single photograph under its banner is a carefully crafted, iconic representation of the buildings it shows.

Pevsner on Camera, an exhibition of Martine Hamilton Knight’s photographs for Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire is at Lakeside Arts, University Park, Nottingham, until 28 August.

Source: Architecture Today