Michael Bierut | Essays

Robert Polidori's Peripheral Vision

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, Robert Polidori, 1997

I remember the first time I saw Robert Polidori's photographs. It was in The New Yorker and the subject was Brasilia, the utopian modernist capital designed by Oscar Niemeyer nearly fifty years ago. I had seen lots of pictures of architecture before, but Polidori's hypnotized me. As I stared at the images, beautiful but infused in some strange way with sadness, a vague idea lodged in the corner of my mind: something's not right.

Originality is hard to come by in any creative endeavor: as we've seen here, photography may represent a special challenge. Buildings have sat for portraits almost as often as people. Yet I can always spot a Robert Polidori. A new book, Robert Polidori's Metropolis, helps explain why.

Architectural photography, more often than not, is commissioned by architects. The goal, not surprisingly, is the idealization of architectural form. In twentieth century America the field had one indisputed master, Ezra Stoller, who died last year at the age of 89. His iconic images of buildings by Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Meier played a not inconsequential role in securing the reputation of these architects in the public mind, and in some cases are the only experience we have with their work. Esto, the photo agency run by Stoller's daughter Erica, carries on in the same tradition today.

Stoller's work was about perfection and, hence, optimism that perfection was attainable. On rare occasions the mess of everyday life intruded, as in his wonderful 1958 picture of the Seagram Building where Mies's masterpiece is seen behind a construction barricade plastered with lurid posters. But clearly the mess is only temporary, a condition to be superceded by the inevitable ideal.

Roberto Polidori was seven years old when Stoller took his picture of the Seagram Bulding. Roberto Polidori's Metropolis collects nearly one hundred of Polidori's photographs of buildings and cities, from Las Vegas to Shanghai, from Cairo to Queens. The text is Polidori's own voice, derived from interviews with Martin C. Pedersen, editor of the magazine Metropolis, where along with the New Yorker, Polidori's work often appears.

The photographs combine the stunning formal qualities of Stoller's work with the faint sense of disorientation we associate with an artist like William Eggleston. In image after image, something isn't quite right: an edge is frayed, something unwanted intrudes into the frame. The foot of Niemeyer's majestic television tower in Brasilia is surrounded by ramshackle tents, arrayed like cheap gifts around an atomic age Christmas tree. Richard Meier's courthouse is underlined by the bright traffic lines of an Islip highway, yellow paint that echoes the building's forms and reminds us that this sublime bit of modernism is perched in good old suburban Long Island.

Like any great work of art, a Polidori picture can make you see its subject in a new way. I had heard over and over again that Bilbao (where I've never been) is a "gritty industrial Basque city," but the typical shots of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim never seem to admit a Bilbao beyond the tourist postcards. It took Polidori's image -- Gehry's shining fantasy perched, almost tentatively, atop a chaotic subterranean hell of streaked concrete warehouses and rusted train tracks -- to make it real. One of my favorite Polidori images, of Polshek and Partners' Rose Center at New York's American Museum of Natural History, does not appear in Metropolis, but I remember it exactly. The enormous sphere of the Museum's planetarium, eerily suspended within a vast glass box, fills the frame with the surreal scalelessness of Etienne-Louis Boullee's 1784 monument to Isaac Newton. Then you notice, down at the bottom and off to the side, a fragment of a temporary wooden fence, broken and collapsing. To me, that juxtaposition evoked as much about our modest place in an unknowably vast universe as does the exhibition within.

In the book, Polidori often comes off as a plainspoken craftsman. "I walked all around it and couldn't find one clear, clean shot," he says of the Guggenheim Bilbao. "To make things worse, the weather was lousy. Nothing about this rang 'commerical money shot.' In a situation like this there's only one thing to do: forget about pleasing editors, please yourself." Yet he is more than just a skilled improviser. There is a unifying worldview at work here, something that makes a Polidori a Polidori.

He reveals a little of what this is when he talks about Brasilia. "When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s and the idea of the future was still an optimistic and expansive concept, the topic of Brasilia would invariably come up. Then in the '80s and '90s the world changed, and the future became more about limits and diminishing returns." Half a century ago, a good architectural photographer would have cropped out the traffic lane markings in front of Meier's courthouse, made the grounds crew lose that crummy wooden fence at the Planetarium. Polidori keeps them in the frame as metaphors of what we're left with when optimism is tempered by reality.

In the world of Roberto Polidori, the future -- diminished, limited, but beautiful nonetheless -- is here, and we're living in it, somewhere around the edges.

Posted in: Architecture, Photography

Comments [7]

thank you for a great write-up and bringing Roberto Polidori to my attention.
in addition to Ezra Stoller, however, please don't forget Julius Schulman:

Marc, you're right. If Ezra Stoller was the visual iconographer of East Coast modernism, Julius Schulman was his counterpoint on the West Coast. Add Chicago-based Hedrich-Blessing (the legendary shot of Wright's Fallingwater was taken by the young Bill Hedrich) and you've got the country pretty well covered.

Michael Bierut

I too, am beginning to recognize Polidori's photographs (first tipped off by you, Michael, here on this site) as I come across them, usually in the New Yorker (always like winning a little prize when I guess "Polidori!", check, and I'm right: "Yessss.").

Alas, this will make another dent in my VISA card, thankyouverymuch.

I bought Julius Schulman's Architecture and its Photography for a friend a few years ago, and ... um ... kept it.
marian bantjes

This picture taken today will be radically different. Please Mr. Polidori, visit Bilbao one again!

Bilbao, Spain

Have you seen Polidori's great (and big) book of pictures of Chernobyl? I agree with what you say about him. He treats buildings as Helmut Newton treated people, showing the buildings' cellulite and their vulnerabilities, and making them therefore so much deeper and more beautiful.

Polidori's book of photographs of Chrenobyl and Pripyat, Zones of Exclusion is indeed amazing.

Also not to be missed is Havana: one forlorn, eerie and beautiful image after another.
Michael Bierut

Beautiful as the books are, they don't compare to the experience of immersing yourself in his large-format prints. Got the chance to see the Havana photographs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA; one could spend hours on each image.
Jose Nieto

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