ESACH Blog | Cultural landscapes: reflecting culture through the lens of photography

In expressing small fragments of the world and culture through its small frames, photography has the power to both document culture and be a product of it. In reflecting and producing culture, in fact, photographs become smaller cultural landscapes and portraits: objects and subjects simultaneously. Although the machine’s tool provides the photos with an appearance of objectivity, this can be misleading as personal and artistic perspective reflects the photographer’s subjectivity. Hence, the name of this article, cultural landscapes.

Written by: Mina Hanna.

The aim is to illustrate the two-fold importance of photography being, on the one side, a tool for documenting and highlighting various phenomena such as architecture, culture, heritage, urban expansion, and many others. While offering a historical record of the disappearing world and its present, on the other side and by enriching other people’s view of  these phenomena through the author’s re-presentation, it proposes perspectives on the future.

Photography as a documentation tool

“The greatest service that can be rendered to architecture today is the careful representation of its details from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 14th century with the help of photography.” – John Ruskin, 1869.

In the early years of the invention of photography, people dreamed of finding new ways to emphasize what the human eye cannot perceive by making the most of photography as a tool for representation. It made it easy for individuals, especially architects, to express specific characteristics in their works. In fact, they showed a tremendous interest in how their buildings were represented in photographs and, since the invention of photography, architecture and landscape have been the most photographed subjects. Moreover, with time, photography and other mechanical means began to take over the conventional methods of visual representation such as drawing, painting, and sculpting. Photography has succeeded in showing itself as a powerful tool for architecture as, together with the press, photographs portraying buildings became accessible to the whole world. 

In the 19th century, the need for precise documentation of architecture was sought after because of its honesty and accuracy. This was fundamental to the considerations of historians and restorers on functionality, restoration, and style, since hand drawings were all subjective and, depending on the craftsman’s talent or judgment, photography met this need. Accordingly, photography as a tool for documenting architecture prevailed; it offered historians and architects an accurate representation and detailed documentation, limiting prejudice and subjectivity more than any hand drawing ever could.

In addition, architectural photographs served as inspiration for designs and drawings. For example, photography was used to apply historical features to the new buildings, as in the resurgent architectural movement. Besides, photography offered Western people the opportunity to discover styles and traditions unfamiliar to their geographical location and difficult to access, like Egypt and the Middle East. The number of photographic studies on the Middle East and non-European countries in general soared, especially since the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt, given the country’s wealth of ancient monuments. Accordingly, it was tourism that increased the demands on architectural photography and this conversely led to a high growth in cultural frameworks related to the emerging tourism sector. 

Figure 1: Cairo. Source: Francis Frith, ca. 1856

In parallel, architectural photography was considered one of the essential sources for the conservation and restoration of historic buildings. A vivid example of this being the 1847 Viollet le Duc’s restorations of Notre Dame in Paris; in fact, when he was commissioned to carry out the restoration project, he requested the production of several photographic campaigns for its preciseness to document thoughtfully the restoration work and then to evaluate its improvement.

In the 20th century, photography continued to fulfil its function as a realistic reproduction of actual architectural objects. It was a significant aspect of modernism as architects began to use photography not only to document, but also to present their work in order to express conceptual ideas. For example, Louis Kahn’s Salk institution centre was made widely available in public recognition by the famous photographs of Ezra Stoller, which render it immediately recognizable to most of us. Thanks to him, modern architecture is remembered through his photographs.

Figure 2. Source: Ezra Stoller, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Photography as a tool for personal expression

‘’You see what you think, you see what you feel, you are what you see if with the camera you can make others see it – that is photography.’’ – Ernst Hass.

I believe that the power of the visual narrative offers us a new and different perspective, liberated from certain constraints. It provides us a new understanding of different aspects of life that could change us profoundly. Photographs can effectively document and communicate on a different level than that of writing. That is why I am interested in photographs that represent cities and their cultures. In fact, as an architect, I realized that most of my architectural understanding was accomplished through photographic images. This experience, led by a passion for photography, has resulted in my involvement with architecture and landscape photography. As a photographer, I have always been finding my eyes captured by the urban social phenomena created by interactions between people, architecture, and nature.

Urban Architecture Photos (UAP)

Urban Architecture Photos (UAP) is an Architecture and Urban Photography practice  present in Cairo, Hyderabad, and Milan, which is working on Architecture, Interior, and Urban Landscape.

We see, Rahul and I, that our practice is a result of coming from rich cultural backgrounds of Egypt and India. Having both of us a passion for documenting the heritage, social, cultural traditions through architecture, this path connected us in another rich nation in architectural heritage, Italy, marking the birth of UAP.

In UAP, we are not only documenting architecture and the built environment, but also we aim to show the heritage it accommodates, meaning here cities as urban spaces encompassing architecture, tradition, and culture. The usage of the photographic medium is supported by our belief in sharing knowledge as being  not only about research, articles, or data analysis, but also through a simple photographic image with a small gentle caption. In our opinion, this process transmits and delivers people (not architects, not planners nor researchers) in many and different professions faster and easier than reading an article. We have a successful example of those who are using photography as a tool for their work. Beautiful Destinations, for instance, is a global creative and media agency focusing on marketing travel destinations and cities; they aspire to travel and see other cultures and nations, so why don’t we make it easy for people?

Case study 01 – The Handsome Gesture

‘The Handsome Gesture’ (Italy) investigates the urban situation and illustrates the impact of Covid-19 on the city of Mantua as a settlement prominently characterized by its public space.

The project is a visual narrative about the urban/social landscape of Mantua, which focuses on the exploration of a different relationship between its buildings, my viewpoint on an urban realm historically located in present times, and an illustration of how Covid-19 impacts not only the people but also on our cities as a prominent public space.

Case study 02 – Minarets you see walking Al-Muizz Street

Al-Muizz Street, the most famous street in old Cairo, is where you will see different types and styles of architecture. It is part of Historic Cairo, also referred to as Islamic Cairo, which is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 for its cultural value.

‘Minarets you see walking Al-Muizz Street’ aims to show the diversity of these architectural styles in this street. These are three different Minarets in three different styles from three different eras.

  • 01. Minaret of Al-Aqmar Mosque, Fatimid architecture, 1125-26.
  • 02. Dome and Minaret of Madrasa & Khanqah of Al-Sultan Al-Zahir Barqouq architecture, Bourji Mamluk, 1384-86.
  • 03. Minaret of Al-Selehdar Mosque, Ottoman architecture, 1839.

I conceive the city as a whole organism and, therefore, I am interested in photographs that investigate and represent the city’s cultural, social, and urban aspects. I think every city has its spirit summarized by these interactions, and in my opinion, these interactions reflect its identity.

About the author

My name is Mina Hanna; I am an Egyptian architect, image maker, and a recent graduate in Architectural Design and History from Politecnico di Milano.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.