Courtesy of Aperture

Seeing the unreal makes us experience the real. That takes some doing. It is one thing to counterfeit reality, making it difficult for us to know what we are looking at—that is a common practice among not just photographers and filmmakers, but architects and developers as well, as I have pointed out in a recent post. In that process, designers and clients become complicit in anticipating a reality they intend to build (or, in the case of films, to project in a convincing manner). It is another manner to, as some photographers have done recently, distort reality in such a manner that otherwise invisible realities appear within what purports to be a mapping of what is.

A number of photographers, from Andreas Gursky to Gregory Crewdson, took that step years ago, but they have stuck with the presentation of images that present a whole scene, with manipulations, in either its staging or representation, so intrinsic to what you see that you don’t know what you are seeing. 

Photographer Olivo Barbieri has taken the manipulation of the image even further. In his most recent photographs, published in Site Specific, an artist monograph by Aperture, Barbieri wipes out parts of the images, abstracts buildings, colors pieces of them, and even shows their underlying geometry. The result is photography that both analyzes and articulates the basic elements of what he chooses as his focus.

Courtesy of Aperture

Barbieri made his name by focusing his photography. His preferred vantage point is from a helicopter, looking down at urban monuments. He started out shooting colossal structures, such as The Coliseum and the Pantheon in Rome, restricting his camera’s focal point so that these structures stood out, while their surroundings turned into blurs. The result was not only to make you look at every detail of buildings you thought you knew, but also to make whole cities resemble toy train sets. Their structures, people, and even skies were reduced to objects so blurry that they lost scale and substance. This worked especially well when the photographer concentrated on places such as Las Vegas, which are already unreal.

Not content to manipulate what he found, Barbieri zoomed in, isolating the base of a corner column of Aldo Rossi’s Modena Cemetery until it became almost a formal composition worthy of a constructivist painting. He then began manipulating colors, rendering a highway cloverleaf in Naples as black snakes against an electric green and white background, or changing the colors in the Chicago skyline into neon negatives of their material reality.

In some of his most recent images, the photographer has gone even further. He isolates sections of Oscar Niemeyer’s museum in Rio de Janeiro and colors them red, emphasizing what he thinks is important. He also renders the pyramid of Memphis, Tennessee, as a red object floating in a white background, and does the same with SFMOMA in San Francisco. The towers of Houston look like models of themselves set against neighbors turned into ghosts of white or black and an even, teal blue sky. The Swiss Re Tower (the Gherkin) becomes a line drawing, its skin disappearing into a retrospective rendering. A skyscraper in Istanbul and Sao Paulo’s exposition hall become what look like AutoCAD renderings.

Courtesy of Aperture

The point of these operations is to make us realize that all structures, whether built or constructed on the computer, are the result of human manipulation imposed on reality. The difference is that we live in one set of these inventions, and understand their essence in the other. Barbieri creates palimpsests through which what we cannot otherwise know weaves a new spell of images and forms around us.

Some of Barbieri’s images are not documentary. He brings out the color already present on Barragán’s House and Studio in Mexico City, and records the devastation of an earthquake created in Emilia, Italy. These are fragments, one made and one a set of unmade conditions, which he reveals as such. There is no continuity, convincing, or seamless reality in Barbieri’s work, only the interruption of seeing, living, and accepting that opens new worlds to our perception.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.