Of the 18 photographers featured in this exhibition, the most profoundly fascinating has to be Berenice Abbott’s documentation of Manhattan in the 1930s. She captures a place caught between two periods of history at the same time; on one hand full of small wooden houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the rest of depressed America, and on the other, somewhere not dissimilar to how we would visualise New York to be today. The modern skyscrapers shooting into the sky are both a reminder of the boom years of the 1920s, and an indicator of the leading role this city would play financially and culturally over the course of the 20th century.
While Abbott is showing the evolution of New York, we also see how the rest of modern America was being built. Walker Evans spent the 1930s touring the rural states documenting the struggles of agricultural families and communities, while in the early 1960s Julius Shulman used California as his backdrop to attempt to photograph the new American dream; all swimming pools and shiny home appliances.
The flip side of this exhibition is the celebration of the mundane in our cities, or at least the highlighting of it. Ed Ruscha’s aerial photographs of car parks in Los Angeles, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s collection of water towers from around the world, and the everyday capturing of American streets by both Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth, are in themselves not especially remarkable, but collectively they draw attention to those parts of our cities which we can easily ignore.
There’s certainly no attempt to shield us from the ugly side of urbanism; as illustrated by Ben Princen’s pictures of waste and chaos in the Middle Eastern cities of Cairo, Amman and Beirut, or Guy Tillim’s presentation of an unforgiving post-colonial modernist African urbanism. And there are plenty of grand concrete visions, such as the squatters creating their own community in an abandoned tower in Caracas, as photographed by Iwan Baan, or Nadav Kander capturing the monumental construction projects taking place in China’s new smog-ridden cities.
Whilst at times serving up collections of images which say little about the identity of their location, and therefore struggle to inspire when compared to others in the exhibition, this is an enjoyable journey through the world of architecture which underlines the remarkable urban transformation which has taken place over the past 80 years.
CONSTRUCTING WORLDS: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is on at the Barbican Theatre, London, and runs until 11 January, 2015. Adult tickets £12. For more information, visit www.barbican.org.uk.