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Le grand format photographique dans l’exposition « Signs of Life » (1976)

Olivier Lugon

études photographiques n°25 mai 2010

Depuis les années 1980, l’agrandissement des formats en photographie a été fortement associé à l’accession du médium à la reconnaissance artistique et à une forme contemporaine du tableau. Cette identification de la grande taille à un supplément d’art n’est pas sans paradoxe. Pendant un demi-siècle, le tirage géant a précisément représenté le contraire de l’art – une image faite pour la communication de masse, aussi immédiate qu’éphémère, moins une œuvre d’auteur qu’une production collective sans valeur marchande ou symbolique propre. À la fin des années 1970 encore, quand certains artistes, photographes ou architectes recommencent à s’intéresser à lui, c’est précisément comme émanation des mass media, de la publicité ou de la décoration commerciale, avant que l’entrée même de ces formes médiatiques dans le champ artistique ne les transforme en attributs du tableau. L’exposition “Signs of Life” à Washington en 1976, collaboration des architectes Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown et Steven Izenour avec le photographe Stephen Shore, constitue un exemple significatif d’un tel déplacement.

Since the 1980s, larger photographic formats have been closely associated with the artistic recognition of photography and have been equated with a contemporary form of the painting, or ‘tableau.’ This identification of large sizes with additional artistic value is paradoxical. For a half-century, oversize prints had epitomized the antithesis of art – an image designed for mass communication, as ephemeral as it was instantaneous, less the work of an author than a collective production without commercial or symbolic value of its own. It was still as outgrowths of the mass media, advertising, or commercial decoration that some artists, photographers, or architects took new interest in them in the late 1970s, before the introduction of these media-related forms into the field of art translated their characteristics into attributes of the painting. The exhibition Signs of Life, held in Washington in 1976, organized collaboratively by the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, and the photographer Stephen Shore, provides a significant example of this shift.

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Las Vegas Studio Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

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Las Vegas Studio.
Images from the Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
Edited by Hilar Stadler et Martino Stierli.
196 pages, 175 illustrations
Éditions Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich
ISBN 978-3-85881-717-4

In 1968, American architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour together with students from Yale University made Las Vegas the object of their research. The group spent three weeks in libraries, four days in Los Angeles and ten days in Las Vegas. In 1972, their findings were presented and interpreted in terms of a general architectural theory in the seminal publication Learning from Las Vegas. This study dealt above all with the symbolic dimension of architecture and the question of communication in the contemporary city. With their work, they decisively influenced the way the modern, commercial city was seen and also the direction of urbanistic research projects in both methodology and questions of representation.

Photography and film were important instruments for urban analysis in this «research studio.» They were equally means of argumentation and representation. The original material has since been stored in the archives of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates in Philadelphia. The firm has now opened its archives. The exhibition «Las Vegas Studio» presents the images and films that were taken during the legendary 1968 Las Vegas research, making a selection available to the public for the first time. The visual material provides a spectacular demonstration of how Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour conceptualized the city in the medium of the image.

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“Learning From Las Vegas” is arguably one of the most influential texts in theory of architecture of the 20th-century. Since its first publication in 1972 it has been reprinted again and again and translated to many languages. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s treatise had, and still has, lasting effect and is regarded until the present day as the starting singal of postmodernism in architecture and urban planning. The authors’ thesis and arguments are essentially based on the media of photography and film, on the countless pictures Venturi/Scott Brown and Steven Izenour took during their field research of 1968 in the city of Las Vegas. Despite of this fact all editions but the very first one of 1972 use only small black and white images of poor quality to illustrate the text. “Las Vegas Studio” is the first to present a large selection of these iconic images and film stills in colour, large format and first rate quality. The essays complement the pictures and investigate how Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour used images to contemplate the phenomenon of the modern city, and forge the link to the architectural practice of the past decades.

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© Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates Inc., Philadelphia

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