Knowing Where To Stand

For 50 years, the architectural photographer Norman McGrath has displayed the unique ability to find precisely the right angle from which to convey a building’s real essence.

Photographers are to architects what personal trainers—or astrologers—are to movie stars: influential but invisible enablers whom everyone appreciates but nobody knows. In a culture that feeds on images, photographs have transformed buildings into icons, from Fallingwater to the Guggenheim Bilbao, and helped shape what the public thinks architecture is. For five decades, Norman McGrath has been one of the arch enablers, and in “knowing where to stand in order to show off buildings to their best advantage,” as he puts it, he has played a role in the transformation of contemporary architecture.

In one sense, McGrath’s extensive portfolio charts the course of modern and contemporary building, from the pre-modern Penn Station to skyscrapers such as the Seagram Building, through the postmodernism of Gwathmey Siegel and stunning public buildings like Fariborz Sahba’s Baha’i temple in New Delhi and, of course, Bilbao. But the photographs also outline a more personal progress. McGrath was born in London, the son of the architect Raymond McGrath. The family moved to Dublin during World War II, and McGrath remembers it vividly as a city in which almost nothing changed, a backwater. But his father was the principal architect at the Dublin Board of Works, and over time Norman would meet most of the nation’s leading architects. After he moved to the United States in 1956, he returned many times over subsequent decades to photograph the city, including John M. Johansen’s faceted U.S. Embassy and, in one of McGrath’s stateliest images, the Custom House in Dublin, a 1791 neoclassical building by James Gandon.

Trinity College Dublin does not offer an architecture degree, so McGrath studied engineering, and when he moved to New York he went to work as a design and construction engineer. He was still working part-time at Wayne C. Wing, but spending more and more time making photographs, when the pivotal event of his career took place right in front of him. His employer’s offices were in the old Pennsylvania Hotel, overlooking Penn Station, and when demolition began in 1963, McGrath had a perfect place to stand. Under the tutelage of Harper’s Bazaar’s legendary art director, Alexey Brodovitch, he documented what was both a tragedy and a major engineering achievement: the destruction of the station without interrupting its function. “It was too big for effective security, and all you had to do was lift a tarp and you were in,” McGrath recalls. He walked, climbed, or crawled through all of it, shooting grand spaces and unknown ones. “It reminded me of my childhood walking through the train stations of London,” he says, “and I felt the loss of it deeply.”

But as an engineer and the son of an architect, he was just as deeply impressed by the strength and intricacy of the construction, which he conveyed in his attention to detail. It is that attention that has brought him hundreds of architectural commissions and magazine assignments.
He understood early on that publication was crucial to architecture’s dissemination and to his own career, and he pursued it indefatigably, from Interiors and Progressive Architecture to Architectural Forum and Architectural Record, among others. Mies van der Rohe hired him based on the pictures he sold in 1962 to Architectural Forum of One Charles Center in Baltimore, and McGrath has worked with and/or for Hugh Stubbins, Charles Gwathmey, Frank Gehry, and Philip Johnson, to name only a few.

“I know how architects think,” he says, “and I approach projects as an architect would.” That, more than any signature style, marks a McGrath photograph. With Norman Foster’s 2006 Hearst Tower, the photographer captured Foster’s remarkable manipulation of space in the lobby, using an axial viewpoint to create a suite of powerful diagonals that conveys the force and movement of its trusses. These pictures have their counterpart in those he made of Burnham and Root’s 1888 Rookery Building, in Chicago. Shot from the mezzanine, they employ a perspective that widens the space in order to show off the fantastic intricacy of the ceiling’s steel frame and the details of its railings. His photographs of Sahba’s lotus-like Baha’i temple, photographed before its opening in 1986, convey his engineer’s awe at the ambitious construction, which is based on very long exposed concrete supports that were fabricated in a continuous pour. McGrath calls it “perfection.”

Philip Johnson’s Glass House had long been an icon before McGrath shot it, and his assignment from Architectural Digest was not the house itself but the surrounding buildings, including the library, visitor center, and the folly, a reduced-scale Greek pavilion on Johnson’s pond. McGrath understood the coherence of the buildings’ placement in the landscape, in spite of their stylistic schizophrenia. “Johnson very carefully shaped that landscape, and that’s what I sought to convey,” he says. As a result, Johnson gave him carte blanche to shoot the house as often as he wished.

Photographers have been documenting buildings since the birth of their medium (in part, because the buildings didn’t move), but as the visual and performative aspects of architecture have become more pronounced—as structures have tended toward the nature of events, in Bernard Tschumi’s formulation—photography has become crucial to the experience of buildings and their promotion. In this regard, McGrath’s relationship with Gwathmey Siegel’s oeuvre has been decisive. He began shooting these buildings, including private houses and the Guggenheim addition, in the 1980s. “I appreciated Charlie’s high standards and his understanding of the impact of photography,” McGrath says. “I walked those buildings with him and he talked all the angles.”

The result was more than 100 images, collected in the firm’s omnibus volume in 1994. They represent an anatomy of Gwathmey’s postmodernism, its precise eclecticism, deliberate manipulation of historical elements, and high-end workmanship, all in the service of a new haute bourgeois elegance. Early on in this long relationship, McGrath also shot what are probably his best-known images, of Charles Moore’s 1978 Piazza d’Italia, in New Orleans. The series uncannily captures the funhouse, stage-set quality of Moore’s version of the architectural past, as well as a pivotal moment when architecture became full-fledged theater. For many supporters and detractors alike, these pictures have come to define a movement.

Today, at 80, McGrath continues to work and teach. He has also been in discussions with the Library of Congress about the acquisition of his archive. Having been a sort of midwife to revolution, McGrath gives an assessment of contemporary buildings that is influenced by his experiences and by his engineer’s training. “When I first began,” he says, “I felt there were marvelous facades but that the structures of most buildings, what provided their energy and articulation, was missing. Now things are much more inventive, and I want my pictures to reflect that.”

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