Pepys Estate, Deptford. Photo Tony Ray-Jones, text Robert Elwall. (3/3)

Canteen for the elderly, Pepys Estate, Deptford, 1970. Photo Tony Ray-Jones © RIBA Photographs Library.

Robert Elwall writes:

In 1969 Hubert de Cronin Hastings, owner of the Architectural Press and editor of its leading journal, the Architectural Review, decided to experiment with a new look for the magazine. He accordingly launched the ‘Manplan’ series published in eight themed issues between September 1969 and September 1970. Rather than being illustrated by the Review’s usual staff photographers, Hastings commissioned photographs from some of the leading photojournalists of the day asking them to cast their lenses in judgement on the contemporary state of architecture and town planning. Thus Ian Berry illustrated two issues on communications and health and welfare while his Magnum colleague, Peter Baistow, also supplied the images for two, those on religion and local government. Other contributors were Tom Smith on education; Tim Street-Porter on industry and Tony Ray-Jones on housing. The series kicked off with a typically hard-hitting issue on ‘Frustration’ with photographs by Patrick Ward.

These images were totally unlike anything that had been seen in the Review before. Ironically the Review had done much to formulate the norms of mainstream architectural photography with dramatically hagiographic renditions of pristinely new buildings set beneath sunlit skies and photographed with large format cameras. Instead it now offered its readers harsh, grainy, 35mm images of a grimly dystopian world the photographers argued that architects and planners had created.  The unrelenting grimness and claustrophobic intensity of the photographs was magnified by the use of wide-angle lenses which had the effect of thrusting the viewer into the frame; by the reproduction of the photographs in a specially devised matt-black ink; and by the provision of hard-hitting captions that sometimes were printed over the images. Not surprisingly the series proved too much for many of the Review’s architect subscribers and in the face of falling circulation figures Hastings was forced to admit defeat and abandon his experiment.

Despite being short-lived, ‘Manplan’ can be regarded as the high watermark of photojournalism applied to architectural photography. During the 1960’s this had been pioneered by magazines such as Architectural Design, which in September 1961 had published a special issue on Sheffield illustrated by the great photojournalist Roger Mayne and by photographers such as John Donat (1933-2004) who, much influenced by Mayne’s example, took advantage of the smaller format cameras and faster films then appearing on the market to show how buildings interacted with, and were experienced by, their users and the public. For so long banished from the architectural photographer’s frame, real people going about real tasks, rather than merely included to give a sense of scale, now became the norm. By the 1970s, however, this application of the tenets of photojournalism and street photography to architecture was drawing to a close. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, owing to the slow speed of large format colour films and the elaborate lighting set-ups they often required, the explosion in colour photography placed a renewed emphasis on architecture’s more formal qualities at the expense of human activity. In addition the increased commissioning of photography by architects themselves rather the more independently-minded magazines inevitably premiated eye-catching imagery that would show architects’ works in the best light. However, it is pleasing to reflect that today ‘Manplan’ has found favour once again as photographers once more seek to deviate from the norms.

… for The London Column. © Robert Elwall 2011

[Robert Elwall is Assistant Director, Photographs, Imaging & Digital Development of the British Architectural Library at the Royal Institute of British Architects.]