The heyday of construction photography in the nineteen thirties served the conflicting ideologies of both America and the Soviet Union. In clear geometric images that barely concealed their formalist origins, the heroism and daring of the mythical worker was allied to the building of capitalism and socialism. Margaret Bourke-White, Bernice Abbot and Lewis W. Hine photographed the construction of the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and Empire State Building for such aptly named magazines as Fortune, whilst Boris Ignatovich, Anatoli Skurikin and Alexander Rodchenko similarly depicted Stalin’s projects at Magnitogorsk and the White Sea Canal for USSR in Construction. The mortal dangers faced by immigrant workers to New York and the murderous cruelties of the gulag are predictably absent from these images.
The National Portrait Gallery site which I began photographing in January 1999 is an internal space formed by the conjunction of two great galleries. Works by the theatrists Hogarth and Sickert hang on the reverse side of the blank arcading which surrounds the site and forms a backdrop to this modern stage set in construction. I had not anticipated the large number of East European building workers that I encountered or the widespread, if unfashionable, discussion of politics. I began to wonder then whether the discredited genre of construction photography might not again attempt to speak of the wider world and the uncertainties of our own ‘post ideological’ times.
Available also in book form in 'The National Portrait Gallery, An Architectural History' by Hulme, Buchanan,, Powell & Goto