The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Robert Elwall

By Ian Leith

English architecture owes a huge debt to Robert Elwall, who passed away in March this year. Anyone wishing to know more about how buildings have been depicted over the last hundred years should consult his pioneering publications, starting with Photography Takes Command: The Camera and British Architecture 1890-1939, published in 1994,which is probably the best single introduction to what we might now describe as the branding of the built environment. Robert analysed the key photographers and their techniques so convincingly that his writings are now mandatory reading for students who wish to understand the origins of architectural photography and the visual context of the architectural revolution which has occurred since Le Corbusier. Without his navigational aids, architectural photographers and their commissioners would have serious difficulties in properly seeing buildings. Unlike most curators, he was aware of how the ubiquity of the photograph has effectively hindered interpretation.

Robert’s heroes ought to be better known: Herbert Felton, S W Newbery, F R Yerbury, Dell & Wainwright, Edwin Smith and John Gay, whose image of Ronchamps (shown here) may well have been familiar to him. For the RIBA he wrote on both Eric de Mare and Maltby in 2000, and his knowledge of the RIBA archive and the history of photography led to his major work on a world scale, Building with Light: The International History of Architectural Photography (2004) where he correctly stated that ‘the literature devoted to architectural photography is paltry, particularly when compared to the extensive bibliography commanded by architectural drawing’, yet, apart from drawings, photographs often constitute the only known record of a building. Robert guides us through a series of questions we need to put in photographic terms: what was the purpose behind the commission, who wished to bolster their reputations as owners, designers or developers, what has been deliberately excluded from the composition, and how to judge these often deliberately atmospheric or distorted images. Unlike the naïve Victorian belief that the camera was an objective machine, Robert explores intentions and shows how images can be manipulated, as fashion icons, as political journalism and as pictorial aesthetics.

Robert Elwall’s articulation of an often invisible medium means that, like a star map, we now have access to fixed biographical coordinates and intensities: well-defined stars and points of light allowing us to navigate architecture via the medium of photography.

Robert Elwall, born 14 January 1953, died 7 March 2012

Published May 2012