Eric de Maré

Building with Light

Eric de Maré (1910-2002) was one of Britain’s most important and influential architectural photographers whose compelling images played an important role in the re-evaluation of British Modernism after the Second World War. Describing photography as “building with light” he emphasised the similarities between the disciplines of architecture and photography as both being “concerned with constructing forms, lines, tones, textures, and possibly colours, into a sculptural unity.” (Photography and Architecture (London: Architectural Press, 1961))

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Born in Enfield of Swedish parents de Maré’s connection with Sweden would become a strong influence on his future outlook. His first camera, a box brownie, was a tenth birthday present. He studied architecture at the Architectural Association from 1928 where he was doubtless encouraged and inspired by the photographs of the Association’s secretary Francis Rowland Yerbury who did much to draw attention to continental Modernism. De Maré also greatly admired the work of Dell & Wainwright The Architectural Review’s official photographers, whom he acknowledged helped to establish Modernism in this country. After graduating in 1933 he practised for a short time in Stockholm before joining the Architectural Press, becoming acting editor of the Architects’ Journal in 1943. After four years he left to become a freelance writer and photographer but remained a frequent contributor to both the Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review (AR).

Although best known for his images of Britain’s architectural and industrial heritage de Maré’s work also includes topographical, overseas and contemporary work and was published widely, not only in the architectural press. He was also a prolific author and his works include Penguin Photography (1957) and Photography and Architecture (1961).

Throughout de Maré’s writings and images runs an almost missionary determination to redress what he regarded as the impoverishment of visual culture, indeed the architect Sir Hugh Casson described him as a “crusader”. In turn his images contributed to the post-war reassessment of Modernism and brought architectural photography to a much wider audience.

In his 1948 article in the AR, The New Empiricism, the Antecedents and Origins of Sweden’s Latest Style de Maré argued that architecturally Sweden was developing from the harshness and overly rigid formalisation of Modernism to a “return to workaday common sense”. What appealed to him most about this New Empiricism was that it was a shift to a more humane style of architecture that was also termed ‘the New Humanism’. De Maré continued to extol the virtues of Swedish Architecture, particularly that of Gunnar Asplund, into the 1950s influencing both Hertfordshire County Council’s school building programme and the Festival of Britain. Yet, as much as the Festival style became the acceptable face of Modernism de Maré did not entirely approve, considering that “the South Bank montage tended to swamp the exhibits and thus to some extent defeat its object.” (Architects’ Journal, vol.121, 20 January 1955, p.101)

Also in 1948 de Maré made a 600 mile return trip from London to Llangollen surveying a dozen canals and recording the canal vernacular. The result was a series of striking photographs where humble subjects such as bollards were hailed as being “Sculpture by Accident”. On one hand de Maré had set out on a mission to record what was about to be swept away by progress and on the other hand to demonstrate what he called the Functional Tradition’. This was extended to include aspects such as lettering, street furniture and townscapes. Further commissions from the AR to document the architectural legacy of the Industrial Revolution, as yet not widely appreciated and indeed greatly neglected, resulted in the book The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings (1958). So many of these images of largely anonymous, vernacular structures are bold and fresh, demonstrating de Maré’s great appreciation of texture.

De Maré described the chief characteristics of the ‘Functional Tradition’ as “geometry unadorned” and “the forthright, spare and logical use of materials”. Thus, it is easy to see how this would strike a chord with architects such as James Stirling, influencing the development of Brutalism, not surprisingly a movement de Maré deplored. Nevertheless, the ‘Functional Tradition’ was used as part of a campaign led by the AR to construct a respectable and indigenous ancestry for British Modernism, that there was a vernacular tradition that should serve as an inspiration to modern architects. In other words the perhaps xenophobic view that Modernism was not merely a style imported by passing émigrés.

De Maré continued to extol the virtues of the ‘Functional Tradition’ into the 1960s applying it to more modern industrial structures such as power stations, which he regarded as being a continuance of that tradition. This resulted in one of his most powerful images of St Edward, Brotherton dwarfed by the massive cooling towers of Ferrybridge power station. The analogy of God dominated by Mammon was a scene that quickly became popular with photographers such as Magnum’s Eve Arnold. This striking image may show dehumanisation on an immense scale, yet unlike many architectural photographers, for example Dell & Wainwright, de Maré’s images frequently contain people with this humanism enhanced by his sense of humour. There was no place for soulless images or buildings divorced from their environment in de Maré’s oeuvre.

It is understandable that in the latter part of his career de Maré would become more concerned with preservation, photographing Victorian buildings at risk such as the Euston Arch and lending more weight to the recently formed Victorian Society’s campaign to combat the hostility to nineteenth century buildings. Yet whatever his contributions his most enduring legacy will be that of being able to discern ‘architecture’ where perhaps none was intended combined with a great ability to throw fresh light on familiar subjects.  In 1972 de Maré wrote:

The photographer is perhaps the best architectural critic, for by felicitous framing and selection he can communicate direct and powerful comments both in praise and protest. He can also discover and reveal architecture where none was intended by creating abstract compositions of an architectonic quality - perhaps from a ruined wall, an old motor car, or a pile of box lids.” (Art Without Boundaries: 1950-1970, ed. Gerald Woods et al. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1972))

Not only do these words make a fitting epitaph to Eric de Maré himself but highlight the power of photography to damn or praise.

 

Article by Jonathan Makepeace (With reference to: Robert Elwall, Eric de Maré: images from the Photographs Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (London: RIBA Publications, 2000))

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