Tim Benton has written an exhaustive overview of Le Corbusier's photography though as he says in the introduction Giuliano Gresleri's 1985 book reproduces six hundred photos when he found the negatives and contact prints in a library at La Chaux-de-Fonds. Benton's book has some overlap with Gresleri's but really considers different aspects of Jeanneret's creativity.
The book is in two parts: Jeanneret's photos from 1907 to 1919 and the second part looking at Le Corbusier's photography and short movies during 1936 to 1938. In the first section Benton suggests that Jeanneret made serious attempts to take professional architectural photos but by 1911 gave up on this idea and used his camera to take visual notes. He took hundreds of these though very few were published. The pages reproduce many of these as large thumbnails (and there are colour photos of the types of camera Jeanneret used and tables of technical detail about the models). Benton makes the point that to understand the photos you have to be aware of how these cameras functioned. The second part looks at Le Corbusier's more ambitious photo and movie output, he used a Siemens B 16mm for movies. You can see seven montages of this work accessible through QR patches placed at the start of several portfolio sections in the book.
Many of the thumbnails in the text are reproduced much larger in the thirteen portfolios of photos that follow each chapter. The earlier of those mostly feature architecture and landscapes. From 1936 they feature Le Corbusier's family, Europe and various trips overseas. The longest portfolio is forty-two pages of photos taken on the SS Conte Biancamano in August 1936 and rather than photograph passengers he concentrated of the ships machinery.
I thought it slightly unfortunate that all the portfolio sections (they take up half the book) are printed on black pages which overpowers the photos, so four stars. So many of them are grainy and with subdued tonal quality. The thumbnail versions, printed on white paper, have much more sparkle.
I thought Benton's final chapter: Conclusions, raised some interesting points. On page 403 he asks why take these photos seriously because they are mostly of mediocre quality. His explanation is that Le Corbusier used photography as a memoir of his personal and professional life and they offer a glimse at his psychology. Despite taking may hundreds of photos (and short movies) over his lifetime he preferred to regard them no more than visual notes and this explains why this aspect of his creativity is little known rather than his towering genius as an architect.
As `Corb' he is generally regarded by the architectural fraternity - with varying degrees of awe and affection - as the pre-eminent architect of the 20th century and author of many of the century's defining masterpieces. On the other hand, as `Le Corboosier', he was detested by Frank Lloyd Wright and subsequently vilified in the popular media as the malign influence behind a plethora of grandiose and `inhuman' plans imposed on cities from Sheffield to St Louis. On the evidence of this book, he turns out to have been an even more complex and paradoxical character than was previously imagined.
Fresh out of Art School in his home town of La Chaux de Fonds, where he had trained as an engraver of watch-cases, he set off on his travels with the cheapest Kodak camera available. Thus the first of a series of 13 `albums' reproduced here includes intriguing shots of Khmer reliefs, the Ca d'Oro in Venice, a Buddha, the Jura mountains, Prague old town, and a rain-swept street in Munich as `Venetian canal'. However, as he was to claim much later in life:
"I bought myself a little Kodak camera, which Kodak sold for six francs in order to sell film to those idiots who use it, and I was one of them, and I noticed that by entrusting my emotions to a lens I was forgetting to have them pass by me - which was serious. So I abandoned the Kodak and picked up my pencil, and ever since then I have always drawn everything, wherever I am."
Thus an existential dilemma which appears to have plagued him until 1938 when he abandoned photography altogether; devoting the last 27 years of his life to painting - in the mornings as `Jeanneret' - and, in the afternoons, to architecture under his better-known pseudonym. His brief alternative `career' as photographer is exhaustively documented in this book; the quality fluctuating widely between quite average family snaps and strange `selfies' to a substantial portfolio of fine and carefully composed images.
Paradoxically, these range from reverential abstracts of the mighty silver `Graf Zeppelin' in which he flew to Brasil in July 1936 (less than a year before the Hindenburg disaster), to sympathetic studies of the self-built favellas of Rio and their inhabitants. On the 13-day homeward voyage aboard the `SS Conte Biancamano' he took no less than 744 shots with his new Siemens 16mm movie camera of details of the ship and its equipment. These images reveal the extent to which he had been influenced by the New Vision of artists like Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy which had been given comprehensive exposure in the 1929 `FiFo' exhibition in Stuttgart. This series and others in a similar vein; for example of nightmarish rock formations in Brittany, also suggest a taste for the surreal. And it is here that we can take issue with Tim Benton who is at pains to protect `his man' from contamination by that particular artistic influence, stating firmly: "Le Corbusier did not share the morbid introspection and oneiric fantasies of the Surrealists."
On the contrary: this book appeals and is worth adding to one's library because, albeit unwittingly, it reveals the complex and troubled human side - `morbid introspection, oneiric fantasies' and all - of an individual artist portrayed for far too long by his sycophantic admirers as a sort of Übermensch. A not bad photographer too - but it has to be said that the pretentious glossy black backgrounds in this book do the problematic prints no favours.