The majority of architectural photographs in this exhibition are from the Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection (1853–1903) at the Washington University Archives. An influential architect, critic, and architectural historian, Sturgis (1836–1909) amassed more than twenty thousand photographs and photogravures to aid in his study and teaching of design. The collection primarily contains views of architecture, architectural ornament, and sculpture, across all cultures and periods of history. It includes nineteen bound albums of views and costume studies that Sturgis assembled by geography. He acquired the collection over many years of residence and travels abroad, particularly an extended stay in Europe from 1880–84. When Sturgis returned, he brought back to this country what one critic described as “probably the best collection of photographs and drawings of buildings and other decorations that was to be found in America.”[3] Sturgis likely continued to grow the collection through a network of local art and book dealers, who acted as agents for commercial studios overseas and offered an up-to-date supply of photographs of general and specialist interest.

Sturgis was an early champion of the documentary and didactic potential of photography in the field of architectural studies. His photographs show an appreciation for the medium’s unique capabilities to record architectural forms at long and close range, to crop and focus attention on building details, to show a single building spatialized from different vantage points, and to facilitate comparison and contrast across structures. Sturgis believed so strongly in the instructional value of photographs that study abroad, long considered the cornerstone of architectural education, no longer seemed necessary. “It is better to sit at home with a plan and twenty photographs with a sense of what that architecture truly means,” Sturgis wrote, “than it is, without that sense, to visit the cathedral itself or all the cathedrals in France.”[4] By the 1880s, he was using photographs from his collection to illustrate his lectures and writings, which remarkably included twenty-five books on global architecture. “Illustrate” is misleading, however, because photography anchored rather than supplemented those discussions. His dedication to the photograph placed Sturgis at the vanguard of architectural education in the Gilded Age: he was one of the first American critics to make photography integral to the transmission of architectural knowledge and the cultivation of discernment. He was also one of the earliest writers on art and architecture to encourage the collecting of photographs for reference and study.[5]

Washington University’s department of architecture (now the College of Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design within the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts) acquired the Sturgis photograph collection and reference library after his death in 1909. The prints were mounted on cardstock and housed in a room next to the library as an accessible resource for students and faculty. The collection rocketed the University’s architectural program to top-tier status. This exhibition explores the multivalent status of the photographs then and now—not only as tools of architectural education, as Sturgis saw them, but also as tourist souvenirs, technological experiments, ethnographic or anthropological studies, and works of art.

Image credit:
Giovanni Battista Brusa (Italian, active 1860–1880), Venezia—Canal Grande da S. Toma, n.d. Hand-colored mounted albumen print, bound in album, Naples / Venice, vol. 12. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis.