The photography exhibit Albert Kahn: Under Construction, on display at the U-M Museum of Art, raises some unusual issues of authorship and artistry. Kahn, the Detroit-based architect of iconic structures like Detroit’s Fisher Building and Ann Arbor’s Angell Hall, certainly has his fingerprints all over the show–yet none of the images in it are actually his. The show consists almost entirely of photographs taken to document the construction process that allowed Kahn to cut down on in-person site visits. These purely functional photos, drawn from the collections of Albert Kahn Associates and U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, were never intended to reside in an art museum. As a result, no photographer is known or credited for most of them.
That’s a shame, because some of the photos are truly impressive. One particularly striking shot depicts two men working on the main building column at the Willow Run bomber plant in 1941. The steel column soars upwards from the left third of the photo, as the workers swing in on a cable from the right side of the image. One man’s legs are splayed out as he moves toward the column; above him, the other grips the cable in anticipation. The relatively tight shot captures nothing else but sky, so one is left to imagine the rest of the building and the apparatus the workers dangle from. The height at which the workers are suspended is also indefinite, which only enhances the vertiginous effect.
Other shots favor a bigger-picture approach, reflecting their original use as construction documentation. Shots of many of Kahn’s buildings in America favor grandiose high angles, sometimes even in panoramas that unfold across five or six individual photographs. But 1930 construction photos of the Autotrust Corporation factory in Moscow take a more placid approach. These pictures are exceedingly practical, focusing on individual trusses and other larger elements of the structure, always with a handwritten sign to identify the project. The workmanlike approach befits the Soviet Union, where Kahn designed more than fifty factories from 1929 to 1932.
Although Kahn didn’t take any of the photographs in the show, there’s sheer beauty in watching his impressive buildings come together. Locals will be fascinated to see U-M’s Edward Henry Kraus Building, best known as NatSci, arise from bare ground into a mass of wooden scaffolding over the course of five photos from 1914 and 1915. The show contains similarly dramatic series chronicling the construction of the Willow Run plant, Detroit’s GM Building (originally the Durant Building and now named Cadillac Place), and others.
It’s astonishing to consider just how many landmark structures Kahn shaped in our area, ranging from practical industrial designs to stately halls to gorgeous Art Deco creations, and fascinating to see the wood and steel skeletons from which they arose. Artistry abounds in Under Construction, but rarely in the forms we’re accustomed to. The exhibit runs through July 3.