Eric de Mare at RIBA, London

Not many people without architectural training will have heard of Eric de Mare. He was one of the great architectural photographers of the middle period of the 20th century (he lived from 1910-2002).

If it hadn’t been for the sclerosis in English photographic scholarship in his time, he would be better regarded. In France or the US, de Mare would be a national figure. A small but delightful exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects does something to redress the balance.

Although he had trained as an architect, de Mare soon became a photographer. Through Swedish parents (his ancestry was Huguenot French), he had access as a young man to the ideas and principles of Scandinavian modernism. Through his own rather specifically British radicalism, he came to have great faith in what might be called vernacular values.

The resulting combination became wholly characteristic of de Mare: he became a champion of a humanised modernism, less austere than the machine aesthetic of such as Le Corbusier. In 1931, de Mare published The Functional Tradition. In this he urged admiration for the qualities of design arrived at in the early industrial period by high-quality but simple solutions to mechanical and manufacturing problems.

These were designs refined by years of use by practical people. The Functional Tradition looked backwards and that, too, became characteristic. De Mare’s modernism checked the values of the new against the established successes of the old.

His first arena was a surprising one. In the wake of nationalisation in 1948, de Mare made a 600-mile trip on Britain’s industrial canals. The network was threatened at the time with severe cuts, and a curious alliance of technical and sentimental specialists united to preserve and protect these early test-beds of large-scale industrial infrastructure and the life of the boatmen who worked them.

De Mare invented a photography that looked close-up at the human-scale details of the canals, the locks and bollards and bridges, and that close attention became the hallmark of the canal preservation societies.

The campaign for the canals was a very early proof of the possibility of campaigning action on heritage: de Mare’s pictures were used in tandem with the prose of LTC Rolt, an engineer by training with a similar conviction to de Mare’s own in the value of the old. Between them they set the blueprint for a whole range of later campaigning organisations, of which the Victorian Society is perhaps the best-known.

These people were, in their day, as famous in the conservation arena as John Betjeman. It is arguable that Eric de Mare’s own temperamental balance – between scientific and vernacular – gave the tenor to the whole English heritage conservation system in his wake.

A wonderful picture in this exhibition gives the flavour. “St Edward’s, Brotherton, with Ferrybridge B Power Station Behind” is just that: a country church overshadowed by the huge cooling towers. The church is in the same dark register as the foliage around it: it belongs in the landscape. The cooling towers are much paler, sketched in as giant alien intrusions. It is described in the caption as “God dominated by Mammon” but I don’t think that’s quite it. De Mare had plenty of admiration for both of these buildings.

This kind of photography was influential: one can see a line that runs through the campaigning imagery of Fay Godwin and John Davies starting somewhere here. De Mare wrote several successful textbooks on photography but his influence was not only theoretical. The measured presence for so many years in the architectural press of his modest, careful, scrutinising glance was a metronome whose rhythm photographers such as Edwin Smith and perhaps even Bill Brandt played to.

De Mare’s professional achievement was to stretch the territory in which “architecture” could be sought: he was a pioneer in recovering architectural merit (of a kind that nobody now denies) in the then-overlooked industrial buildings of the past. He was not much favoured by reproduction. His images in books tend to be pale, washed out. The vintage prints (which form a majority of the exhibition) assembled at RIBA, on the contrary, are super. They are small scale, beautifully balanced, contrasty prints in unexpectedly romantic tonalities, perfectly apt for de Mare’s controlled nostalgia.

Eric de Mare at RIBA, London, until November 24.

Man with a camera – or not?

Nadav Kander’s series “Yangtze: The Long River” was the fruit of several journeys along the length of that great waterway. The work uses juxtaposition and contrast – the apparently bucolic scene of young boys playfully diving into the water is made sombre by the smoking factories on the opposite bank; a family prettifies its picnic table on a litter-strewn bank under the huge girders of an uncompromising bridge. Their colours are muted foggy-pastels, giving a dreamy timeless quality to this fierce take on modern China. At Flowers East from October 15.

Isaac Julien’s nine-screen film installation, Ten Thousand Waves, starring Maggie Cheung, current star of Chinese cinema, comes to the Hayward Gallery for its UK premiere on October 13 as part of the exhibition Move: Choreographing You. Also opening is a show of photographs with the same title at Victoria Miro gallery.

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography challenges the notion that one needs a camera to make a photograph. These five light-artists cast shadows on light-sensitive paper or use chemical procuresses to create and manipulate images, with results that refer back to the earliest days of the art form. Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller and Floris Neusüss are featured, from October 13.

Floris Neusüss, a German “photogram” artist who follows in the footsteps of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and others, is also featured in a solo show at the Atlas Gallery, from October 15.

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