PLAN 90: Article
Photographing Places

The Photographers of Places Journal, 1987-2009

A comprehensive exhibition of photographs that appeared in the environmental design journal Places from 1987-2009 is on view at the MIT Museum’s Kurtz Gallery for Photography through August 16, featuring nearly 70 images by 21 American and European photographers. 

Founded in 1983 by architecture and planning faculty at MIT and UC/Berkeley, Places is an interdisciplinary design journal with particular interest in the public realm as physical place and as social ideal.  Conceived by SA+P’s William Porter and Kevin Lynch, with Donald Appleyard at Berkeley, Places was initially edited by Porter and Donlyn Lyndon at Berkeley.

The MIT Press published the first five volumes. In 1989 publication moved to the Design History Foundation in New York, with Lyndon remaining as editor (assisted by Todd Bressi and David Moffat as executive editors, and Jim Fulton as publisher) and with Pratt Institute joining the founding institutions. Twenty years later, in Spring 2009, the last print issue appeared and the journal moved exclusively online. It is edited today by Nancy Levinson and has ties to twenty-four academic institutions.

Throughout its history, Places has been a significant voice in the environmental, landscape and urban design fields. The intent of the magazine was ‘to see places in new ways’, the editors wrote, by examining the relationship between people and environments in ways unconfined by professional boundaries and interests.

Photography was always of great importance to the magazine as a means of studying place. Prominent artists focused on place-making in stand-alone photographic essays, first published in 1987, in which the photographs themselves were the story. The portfolios appeared with a minimum of text – a brief introduction by the photographer or editor, and captions identifying subject and location. No other text attempted to contextualize the photographs in a narraive or critical framework.

The portfolio subjects were not the latest architectural, urban or landscape designs as would be typically found in professional journals, but often arose from ordinary situations and conditions, such as the simple presence of structures or environments, and the differences or changes in those structures or environments over time. Whether welcome or regrettable, the documented conditions were invariably provocative, and raised fascinating questions of professional, academic and public interest.

The MIT exhibition was curated and written by Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture, design and photography at the MIT Museum, with contributions by Cervin Robinson, Donlyn Lyndon and Harrison Fraker. On March 6, SA+P hosted a reception for the exhibition which was attended by over half the exhibited photographers and many former Places board members, editors and contributors, including former SA+P dean William Porter (1972-81), Harrison Fraker, Donlyn Lyndon (former head of architecture, 1968-75) and Lawrence Vale, former head of planning (2002-09).

As this story went to press, we received notice from Places Journal that they are launching a ‘Reading Lists’ tool to encourage readers to share topical lists of articles and books in their areas of expertise. Public lists are archived here and readers can also save private lists of stories they’ve read or wish to read, build annotated bibliographies or share syllabi with colleagues and students. Lists can be cross-referenced by subject and shared privately or publicly. The effort is part of the journal’s continuing commitment to public scholarship and innovative practice.