Thirty years ago, the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri complained that pictures of well-known buildings were often as conventional and flat as mediocre still-life paintings "but executed out of doors."

The new architectural photography exhibition at the Barbican, "Constructing Worlds," sets out, as Ghirri himself did in shooting buildings by the architect Aldo Rossi, to explore another approach: more personal or political, markedly conscious of the often messy interactions between architecture and the neighborhoods (and cities) it occupies. Something very different, in other words, from "maximum clarity."

Arranged chronologically, with spare, even somber exhibition design by Belgian architecture firm Office, the show includes 18 photographers. It begins with the American Berenice Abbott, born at the end of the 19th century, and wraps up with Iwan Baan and Bas Princen, both born in the Netherlands in 1975. In between are Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Andreas Gursky, among other well-known names.

"Constructing Worlds" focuses on pictures, as the curators Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone put it, that "communicate wider truths about society" and stand "in direct opposition to conventional notions of architectural photography," with its goal of being "understood and appreciated by as wide an audience as possible."

Worries that architectural photography is complicit in the slick marketing of pricey new buildings are nothing new. But they mushroomed during the boom years of the last decade, as architects relied heavily on imagery of their most glamorous new projects to feed their own celebrity — and as digital technology made it possible for dramatic photographs of new buildings to go viral, with or without the help of traditional media outlets.

Since the bottom fell out in 2008 architecture has experienced a sharp reckoning, with a younger generation of designers turning to more socially engaged work. What "Constructed Worlds" makes clear is that architectural photography is going through a similar crisis of faith.