“What does it take to be an emerging architectural photographer? How does one create a difference in a competitive world where just about everything seems to have been done?!
The explosive evolution of digital photography has resulted in massive daily streams of image content being generated and loaded onto electronic media (and viewed on social networks like Instagram and on-line blogs). In light of this how can your photographic craft be seen as different to other practitioners? In the digital age the architectural photography market is complex and very competitive as it has become accessible for both amateurs and non-professional photographers to enter and post their efforts. However the need for strong photographs that capture the architects ideas and designs in an accurate and truthful way is still a prime requirement.
I was told at college to keep shooting images in order to develop my own ‘style’. This mantra was repeated by the professional architectural photographers I have met and talked to. Even when a photographer is meeting the specifics of a particular shooting brief for an architect, each one of their final images are a very individual expression of how they have viewed, interpreted and responded to the built structure. Therefore when benchmarking yourself against established talent you should be wary of replicating/copying how they shoot… especially if they are a group of people all shooting and doing post-processing in a similar fashion (as this can be generally part of a passing ‘fad’). No two photographers share the exactly the same eyes and visual perception of the world around them and this can work to your advantage. You need to develop your own visual language and shooting methodology that marries with your visual perception whilst meeting the goals of your client and placing your personal visual stamp in crafting an image. This places you in control of how much you want to be one of the pack, an early adaptor/follower, or a leader/innovator whose work may have greater appeal.
Digital technology is enabling architectural photography in some respects – especially by making people more aware and appreciative of it. Many people shoot architecture with the convenience of smartphones and entry- to enthusiast-level digital cameras. This has meant that many more people across the world are being exposed to more interesting architecture and design than they could ever have hoped to visit in person. However, although the amateur or enthusiast can capture an image of a building or built space, you still need high-end specialist camera technology to record architecture in a precise manner to correctly capture an undistorted or ‘true’ image. This is required to produce an authentic narrative to relate that image to another part of a building that is being photographed. It is important to engage the viewers’ attention as well as visually guide them so that they learn the story of the building and its purpose.
As an architectural photographer you are challenged to achieve the aim of visually encoding and translating the visual power and character of a constructed place (its form, structure, mass, space, temporality) into an image that becomes a unique and memorable viewing experience for every individual who apprehends it. Some might think this experience could be problematic, as how does any one individual perceive a place or space they encounter? This uncertainty can be turned to a positive experience with unknown outcomes as potentially every person’s experience of space can be unique depending on what they do in it and how they interact with it. As Peter Gössel[i] writes, architecture “…is so much a part of our daily reality that the whole of our activity in perceived space is also activity formed in space…”.
If “Architects”, as Steven Holl[ii] puts it, “are sculptors of space using light as a medium”, does it follow that the architectural photographer (or “one who paints with light”), is to just take a photograph in order to ‘document’ the built space? I think that is it too simplistic a notion and that there is more to it than simply “documentation”. Although there are particular details an architect wants visually documented in their brief, an aspirational goal to have is to capture how people ‘feel’ as they move through, perceive and interact with a space or built structure. This is regardless of whether the audience is the general public (in the case of a public or monumental space), or the client who has commissioned the architect. When you take an image you can use your perception of a place to convey a sense of temporality (i.e. time of day, seasonality, or evoke a past or future) that may be related to in the same way by other people or the architect, or, it can create a new and fresh dialogue due to differences in your existential orientation.
So why not try to capture the phenomenology of a built place in your image? Can you make it show how receptive people are to space, light and time, how they qualitatively perceive depth of line and space, and how a person might move through or utilize a space? Does it convey what senses are used (i.e. visual, tactile, olfactory and aural) to form an emotive reaction to the 3-dimensional presence of a building? For example how might you or any other individual, use sensory perception to process the elements of light (colour, natural/artificial; muted/intense, cold/warm, soft/harsh); mass (i.e. feeling of solidity, strength and substance); and materiality (i.e. the use of certain building products, say steel or concrete versus timber) and imbue these in an image?
Can your image show or evoke memories of what tactile experiences someone encounters as their hand touches or brushes past a rough unfinished concrete surface, a smooth cool granite bench, or a sculpted and polished plastic panel? Can you recall the sensation of when your feet made contact with smooth timbered/glazed tiled/ plush carpeted flooring, or the coolness of a shady alcove in a building you have visited and are now viewing an image of? When an image of a place is viewed, what acoustic memories are triggered? Are they clear-sounding laughter; quiet conversation; the muted contemplative sound of a water feature; incessantly loud and reverberating talk of people in a crowded atrium, or passing traffic noise?
In my visual craft I am always seeking ways to develop a language that is fractal (endlessly scalable), exploring various size dimensions (from site, building, room, person, furniture and accessory, down to smaller ornamental scales). Of course the aim is also to show the built structure in relation to its site, that is a given at a larger scale. But you also need to understand the context and reasons why an architect has designed a structure in a place the way he/she has in order to visually convey their narrative of place.
Is there an architectonic or stereotomic typology the architect is espousing, are they sympathetic to a particular facet of local geographic, geotechnical, landscape, climatic conditions or historical event/context? These are important aspects that can be subtle and elusive. Sometimes making the viewer privy to these via an image can make for an enriching experience. If it is a public or monumental space, does the architectural design reflect the mores of society, is it welcoming and does it invite interaction or contemplation? Is it impersonal but have a utilitarian function, does it excite and attract positive energy, or is its function more as a sanity-saving refuge from the relentless drive of a city?
People say a career in professional architectural photography is difficult, (others say it’s easy). Because it is a new adventure that I have only relatively recently embarked on, I am fuelled with the desire to make arresting visual images of the built environment set in a world that we humans are continually modifying. I am excited at the prospect of working at odd hours to capture the quality, direction and intensity of light playing over a building at the right moment; like playing hide-and-seek there is anticipation of what you expect to see, as well as an element of surprise (or horror) at what results (depending upon whether site or weather conditions have changed prior to a shoot).
As a photographer the goal is to use your eyes (as a lens) and brain (as an adaptable and ever-learning image processor) to produce a unique ‘way of seeing’ that is aided by the appropriate technology. Remember, like the architect who is in the business of ‘making’, the photographer is also challenged in making something from architecture – a visual narrative using the photographic image.
To me architectural photography is a language that visually communicates to people as much as possible about conceptual ideas to the dimensions and quality of a built space, helping them better understand and appreciate architecture.
 Gössel, Peter ‘What is Modern Architecture?’ In: Modern Architecture A- L Taschen (Pub.) Vol 1, 303pp.
Aah how the world continues to surprise me!
A walk around UQ campus on Wednesday not only showed me other areas of brush turkey activity:
but also updated me on how quickly the world of Turkey-tecture can change:
However, off-campus a truly heartening sign that man is on the Brush turkey’s side, is the sighting of several mounds of fresh bark chips that have recently been deposited by the city council in Acacia Park (off Carmody Road adjacent to UQ campus):
Perhaps this is “bait” ploy by UQ administration to lure “recidivist” Turkey-tects off the campus?
We live in a world that is increasingly being clothed in concrete (or other man-made “garments”… like asphalt, steel, terracotta tiles, cut timber and corrugated iron).
In his book ‘Architecture of Density‘ photographer Michael Wolf displays a masterful visual record of some of the cityscapes we are creating and is perhaps a timely nudge to those who think that urban development is “boundless”.
His photographic style of follows that of Bernd and Hilla Becher (who are renowned for creating a typology of industrial buildings and structures in a grid-like fashion). Wolf’s visual documentary approach of Hong Kong is formal, and unsettling. He frames his images face-on so that the sky and ground are removed, and you are confronted with a flat, uncompromising, concrete-dominated, brutalist, and seemingly unpopulated view of only a microcosm of a much larger “mega city”.
His images evoke dystopian scenes from ‘Metropolis‘, Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist epic science-fiction film. After viewing Wolf’s graphically stark images, one is left feeling somewhat claustrophobically trapped by the weight of the structures pictured. A rising clamour of wanting to be “let out” is furthered by the endless repetition of patterns washing over each page of the book without a view of a clear field or open space in sight – almost like being caught in a hall of mirrors by endlessly repeating images with no obvious avenue of escape discernable.
The patterning or splashes of colour sometimes break up the monotony of dull painted concrete, but even in themselves appear to be a contrivance exhorting occupants to lead bright happy lives in the “communal hives” they inhabit. The absence of human figures in this work may leave the viewer feeling a little emotionally detached from these relatively cold and implacable subjects, but the odd signs of occupation are present, as evidenced in the form of man-made scaffolding, washing hung out of windows to dry, or open and half-closed windows inviting us to look in from afar.
The relentless repeating patterns of windows, balconies and towers is similar in effect to that used by Andreas Gursky in his supermarket shop shelf image ’99 Cent’ where product packaging is the recurring pattern unit used to create seemingly endless rows of shelving.
Wolf’s images are not dissimilar to works by other photographic artists who have portrayed the built environment clashing with and supplanting the natural environment. Many popular works were generated through the 1960-1970’s “Topographics Movement” which included the likes of: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, Nicholas Nixon and Henry Wessel. Most of them featured in the seminal 1975 exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” which showed images of the changing landscape and abuse of the earth in a stylistic way that highlighted anonymity in a characterless or deadpan way of documenting the landscape. Their work influenced many photographers in how they photographed landscapes and although today’s photographers shoot in a visually more contemporary style (e.g. Edward Burtynski & Robert Polidori), there is still an underlying or unspoken premise of a need of human connection with the natural environment amongst the ever-increasing urban sprawl of outer cities areas or within in the confines of continuous urban re-development or renewal within city centres.
Perhaps this why the world is seeing the upsurgence of roof top and vertical gardens in cities, in the imaginative revitalisation of old cityscapes including Vo Trong Nghia’s House for trees project in Bangkok, or community driven greening of abandoned industrial-scapes in Detroit?
Perhaps a re-imagining of how more finite or less expansive populations might live on this planet, having a much improved sustainable ecological footprint, may well be the seeds of transformation that both humanity and the environment really need?
Imagine walking along the well-kept concrete perimeter path to the Great Court lawn centered at the distinctive sandstone University of Queensland, when quite unexpectedly it is is crossed by a trail of bark chips strewn across it. My curiosity piqued, I stop and slowly turn around to look at what I had walked over. Other people continue walking and do not appear to be taking any notice of this abstract smear of bark underfoot, as it is cold and at the end of a long university day and people are walking with determined strides to get home.
It took me a few moments to visually collate and decode what I was viewing: bark chips and leaf litter strewn in a line across the path next to the Parnell Building, a small pile of bark debris pushed up against a path abutment, a clean garden bed with exposed black soil, and… a large mounded heap of bark and leaf detritus lying in a garden bed within the confines of the Great Court. And then it clicked as to what this unusual sight represented! Of course, it was the “work site” of an Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami)!
Brush turkey mound (left), “bark highway” crossing pedestrian thoroughfare (centre), and raked garden bed (right)
Belonging to the megapode (or “big foot”) family of birds they are known as Scrub Turkey, Brush-turkey and Wild Turkey (and sometimes misnamed “Bush-turkey”). The male industriously rakes together loose vegetative detritus (leaves, bark) and soil to build mounds of 1- 2m in diameter and up to 1m high so that eggs from a number of females can be laid and incubated in them.
So how does the Brush turkey go about the practice of mound building? Is he an engineer, designer, builder, or landscape architect? Does he use subcontractors? Does he have the qualifications and authorisations/permits to construct a ‘mounded structure’ within a university precinct, does it meet current building codes and standards? As a structure what architectural theory of built space did our brush turkey follow? Was he biased by a quasi-tectonic outlook (I think the loose, unstructured and chaotic pile of bark debris wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny), were the inlaid eggs the foundation of a nascent stereotomic building approach; (if no mortar or egg-based footings were in place I don’t think they would suffice)?
So keeping things real in the realm of ‘Turkey-tecture’ and putting architectural conundrums and construction codes aside, what impressed me as I traced the trail of bark and leafy debris from the mound to its origins was the energy and sheer determination exhibited by the single male brush turkey who had raked bark detritus from its university garden bed source… over 50m distance away! No small job for a small bird with big feet! Not only did it rake bark detritus over lawns, but through the alumni court shelter between the Parnell and Goddard buildings:
It also scraped back every skerrick of leaf and bark detritus across garden beds and constructed a rampart up to the level of the Great Court:
Back at home base all that the resident Brush turkey had to do was to conduct vigilant maintenance of the mound incubator by either adding or subtracting (making it a quantity surveyor too) local litter and debris (including the odd scrap of blue plastic bag) to maintain the requisite temperature of the mound nursery to maximise egg-hatching success.
However, just like the urbanisation that is happening in Brisbane and beyond, “Turkey-tecturisation” is also making its presence felt further afield on campus with a broad swathe of bark detritus being swept across the path between the Steele (Geology Dept.) Building and the Commonwealth Bank where another nesting mound is being constructed.
I wonder if the spread of Turkey-tecture will be limited after a human slips and falls on the bark trails, or if the freshly-hatched chicks stage a sit-in on one of the lecture theatres? Perhaps then some sort of building ordinance will come into effect restricting mound-building to Turkey-tecture zones that are segregated from human pedestrian traffic… or perhaps a compromise could be reached where pedestrian cross-overs or ramps, or Brush turkey underpasses could be constructed, allowing free segregated passage for both forms of bipedal transport (the soled and the clawed)? That would make for a for more interesting walk around campus wouldn’t it?