“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.