Archive for the ‘architectural photography’ Category


The image annexes space

July 8, 2010

A few years ago, an exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute entitled Spectacular City: Photographing the Future posited the thesis that, in the words of photographer Frank van der Salm, the best architects around today are photographers.

This is one metaphor for understanding the image’s primary role in the practice and perception of architecture today. As mentioned before, architectural photography—where space and the image intersect—reveals the radical flux acting on the constituent practices of architecture and photography today. The architectural image—which was the basis for the trade press, lifestyle publications, and monographs which nourished different aspects of the industry—has now broken nearly every bound of medium, format, and expository context. It is now increasingly independent from its original commercial purpose, and like an autonomous emergent intelligence is part of the process of demoting its ostensible benefactor (the architect and client) and casting a new, indispensable role for its creator and technician (the architectural imager).

The implications break in two directions. The first is found in extravagantly prodigal print manifestations—OMA’s Book Machine publishing laboratory and its 40K-page supermonograph.

The second is in the post-virtual, optical/perceptual hybrid space of the holographic architectural model, such as the autosteroscopic 3D tiles from Zebra Imaging.

When global modernism was emerging at the same time that cheaper and better photomechanical reproduction became available, the image became the primary currency of this architecture. Then, the goal of architectural photography was clarity and iconic singularity. Today, the opposite is true; the kaleidoscopic cloud of architectural images speaks to the decline of the architectural monograph in codex book form, and the image’s surprising annexation of architectural space itself.



Is architectural photography art photography?

January 21, 2010

This is a revised and expanded version of a post for a blog/assignment I briefly flirted with, Artificial Infinite. This essay is part of my research into the history and interpretation of architectural photography, presenting its current dilemma primarily through the work of one contemporary photographer, Tim Griffith. In this post I’m proceeding from the premise (whose defense I don’t think I need to really mount here in detail) that today both architecture and photography are in their own states of disarray and redefinition, making their current fusion especially fluxy. I also changed the title of the post to pose a question, for which there may be numerous answers beyond “yes” and “no.”

Taipei 101 by Tim Griffith

Upon its inception, the photograph—the “fixed image” (recalling this phrase’s wet-plate process origin, the point at which an image must be chemically stopped and fixed in its development before it flees)—was popularly thought to be a way of suspending time and freezing motion, but it has always been key to conveying the inanimate built environment too. Photography—whose first and arguably true muse is architecture—liberated impassive and stationary buildings from their physical bounds to the ephemeral realm of the image. The mastery of photomechanical reproduction in the 1890s allowed these images to wander as far across the globe as commercial means could take them.

But that was then. Architect and theorist Kazys Varnelis proposed that architectural photography has increasingly divorced itself from its ostensible subject.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today.

A degree of category confusion is introduced at this point, because the photographers Varnelis cites are primarily considered “art” photographers—the gallery system, curatorial authority, and a collector base dictate their industry (he probably also means the Düsseldorf School). But even in the post-postmodern tech+culture realm about which Varnelis lectures and writes, “architectural photography” proper still connotes a traditional client-driven practice straddling the architecture and publishing industries.

Architectural photography’s place of distinction in the contemporary visual environment is due to an apparent paradox: that for all its overwhelming physicality and spatiality, architecture has always been primarily experienced with the sense of sight. Humans are more mobile than ever before, yet we can never attend physically all that is within range visually. Architecturally voracious, our eyes are not just confronted by immediate built environments and distant skylines, but the continued propagation of images of buildings in a superabundant visual environment: online, in books, magazines, and other visual media.

One by Tim Griffith

As architecture evolved from a gentlemanly pursuit in the nineteenth century to a codified industry in the twentieth, photography’s role became critical to popularizing new development. During the era of high modernism, projections into the future near and far proliferated; radical new forms were introduced to the industry and the general public through trade and lifestyle publications, and photographs were key to the aims of the development and real estate sectors. Many of these photographers first trained as architects, and its practitioners achieved the status of specialist-experts, resulting in a putative opposition between “true practice” and “mere commerce.”

Architect-cum-photographer Joseph Molitor was a prime exponent of this self-accredited connoisseur outlook, down to the name of his signature monograph from 1976, Architectural Photography. “Granted an architectural photograph must truly interpret the structure; what else distinguishes a good architectural photograph from a good commercial one?” he asked, rhetorically reinforcing the professional gulf. His rules—foregrounding, dramatic perspective, optimizing texture through shadows, balancing isolation and environmental context of the subject, housekeeping both of environment (wires, cars, etc.) and interiors, balancing light, and creating excellent print quality—were characteristic of an era when buildings were hallmarks of an assertive modernist moment; a few years later such prescriptions could no longer obtain in a built landscape under heavy torsion from postmodernism and deconstructivism.

Varnelis indeed points to a notable development: the current practice of architectural photography has in many ways evolved toward artistic effect. Photographers such as Iwan Baan and Frank van der Salm are today regularly tapped by the titans of the architecture industry—OMA, Herzog & de Meuron—to create photographs whose mannerisms and ellipses seem to violate most of Molitor’s tenets.

A brief exploration of the work of contemporary architectural photographer Tim Griffith provides a case study of this emergent “artistic” approach to architectural imaging and the shifting state of practice today. Giffith’s work, included in the 2009 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, depicts some of the most prominent architectural projects of our age. Griffith presents the tensions inherent in this yoking of architecture and photography; his work is formed by professional rigor yet inflected toward art, hypertechnological in subject and approach, yet suggestive of an already fading moment.

Birdsnest by Tim Griffith

The portraits of this iconic generation of state- and corporate-sponsored architecture would not at first flush seem to fall within the classical rules. Yet his approach to the new canon of recent technological structures—the CCTV Headquarters, the Beijing National Stadium, Taipei 101—is not unlike that of any classical architectural photographer who must recognize and visually communicate a building’s exoteric and esoteric values both. He still devotes attention to timeless architectural qualities of strength, character, stillness, and formality through the paradoxical strategy of rendering these megaprojects diaphanous, immaterial, scaleless, unguarded. Griffith shows it is possible to attend the norms of conventional architecture photography while also subverting them, within the foursquare of the very image. Griffith’s pictures can also be read as history and augury of architectural photography as a specialized practice.

Whereas many artists conventionally take up the most obvious capacity of the camera and explore the range, nature, and effects of light, Griffith delves into the subtler and more arcane functions of time in the architectural subject and the photographic image. As the camera, in its inception, could reveal realms previously invisible to the human eye through varying exposure times, magnifications, and chemical processes, it was imputed to have pseudomystical properties: the ability to see through dimensions, and even into the realm of the dead. It could be a time machine.

Sentinel by Tim Griffith

These monumental projects and newly minted urban vistas are more than just reflections of the present moment; they are intricate bundles of temporality. The past tenaciously seems to outpace the present (there has been a series of four World’s Tallest buildings in the past decade). But moreover, the inherent future is already relegated to decay. Subject to elaborate design, construction, and publicity cycles, these megaventures are presented as “iconic” before they exist, and are outmoded by the time they are topped off. “Out of scale” beyond a preservationist’s nightmare, they are born into an urban and economic context that cannot assimilate them. Griffith’s images often take these monumental presences at a distance, producing vistas where the master edifice aggressively obtrudes—or in some cases, as in Taipei 101, causing the recent World’s Tallest record-holder to recede almost to quaintness.

The immanence of the ruin within these half- and newly built projects pervades Griffith’s work. It is impossible to consider these images without thinking of the economic atmosphere that produced them. If these edifices are indeed icons, perhaps the status to which they will forever aspire is an iconic ambivalence, a stage hovering between boom and bust, an apprehensive liminality. In some ways, these are monuments to a worldview that has already passed. Griffith’s photographic methodology affirms this uncertainty; the scenes are captured with large-format cameras with high-resolution digital sensors and the resulting information—pristine and finely detailed—subsequently exposed to a series of processes to degrade the image. The resultant disorienting pictorialist scrim imparts an ephemeral sense to these buildings, offering them less as icons of the future than memorials to an interrupted civilization.

The conventions of architectural photography were inculcated by the ruin from the earliest days of the practice. In Building With Light: An International History of Architectural Photography, Robert Elwall writes: “Apart from such major projects as the Crystal Palace in London or the new Louvre in Paris, it is immediately striking how few contemporary buildings were photographed during the medium’s initial decades.” Early photography’s ruin fetish is due to coinciding events of the era: the prevailing classical architecture revival of the time, and the rise of souvenir photography from Greek and Roman sites in the middle east opened up by the Napoleonic crusades. Some of Griffith’s images echo this history, exuding the quality of hand-tinted travel postcards from the Age of Empire, dreamlike documents illuminating exotic marvels of the world. Without the kind of cues found in conventional professional architectural photography that tell us when and where the subjects are situated, images such as One and Birdsnest could be respectively the ruins of a near-future Gothic Cathedral or Taj Mahal. Griffith’s visual tactics presage the inevitable decay of these structures.

Tjibaou by Tim Griffith

At the conclusion of Architectural Photography, Molitor writes

Someday another [pioneering architectural photographer Ken] Hedrich will come along and view architecture entirely differently than any of us today, and then architectural photography will enter its diamond age. Perhaps the architects themselves will bring this about by coming up with such dramatic changes in design that a whole new concept of photography will be necessary to record it properly.

The work of Tim Griffith and his contemporaries may be an incomplete rejoinder to Molitor’s speculation, but their images intimate that this Diamond Age is now upon us.


Massimo Cristaldi: Simulacra

September 28, 2009
From the series <i>Simulacra</i> by Massimo Cristaldi

From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Massimo Cristaldi’s Simulacra depicts small-scale religious edifices in silent, nocturnal composure. Taken from an impersonal middle distance, the Sicilian and Southern Italian roadside shrines in these pictures are humble, sentinel. The icons within them are unseen, even preempting visibility with their own interior glow.

From the series "Simulacra" by Massimo Cristaldi

From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Whether freestanding and bound solidly to the earth, or tucked into massive exterior walls, these votive structures yield to Cristaldi’s subtle exploration of their latent luminous qualities via long exposures. There is a sense of loss, perhaps less religious than cultural, allowing to “galloping globalization and by general indifference,” as Cristaldi writes. Cristaldi adopts Baudrillard’s elaboration of simulacra as the theme of this body of work. Here there are levels of both representation and simulation (which Baudrillard distinguishes among): the subject of the photograph is an edifice to an invisible God (or Mother or saint thereof). In this respect, Cristaldi writes, “these photographs are simulacra of simulacra.” (To this one could add an additional level: the architectural. Comprised as much by the negative space of the arch as the columns which describe them, and topped by munchkin pediments, these structures are caricatures of classical architecture in miniature.)


From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

The tracery of automobile lights disorients the reverential purpose of these structures—they are little more than road markers. But Cristaldi also creates an additional irony: the head- and tail-lights describe numinous orbits around the shrines. These cars may be the last angels attendant to the divine.


From the series Simulacra by Massimo Cristaldi

Simulacra was recently been awarded an Honorable Mention by the International Photography Awards, and the New York Times recently included his web site in its round-up of compelling photographers sites. Equally oblique and haunting, for the human tragedy which he addresses, is his suite Lampedusa (Wrecked Dreams).


What the picture you’re looking at looks like

August 27, 2009

Tardy to follow up the “truthy lies” post with more opinions from photographers of the built environment, but never too late. In the intervening time, Edgar Martins broke his silence, citing Michael Jackson’s death, realizing that history is now unlinear, stating all facts are mediated, and referencing  Lacanian “lack”—all with only ten footnotes. I was back in Crit Theory class, circa ’91. Jörg published Edgar’s elaborate disquisition, then got a bit defensive for having afforded Edgar a one-way avenue for so little net explanation.

I’m guessing that the reason that this is all we’ve heard from Martins directly on the subject (long as it was) is to get to the other side of some kind of settlement with the Times. Regardless, when I read in a recent Sunday edition a little piece about photographic fakery, the irony was a tad too rich. A Dartmouth computer science professor (and fake photo sleuth) says, “The very nature of photography was to record events. . . . You’d think there would have been a grace period of respect for this new technology.”

I’m partisan on this issue, but this is an absurd statement for anyone familiar with the history and theory of photography. The science was born with a specific set of technologies so unlike contemporary faculties that we’re practically talking about two different practices. The ostensibly inviolable link between truth and photography cannot be traced to its earliest origins; the first Daguerreotype to depict a human famously records only the stationary man getting a shoeshine—the rest of the throng is invisible due to their motion over a long exposure. Photography’s preoccupation with mystical concerns throughout the nineteenth century, not to mention the photographic revelation of objects and events unobtainable to the unaided human eye, renders this line of thinking ridiculous to me.

As with many topics this can be qualified by intention and context. So here are several more photographers (and one “image creator,” see below) of architectural subjects and the built environment responding to the extremely reductionist question: Should photojournalistic standards of “truth” be applied to architectural photography? First there is Greg Girard, whose documentation of Kowloon Walled City is in my mind a major landmark in the history of architectural photography; his more recent book Phantom Shanghai is also amazing. Stanley Greenberg is arguably the foremost photographer of New York City infrastructure, and whose first two books will soon be joined by another next year, Architecture Under Construction.

Philipp Schaerer has a different creative and professional profile than Greg and Stanley, as he is not a photographer, but an architect, image manager, and ultimately, as he terms it, an “image creator.” His field is architectural visualization, and he has done so professionally for such firms as Herzog & de Meuron. His conceptual projects include Raummodelle, which explores “how conceptual images can be developed with classic rendering techniques” and Bildbauten, which collides disparate elements of buildings and terrain to create images of impossible and meaningless architecture. Visually and conceptually his work is fascinating, and explicitly treats these big issues. So without further ado:

Greg Girard:

Neighborhood Demolition, Fangbang Lu, 2006, by Greg Girard

Neighborhood Demolition, Fangbang Lu, 2006, by Greg Girard

I’m not sure that photojournalistic standards of truth have even been applied historically to much of photojournalism, let alone other areas of photography. I am thinking especially of the staged and lighted pictures from Life magazine in the 1950s and 60s, among other earlier and later examples. At some point along the way a code of what constitutes acceptable darkroom manipulation and photographer intervention was established by the “quality” magazines and newspapers. This code remains in place today, modified for the new digital reality, though unless one has a background in mainstream journalism one would not really know what lines can and can’t be crossed. “Photojournalism” is a pre-television term, and in one sense the practice has never fully come to terms with television, let alone the internet and digital imagery. It seems that an ever-smaller number of these quality/traditional publications and their online versions enforce a code of standards, essentially a pledge to their audience that: “This is what we say it is.”  Without that pledge all you can say about a picture, in terms of truth at least, is: “This is what the picture you’re looking at looks like.”

Walled City Exterior, 1987

Walled City Exterior, 1987 by Greg Girard

Stanley Greenberg:

Untitled, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, © Stanley Greenberg

Untitled, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, © Stanley Greenberg. From the forthcoming Architecture Under Construction, University of Chicago Press

While I am scrupulous about issues of accuracy and manipulation, I think it’s all about your intentions, either stated or implied. I don’t alter anything at the site of my photograph. I may dodge and burn to bring back what I remember (and how accurate is that) because film is not the same as your eye. If I photograph an interior with a window, it’s a safe bet that you can see through the window with your eye, but the film may not have the latitude to do that. If you were to shoot digitally and combine two exposures to make a picture more like what your eye sees, that’s fine. But I’m not comfortable with adding a tree that’s not there. I don’t consider my work documentary; even if it is done in that style. There are so many ways you can alter perceptions; what do you include, what lens do you use, how do you light the space, can you tell what the scale is?

Architectural photography often means using a stylist to set up a scene. Is the photograph an accurate depiction of what’s there? Yes. But it may not be an accurate portrayal of how a house is lived in. And if you’re calling it photojournalism, you should be faithful to what’s there.

There are many ways of telling the truth. A fictional film may be a better way to tell a story than to use the facts. A novel may be better than a memoir. It’s all about your intention. If you state it, then you have a responsibility to be true to it. If you don’t, then you may leave it up for interpretation. But context can change everything, and you can mislead just as easily by locating your pictures in a way that is bound to be misinterpreted.


Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 2005 © Stanley Greenberg. From the forthcoming Architecture Under Construction, University of Chicago Press

Philipp Schaerer:

Bildbauten No 6, 2007

Bildbauten No 6, 2007 by Philipp Schaerer

It’s an interesting and a difficult question, and hard for me to say yes or no in very clear manner. Let me explain:

I think it’s already difficult to talk about “veracity” and “truth” in the field of photography. Taking a photograph is to project a tridimensional environment on a two-dimensional layer by means of a lens. Depending on the lens you use, the projection can be significantly distorted (as with a wide angle lens). In the field of architectural photography this fact is already problematic for [the intent of such] photographs is to reproduce truly the dimension of a space. How many times have we had the experience of looking first at a photograph of an interior—for booking a hotel room or looking for a new apartment—feeling a little bit disappointed once we physically were inside the space because it felt much smaller compared to the distorted photograph. So, already at this point it’s difficult to speak about veracity and truth in architectural photography.

Looking at the postproduction, the question is much more difficult, because at this moment of your workflow, you are able to erase or add supplementary content to the photograph or the image. The major question here is, at which level of intervention does a photograph lose its status of being a photograph? I do not speak of cleaning a photograph of dust and little scratches— that isn’t the problem. The problem begins when you are touching the content—when you alienate or change the represented content in the photograph. What does an architectural photographer do in the situation of having taken a shot of a façade and unfortunately there are distracting and accidental elements in the image, like a moving person, a car, or a temporary fencing which hides an important fragment of the façade and has nothing to do with the building. In this situation is the architectural photographer allowed to retouch the distracting elements without violating the “veracity and truth?” I would say yes, because one moment later the person or the car would have vanished and the retouched photograph would be the “same” as the photograph which would have been taken 3 seconds afterwards. . . . I know, already in this case the concept of photography as a “documentary piece of evidence” begins to alternate.

But what about the instances when architectural components are retouched and suppressed —for example a disturbing socket or a distracting division of a railing or a window? This phenomenon can be observed more and more since the onset of digital image editing. I can’t really say if this is good or bad, but I would like to understand why and wonder where it comes from. Most architectural photographs come into existence due to a commission from an architect. But architects and photographers deal differently with the reality. While a photographer is constantly busy to see what is there, capturing the environment like a “seismograph,” an architect is more trained to think of what could be there. For the architect, reality—built or not—always has something alterable, changeable. His building is a result of a long line of decisions, drawings, image montages, which throughout the design process [contains elements that can be changed until] the very last moment, when the building is built. I think this moment, when things become immovable, is a very delicate situation for the architect, because it requires a “change of mind,” another “mentality” about reversibility. For the architect a photograph is not really different than a drawing, an image montage, or rendering—it’s just another medium of representation, which also has the capacity of being changed.

I think it also depends on the context in which a photograph is highlighted and is used for. I think each photographer or image creator has to ask himself when doing his job and working on the postproduction, for what is this photograph used, and what is the main purpose—documentary or fiction? What level of integrity does the distribution channel or the final reader expect from the image?

Personally I’m only half confronted with the question of veracity when working on architectural images. I’m working in the field of architectural visualisation, [creating] images which are not to be seen as a copy of a certain reality; rather, they try to render/visualise an imagined, possible reality, because the buildings don’t exist yet. The only contact point between my work architectural photography is that I use a similar photographic visual language. Today, digital image processing allows the design of images that can hardly be distinguished visually from a photograph. This creates confusion. Architectural visualisations—as a rule designed during the planning stage—usually had a conceptual, abstract character. With the advent of photorealistic high-end renderings, a new kind of image type was added: an image that seems to be a photograph. It becomes increasingly difficult to make the distinction between documentary image as an image of reality, and a simulated, possible image. How do we as professional image creators react to this development?

My main interest does not really consist in providing images that are as photorealistic as possible. Visualisations are created in the stage where the freedom or the potential lies in the possibility to really express what is useful for the understanding of the project. So my main interest is: How can I create images which try to reflect not only a neutral, clean copy of a possible, built architecture, but also primarily convey an architectural idea based on the visual language of photorealism? By means of a selective handling of the image elements I try to maintain this balance; perhaps a certain degree of abstraction helps to distinguish between architectural photography (documentary) and architectural visualization (fiction). And this is good so.

Raummodelle No 4, 2008

Raummodelle No 4, 2008 by Philipp Schaerer


Truthy lies: photographers speak out on Edgar Martins

July 23, 2009

<i>Photo District news</i> identifies "evidence of manipulation" in Edgar Martins' photographs.

Photo District News further identifies “evidence of manipulation” in Edgar Martins’ photographs.

The Edgar Martins episode may be fading quickly, but the underlying issues won’t; they predate the digital era and will outlive the current edition of Adobe Photoshop.

What has interested me in this kerfuffle is how it has revived what I thought were fairly settled debates around image manipulation—er, alteration. Postproduction??—but this hunt for some morally neutral, aesthetically precise vocabulary to merely describe a commonplace photographic process reveals a persistent and deeply ingrained prejudice against it. (The editors’ note on the Times site itself betrays this rhetorical delicacy: “Editors later confronted the photographer and determined that most of the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show.”)

Of course it was Martins’ assertion that he doesn’t employ such techniques, paired with a flagrant violation of the New York Times’ ostensible photojournalistic objectivity, which raised clucking disapprobation (as well as the slackness of the work, which is also pointed out in tones of disapproval). But I am still surprised that the “fixed image”—a term that harkens to photographic darkroom practice, when the image is chemically stopped before it flees—is still regarded as a sacrosanct artifact, even today, even among an increasingly visually literate populace, much less people who for better or worse spend time thinking about aesthetics.

But as a non-practitioner, I think my opinion counts only so far in this discussion, so I turned to several accomplished photographers who have dedicated commercial, editorial, and art-practice work to architecture. But like every debate, this one needs to be framed, so I contrived a question as essentialized as I could (though I also admit the question itself harbors a bias): should photojournalistic standards of “truth” be applied to architectural photography? So please read the responses below from Alex Fradkin, Tim Griffith, Mark Luthringer, and David Maisel, each of whom probe at these very issues in their own intelligent and diverse photographic work. I hope to post opinions from more photographers shortly.

Alex Fradkin:

My first reaction when seeing the images that were altered by Edgar Martins was not one of having been scandalized, deceived, or my questioning his ethics. Instead, when comparing the original and the final images that ended up in the Times Magazine, I wondered why he chose to make the images less compelling, by making them perfectly symmetrical. I have always like Martins’ work, still do. His photographs clearly belong in the fine art genre and not photojournalism. His work in my opinion has never been about depicting reality. I see his work as using what is “real,” as a departure point for the open-ended narrative of fiction and surrealism. Juxtaposing Martins’ images, with his established aesthetic is inherently problematic. Additionally, Martins’ should have understood that his images would be accompanying a journalism piece in a magazine that has a very clear stated policy regarding manipulated images. The Times Magazine’s stated guidelines are not difficult to interpret. To make matters worse, the Times described the project as not being digitally manipulated.

Architectural photography has varying rules regarding digital manipulation. Most magazines have stated policies outlining these policies. When commissioned by a client, the architectural structure is depicted in its most complimentary light and composition, where visual clutter and tones are adjusted. The boundary from photo to digital illustration is often crossed resulting in an image that looks more like a hybrid photo/computer generated image. In fine-art architectural photography, anything goes. Just be clear and consistent when asked if the image has undergone digital manipulation.

In the case of Martins, who probably does not see himself as being bound by “journalistic standards of truth,” and possibly even a little dismissive of those standards, ended up being commissioned by a magazine that is often a lightning rod for those who question the veracity of popular news media. Simply, a very poor choice on his part added to his being published in one of the most sensitive and visible media outlets. If his images had shown up in an architectural magazine, this controversy probably would have never materialized. If these images had shown up in fine art architectural book or on a gallery wall, the mirrored and partially duplicated parts of the images would have been seen as part of the artist’s intention. The discussion would then have focused on fictional narratives and the inherent meaning of what was intended by the photographer.

His comment about not employing post-production techniques was made over a year ago and to my knowledge has not been restated. Change and experimentation are an artist’s prerogative and part of the recent controversy surrounds that statement he made in 2008. Clearly he has changed this policy, but has made an unfortunate choice in the wrong venue to show his new methodology. Comparatively egregious, the alterations degraded the final works and were somewhat amateurish and easily spotted. At least if you are going to fall on your sword, make it for a truly worthy cause and do it well.


Tim Griffith:

In the book Architecture Transformed: A History of the Photography of Buildings from 1839 to the Present Cervin Robinson and Joel Herschman described a period in which the photography of built form diverged into two distinct camps. The pragmatic, documentary style exemplified by the likes of Walker Evans on one hand and the more aspirational, suggestive imagery of Hedrich Blessing, Ezra Stoller, and Julius Shulman on the other. Modernist architecture was just gaining a foothold in the United States and needed strong visual representation to help “sell” it to the wider public. The compelling images of sleek factories, elegant civic projects and bright, open residences were instrumental in driving the popularity and general acceptance of this architecture.

These were crafted, commercial images, made with a particular outcome in mind. Their role was to do more than merely inform the viewer of the building’s existence. They gave voice to the promise of a better future. A sleek, modern, prosperous new life.

But can these images be considered “truthful”? Depends who’s asking.

Even in this digital age, the initial act of choosing where to place the camera can be as politically charged as any amount of retouching or outright fabrication of specific elements with the frame. A potentially controversial design can be softened by selecting a flattering angle, choosing a flattering time of day, including more or less of the surrounding context. This is considered normal practice for an architectural photographer.

The majority of commercial architectural photography is commissioned by those with a vested interest in portraying the project in a good light. So photographers tend to seek solutions that satisfy that outcome. To do otherwise would likely shorten your career considerably.

With the easy availability of tools to digitally manipulate photographs, there is a certain commercial expectation from clients that some degree of “cleaning” will be undertaken during production of the final image. The words “we can fix that up later, right?” are becoming all too familiar. This “fixing” can either be handled by the photographer, or potentially by the client in-house. My preference is to control the retouching to ensure it is done within the bounds of providing a realistic representation. Realistic perhaps, as opposed to truthful.

One thing driving the widespread manipulation of architectural images is the commercial desire for finished views of the project well in advance of the actual completion date. Buildings are completed digitally so that marketing and advertising material can be generated. This manipulation is equally as applicable and important to museums and civic centers as it is for commercial developments and residential leasing companies.

Is this the actual truth as of this moment in time? Or can it be seen as advancing the truth, bring it forward a little? I mean the building will look like that, just not quite yet. And are these digital manipulations any more or less truthful than the computer renderings that had been used to represent the design through planning and construction?

The manipulation of commercial architectural images has become so commonplace that almost no other views of architecture are visible in our culture. Robert Elwell, in his excellent book Building With Light: An International History of Architectural Photography, suggests there are now only are two ways in which architecture is being presented to the world. The first is in the sleek, manipulated, politicized images made for commercial or marketing purposes. The second is within the fine art world where the architecture itself seems to be of much less importance than the artist making use of it as their subject. Elwell laments the time when photography played a more critical role in how architecture was represented, when there was some social commentary within the images on the appropriateness, or not, of new developments.

Realistically though, images that are less than flattering to architecture are simply not viable these days. They are potentially damaging commercially. They are less likely to get published by the design press that relies heavily on funding from advertisers with vested interests. No-one wants to see aluminium panels rippling badly in raking light. No-one wants to see the awful concrete rubbish bins along a facade because the developer/client was too cheap to purchase the ones suggested by the architect. No-one wants to see “For Lease” signs in a supposedly bustling retail center.

They want to see the constructed reality, not the truth. And as commercial architectural photographers, that’s what we get paid to provide. A friend of mine coined the phrase “really truthy lies.”

So to answer your initial question. . . . No. I don’t believe that a photojournalistic standard of truth can be applied to commercial architectural photography. To do so would make it unsustainable economically for the majority of those employed as architectural photographers.

So you can’t get architectural photographers to shoot the truth. As recently proven by Edgar Martins, you can’t expect a fine artist to tell the truth. I suppose you could get a photojournalist to shoot the truth but then perhaps, it becomes more about social context than about the architecture itself.

In any case, all three of these [kinds of] photographers can produce a version of the reality. Whichever one of the three is considered more truthful largely depends upon the inherent values of the particular audience involved. Clearly, the truth as accepted by the fine art world becomes increasingly fragile and dubious when held up to the wider scrutiny of a more cynical and hardened public.


Mark Luthringer:

No, generally speaking, I don’t think photojournalistic standards of truth should be applied to client work. They are pictures for selling, and as such should be enhanced as much as possible to make them into better pictures. Here it becomes a matter of taste and judgment. But a distinction must be made between making a picture prettier, sexier, or whatever, and actually fabricating structures, objects, etc. This is something I wouldn’t go along with, unless the client was specifically directing me. . . .

What bothers me about the whole Martins thing goes back to taste and judgment—Martins’ but more especially the NYT people. Surely [this is] very embarrassing for them (the digital work is very sloppy), but they are the ones who seem to want it both ways.

Maybe we can finally rethink the whole notion of having so-called ‘fine art photographers’ do editorial work. It’s a devil’s bargain and almost always a dismal outcome for each side (editor and photographer) in my opinion. If Martins is a ‘fine art photographer,’ then oughtn’t he be afforded wide latitude in his strategies and the kinds of images he makes? If so, then why is NYT hiring him for ‘journalistic’ work? To me, they’re idiots and have been for years. . . .

As for Martins, what does he hope to gain by all this cloning and stamping, mirroring and flipping? THIS is the ‘fine art’ in ‘fine art photography’?? Well, what is he supposed to do? His experience, and his imagery, show that he is coming up against the inevitable, the immovable, the inescapable, and that he knows there’s just not enough for him to do.


David Maisel:

There is no such thing as photographic truth, in architectural photography or any other kind of photography for that matter.


What’s at stake when you make a picture in a public space

July 15, 2009
Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin asserts his right

Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin asserts his right

That the crown of the Statue of Liberty just reopened for the first time in nearly eight years is heartening, perhaps another small sign of the thaw in accessibility of public (and even historic and symbolic) places in the twenty-first century. Of course it’s not so much the restrictions on physical entrée that have signaled our compliance with post-9/11 command and control structures; what’s largely ignored are the mental battles—of images and their interpretations, of access to public space and full engagement with the environment we’ve built.

What obviously first comes to mind is the inverse propaganda, the successful curb on pictures of our wars and of soldiers’ coffins (a rule lifted by the Obama administration). But even closer to most of our experiences is the pervasive and baseless clampdown on making photographs in public and publicly accessible spaces. The reports of photographers being harassed, detained, and threatened with arrest are now legion (my favorite anecdote being Keith Garsee’s who was confronted by an enthusiastically ignorant security guard who cited something called the “9-11 law”).

Some cases received a lot of publicity due to high irony factors, such as when Duane Kerzic was arrested in late December 2008 by Amtrak Police for photographing a train at Penn Station. Why was he doing this? Because he was going to enter his photos of Amtrak trains a contest called Picture Our Trains—sponsored by Amtrak! The level of absurdity here is funny until a malevolent visage, still hard to shake, creeps into my mind’s eye.

There are a few things going on here, some of them explicable—if no less wrong—on account of human nature. But there is arguably another, more important level of struggle at hand, bound up in control over images and access to our built environment; if these rights are lost it will be through our voluntary and conscious relinquishment.

The first level is easy to figure out: after 9/11 we outsourced our rights. It’s not just the actual consequences of the letter of the Patriot Act, or the totally out-of-control Terrorist Watch List (now 1,000,000 names strong! Even if tens of thousands of those names are admittedly wrong). Worse than actual restrictions on freedom is the persistent perception of these constraints. To be clear: the Patriot Act did not overturn or even alter the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Taking photographs on and of public property—and even most private property from the vantage of public property—is 100% legal. But somehow the post-9/11 environment has led people to assume this is not the case; ignorance begets ignorance. Almost everyone is to blame here: latent power complexes possibly harbored by cops, TSA employees, and private security guards are allowed to develop into full-blown petty tyranny in this climate. And otherwise sensible citizens routinely surrender in the face of such displays of power.

Surveillance cameras on the Mercantile Exchange Building, Battery Park City, New York. Shot from public space, though a guard tried to stop me from taking this photo.

Surveillance camera on the Mercantile Exchange Building, Battery Park City, New York. Shot from public space, though a guard tried to stop me from taking this photo.

From what I’ve experienced firsthand and observe anecdotally, a private security guard is a lot more likely to try to restrict lawful picture-taking than a cop. Cops get the law wrong too, but for the most part they know that if you are on public property you are free to make images (if not, and you’re in New York, remind them of the Operations Order issued in April 09 that photography is not a crime). Private, for-profit forces, here and abroad, took on security details with incredibly broad but entirely vague mandates, answering not to civil society, but to their bosses.

I acknowledge  the difficulty in making umbrella statements about this. But unless someone is going to try to enact and enforce legislation to register every camera and cellphone in the country, everyone has to admit the genie left the bottle long ago.  A Canon 5D with a 70-200mm lens makes no more real of a photo than the one taken with an iPhone. The photographers who get harassed are merely conspicuous, which is what anybody has a right to be when engaging in a legal and socially acceptable activity.

But the subtler level here, and why I think it’s important to not just raise awareness but actively resist these restrictions, is that we are all caught up in a grand struggle of ideas and images, and for the most part don’t even know it. This is a use it or lose it moment.

As Marshall Berman relates in his epilogue to “A Times Square for the New Millennium,” even innocent observation is too often mistaken for surveillance. In response, concerned photographers have created photog-mobs—organized picture-taking manifestations that overwhelm security and challenge their misunderstanding of the law.

Photo by NoHoDamon

Photo by NoHoDamon

The number of people raising their voices about this issue is growing. Cory Doctorow’s coverage at Boing Boing is very good, and individuals like Kerzic and Carlos Miller (Photography is Not a Crime) keep pushing the issue on their sites and directly to authorities. Matthew Williams satirically made fake licenses (1, 2) to present when prompted by out-of-touch security forces.

muni license

This isn’t just an issue for “professional” photographers; now digital cameras and cell-phone cameras are so pervasive, we are all arguably photographers. For many nonprofessionals whose interests lie in design and architecture, photography is an essential research  tool that helps record and understand our built environment. Beyond this professionally specific group, it is as important as ever for every citizen to feel engaged with their towns and cities. When this is lost, we tend to foster and tolerate places that aren’t worth being in. This is disenfranchisement of a fundamental kind: for the majority of the populace, the built environment is still what happens to them and around them—not what it feels it can create.

It is high time to rethink this. In a paranoid America (and UK, where our best-mates-forever have also been very assiduous in keeping their territory clear of potential photo-terrorists–there are many recent scary stories on the British Journal of Photography, an excellent resource overall), authoritarian control has crept further into our lives, largely by our consent. We have been too complicit in our newfound constraints. Go learn about an environment you like: find some public space and take pictures. And challenge anyone who tries to stop you to cite the law that prohibits photography. Know your rights and support new projects such as the newly launched Not A Crime: “Over the next year, we hope to gather thousands of self-portraits of photographers—professional and amateur—from around the world, each holding up a white card with the words: ‘Not a crime’ or ‘I am not a terrorist.’”

The operating philosophy here is that the biggest jail is in our own heads, and that a society gets the freedom it earns. Let’s turn it around.