“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored.  I was always very happy that way.  Being ignored is a great privilege.  That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently.  I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”

So wrote Saul Leiter, one of the pioneers of “fine art” colour photography.

We live in times with a huge visual appetite.  There has always been a sneaking suspicion that some architects design buildings primarily for the way they look (rather than the way they work) and this has gradually developed into designing buildings which photograph well.  Rather like fashion models have a “good side”, and fashion photographers who use soft lighting plus flattering print film to reveal it  – some buildings offer a “good angle”, which is shot at dawn using vivid film and a polarising filter.  Now, you can get a beautiful blue sky in Arizona with no effort at all, but in Scotland, that sky isn’t representative of reality.

For those architectural photographers working in the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as Henk Snoek, John Donat and Eric de Maré, black and white was the only film to be taken seriously, partly because colour was felt to be fugitive, and partly because it distracted the eye from the tones which describe the building’s form.  By the early 1980’s, Agfa and Fuji had produced colour emulsions good enough for professionals to rely on.  It’s been said more than once that James Stirling’s post modernism – typified by the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart – is a retinal architecture, with bright dayglow colours conceived for colour reproduction in magazines.  From then on, architecture was envisaged in Technicolor. 

Ironically, the recent death of Kodachrome transparency film – once popular for its warm, fairly saturated colours – underlines not only the onslaught of digital photography, but also the progress of ever-more vivid emulsions such as Fuji’s Velvia and Fortia positive films, and Agfa’s Ultra colour negative film.  Over the past couple of decades, the colours in our world appear to have become more and more vibrant, thanks to these films.  They create unreal, super-saturated images which sing out when they portray the neons of Times Square in New York, or the Ginza district of Tokyo – but lack fidelity when trying to capture subtle light and muted colours in Scotland.  The soft, watery, diffuse light you find in Scotland means that our environment lacks strong contrast, but makes up for that in tonal range.

Yet photographers are led by fashion and believe that there is a style that sells.  Practices feel the same.  What were once sober “record pictures” are now glossy P.R. shots.  To publicity-hungry architects, being ignored is not a privilege: being ignored is the ultimate disaster.  As a result, their images are designed to shout loudly, through dramatic lighting, high contrast and boosted saturation.  We are in competition, so you’d better eat fast otherwise someone else will clear your plate.  The result is a cliché’d style which the majority of architecture magazines adhere to.  Scottish buildings sit under Mediterranean skies; there are usually dusk shots relying on artificial lighting in the buildings to create drama; outside and in, the streets and buildings have been emptied of people. 

However, attempts have been made before to portray a different reality.  Photographers like Donat tried to apply the “reportage” photography approach to architectural subjects.  The results were the Architectural Review’s “Manplan” issues in 1969 and 1970, which posited a humanist view of how we portray buildings, as well as how we design them.  Manplan paid less attention to the formal tectonics and concentrated instead on how people experience and use buildings.  Donat’s contemporary John Szarkowski felt that photographers should abandon large-format photography, and use smaller cameras like the 35mm SLR, coupled with the new fast films which had been developed in 1960’s – since that made it easier to capture the movement of people.  That meant abandoning those cliché images shot at very high resolution on a rising-front camera like an 8 x 10 or 4 x 5inch large format Arca Swiss or Linhof Technika, but which took forever to set up, during which the “decisive moment” passed by and was lost.

Hobby photographers regard those expensive large format beasts, and their digital successors like the Phase One and Leaf digital backs, with awe.  Yet any camera is just a light-tight box with glass on the front, and a gadget which controls the amount of light that strikes the film or sensor behind it.  Equipment is just a means to the end of content, and arguably technique should be invisible too.  You really don’t need to know which camera, which lens, which film, which settings were used … you can enjoy the privilege of ignoring all that.  The only thing that counts is that the person who took the photo was there at the crucial time, and that he or she perceived it as worth taking.  That is the thing which separates the professional from the hobbyist.  The amateur believes a better camera will make him a better photographer; the professional knows that the only thing which counts is catching the decisive moment.

A better camera?  Amateurs always believe it’s their kit rather than their lack of practice, application, or dedication which is at fault.  On my travels around the internet, I came across some exchanges on a Drum & Bass forum where there were dozens of threads about “photography”.  In fact, they were actually threads about upgrading your camera.  "I just bought a new camera," boasted one, and for a bargain price on Ebay.  The replies he received – “I just got a buttered slice of toast, missed out on the Lurpack but got some St Ivel instead.  Its spec is: white bread, St Ivel Gold spread, housed on a standard kitchen plate.  I'm going to use it to fill a toast-sized hole in my stomach and increase the levels of available carbohydrate in my body.”  Also – “I just got a new light bulb, I missed out on the 40w version but bagged a 60w.  Its spec is: 240 volt, pearl white, twist connection.”   “Not bad,” replied Mr Toast, “though I would have gone with bayonet connection.” 

The telling insight I had recently was to spend a wee while with a photographer who shoots fashion, ads, and tackles architectural photography in a different way.  Another architectural photographer I know uses a Phase One back attached to a Sinar front, and shoots tethered to a laptop – whereas the former uses a digital SLR which cost less to buy, but actually delivers images at a higher resolution, and his technique provides a bigger dynamic range.  Plus he can sling it around his neck and move rapidly to catch the beautiful light, something which was never possible with the Mamiya RZ67 he used before (built like an armoured car) far less the Phase One plus Sinar plus laptop which the “architectural photographer” uses.

Architectural photographers have many hang-ups, which is why they take so many cliché shots of an unpeopled world at dusk.  Everything starts to look the same.  There are other ways to photograph buildings.

This entry was posted by and is filed under Uncategorized.
By • Galleries: Uncategorized

No feedback yet