Architecture is an art form, it is a branch of science, it is a business, it is the architect’s personal expression as well as that of the commissioner. So, it is not surprising that I see architectural photography as overlapping various forms, kinds, branches of photography. This post will help me crystallize my ideas of architectural photography as I get ready for another round-table discussion at the Film Photographers Association. Fair warning, combined with the second part, it is a long post! But in addition to carefully worded information, there is also an excellent collection of photographs from professional architectural photographers published with their permission. The photographers’ names are in the captions of the photographs which will appear when you click to enlarge them and all of the images are clickable. If known, the architect’s name is included before the photographer’s name.
What exactly is architecture? Architecture is a blend of art and science that creates spaces for human experiences. It defines function, form, space, detail, material, and decoration/ornamentation that collectively help create the human experiences. Each element in the above shortlist has significance and each architect expresses them differently in line with the practice of their art.
Through the millennia, architectural styles have gone through changes leaving traces of earlier experiences on the new creations until the new ones become strong enough on their own and then shed the lineage. Many decades ago, I visited the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli in Cappadocia, Turkey. I don’t mean a small cave where a few people lived, I mean levels of living, producing, trading spaces, even underground burial grounds, and tunnels that connected the above two cities that are 4-5 miles apart. Even there, one could see the effort to contribute to the human experiences. Below left is a drawing showing 18 levels of a town that could house upwards of 20,000 people. Underground architecture?
On one floor, for instance, was a cavity on the wall, about 5′ x 5′ and about that tall with a foot high ledge in the front. The ledge had a hole at the bottom that connected it to the outside and it was directly above a hole on the floor. Whatever for? It turned out that they would put grapes on the floor of the opening in the wall, go and stomp on it to crush the grapes to squeeze the juice which would run out of the hole and drip through the hole on the floor to the level below where they had huge amphoras to catch the juice! Above right is the winery!
Well, we have come a long way from Derinkuyu, but the idea of creating space for human experience remains at the heart of architecture as I see it. When I say “space” I do not limit it to just the volume but the material, shape, form, function, detail, and ornamentation all combined.
Photography of Architecture or
I see a symbiotic relationship between architecture and photography. Architecture is location-bound and needs visibility. Photography provides “mobility” to architecture and also uses it as a subject for its own purposes. We mostly appreciate and enjoy architecture thanks to photography. There is a rich selection of architectural beauty that most of us will not get a chance to see if it were not for photography. That said, not every photograph that depicts a building or other kinds of architecture qualifies to be called architectural photography. This is not unique to architecture as we do not call any photograph of an individual a portrait. The intention of the photographer and her/his ability to embed that into their photography makes the difference. As photographers, they “read” their subject, the architecture, and interpret the work for us to appreciate it fully.
The architecture may be the subject of different kinds of photography like travel, documentary, art, product. or architecture photography. In this day of photographs flooding the Internet, one can imagine millions of selfies taken in front of almost that many architectural works. They essentially serve as a record and give bragging rights to the taker “I was in front of …” My main interest in this article lies in the last instance where the photograph is taken for architectural purposes. Clearly, this kind of work features a “product” and certainly qualifies as product photography but the sheer magnitude of the subject differentiates it from a bottle of soft drink or a fancy watch. There is, however, a good deal of overlap between the product photography and architectural photography aspects as they both try to convey a message to the viewer about the architecture and its architect.
The distinguishing factor between this kind and the art photography in architecture lies in what will come forward, the photograph or the architecture; the photographer or the architect. Now, I am not suggesting that a superb architectural photograph may not be a fine art photograph. But, successful architectural photography requires that the architecture be primarily admired. This may depend, to a large extent, on how the viewer approaches the photograph. Famous architectural photographer Julius Shulman cites an instance when a viewer exclaimed “what a beautiful photograph” after looking at one of his works. That, he says, made him embarrassed and aware that he and his work need to fade behind the architecture and the architect. The opening photograph that I took in Panagia Isodion church in Istanbul, for instance, will be seen as an architectural photograph as it presents the architecture, its structure, detail, materials, etc. A different view I photographed in the same place is below. It is more of an art photograph because the viewer first sees the unusual treatment of the subject. And, even the frame is not rectangular! Hard to focus on the architecture.
In part two of this two-part series, I focus specifically on photography related matters with ample examples from experts in this field.