The Architect and the Camera.
Photography as a spatial experience.
Photography has captivated visual artists since its debut, giving people the ability to capture a still image without having to stand in front of a subject for hours on end with an easel, paint, and canvas. Photography has been around since the 1800s, but it wasn't until recent years that we started to carry a camera in our back pocket (you know, that device you carry around to send text messages and browse the internet). Some people take photos without even thinking; they see something, snap, and move on. Others pay attention to the framing, light source, and points of view.
What makes a good photograph "good" is varied: it could be a good quality photograph in terms of technique, it could have a distinct point of view, or you could've been in the right spot at the right time to capture something out of the ordinary. Learning what to capture can go a very long way no matter your proficiency with a camera.
The way that we typically photograph architecture can be very picturesque and romantic. This can be a good way to exhibit the individualism and importance of a building, but it can leave out a lot of important information, like the actual spaces that are inhabited.
In modern architecture, the function dictates the form, but we seem to forget this when photographing our subjects. We end up getting the same sublime angle that so many people have taken before without realizing how much more information you could achieve by trying to find a different point of view. Don't get me wrong, I’m not demeaning the “cliché shot." Capturing the encompassing form of a space is important, but adding what's inside, what is actually experienced and lived-in, has much more information.
unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier - Berlin, Germany
This is the same building, only taken from the inside looking out.
In the first image, we see architecture as an exterior whole. The second image, though not fully focused on the architecture, is conveyed through the lighting, mood, and details that make a space livable. You still see architecture, but from the inside.
Curutchet House by Le Corbusier - La Plata, Argentina
The multiplicity of planes and layers of information that you could not see in typical 2D drawings.
This train station and intersection is extremely busy during the day but deserted by the work day's end. The use of illumination alone serves as the only remains of the typical chaos living and circulating through it. This shows how affecting the position (location or time) can alter how you visualize a space.
Photography as documentation.
One of the most common reasons architects use photography is for documentation (documenting an existing building, a site, a city). The goal of documenting is to have information that serves as a record for a future time/project. When we document a building, for example, we typically get the building's details, the exterior, and interior. But when we are documenting a building that is currently in use, sometimes we can lose information in our still images. Photographs can communicate the density, flow, light, and speed of movement in a way that no other medium can.
The cities that we build and live in can be taken for granted, in our busy lives sometimes you forget about the fine details. Photography gives you the ability to transform something as chaotic as a city into something calm while simultaneously conserving the essence of movement.
At a bus station in Argentina, you can feel the life of the city through the bustle of the people, the lit businesses, and even the traffic lights.
Normally you drive over 70mph on a highway and don't even notice the details a highway can have. In this picture of a bridge in Puerto Rico, you can see the transient yet agitated nature of the highway in the light streaks created by the vehicles.
Photography as a tool for design.
Sometimes when we think about architecture and design, we think about drawings without realizing the power that a photograph can achieve. Manually stitching photographs, collages, or sketching over a photo are few of the things we should learn to take advantage of when designing.
Puente de la Mujer by Santiago Calatrava - Argentina
This image is three photos manually stitched together; sometimes they admittedly look kind of messy in comparison to an automated panorama. In a typical panorama, you get one wide picture with one point of origin. But when you stitch multiple pictures together you get different points of view, depths, and layers of information in one image.
MALBA by AFT Architects - Buenos Aires, Argentina
When the eye looks at something you look at Individual details; your brain pieces them together into a whole. You can replicate this effect by manually stitching a space to give it a 3D feel. Sometimes when you see something and try to replicate it in a camera it doesn't come out how you expected. - the image is limited to what you can see in your camera's viewfinder. That's where stitching comes into place.
Calle Loiza, San Juan, Puerto Rico
This image is a composition of 128 images manually stitched together. I was able to visualize the city scape of the proposed site and capture a small glimpse of the everyday life in the street.
Modern architecture’s form should be dictated by the function; if we’re taking pictures of just the form we're not behaving as modern architects. Photographing the function, the people and movement within and around the architecture, brings a building to life. When an architect designs he is thinking about the end user and how they interact with such space, so why not photograph that?
Architects essentially solve problems. Design might be our craft, but photography is another weapon in our arsenal of design tools. A building isn't just a building; it's composed of the people inside and how they experience it. To capture the life inside of the building is just as important (if not more) than capturing the outside. An architect doesn’t just build a pretty exterior; every interior detail is important and if you miss it, you're missing the intent of the design.
In essence, photography does more than teaching you how to find a “good angle” or a better point of view. It teaches you how to observe, how to take details into account, it teaches you composition, and how to get things to be harmonious with each other. And there is not a single thing from that last sentence that you could not say for architecture. Photography makes us better observers, and observing makes us better architects.
MACBA, by Richard Meier - Barcelona, Spain
All photos taken by the author, Jan Millán.