Architectural Photography - Between Documentation and Interpretation

January 7, 2016

People have been using photography for a long time now, with the original intention to document reality and to keep memories. Along with the rise of the digital era, photography became a platform for creating surreal (and hyper real) imagery. But in the post-postmodern era that we are living in right now, reality itself is neither clear as a concept, nor as a relevant parameter. When referring to ideals and perfection, people make conflicting comparisons. We often say that something artificial is so perfect that it almost seems real, whereas nearly perfect experience is commonly described as almost unreal, or dreamlike. Architecture is a discipline that works with both terms, and reflects on the real and the illusive simultaneously. Therefore, both reality and simulacrum can be defined through various perspectives. We can talk about the reality of materials for example: the solidity of stone and transparency of glass, but we can also talk about transparency of stone (in architecture of Kengo Kuma), or solidity of glass (on basically any building with a reflective curtain wall – especially when seen during the day). Analogously, architecture can be compared to the image of architecture. What is it, really, that a photographer wants to accomplish, when displaying architecture? Is (s)he trying to report on architecture and document its appearance, or trying to use the visuals to point out immaterial features? Is architecture used as a frame for events, and is it responsible for creating certain atmosphere and provoking feelings?

architectural photography
Ezra Stoller - Guggenheim Museum, New York, architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Side Effects of Pure Intentions

Architects know it, and others probably feel it – architecture is not only about the building itself. People who are interested in architectural photography also know it very well, and feel invited to share their point of view. And the fact is, there are so many of them. Let’s take a look at an obvious example: According to, Guggenheim Museum in New York is the most photographed landmark in the world. The round-shaped spiral building, that looks nothing like the floor-wall-ceiling system we think of when imagining houses, has now become maybe even too familiar. The photographs expose it from so many angles (in and out, from above and from the ground), and as a result, people who have never visited the museum probably know what most of the building looks like. Guggenheim Museum has such strong character, and yet it almost became a neutral space, something rather ordinary. The most interesting part is that, although photography mostly tends to preserve, in this case it helped reveal the nature of a building of certain age. Even more importantly, it demonstrated a simple fact that architecture is not resistant to decay. It doesn't have to become a physical ruin for its aura to become - well - old.

architectural photography
Left: Julius Shulman - Fire Station No. 28, Lost Angeles, 1980 / Right: Iwan Baan - Urban Revitalization Superkilen by Topotek1, BIG & Superflex, 2007

The Traditional Role of Architectural Photography

Needless to say, architectural photography is more than just an offhand attempt to document a building, although the first permanent photograph was only incidentally the first architectural photograph as well (View from the Window at Le Gras by Nicephore Niepce in 1826 provided a view of buildings). By the 1860s, architectural photography became an appreciated visual medium, and by the middle of the 20th century, architects started cooperating with photographers regularly. Buildings became highly valued subjects of photography, for one reason or another. They display cultural significance, and manifest trends in societies, which is an important matter of photography and its purpose of documentation. Leaders of totalitarian regimes used architecture to demonstrate power and dominance, from Fascist architecture in Italy, to buildings in the Soviet Union. These examples are only more recent, whereas the older ones – churches, temples and castles, are even more obvious. And is there a better way to secure that these monuments remain permanent, than to take photographs of them? Architectural photographers capture time and changes. They acknowledge synthesis of the old and the new, the neoclassical and the modern, in a refined manner. Layers of trends and history are captured in photographs by Julius Shulman, and neat modernist life is celebrated in work of Ezra Stoller. Both of them are part of the rich history of art in the 20th century. Architectural photographers of today - Iwan Baan, Thomas Mayer, Joana França, Fernando Guerra, Brad Feinknopf, just to mention a few - deal with similar assignments, but their methods and approaches vary. They advocate architectural design and stage settings, but they also capture spontaneous moments that happen in and around buildings and landscapes, and unveil their true character. Iwan Baan, for example, recently explored relationships between people and architecture in Brasilia and Chandigarh, capturing events that are only that powerful in those exact surroundings of modernist utopias.

Fernando Guerra - White House by Studio MK27
Fernando Guerra - White House by Studio MK27

Techniques and "Cheats"

Architectural photographers use different techniques, and some of them are the same from the very beginning. In order to obtain controlled perspective, they used to use view cameras, positioning the focal plane of the camera so that it is perpendicular to the ground. Today, photographers mostly use digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), that provide different options when it comes to lenses, depth of field and controlling perspective. Light is a very important factor as well, as it affects the contrast, shadows and saturation of the image. Many of the effects that photographers want to create are, however, made later, during post-processing, which is a different thing now than it used to be before the emergence of computer programs. In an interview on post processing on ArchDaily, Thomas Mayer, a famous architectural photographer, says that he strives to represent genuine architectural design, and claims that even though he does use software for some minor changes, it is forbidden to influence reality by retouching a building or the permanent surroundings with help of Photoshop. On the other hand, his colleague Brad Feinknopf compares Photoshop editing to covering undesired parts by placing plants in front of them, back in the age of film photography. "What comes of a camera is NOT always real, or even accurate", he says.

architectural photography
Burnham Pavilion, Chicago - Render. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Future of Architectural Photography in the Digital Era

There is one more thing that evolved during the digital era, and its effect on architectural photography was inevitable. 3D programs for modeling and rendering are now deployed to make images that perfectly illustrate the previously mentioned debate on whether reality is unreal, or whether the simulation is too real. Almost every architectural studio makes renders to visualize their projects before they are built, so that both the investors and the public can anticipate its future appearance. These images can vary, from obvious imitations to complete illusions, and photography seems to take a strange position when confronted with these techniques. It can be either used as a complement, to work with the render and help provide illusive images that tend to simulate reality, or as a concurrent stream that carries what renders can hardly ever provide – a touch of imperfection.

Featured images: Iwan Baan - Living With Modernity : Brasilia - Chandigarh (book, 2011); Hanns Joosten - Bord Gais Dublin by Topotek 1; View from The Window at Le Gras by Nicephore Niepce, 1826.