Take it as it comes

As described in a previous post about people in photographs (“Where is Everybody?”) I often spend time directing people or waiting for passers by to ‘be in the right place’ for a picture. Whilst there are good reasons for doing this it does beg the question ‘what is the wrong place?’.

Users of the space enliven the photograph and sometimes assist in illustrating scale and use.  By placing them carefully within the frame they become a considered part of the overall composition.   The flip side of this is that if they are not carefully placed within the frame then they will be upsetting the composition, as though people can be in the way, or somehow spoiling the picture.

Recently I have been playing with this idea and trying to just take it as it comes.  So, rather than trying to create the perfect arrangement in order to show the activity I can just show the activity.  No-one is in the wrong place, they are just in place.

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Photographing photographers

Other people want to look at and photograph the building too, are they ‘in the way?’ or do they in fact illustrate one of the building’s functions, that of ‘attraction’, or ‘destination’ for visitors to the city.  By being there myself as a photographer I have become a part of this activity, am I in the way? Am I in someone else’s photograph?

Activity as part of the scene: rather than try to capture ‘perfection’, or my idea of what the project ‘should’ look like why not capture what it happens to look like at that particular moment?   Everything can be included, everything is relevant.  Rather than wait for everything to change and fit my photograph I should ask myself ‘am I in the right place to show everything?’ Activity as part of the seen.

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Over the road

Taking it as it comes may end up revealing more about the place than a carefully set up image would.  For example, a photograph of the exterior of the Kunstmuseum Basel with a car going past obscures the view, but then the building is located next to a busy road and there is usually a car (or a tram) going past so this is a typical view from that location, cars are a part of the view. The road needs to be crossed in order to reach the Museum.

Things that could be considered mistakes may in fact result in more interesting images, more unexpected images.  The viewer may learn more about the building through less choreographed images.  (I am also hoping that the photographer may learn more about how to photograph buildings!)

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A happy co-incidence draws attention to the slogan ‘Sculpture on the move’.

In future I will try to make more mistakes, try to take it as it comes……see what happens.

Torrential Sunshine

I enjoyed a recent visit to the Portland Collection in Welbeck, Nottinghamshire (Hugh Broughton Architects) to photograph on behalf of lighting designers Speirs+Major, it is a wonderful project which received a RIBA National Award earlier this year.  I arrived in torrential rain with little hope for any exterior views at all, however, the storm blew over quickly and we had a brief moment of low bright sunshine when the light flooded into the Entrance Pavilion.

The full set of images showing the lighting design will be published soon, but in the meantime, sunlight and shadow.

Where is everybody?

Increasingly the emphasis of project photography, be it for lighting or architecture, is on people. Documenting people in the space, their activity, the visitor experience. People are the reason architecture and lighting are designed, they are both creators and end users. This means including (where possible) people in photographs and these are some of the considerations I take into account when doing this.

(a large amount of credit at this point must go to Speirs+Major for not so much suggesting as insisting that my photographs include people.)

Stansted Airport, Sat 1, Pascall+Watson

Where are they?

As soon as a person enters the frame they become a, if not the strong element within the picture.  Immediately the eye is drawn to the figure – so position them carefully within the frame and make sure that the eye is drawn to something revealing.  The Serpentine Pavilion project has many good points, but one I particularly enjoy is the level of interaction it encourages between visitor and architecture, it is very direct and playful and leaves me thinking we should interact with architecture more often.

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Serpentine Pavilion 2015, selgascano
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Serpentine Pavilion 2009, sanaa

Where should they be?

If the image is of an empty space then the sole focus is on architecture – in this instance the specific focus is a lit wall at the rear of the space.

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1 Oliver’s Yard, Selux Lighting

Once a person enters the frame there is immediately another focal point. In this example the figure brings a sense of movement to the scene as well as demonstrating the scale of the space. Perhaps more importantly they also provide a silhouette against the rear wall thereby enhancing the lit effect that is being illustrated.

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1 Oliver’s Yard, Selux Lighting

Also drawing the eye will be the brightest elements in the frame, in this instance the red lobby in the background is very strong so perhaps the person should be dressed in red to balance that out? Where exactly within the frame should they appear in order to create that balance? Maybe they should be here, or here, or here…….

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1 Oliver’s Yard, Selux Lighting

What are they doing?

As well as drawing the eye people can help to illustrate the use of space and explain what it is there for.  Whether it is an exhibition stand set up in order to demonstrate lighting equipment or a workstation in a shoe shop, by showing people carrying out specific activities it is possible to add to the amount of information provided by an image.

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Lumenpulse at LuxLive
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Joseph Cheaney, Checkland Kindleysides

How many are there?

What kind of space is it? What is its function? How many people would usually be there?  Once full of people the atmosphere of the space is completely altered.  It becomes full of life and energy, movement, interaction and of course sound – a subject I will look into more in another post.

Oxford Brookes Lecture Theatre, Speirs+Major
Oxford Brookes Lecture Theatre, Speirs+Major

Where are they going?

In the image below the suggestion of movement up the staircase serves to enhance the flowing lines and curves of the staircase design whilst at the same time providing a nice contrast with static nature of structure.  I usually like to show people moving or blurred, – not only does it show that they are alive(!), but also it slightly reduces the focus on them, you are not wondering about who they are and whether you recognise them or not, it is more generic and keeps the focus on the architecture whilst enlivening the picture.

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Miles Staircase, Somerset House, Eva Jiricna/DHA

What are the wearing?

Is this just a coincidence? I find this happens a lot, people will be dressed to match their surroundings (no, really) especially at art exhibitions, it might be just my imagination, but I like to think it is some sort of subconscious decision, we are drawn to the things we like……..

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Serpentine-Pavilion 2015, selgascano

Don’t look at the camera!

You have seen them, but have they seen you? Most people will ignore the camera, some will get out of the way and avoid being photographed, abut then there are always those that want to get involved…………….OK move along now please.

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Passers by posing for their photo to be taken

Appropriate light – Serpentine Pavilion

Sometimes it is good to try something different.  This post focuses on the Serpentine Pavilion from 2015 by Selgascano where I got to try out some ideas and approaches to architectural photography that I hoped would show the key aspects of the project from a different perspective.

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structure, light, transparency, shadows, lightness, form, sensitivity, change, surprise, colour & materials

I liked this Serpentine Pavilion, I thought it was in the spirit of the project (it is after all a temporary structure). It was playful, experimental, immersive & joyful; it was also full of colour.  It is so nice to see some colour in architecture (all too rare in London) and some materials that reacted to the sun and brought the sunlight inside – making it a part of the building. The heat came in too, wow it was hot in there, but from what I saw people really interacted with and enjoyed the building.  Kids absolutely loved it, literally jumping for joy when they went in and it is rare for architecture to cause this reaction. It was a reaction caused largely by the use of colour and light.

The architect described the pavilion as follows – “We sought a way to allow the public to experience architecture through simple elements: structure, light, transparency, shadows, lightness, form, sensitivity, change, surprise, colour and materials. We have therefore designed a Pavilion which incorporates all of these elements.”

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coloured light and shadow cast onto floor surface

Sunlight passing through coloured dichroic film is projected onto the white floor – the movements of the sun are tracked across the pavilion floor during day creating layers of shadows, colour, material and light – an immersive experience.

Large areas of the pavilion’s skin were made out of coloured dichroic film. As well as allowing coloured light to come in this material could be looked through, creating coloured views of the interior space.

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translucent dichroic ‘skin’

Selgascano work using simple everyday materials (as found) often in an experimental fashion, here a combination of dichroic film, coloured ribbons and ETFE are stretched across a steel structure to create a series of interconnected organic ‘pods’.

In experiential terms the architects explain“The spatial qualities of the Pavilion only unfold when accessing the structure and being immersed within it.”  So the next step was to take a similar approach to the photographs as well. By trying to be playful, experimental, immersive and joyful, I have also tried to create the feeling of “being immersed within” the pavilion.

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views through the ‘skin’ of the pavilion

As well as using views directly through the pavilion’s various skins I also made a series of views through filters that I constructed out of the same dichroic film that was used to cover the structure. By using a combination of filtration and reflection in front of the camera I was able to play with the ideas of layering and immersion within the photographic process.

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photographs made through dichroic coloured filters

As the Serpentine says: The architects’ inspiration not only came from the site itself, but from the ways in which people move through London, notably the Underground with its many-layered, chaotic yet structured flow. By using reflections and views through materials I played with these ideas of layering and flow. There is also a short video that plays with this idea further.

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layers and reflections

I wanted to respond directly to the project in a way that I felt was in keeping with its spirit.  The images may or may not be judged ‘successful’ in terms of illustrating the concept, but the point was to be experimental and not be so concerned with the outcome. Afterall, what other project is going to allow me to do this?

gathering light – stygian

stygian – dark, gloomy, infernal or hellish

venice_castello_©James Newton Photographs
©James Newton Photographs

We are probably all familiar with the term ‘stygian gloom’ to describe a certain type of darkness. Thick and all consuming, only traces and outlines are visible within. Stygian is of or relating to the river Styx (In Greek mythology, Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld or Hades).

C16: from Latin Stygius, from Greek Stugios, from Stux Styx ; related to stugein to hate.

No drama

All too often photographs of architecture intend to make you say ‘wow! look at that’.  They grab your attention, attempting to pull you away from the flow of imagery to which we are now exposed and into a website or magazine article.  ‘Wow’, we say – then move on to the next one,  ‘wow! look at that’ – next, ‘wow! look at that’ – next, and so on. But what if there is no ‘wow’ factor? what are we left with.

Well, ‘look at that’ to be literal about it. The difference being that rather than demanding your attention a picture can simply offer itself up to be looked at, perhaps more slowly, perhaps for longer.

Sometimes a project has no drama. This doesn’t mean that the project is no good or lacking in some way, rather it is quieter, with a quality of stillness.  Perhaps it has more to do with architecture as background condition, a space to be lived in rather than shown off, to be experienced and not just seen.

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Old Paint Factory, Wandsworth

I have recently been fortunate enough to photograph two projects for Robin Lee Architecture71 Queensway and the Old Paint Factory – and it struck me that this was just such work.  In each case a former industrial building has been refurbished as living space, in each case the starting point was a fairly ordinary structure and the end result is unspectacular. Again, I do not mean this in a negative way, how many of us live in a ‘spectacular’ house, or indeed want to. Spectacular view or location maybe, but house? Give me quiet simplicity any day.

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Old Paint Factory, Wandsworth

Whilst some of the materials used may be luxurious, they blend in with the whole. Where original features are left exposed, even raw in places, they speak of what remains of the original rather than leaping out as a feature of urban chic.  This is simply the way it is, this is the way the place is made. Colours are muted and subtle, elements provide function rather than feature and the overall effect is one of calm which provides a welcome contrast to the city outside the doors.

As Mary Duggan writes in an article about 71 Queensway in AJ ‘This project is about creating a specific atmosphere rather than a specific appearance’.

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71 Queensway

I think I am drawn to these projects because it fits with the way in which I like to photograph architecture (and places in general). Where possible I aim to just show what is there and try not to create drama within the pictures. Quiet pictures for quiet architecture.

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Old Paint Factory, Wandsworth

Many factors contribute to the experience of architecture, all senses are active. A photograph, on the other hand, will only ever be a visual representation, an appearance. But a photograph can suggest as well as show. Composition and activity within the image can provide clues as to what it might sound like within a space. Light conditions can be used to create a specific atmosphere. Focus on materials and the way that they respond to light will offer information as to the texture and feel of the surfaces, what temperature they might be if you touched them, whether they are hard of soft. This in turn will provide further information about what the space sounds like and so on.

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71 Queensway

In the end the pictures are not so different. But there can be a subtle shift in focus away from the surface of the photograph towards the quality of the space depicted. A shift away from a purely visual response toward a more imaginative one.  Wow factor can grab your attention, but can it show you what a place is like? Can you see beyond the photograph?

in context

The location of a building is one of the factors that will have the greatest impact upon its design. The existing conditions, local history, culture and climate will all impact by providing cues and boundaries in the design process thereby playing a large part in decisions on orientation, scale, form and materials.  Once complete the building then has an impact of its own upon the surroundings as part of an ongoing relationship.  Is it complimentary or intrusive, sympathetic with or in contrast to its neighbours, has it improved the situation?

How photographs can show this relationship is something I have been thinking about recently and I have a dedicated section on my website to showing buildings in context. Within these images several key themes emerge which can be considered when photographing architecture.

1 – Activity

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Jerked Gallery Hastings, HAT Projects
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‘The Stade’, Hastings
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View of gallery from ‘The Stade’

The Jerwood Gallery Hastings is a lovely building for many reasons, but I think a major factor is how sympathetic it is with its surroundings. Its location is an area called ‘The Stade’ which is a launch/landing area for fishing boats, simple huts and ‘Net Shops’ (tall black wooden sheds) are the local vernacular and illustrate how to make best use of limited space. In terms of ‘use’ this is a building that is out of place, an art gallery amongst fishing huts (congratulations to HAT Projects for taking this on let alone succeeding!) So the fact that the building sits quietly amongst its humble neighbours shows sensitivity to activity – fishing – an activity that has been taking place on the site for hundreds of years. The new building honours and respects this through its scale, form and materials (the black ceramic tiles are especially good) and the best ‘views’ are those looking out from the galleries towards the surroundings, not those looking back towards the building.

 2 – Viewpoint (taking a step back)

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Swindon Triangle, Glenn Howells Architects

Swindon Triangle is described by architects Glenn Howells as ‘a contemporary and sustainable re-interpretation of Swindon’s 19th century railway town vernacular’. There is a wonderful ordinariness to it, simple well designed housing for people to live in. The site is set up to encourage a sense of community amongst the residents, but it is the views from outside that show the integration with the existing houses in terms of scale, roof form and particularly colour. Ordinary housing requires ordinary everyday viewpoints.  At first glance these might suggest that the project is not shown clearly, but actually they can clearly show a fundamental design element.

 3 – Proportion (less is more)

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Signal Boxes, Basel, Herzog & De Meuron

How much (or how little) of a building needs to be in the photograph? In the case of ‘Signal Box’ in Basel by Herzog & de Meuron I had a go at ‘how little’. By focusing on the surroundings as much as/more than the building itself it is possible to illustrate what the building is for (operating train signals), why the building looks like it does (functional/industrial location), form and material choices (taking cues from the railway lines) and scale (elevated viewpoint across lines).  Another signal box (no.4) is also visible in the distance showing that this is not a stand alone building, but one of two or one of many. Indeed the architect explains that ‘now completed, Signal Box 4 has been so well optimized that it has become a prototype that can be erected, like a standardized structure, in all the urban regions of Switzerland. The use of such a similar structure throughout Switzerland would dovetail with a vision of the country as one single urban landscape.’ So showing less of the building can indeed show more (about it).

 4 – Light

How can light show context? I often consider light, or the question ‘what is appropriate light’ for photographing a project (which is another post in itself) and the following images make this point very simply.  They include one project that compliments its surroundings and one that stands out by contrast.

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(left) Hepworth Wakefield, David Chipperfield Architects (right) Central St Giles, RPBW

Hepworth Wakefield by David Chipperfield Architects is located in an industrial waterfront area and references surrounding warehouse style concrete buildings. Flat uniform light shows subject and surroundings in the same light and helps to show both together rather than separately. I deliberately chose to visit on an overcast day both to illustrate this point and the fact that being in Wakefield in the North of England this weather would be a more typical example of place.

Central St Giles in London by Renzo Piano Building Workshop on the other hand stands out from its surroundings by using a vibrant series of colours on the facades, not very London I’m sure you will agree! Although the architect’s website states that this ‘fits well with its urban context’ by responding to its surroundings it seems to me to ‘contrast well with its urban context’, a point that was emphasised by dramatic sunlight in the above image. By waiting for just the right moment when sunlight was falling on the orange facade and not on the foreground or adjacent buildings it was possible to show how much of a shock (be it good or bad) the use of colour in central London architecture can bring.

A building does not exist without its surroundings, so can a set of project photographs be a fair representation without showing them?  My aim is to respond to the external factors that impact upon the building so rather than look outstanding they can appear in context.