It’s cold inside

In some of the first interior scenes in Lady Macbeth you can literally see the dust falling through the air and, so still are the interiors, that this counts as action.  Stillness, silence, boredom – the scene is being set. The house is introduced as a character, the sounds of doors and windows, footsteps on hard floors. Several times we are told how cold it gets, and conversely, how it is best to stay indoors as it is clearly even colder outside. A prison within a prison.

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Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2017)

I love films that appear naturalistic, daylit interiors especially (I was reminded of a recent film by Jessica Hausner called ‘Amour Fou’ which is worth watching for the colours and lighting alone) and the quality of light and interiors here is very reminiscent of paintings by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. That same sense of silence and the feeling of time passing very slowly if at all.

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Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner (2014)

Some of the interiors in Lady Macbeth are pure Hammershoi with the muted colours, side light and absolute stillness.  There is a view right at the end of the film as the main character walks away from us along the hallway that is like a Hammershoi picture come to life.  The photography (and presumably lighting) is by Ari Wegner and very beautiful it is too.

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Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2017)
Vilhelm Hammershoi

But the link that struck me even more than Hammershoi was with a photographer called Desiree Dolron, specifically a series of pictures she made called XTERIORS. The clarity of the lighting on faces, the coldness of daylight spilling in through windows, the darkness of the interiors was all very reminiscent of the dutch photographer.

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Lady Macbeth (larger images) / Desiree Dolron XTERIORS (smaller images)

The visual mood of XTERIORS is darker but the lighting and sense of silence and foreboding is the same – the film is cold and dark to the core.  The feeling of being trapped in a house, outside light leaking in slightly but not enough to brighten up the gloomy interiors, nothing good is going to happen here.  If there is a soundtrack to this it is creaking floorboards, another thing that Lady Macbeth does really well is sound, the sounds of the house, the outside sometimes heard in the far distance, the quiet birdsong playing over the end credits.

All this Scandi/Flemish noir is right up my street and if you like this kind of thing too then I urge you to go and see the film, but wrap up warm!

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XTERIORS, Desiree Dolron
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Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2107)

The colour of water

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“The light of Venice is as important as its space and form. The light on water casts illumination upwards and outwards…..There is a sparkling light, on winter days. But the characteristic of Venice is a pale soft light, like a drifting haze, powdered, part wave and part cloud. It is a pearly iridescent light wreathed in mist. It is drawn from the horizon as much as from the sun. It lends everything unity.”  Peter Ackroyd, Venice

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The light on the venetian lagoon is hard to describe, it has to be experienced.  During a recent visit to Venice I made regular trips on the vaporetto out to the islands of Mazzorbo, Torcello and Sant Erasmo. These islands are all a little further out in the lagoon, all places near to Venice yet far removed. Over time the lagoon became a destination in itself.

Something about the stillness of the water and the way it reflects light from its glassy surface. Something about the hazy wintery conditions that hide the horizon from view, sky and water blending together, indistinct. Something about the softness of the colours, subtle yet vividly there.

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This is light as physical substance, you don’t just see it, you feel it.  You are ‘in’ it. Endlessly changing, endlessly watchable.  The effect of the movement of the water combined with the movement of the boat has a mesmerising effect, it becomes soporific, hypnotic almost. Time moves at its own speed here, like another substance, indistinct and unimportant it passes as we move through it.  I have noticed that when out on deck looking into the lagoon people often end up with their eyes closed, maybe the effect can be better felt this way as though what the eyes transmit is too literal.

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“What in any case is the colour of water?” (Peter Ackroyd, Venice). “The colours of the sea approaching Venice have variously been described a jade green, lilac, pale blue, brown, smoky pink, lavender, violet, heliotrope, dove grey. After a storm the colour changes as the water becomes aerated. On a hot afternoon the waters may seem orange. The colours of the sky, the colours of the city, are refracted in little ovals of ochre and blue. It is all colours and no colour. It reflects, and does not own, colour. It becomes what it beholds.”

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.

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?

Every Day is a Good Day

When is the best time to take a photograph? In what light should the building be seen? Should it be seen in its ‘best light’? If so, what is this light and more pertinently, what is it best for? Best for showing off the building, or for showing off the photograph, or for showing something else?

The first image in the set below shows The Turner Contemporary Margate on a sunny day, blue sky sunlight coming from the ‘right’ direction would be a typical approach to photographing a building. But what if the weather is not like that in Margate, should the building still be photographed? Sunlight and blue sky show us one thing, one condition, other conditions will reveal other things.

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Turner Contemporary Margate, David Chipperfield Architects

What should a photograph show? What aspect of the building will it explain and how will the light help to explain it? In the below photograph we can see how the sunlight is ‘bringing out’ the colour of the cast concrete facade. But then overcast conditions will ‘bring out’ another shade, rain will soak the concrete and the appearance of the building will shift again.

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Hepworth Wakefield, David Chipperfield Architects

Grey concrete can appear blue, golden, pink or aubergine in endless variation. This can happen minute by minute changes as the below image sequence shows. So which one do we show? Which is best? Or do we need all of them to make the point that far from being harsh, dull, grey or blank a concrete building can actually respond with subtlety and a whole range of colours and effects to the ambient light conditions. What colour is this building actually?

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Shifts in colour as the sunlight hits the building

Taking this further means looking for longer; hours not minutes. How will a building’s appearance change over the course of a day? What is the day to night transition and what can this tell us about the materials, the location, the building’s function?

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Serpentine Pavilion 2014, Smiljan Radic

Of course some things only become visible at night.

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Spectra as seen from Primrose Hill, Ryoji Ikeda

Assuming that the project is there all year round would it be of interest to  photograph it all year round as well? Even the simple act of uplighting a tree will illustrate seasonal variation. Expand this across a whole area of landscaping and the effect will be fundamental to the feel of the space. Added to this is how the use of the space will change across the seasons, how many people will be using the space, how long will they stay there. The very function of a space may change depending upon the time of year.

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Pancras Square, Speirs+Major

As they will tell you in the Lake District, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. So similarly when it comes to photography, there is no such thing as bad light, just inappropriate looking. Nichi nichi kore konichi (Every day is a good day) or, all days are equal. All light conditions are equal, equal in that they are there to be seen, equal in that they can show us something, so it is not a question of how something should be seen, but of how we are looking.

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Thames Variations, Battersea

Dusk = 6:57 PM

There is a point on a clear evening with a crisp blue sky when everything seems to be in harmony. Calm and serene yet vibrant at the same time, an electric atmosphere hangs in the air for a short period, a merging of darkness and light. The lighting on the buildings is seen in balance against the remaining blue light of the sky and the city seems especially alive. This is why I enjoy dusk; photographing lighting projects is why I spend a lot of time waiting for it!

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Regent Street, Lighting by Studio-29

If I google ‘dusk’ it says 6:57 PM Friday, October 7, 2016 (BST), Dusk in London, UK.  All very precise, according to this dusk will be happening 33 minutes after sunset.  Wikipedia then tells me that Dusk is actually short for ‘Astronomical Dusk’, or the darkest part of twilight before night begins. This is part of a whole sequence of events that lead from day into night – sunset, civil twilight, civil dusk, nautical twilight, nautical dusk, astronomical twilight and then astronomical dusk all occur before ‘nightfall’.  Time measured against the course of the sun.

Minute changes in light level, angle of sun and colour of  sky are what we will see as this process unfolds, this is one of the times where we can most vividly experience the minute by minute changes occurring around us. Flux in action – visible.

The following images (Lower Regent Street, lighting by Studio-29) illustrate an exercise in recording and viewing these changes. When seen together they allow us to observe the balance shifting within the scene; the sky darkens and the emphasis drops onto illuminated windows, traffic on the street and building facade lighting. As one aspect of the city dissolves another appears.

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Sunset
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Sunset + 5mins
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Sunset + 10 mins
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Sunset + 15 mins
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Sunset + 20 mins

My rule of thumb for project photography is sunset +20 minutes, this is usually the time I can start taking the photographs.  Pre-planning will allow me to have mentally ‘set up’ a number of images and then it is a race against time to try to get them all done during dusk.

All of this will depend upon the project, the local environment, the level of artificial light, the amount of sky that is visible in the image, the weather, cloud cover and what is happening at the location.  So there are many factors that will help me to decide when I am going to take the photographs but ultimately it just feels right at the time.

gathering light – nocturne

nocturne – a gentle piece of classical music/a piece of music especially for the piano that has a soft and somewhat sad melody/a work of art dealing with evening or night.

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©James Newton Photographs

The term ‘Nocturne’ was made famous by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  The aim of his Nocturnes is to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the Thames by night. These pictures, specifically of the Thames at Battersea are “evocative of the night or subjects as they appear in a veil of light, in twilight, or in the absence of direct light”.

The word ‘nocturne’ was first suggested by Frederick Leyland, since it conveys the sense of a night scene, but also has musical associations. The expression was quickly adopted by Whistler, who later explained, “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”

gathering light – gloaming

gloaming – the part of the day after the sun has gone down and before the sky is completely dark.

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©James Newton Photographs

I first heard the phrase ‘the gloaming’ from the Radiohead song of the same name. Like the song, the word has a real sense of foreboding about it, darkness is coming.

It sounds very olde worlde and does indeed come from the middle ages. The roots of the word trace to the Old English word for twilight, “glōm,” which is akin to “glōwan,” an Old English verb meaning “to glow.” In the early 1800s, in Scotland the now-archaic verb gloam, meaning “to become twilight” or “to grow dark” was in use.

“…this is the gloaming.”