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?

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
Lower Regent Street_Sunset_+5
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.

SW11_Thames-Fog_©James Newton Photographs
©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.

267_Landscape_Summer-2230_©James Newton Photographs
©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.”

gathering light – grimlins

grimlins – the first or last gleams of daylight

267_Landscape_Summer-2215_©James Newton Photographs
©James Newton Photographs

Grimlins is a word I first came across in a book called ‘Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot. Using Orkney Islands dialect in places there is a glossary of terms and definitions to help out us foreigners.  The word grimlins is used to describe the midsummer night sky, which up there means not dark, an eerie light hanging over the landscape, I imagine it as not dissimilar to moonlight from a bright full moon but bluer, a bit spooky.  Other evocative images are conjured up by haar (a sea fog) and lum reekin (chimney smoke).

Listening to architecture

For a while I have been experimenting with sound recording as another way of documenting architecture and places.  Through a combination of starting to use video (of which sound is a key aspect) as well as listening to certain types of music/field recordings it has fast become an area of interest and one I am starting to use more and more alongside architectural photography in an attempt to convey the atmosphere of places.

Here’s what an expert has to say on the matter:

“Field recordings convey far more than basic facts.  Spectacular or not, they also transmit a powerful sense of spatiality, atmosphere and timing. These factors are key to our perception of place and movement and so add substantially to our understanding of events and issues.  They give a compelling impression of what it might actually be like to be there.  Sound is our prime sense of all-round spatiality and listening gives us a point of ear.  It enables us to judge how far we are from the events and how we might feel and react in the circumstances.”  Peter Cusak, On Listening

Images can show you what somewhere looks like, but you are removed from the action somehow, sound is more engaging so listening ‘puts you in the space’ in a way that looking does not.

I am not trying to talk myself out of a job here, after all I am a photographer, but (like video) I see this as something that can add a bit more to the way a project is presented…………anyway some sound recordings can be found here.