True or False: Has Ar­chi­tec­tural Pho­tog­ra­phy Be­come Fake News?

Azure - - CONTENTS - by Ni­cholas Hune-brown



One day in the fall of 2015, ar­chi­tec­ture critic Blair Kamin was re­view­ing the Chicago chap­ter of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects’ an­nual awards when he stopped short. That year, the jury had awarded hon­ours to di­verse projects from across the world – a soar­ing of­fice tower in Shen­zhen and a cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Mu­nich; a nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum in Shang­hai and a high-con­cept of­fice called Space­craft in Spain. As Kamin scrolled through the names, how­ever, it was a lo­cal build­ing that caught his eye. Built along the Kennedy Ex­press­way in Chicago, El Cen­tro is a satel­lite of North­east­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity. It’s a strik­ing struc­ture that the jury had praised for its “sculp­tural form and vi­brant fa­cade” and was a build­ing Kamin knew well. He had re­viewed it pos­i­tively a year ear­lier, not­ing its “ex­u­ber­ant shape and bright colours.” But it was also a build­ing that he be­lieved had a ma­jor flaw: the row of enor­mous air-han­dling units that had been plunked on the roof, seem­ingly un­ac­counted for by the ar­chi­tect. The critic was cu­ri­ous: How had an awards pro­gram over­looked the un­sightly units? When he looked at the pho­tos that had been sub­mit­ted, he quickly found the an­swer. In the im­ages, the gi­ant grey boxes had been com­pletely re­moved. With an as­sist from Pho­to­shop, the view of El Cen­tro’s pro­file from the high­way was now as ra­zor-sharp as it would have been in the ar­chi­tect’s mind – an ide­al­ized vi­sion of a build­ing pre­sented to jury mem­bers who would never ac­tu­ally visit the site. Kamin is a Pulitzer Prize–win­ning critic. He’s spent decades look­ing at pho­tos of build­ings – first as black-and-white glossies that would ar­rive by mail, now as dig­i­tal im­ages that ap­pear in his Drop­box. He knows that the im­ages he sees have been cleaned up to present a build­ing at its best, re­mov­ing an un­sightly elec­tri­cal wire or street sign. But the El Cen­tro changes seemed to go a step too far. “There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween edit­ing the sur­round­ings and edit­ing the build­ing it­self,” says Kamin. “Once you start edit­ing the build­ing you’ve re­ally crossed the line into a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity.” Kamin’s Chicago Tri­bune col­umn, “Doc­tored Photo Raises Ques­tions about Ethics in Ar­chi­tec­ture Con­tests,” im­me­di­ately caused a stir. “Oh my god, peo­ple were thrilled,” he says. “Ar­chi­tects were thrilled. Be­cause some­one had fi­nally called out an ar­chi­tect and a pho­tog­ra­pher for this process of fak­ing it.” But while some in the in­dus­try may have been de­lighted, the El Cen­tro im­ages were hardly rogue out­liers in the world of ar­chi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­phy. They were sim­ply the shots that caught one critic’s eye. Com­mer­cial ar­chi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­phy has al­ways been about pre­sent­ing an ide­al­ized ver­sion of a build­ing; photo-edit­ing soft­ware has merely ex­panded the hori­zons of what is pos­si­ble. And in an in­dus­try in which ev­ery­one – from ar­chi­tects to pho­tog­ra­phers to click-hun­gry blogs to mag­a­zines like this one – has an in­ter­est in pro­duc­ing the “wow” im­age, the line be­tween touch­ing some­thing up and al­ter­ing it en­tirely has be­come murky. The El Cen­tro con­tro­versy comes at a mo­ment in which the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pho­tog­ra­phy and ar­chi­tec­ture has be­come more com­pli­cated than ever. Each day, on blogs and on In­sta­gram, the pub­lic is treated to an end­less pa­rade of per­fect im­ages – re­mote houses glow­ing at dusk, de­serted mu­se­ums loom­ing at im­pos­si­ble an­gles. In an age in which more peo­ple will see the ide­al­ized pho­to­graph of a project than will ever visit the phys­i­cal build­ing, this steady stream of pic­tures threat­ens to in­vert the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and pho­tog­ra­phy. “We are liv­ing in a dig­i­tal age, and ar­chi­tec­ture it­self has be­come a vir­tual com­mod­ity,” says the cu­ra­tor and ar­chi­tec­ture writer Elias Red­stone, whose book on the topic, Shoot­ing Space: Ar­chi­tec­ture in Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy, was pub­lished by Phaidon in 2014. If the world is con­sum­ing ar­chi­tec­ture through a se­ries of in­creas­ingly un­be­liev­able on­line im­ages, why build any­thing at all? Pho­tog­ra­phy and ar­chi­tec­ture have al­ways had an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship. With their pa­tient so­lid­ity, build­ings were the ideal sub­jects for the long ex­po­sure times of early cam­eras. And while painters and other artists had con­flicted feel­ings about al­low­ing the cam­era to re­pro­duce their work, ar­chi­tects largely em­braced the pho­to­graph, quick to see the ad­van­tages of a medium that could trans­late their three-di­men­sional cre­ations into easy-to-di­gest forms and dis­sem­i­nate them across the world. Af­ter the Se­cond World War, com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers like Julius Shul­man and Ezra Stoller not only cap­tured the great ar­chi­tects of their time, but helped cre­ate an ide­al­ized vi­sion of mid-cen­tury mod­ernism it­self. To “Stol­ler­ize” a build­ing was to turn an ag­glom­er­a­tion of glass and steel into some­thing in­tensely de­sir­able. With his beau­ti­fully lit, care­fully com­posed shots of mod­ern Cal­i­for­nia life, Shul­man was as much mar­keter as doc­u­men­tar­ian. “I sell ar­chi­tec­ture bet­ter and more di­rectly and more vividly than the ar­chi­tect does,” he once said. For Ema Pe­ter, a Van­cou­ver pho­tog­ra­pher whose work has been pub­lished in Azure mu­ti­ple times, as well as in The New York Times, the aim isn’t to sell ar­chi­tec­ture so much as to present it in its purest form. Pe­ter her­self is an ad­vo­cate and an in­ter­preter, some­one who is a pas­sion­ate and fiercely pro­tec­tive guardian of the ar­chi­tect’s vi­sion. “I will Pho­to­shop so much out of a build­ing un­til the vi­sion is there,” she says. Re­cently, she shot a build­ing with a prom­i­nent metal over­hang that was sup­posed to fea­ture a se­ries of par­al­lel lines. The builders, how­ever, had done a shoddy job. “There wasn’t a straight line,” says Pe­ter. “So we straight­ened them.” A cor­ner that’s fin­ished badly, an un­for­tu­nate door, un­wanted air vents – all can be re­moved with a few clicks. “If the builders screwed up or the bud­get got cut when you’ve done this spec­tac­u­lar vi­sion of a build­ing, why should you be pun­ished?” asks Pe­ter. “Why can’t you just Pho­to­shop what­ever you want to make the build­ing look like what­ever your vi­sion was?” Pe­ter knows her stance is con­tro­ver­sial. “Peo­ple be­lieve that there should be al­most no post-pro­duc­tion, and the build­ings should be dis­played the way they are,” she says. “But I stand my ground with this.” Pe­ter is a true be­liever, some­one who sees in mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture “a glimpse of what the fu­ture looks like.” For her, a pho­to­graph is not doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence of a build­ing’s re­al­ity, but a way to pro­tect an ar­chi­tect’s vi­sion against the rav­ages of sub­par con­trac­tors and cheap clients.

While Pe­ter is un­apolo­getic about her be­liefs, other pho­tog­ra­phers are more cir­cum­spect. Nic Le­houx is a veteran who be­gan his ca­reer shoot­ing 4 x 5 film, care­fully set­ting up each shot with the knowl­edge that ev­ery click of the shut­ter cost $10. “You’ve opened up a Pan­dora’s box when you can take an in­fi­nite num­ber of im­ages,” says Le­houx. “You can go in and tweak the colour. You can mod­er­ate that some­what. Speak­ing for my­self, I don’t do that. I’m very much an in-cam­era guy.” But Le­houx has no com­punc­tion when it comes to re­mov­ing un­sightly exit signs and sock­ets. “I don’t con­sider re­mov­ing switches and fire alarms cheat­ing,” he says. “The ar­chi­tects don’t have con­trol over the necessities of sig­nage. In a sense they’re the vic­tims of what­ever the code has to be.” The ar­chi­tects who com­mis­sion these pho­tographs also have con­flicted feel­ings about post-pro­duc­tion. Chi­nese ar­chi­tect Ma Yan­song says that when he com­mis­sions a pho­to­graph, he wants the artist to of­fer his or her own in­ter­pre­ta­tion. “Strong ar­chi­tec­ture doesn’t re­quire a lot of edit­ing. The build­ing and space should speak for it­self,” he says. At the same time, he wants pho­tos to show a build­ing at its best. “I un­der­stand the need to shoot the beau­ti­ful side of a build­ing,” says Ma. “It’s like when you sum­ma­rize a good novel or movie – you want to talk about the tech­ni­cal ef­fects, the pos­i­tive as­pects and what makes it great.” For Omar Gandhi, the ques­tion of how far to take post-pro­duc­tion work is one that gnaws at him. “It re­ally is some­thing I think about,” says Gandhi. “And it’s some­thing I some­times feel a lit­tle sad about.” The 38-year-old ar­chi­tect has had re­mark­able suc­cess in his short ca­reer, with im­ages of pri­vate homes he has built in ru­ral Nova Sco­tia fea­tured in mag­a­zines and on­line. For Gandhi, the most ex­cit­ing shots are the ones that high­light a par­tic­u­lar mood or tell a story, po­si­tion­ing his build­ings in the midst of a wild, of­ten harsh land­scape. As in the world of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy, how­ever, the sim­ple truth is that the pub­lic has be­come ac­cus­tomed to a cer­tain per­fec­tion in im­ages. If ev­ery other photo of a build­ing is pris­tine and per­fect, it’s dif­fi­cult to be the one per­son of­fer­ing a crooked line and an un­sightly exit sign. And, for Gandhi, the right pho­to­graph can bring his work to an au­di­ence that will never visit the foggy wilds of the Mar­itimes. “We’re fairly dis­ci­plined about it and try to show some of those im­per­fec­tions,” notes Gandhi. “But the truth is there could prob­a­bly be more im­per­fec­tions, and that would be a more hon­est rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” Gandhi wor­ries that the per­fect pho­tos he sees on­line aren’t just uneth­i­cal but give the pub­lic an un­re­al­is­tic vi­sion of what ar­chi­tec­ture is. “It’s a bit dan­ger­ous,” he says. “It’s such a dif­fer­ent thing than ar­chi­tec­ture. I just hope peo­ple don’t lose that love for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing build­ings.” A few years ago, Elias Red­stone be­came frus­trated with the im­ages he was see­ing on­line of build­ings. “It was a mo­ment when we were be­ing over­whelmed with im­agery, and all these blogs had started up, and the in­ter­net had taken over,” the cu­ra­tor re­mem­bers. “The pho­tographs we were be­ing bom­barded with on a daily ba­sis were in­creas­ingly generic and an­o­dyne and kind of empty.” The im­ages Red­stone was see­ing weren’t just bor­ing; they seemed to rep­re­sent an ex­is­ten­tial threat to ar­chi­tec­ture. As ren­der­ings be­came more pho­to­re­al­is­tic, and pho­tographs be­came more like ren­der­ings, space for en­gag­ing with the build­ing it­self seemed to shrink. To­day, Red­stone says, he’s see­ing im­prove­ment. “Ar­chi­tects are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that the generic blue sky doesn’t make their work stand out; it ac­tu­ally makes their work dis­ap­pear in the con­stant stream of im­agery,” he says. Red­stone is see­ing more peo­ple in pho­tographs. The magic-hour shot has be­come a cliché. In-de­mand pho­tog­ra­phers like Iwan Baan and Hufton + Crow have put build­ings in their so­cial con­text, cap­tur­ing a Chi­nese worker toil­ing be­fore the shin­ing Shen­zhen stock ex­change or a fish­er­man cast­ing his rod while Ma’s fu­tur­is­tic Chaoyang Park Plaza in Bei­jing looms in the dis­tance. Blair Kamin agrees: “It’s much more jour­nal­is­tic in spirit… We’re not just see­ing build­ings from the ar­chi­tect’s per­spec­tive, as their Pla­tonic ideal, but in a way that ap­prox­i­mates re­al­ity.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that pho­tographs are nec­es­sar­ily more “truth­ful” – just that the pub­lic has come to value a slightly more im­per­fect aes­thetic. The fact is that for as long as pho­tographs are the pri­mary way we in­ter­act with ar­chi­tec­ture, there will be a dis­junc­ture be­tween the im­age on our screen and the build­ing on the ground. For Daniel Libe­skind, the dig­i­tal age has only ac­cen­tu­ated this in­her­ent ten­sion. When the New York ar­chi­tect looks at pho­tos of his own work, he al­most al­ways hates them. “I just don’t trust any pho­to­graph,” he says. “Of­ten peo­ple form a sense of the ar­chi­tec­ture from a pho­to­graph. Then you go around it and say, that’s to­tally dif­fer­ent. It’s fraud­u­lent. The pho­to­graph was just a fake im­age, just one point of view. It’s an ide­ol­ogy that’s be­ing pre­sented, not the ac­tual build­ing.” What Libe­skind is talk­ing about isn’t the fak­ery of Pho­to­shop, but the false­ness in­her­ent to pho­tog­ra­phy it­self, a medium that can take a space and turn it into a two-di­men­sional icon. “Pho­tog­ra­phy has helped ar­chi­tec­ture in the sense that it has made build­ings look bet­ter than they re­ally are,” says Libe­skind. But while a strik­ing im­age may be a bril­liant way to mar­ket a project, it also fun­da­men­tally can­not cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence of ac­tu­ally vis­it­ing a build­ing. When Libe­skind thinks about his ar­chi­tec­tural ideals, he thinks about how it feels to walk into a Gothic cathe­dral. To en­ter through the stone por­tal and feel the way the vaulted ceil­ing opens up, pointed arches soar­ing to­ward heaven, is to ex­pe­ri­ence the very essence of ar­chi­tec­ture. And this ex­pe­ri­ence is ut­terly un-pho­tograph­able. No num­ber of dra­mat­i­cally lit shots can re­pro­duce the struc­ture’s aura, the feel­ing of hav­ing the build­ing un­fold be­fore you as your steps echo across stones laid 800 years ago. The point of ar­chi­tec­ture, for Libe­skind, is to cre­ate some­thing that es­capes pho­tog­ra­phy. The most an im­age can do is try to cap­ture a sliver of that feel­ing.

One of Hufton + Crow’s shots of the Chaoyang Park Plaza. When com­mis­sion­ing, ar­chi­tect Ma Yan­song says he wants pho­tog­ra­phers to of­fer their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a project. “Strong ar­chi­tec­ture doesn’t re­quire a lot of edit­ing. The build­ing and space should speak for it­self.”

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