Archive | Doug’s Observations

One Bunker Hill

I confess to a love of historical photographs.  It can be argued, and has been, that all photographs are historical since they record places and events that occurred at a specific time that has already passed at the moment the shutter closes.  But I’m thinking here of those images that bear a monumentality that transcends most mere records of places and events.  I came across the above photograph by Los Angeles photographer Dick Whittington of what was at the time known as the Southern California Edison Building (designed by Allison & Allison architects) but has since been renamed One Bunker Hill.  Through our workshops I have gotten to know this building better than when it had been one of many passed on the way to other places and I am immediately struck by how different it is now.  Alterations have been made to the building since it was erected in 1932, most notably the enclosure of the fourth floor balconies, however, the much more significant changes have been to the surrounding area.  As seen here the Cal Edison Headquarters, sitting on a slope of downtown Los Angeles’ prominent Bunker Hill, clearly towered over its neighbors.  But it has outlived all of the buildings visible behind it in this view.  Also gone now is a street parallel to Fifth Street that once rose westward directly in front of it.  Today the 12-story structure is virtually surrounded by much taller buildings, including the thousand-plus foot tall Library Tower to the west and the Gas Company Tower across Grand Avenue to the east.  No longer there either are the trees in the foreground, their having been removed to make way for the expansion of the Central Library following two disastrous arson fires that were set in 1986.  It may no longer dominate the landscape as it once did, but One Bunker Hill has retained all its quiet grace.

Annie Chu – MOMA Linked Hybrid, Beijing

Annie Chu’s image taken in the middle of the MOMA Linked Hybrid in Beijing, designed by Steven Holl Architects, may not be among the most technically accomplished of architectural photographs, but it does reflect a highly refined sensitivity to the urban landscape and great enthusiasm for the architecture. It’s difficult to tell whether it had been taken with a sophisticated DSLR or a smartphone, and frankly it doesn’t matter. While there’s an orderliness to the image’s elements, no attempt has been made to correct perspective or line up the edges of the buildings with the edges of the frame.

What does matter, however, is what the photograph is about and the way in which that’s conveyed. By including only a portion of the foreground structure, an observation deck, it becomes a giant, orange-lined P dissecting the frame in an interesting, dynamic way. The two people traversing a walkway between bodies, one in a wheelchair, give us a sense of scale, while informing us that the project is accessible. Behind the observation deck is one of the project’s towers, flanked by two thematically united buildings of a neighboring project. Most important, for me, is the sense of the photographer’s joy at having come across such a view, while maintaining the presence of mind required to capture it on camera.

Annie Chu is an accomplished avant garde architect and a principal with the Los Angeles firm, Chu+Gooding Architects

The Human Presence in Architectural Photographs

Pyramids of El-Geezeh, 1858 by Francis Frith

Long before the advent of photography artists included human figures in architectural renderings to give the viewer, in part, a sense of their subject’s scale.  When Roger Fenton, Francis Frith and other early photographers began traveling the world beyond western Europe in search of exotic imagery, they would often include people.  How else could Frith have conveyed the size of the Pyramids without including recognizable figures in the frame with them.  Remove the people and those ancient structures could just as easily be perceived to be a few inches tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza’s actual 455 feet in height.  On the hill in the foreground, the two reclining figures, closest to the camera, are already some distance away, with the seated man by his horse a considerable distance further and none of them anywhere near the pyramids.  In the vast space between these figures and the structures is a fourth figure leading a camel, still nowhere near them.  The result of this contextualization is no mistaking the magnitude of these buildings.

Pierre Koenig's Case Study House Number 22, 1960 by Julius Shulman


A century later Julius Shulman would employ models to create a much different result in his Case Study House No. 22 by architect Pierre Koenig.  Not content to accentuate the illusion that the house was cantilevered out over the city of Los Angeles by shooting it at night, he perched a pair of young women at the far edge of the living room, their dresses spread out like parachutes around them.  It would have been impressive to show the building without inhabitants, which Shulman dutifully did as well, even in color, but the presence of the women allows the viewer to experience the sensation of floating in the night sky vicariously.  And isn’t this the essence of architectural photography: to convey a sense of what it’s like to experience a building firsthand.

Both these photographers understood that there were advantages to placing people in their images, while maintaining the viewer’s attention where they wanted it, on the architecture.  It’s a balancing act, though.  Bring a person too much to the fore and the architecture becomes just so much background.





Wall Street, 1915 by Paul Strand


Another case to consider is that of Paul Strand’s image of Wall Street made in 1915.  In this instance Strand had no interest in documenting architecture per se, but rather was concerned purely with the creative possibilities the scene presented.  Shadows supplied by the low winter sun not only produce long, dramatic shadows from the pedestrians walking by, but also obliterate any details in the building’s setbacks, making it impossible to determine whether they house windows and if so, are they one, two, or three stories tall.  The end result is one of confusion: are these people tiny or are the unseen windows gargantuan?  Looking at the Morgan Guaranty Company Building in other photographs it’s clear that the black rectangles contain the windows of two stories, but this knowledge somehow doesn’t eliminate the illusion created by the Strand image.


Disassembling the Architectural Photograph

Hazelwood School, Glasgow - Alan Dunlop Architect Limited

When I was a kid I became interested in architecture primarily by looking at books and magazines, and when I contemplated specializing in architectural photographer poring over shelter publications became part of my educational routine.  Part of every day would be devoted to studying photographs of buildings, sometimes for hours at a time.  This was no onerous chore for me, I loved looking at the buildings inside and out, however, I also made a point of examining how the photographs were made.  What time of day had an image been taken?  How much of the extraneous landscape had been included as either foreground or background?  How did the light hit the building’s façade and from what angle?  How much foreground was included, how much sky?  Were there people or cars included in the frame, and what impact did they have on one’s perception of the structure?  Does it make sense to cut off part of a building with the picture frame, and if so, where?  The list continues.  Without realizing it at first I was learning from the best how to do it, while also figuring out what worked for me and what didn’t.  It was of course more difficult to implement what I was learning, but the more I looked at great work the better my own became.

Looking at printed images and online is still part of my regimen.  I pull pictures apart like the contents of a watch to see how they work.  I’m often struck by how one of my colleagues has chosen to present a building and see opportunities to alter my own way of capturing structures.  One of the sources of architectural imagery that I subscribe to is Architizer, an online presentation of new and innovative architecture from around the world.  Poring over new images each week or so is as exciting to me now as it was when I was twelve.  And my photography continues to improve.

Unfortunately, I don’t know who the photographer of the image above was and I was unaware of the architect until today.

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Shooting Models at Bestor Architecture

A couple of weeks ago the master class was fortunate enough to be granted access to Bestor Architecture, the studio of Barbara Bestor in Silver Lake. Formerly a hair salon, the triangular building’s exterior features an ever-changing array of colorful super graphics, but the interior is mostly devoted to the artifacts of architectural creation: computers; plans; product samples and scale models. There’s also a terrific view of Fountain Avenue and the Franklin Hills across the street.

We had very kindly been given free reign to photograph any of the models in the studio, which ranged from tiny topos to medium-size renderings in balsa wood, cardboard and Foamcore. Students chose models they wanted to work with and we turned the office into a makeshift photo studio, something I have done a lot of over the years.  For the background, we rolled out a medium gray seamless onto a conference table and placed the models on it. The only lighting was a pair of strobes, one mounted with a 10° grid for our sun and the other with a 2’x3′ soft box to fill in shadows.

photo: Erika Bierman

photo: Erika Bierman

The ratio between these two was constantly altered depending on the desired effects, as were the lights’ angles.  An intense sun with low fill would give the image drama, while balancing the two would show more detail.

Although one has the freedom to shoot from angles never, or rarely seen in real space, the big advantage in working with scale models is the opportunity to preview what the finished building will look like to people on the ground.

photo: Sara Jane Boyers

Therefore, the camera was generally kept low, emulating human eye level. As sometimes happens, a few of the resulting images rose above the level of scale model documentation and approached that of art. In each case a collaborative effort between architects and photographers.

photo: Erika Bierman

Sometimes a Bit More Is More

As we were wrapping up our field trip session in this fantastic house in Bel Air, I decided to take a quick shot of the entry I’d been eye from the time we arrived.  The best exposure just happened to include Martin descending the staircase (fortunately clothed).  While I still like this angle I was also struck as we were all heading out the door to go home by the alternate below.

The first attempt was OK, but lacked life.  We hadn’t packed all the gear yet so Martin set up a single strobe in a light box to the right of the camera, kept low to the ground (3-4 feet).  Oops!  Good idea, but the output of the strobe was more than a stop too hot.

For the last image, above, the strobe’s output was lowered, giving the scene, and in particular the stairs, just enough light to animate them, make them look more 3-dimensional.  The frame was rotated 1 degree and some contrast added to give the image snap.

We would all like to thank Rob Levine and Larry Ginsberg for so graciously inviting the master class to photograph their beautiful home.

Conceptual Movie Theaters of Hiroshi Sugimoto

Concept: Photograph vintage movie theaters using the light reflected from the screen during a film’s full duration as the primary illumination.

In the late ’70s, New York-based Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto traveled around the US with the idea of photographing old movie palaces in a particularly rigorous fashion. He would set up his view camera to face the screen from dead center of each theater, sometimes from the main floor and sometimes from the balcony, wait for the house lights to be turned off and the current feature to begin, then open the shutter until the film’s end credits began to roll.

The cumulative effect of all those projected frames of light (a two-hour film is comprised of 172,800 images) is complete whiteness on the screen and sensationally theatrical illumination of the surrounding space. The result is somehow familiar without being a condition we can ever actually experience in real time.

One of the additional effects of seeing still image after still image of these spaces when photographed in such a precise manner is an appreciation for the wide variety of theater architecture, unique to the genre, that existed at the time.

In the Blink of Robert Frank’s Eye

photo: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"

With the publication in 1959 of his book, “The Americans” Robert Frank altered what would become acceptable to look at in a photograph. Gone was a reliance on time-honored formal composition. Adherence to conventions such as “the rule of thirds,” perspective correction, sumptuous lighting or a clearly delineated subject were discarded in favor of something more immediate. In their place was an imagery that wholeheartedly mimicked the photographer’s quickly darting vision, scenes identified in the blink of his eye. Often seemingly unbalanced and unsettling to the viewer, Frank’s pictures were largely dismissed by critics of the time as little more than snapshots, as if that alone were somehow condemnation enough, and by the public as ugly and unaesthetic. And yet, more than 50 years later the work is revered for helping revolutionize the way we see, both with and without cameras.

So what’s at work here that separated Frank’s imagery from that of those who preceded him? Not all that much, really. I know, easy to say with so much hindsight, but aside from the subject matter of most of the pictures (such as the baby on the floor overseen by a giant jukebox in the interior of a cafe in South Carolina, above) that comprise “The Americans” Frank was doing what all photographers before him and since have done, they “see” and then “photograph.” The primary differences between Frank and most of his forebears is the time between the “seeing” and subsequent “photographing” and that which he chose to include in or exclude from the frame.  Little time was available to compose his shots, the work is more the result of anticipating what might happen next and being in a good position to record it.

As architectural photographers we learn to make mental note of our “blinks” and replicate them with critical deliberation, while trying not to lose sight of the immediate circumstances that drew our attention in the first place.  The trick is in not allowing the life to drain out of our images in the process.

Expanding the Range of Tones with HDR

This past Saturday at the Bradbury Building we discussed some of the ways in which a greater range of tones could be achieved in both the shadows and highlights within an image with a high level of contrast. While lowering the contrast in Photoshop with Brightness/Contrast will bring this range down the results are usually washed out. Making adjustments with the Shadows/Highlights feature (Image > Adjustments) will raise the level of detail in shadows and highlights, but has limitations as to how far this can be stretched. But by taking multiple exposures at varying levels, such as 0, -2/3, -4/3, +2/3, +4/3 for instance, and combining them later on using an HDR (High Dynamic Range) application that range of tones can be expanded much further if used with restraint. I use a stand-alone application called Photomatix ($50), but there is an HDR feature that has come with full versions of Photoshop since CS3.

Bradbury Building before HDR

Bradbury Building after HDR

These two images by Roel Kuiper represent his image as shot and after putting it through HDR. This required taking bracketed exposures with the camera on a very solid tripod, entering them into Photomatix for tonemapping and adjusting the various controls before processing. A light amount if Shadows/Highlights was also applied. The objective in this case was to add detail to the very dark hallways on either side of the Bradbury Building’s atrium (especially on the right) without losing detail in the skylight and other highlights.  The shift is subtle, but an effect that draws attention to itself will usually take attention away from the subject.

Walker Evans, Architectural Photographer

photo: Walker Evans

The American Walker Evans began taking photographs in earnest in the latter part of the 1920s. The native Midwesterner had moved to New York after spending time in Europe, where he had hoped to launch a literary career that never quite took off. His earliest photographic efforts were promising, but he improved considerably after seeing the work of a number of other photographers whose work was being shown in New York, many of them by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, called simply ‘291.’ Among the artists and photographers Evans befriended during this time was Berenice Abbott, who had also just returned from her stint in Paris with the huge cache of Atgets she’s rescued. It’s impossible to say exactly how much Evans was influenced by the Atgets he saw, but there’s little question that his imagery shifted to a closer formal alignment with that of the Parisian’s.

By 1935 Evans, who had securely established his own style, was hired by the Farm Security Administration, along with a number of other distinguished photographers to document America in the depths of the Depression. Not one to follow orders well, he saw this as an opportunity to explore his own aesthetic and social concerns, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the agency’s head, Roy Stryker, a non-photographer. Evans was at his most creative during this time, making most of his best known images between 1935 and ’38.

Not only does the 1935 New Orleans image above show us one of the craziest looking barber shops ever to exist, featuring a woman grinning in a black and white spiderweb blouse, but it also illustrates Evans’ rigorous formal strategy. What at first glance appears to be a straightforward image of a storefront on closer inspection reveals a great deal more. By including portions of elements, the wrought iron balconies above, the window of the shop next door on the left, the door on the right, and the headlight, bumper and tire of a car, a world beyond the frame is alluded to. Having a sense of what these elements would have looked like in their entirety the barber shop can be seen as merely an interlocked piece in a complicated urban jigsaw puzzle.