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.