What's so special about architectural photography? / by George Kroustallis

The digital photographic medium is currently on an unprecedented roll.
Thanks to the digital revolution, architectural photography, with its endless variety of exciting subjects, has won many new fans among beginners and experienced photographers. Architectural photographers today are blessed with endless creative ways to capture and display their subjects.

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There is no better medium than a balanced, well-taken photograph for capturing and displaying the look and feel of a building.





What Is Architectural Photography?


The term “architectural photography” describes both the subject (architecture) and the means of capturing it (photography).

The word “architecture” comes from the Greek “arkhitekton,” which consists of roots meaning “chief” and “builder.” Architecture is ubiquitous in our lives, and its primary function as shelter encompasses a great many functional uses. Architecture is practically a human’s second skin. Le Corbusier once said, “Architecture is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable and first tool that he has forged for himself.”

Architecture takes on an extremely broad range of forms, from simple, primeval huts, to the ornate temples of antiquity, the purely functional factories of the industrial revolution, and the urban concrete and glass landmarks of today. Without architecture, mankind would have remained anchored in the stone age with few options of places to live, sleep, eat, work, trade, produce, withdraw, rest, administer, and educate. In many regions, climatic conditions would make life without architecture impossible.

The word “photography” comes from the Greek “photos” and “graphé,” “which means “drawing with light,” and describes a technical means of optically capturing the likeness of objects and making them palpable in places where they cannot normally be seen. Photography thus propagates images of buildings into the wider world, enabling people to view them in a wide variety of circumstances—whether in newspapers, books, posters, the Internet, or in galleries or museums.”

Authenticity in Architectural Photos

Just like the field of architecture itself, there are various approaches available to shoot architectural photographs, ranging from purely functional to complete artistic abstraction.

Documentary architectural photography walks a narrow path between presenting a neutral visual experience and an authentic representation of the inherent values of a building. Here, the composition has to limit itself to communicating information—otherwise, the building will lose its central importance and the photo itself will become the center of attention.

This raises the question of whether it is possible to shoot truly authentic architectural photos. Even the most perfect, realistic architectural photo has a certain degree of intrinsic abstraction, if only due to the artificial scale of the reproduction or the lack of a third dimension. Ergo, it is impossible to portray a building absolutely authentically using external media. Additionally, a photo can only reproduce the emotions felt by the viewer in a given situation. In other words, the way a building is perceived where it stands is often completely different from the way it is perceived in a photograph. In his essay “Medien zwischen Sein und Schein” (”Media Between Myth and Reality”), published in 2000, the architect Meinhard von Gerkan said, “An architectural photo is almost bound to be a visual lie because the medium seems to represent the greatest possible potential objective authenticity, . . . true to the fact that a lens is an incorruptible technical device. We know it is an illusion.”

At what point does architectural photography become art, and how can we differentiate between artistic architectural photography and its documentary sibling? The transition between the two is difficult to pinpoint, but it is safe to say that art begins where the intervention of the photographer begins to influence the purely documentary nature of a photo. This is where the choice of subject is no longer intrinsically connected with the impression made by the building. A building can be the central element of an image without actually divulging its function. This process makes us increasingly independent from architecture itself, and objective representation loses significance.

Further extrapolation of this line of thought unavoidably leads to the notion that a photo of a building can have a visual impact that is completely independent from the nature of the building’s architecture. The quality of the resulting image will then, logically, be judged on the basis of its own artistic merits, and not on the quality of the building it portrays. Compositional techniques such as deliberate exaggeration, emphasis and omission, or simplification and distortion can be used to influence specific effects to the point where the building itself becomes the photographer’s plaything, a clear indication that we are, after all, dealing with art.

Forms of Architectural Photography

Architectural photography in various forms is part of our everyday lives.

Documentary architectural photography: Many documentary architectural photographs can be found in books, magazines, brochures, and construction documents. In these cases, architectural photography takes the form of multiple images with accompanying explanations, plans, or drawings that are designed to precisely describe a building and its attributes.

Postcard photography: Architecture is often the subject of postcards, even if the photographer’s intentions and degree of precision are not the same as those found in documentary situations. Postcards often serve simply as proof that the sender was actually in a particular place. Such photos serve only as a means of recognition and are often reproduced with oversaturated colors, over-the-top effects, and scant regard for technical prowess.

Vacation photography: Tourists often have similar intentions when they photograph churches, castles, and other landmarks: Such photos form personal memories. While architecture is part of the subject, the location is usually more important than the type of building. Interestingly, these types of photos are taken almost exclusively while on vacation. If located where one lives, buildings like these are considered neither newsworthy nor photogenic.

Advertising photography: Architecture often plays a role in poster, magazine, and TV advertising, and is often used to enhance the apparent significance of a product. Modern architecture stands for progress, technology, high quality of life, and glamour. For example, the automobile industry uses many manipulated architectural images in its advertising, employing stylistic devices such as color adjustments, deliberate distortion, stylization, image blending, and artificial reflections.

Artistic architectural photography: Artistic architectural photographs can often be found in galleries and exhibitions, usually in the context of a particular theme or artist. Here, architecture serves only as a means to an end, with no particular connection between the message of the image and the message conveyed by the architecture itself. In this case, it is the photographer and not the architect who is the focus of the activity.