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#1 Can photography capture architecture?

Updated: Jun 29

Sana Paul in conversation with photographer Nick Guttridge


What does a photograph reveal and not reveal about architecture?


Sana Paul: Regardless of how important this question is, the internet has evolved into a seductive corner of photo stills and slideshows from which one can infer that true knowledge — factual information — is gathered. But, architecture is a real entity that everyone needs and uses daily.


In terms of physics, architecture is a field of knowledge that strictly deals with 'intermediate dimensions.' If one goes too big or too small, the term becomes a metaphor for the structure of things. The atomic composition of molecules and compounds is an example of architecture, and so is the cosmic one of galaxies and the universe. It is also often used to describe the structure of data at the level of information.


These days, to understand concepts, we rely on media uploaded on the internet. Internet surfers read fewer words than before and are always on the lookout for the next click, the next cognitive stimulant. So, what do these images tell us about the architecture they depict? Not Much.


Nick Guttridge: I think architecture and architects have always relied on photographers, their lenses and camera movements (shift movements on a view camera or with a shift lens) together with their affinity with the subject. It’s been well known that a good photographer can transform the interpretation of a building when published. Leaving visitors slightly disappointed sometimes when they experience it in person!


Taking a 3D building or even a model back into a 2D image is a magical process. There are so many decisions to make an image—composition, lighting, people, etc.


Before digital, architects and editors would review transparencies on a lightbox. The transparency was considered as an honest interpretation of the building, a ‘proof.’ When digital photography took off, some publications still insisted on transparencies. The system with the film was working well. People were reluctant to change. Photographers didn’t want to give up the craft of shooting in large format on location. For anyone who has done it, it is just a wonderful process. Retouching hardly ever happened because the photographers didn’t supply a digital image. The scan was done by the publishing house. Now, of course, we can manipulate the image beyond reality if we wish to.


I’ve been shooting on medium format digital since 2005. A massively expensive system, the part which records the image (digital back) can cost tens of thousands of pounds. Then there are the lenses which are the cost of a 35mm camera each. Then the camera itself. It is a modular system. I made this investment because I didn’t want to move from the professionalism of 5x4 to 35mm. It was hard enough at the time to go to medium format! I felt strongly that architecture didn’t suit the letterbox format of the 35mm frame. I also wanted the quality and dynamic range of medium format. In essence, I was trying to get as close to the quality of 5x4 film and the feel of it through digital. So I really went for it to achieve that ‘look.’


I only upgraded my digital back last year. So this system has worked very well for me. It was a good investment. I would add that now I also own a Leica SL2s, which is for video footage mostly, with a shift lens. I still prefer to shoot stills in medium format. We now have new technology which includes ‘frame averaging,’ which is another dynamic instrument within the exposure triangle. But don’t get me started on that, quite complicated to explain!


When it comes to post-production, because I start from a medium format raw file, I don’t have to blend lots of images together to create an HDR (high dynamic range) file, which means that my images look more natural. I also shoot in 16-bit colour, which is a big improvement on 12 or 14 bit, which is what 35mm can do. This has saved me lots of time, and my retouching process is quite simple and honest. I might remove some plugs, smoke alarms, etc. But I don’t make big changes to what I experienced originally.


Probably the most important thing to me is the colour. I do use powerful colour controls which can isolate certain saturations in the frame. I prefer a more muted colour palette to what the camera produces from raw. So in that way, I am careful with it. We must remember that what the camera sees at the point of capture isn’t what our eyes see. So my adjustments are often based on my memory and experience at the time of the shooting. That’s why I must do my post-production immediately after the shoot.


The final images I create are certainly my interpretation of the building. Although I am commissioned, I am an artist, not a technician. So I am shooting in my own style. This is why it is so important to find a photographer who has an affinity with your approach. Several of my long-standing clients regard my process to be part of their creative process. It can inform them of their own architecture and transform the way others interpret their work.



'Architectural photography often misrepresents the architecture.'


SP: People who write about art and architecture have long argued that photographs give a false sense of reality. They distort several creative aspects such as colour, materials, texture, viewpoints, and minutiae. Photographs affect art in many ways. The most glaring is scale. Most of us have felt as though we 'knew' a painting all our lives until we saw them first hand. I did not realise the Mona Lisa was that small or the Las Meninas that large.


Photographs deceive the subjects too. They can mislead the architect's aims or actual accomplishments. They can falsify the architecture they claim to show. They can lie about what one's experience will be like. By lying, I imply that these images and their creators distort something — either by mistake or by choice.


NG: I wouldn't disagree, particularly with modern retouching. Video is more honest these days because most practices cannot afford to retouch video footage.


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This picture is taken at new student accommodation in Cambridge, designed by Allies and Morrison. I just loved listening to this person play the violin. I heard him in his room practising and asked him to come out into the corridor. Sometimes I do have to make things happen. It is cheating but in a good way. Here, the image isn't retouched. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge


I think I read somewhere that back in the day, architects used to talk about their projects being 'Stollerised.' With reference to Ezra Stoller's composition skills. Personally, for me, Stoller is an inspiration. Particularly how he included people in his shots, it was difficult to do then, to be spontaneous with either a 10x8 or 5x4 camera. He was a master. Some photographers now market themselves on how they include people within architecture. As if it is a new thing. Or something which wasn't ever done properly before.


There are some photographers I won’t mention who take it too far. They create ‘glossy’ images which are often beyond reality. They are very successful with it. I find these images upsetting to look at, perhaps too commercial for me. The colours, composition, and precise placement of people make the image look too perfect. I like the image to look natural.


The rendering artists and photographers do influence each other. I am impressed by the softer style with some atmospheric renderings. But even these are far from being truthful.

I had to stop accepting commissions from a practice that specialised in residential work. Because they wanted me to desaturate the images to the point that they are almost b/w. I refused to do this. They didn’t like people in the images either, which is something I think is important to do sometimes. So our relationship had to come to an end.


I have to admit to stylistically adjusting my images, but only to try to represent my memory of being there. Sometimes I will shoot tethered and actually try to match the image on the screen to the interior at the time.


Most photographers I know haven’t had the time to shoot to the calibrated screen. It means bringing in a ‘film truck’ to be a mobile editing platform on the shoot, employing a ‘Digi-tech’ assistant. I will invest in the shoot to be this accurate if the budget allows it. Normally when I shoot advertising jobs. It has to be said that most photographers work in a ‘run and gun’ style without this setup.


I have assistants who talk to me about their post-production techniques which seem to involve hours and hours of layer controls on a single image. I rarely have to do this. I have used ‘split frequency’ techniques to clean surfaces. But I don’t like ‘polishing’ my images too much. I rely on the quality of the raw file straight from the camera, which is why I invested so much to save time later on in the production process.



'Architecture is documented as a static subject.'


SP: Now, the scale at which the term architecture functions is the physical dimension of it. Here, matter and energy are two distinct ideas. Architecture exists as a theoretical and experiential study inside this component of reality. Called the 'sublunary world' — the space under the moon — it refers to the scale of humans vis à vis planet earth.


Speaking of buildings, the feeling is a little more unsettling. When observed in pictures, a building that is actually impressive in its enormity may appear to be half scale. This is because buildings are expansive, and pictures are modest. Images flatten textures and obscure features that are crucial to the user's experience. They seek to remove the human reference, scale, and activity.


Consider Zaha Hadid's images of the massive Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park in Seoul. They are captivating, but the structure on the ground is scarred. Cracking concrete, seeping joint fillers, and other signs of sloppy workmanship adorn the scene. Note colour, for another instance. An edifice that appears to be sparkling white may actually be a dreary, thudding grey. Without human reference, there is no telling how the building is experienced.


Architecture is a multidimensional, sensorial media. Most people are aware that the images on the internet reveal nothing about the auditory, olfactory, or tactile features of a building or city. They only represent a moment in the life of that building.


Architectural photographers wait hours, even days, for the optimum light to photograph a structure. People who use that building, however, will not see it and utilize it at 4 pm on a bright winter day only. They will return to it every morning and evening, in the summer and the winter, on grey days and sunny days. Well-designed buildings provide a diverse menu of experiences, no matter the day or season.


NG:

Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

An architectural photographer should be an expert at composition. The Lloyds building is really difficult to photograph. Here I took the opportunity to study this elevation from a position I can't repeat now. We have to work when the city changes when new angles present themselves. I've often waited years for a building to be demolished so I can get a good view. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge


But, I don't agree with the statement that architecture should be documented as a static subject. Architectural photographers have always included people in their images. Sometimes I come across architects who seem to think that only some photographers can shoot interiors and some can only shoot exteriors. This is also confusing to me. So there are a lot of historic misconceptions regarding what is possible or to be expected.


Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

This is an image of a dancer in a building designed by Allies and Morrison. I have certainly set it up, as you can see. The image isn't retouched, but I have used some extra lighting, and I also art-directed the dancer. I didn't want her to look straight at the camera. I needed her form to complement the architecture. I have probably made this interior look slightly larger than normal, or at least taller. But there is no distortion in the image, and I just used some techniques with a view camera. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge


When I was at college, a famous fashion photographer from the 60s came and gave a talk. Terrance Donovan. This is back in 1997. He said that millions of people own a camera, yet hardly any of them know how to make a picture. Now that we are living in the digital age, I think people's skills have improved. The iPhone was wonderful for improving everyone's images. So, the pressure on professional photographers is quite intense. Why bother to commission? The latest iPhone is pretty amazing.


'Making images' is different from 'taking images.' When I set up my architectural camera (medium format digital on an Arca Swiss F Metric), it is like I have created a stage with my composition. Then I wait for the public to intervene. I really like having a formal composition which is only possible to do on this camera, and then that softness of human presence within it. It is all about 'hard and soft.' Using an architectural camera with all the movements is like using a musical instrument. There are so many options, and it is just the way you play it that matters. I learned to play the piano when I was young. I'm pretty sure that helped me with my photography. It is funny when you are growing up, and you learn one thing without realising why you are really doing it. I needed that coordination in my hands (thanks to the piano lessons) to work the camera. It is not like a normal camera which you hold in your hands. It is more like a mathematical device with lots of swings and movements on it.


Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

This is an example of when I mix dance with interior photography with my own lights. This image is carefully put together. There is a dialogue between the dancer and me, the subtle lighting, and using a corner space of the room. I really like her hands, so important to me in an image. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge



'Images can distort the truth or the reality of a project.'


SP: Architectural images tend to hide a building's functional flaws. Photos often display a hydroponic garden or mown grass beneath a building's ground-level columns with pride. Little do people know that this crisp greenery will wither to a dead brown in a matter of months.


Due to various technological constraints, photos often fail to convey that which was intended. Sometimes, this pushes one to learn more about architecture. But not everyone has the time or patience to do so. Learning how to piece together dozens of drawings, blueprints, and other visual aids required to comprehend a structure takes practice.


NG: I would agree. That's why finding a photographer who suits your outlook is so important. I prefer to be subtle and tread gently. I always try to find a gentle approach through body language and composition. Sometimes I can tame a really large project by a gesture of someone within it—just the way someone has paused or is walking through space.


Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

Here we have a square and a triangle. And all the colours and action of this swimming pool. The red shorts and yellow flippers really make it for me! Also, the man standing is, sort of, looking at one of the people in the pool. I think compositional control and an understanding of movement is important. This was an important image for me early on in my career. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge


One of my delights as a photographer is to work on projects of different scales. Also, different cultures. I was offered an in-house position for global practice. It was the opposite of my approach. The culture was great, but I needed to continue to work for small and medium-sized practices. I really liked the process of supporting them and helping them grow, to help them raise their profile in a way that is fitting to them.


Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

This image was taken at a hospital in Qatar. It is one of my favourites. It shows the social context of a line of migrant workers in front of it—also, a screen that is hiding some sculptures by Damien Hurst. So, there is a lot going on in this image, different messages, arguments, positions. It is an image that intends to raise questions on exploitation and the quest for 'perfection.' This image was not retouched. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge


Each photographer is like a mini film production unit. Especially now that many of us are experimenting with moving images. We all have our own way of looking, thinking, and doing post-production.



What should one do then?


SP: Look at a few photographs to get a sense of the place. Next, look for a dependable literary guide. Print it out and do it the old-fashioned way –– without summoning the powers of the world wide web. Rely on your mind's vast capacity for creation and take the time to peruse.


Imagination transforms the profile of architecture and animates our universe. It breathes life into architectural matter. Architecture is continuously transformed through the changes in its inhabitants, its uses, and a progressive degradation through time, only to be revived by its cultural memory, in a different way, each time.

This is the true dialogue of architecture.


NG: I would say that it is the responsibility of an architectural photographer to artistically reflect upon the architect’s vision.


From the architect’s perspective, the process of commissioning should be one of collaboration and exploration. The photographer should introduce new understandings for the architect about their own work.


Nick Guttridge, Sana Paul, Photography, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

This is the Lisson Gallery in London, with Anish Kapoor’s sculptures. I was shooting before the gallery was opened to the public. I like the way there are boxes in there. The position of the person is important, her body language. I didn't art direct her. She was unaware. I just waited until it felt right. Patience is an important quality a photographer should have. Photo Courtesy: Nick Guttridge



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About Nick Guttridge

Nick Guttridge is a UK-based architectural photographer working internationally. His clients range from small to medium-sized practices to multinational companies. Nick studied Product Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art of Design graduating in 1997. After a few years assisting other photographers Nick began accepting his own commissions in 2000. So over 20 years have suddenly gone by where he has had the opportunity to work with some very established and up-and-coming practices. Nick is a multi-talented photographer who also shoots portraits and contemporary dance for advertising campaigns. So he is well versed in working on a production with creative teams and an art director as well as independently for an architectural commission. Nick particularly enjoys travelling and supporting architects to help them receive the recognition they deserve globally.

You can find his work on his website, Linkedin, and Instagram.


About Sana Paul

Sana Paul is an undergraduate architecture student and writer at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi; hailing from the cozy streets of Punjab. She has experience working at the India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Rethinking The Future (RTF). She is a contributing writer at Zeyka.


About the Editor

Nishtha Singh is an editor, writer and researcher in the fields of Philosophy of Language, Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). She has trained as an editor at the Seagull School of Publishing, Calcutta and is a graduate of the Department of Philosophy, and the Hansraj College, University of Delhi (DU), India. She is a contributing editor at Zeyka.


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