research log: ark

At present I am working on my first 2 submissions to ARKKITEHTI.  The first is a series of 4 photographs they’ve selected to illustrate an article.

The second is my first written article, the first draught of which is as follows:

What is an architectural atmosphere and how would you depict it?  The first part of the question has been raised by Peter Zumpthor, Gernot Bohme, and more recently by Juhani Pallasmaa in this journal.  But it is the second part which I wish to address and ask the reader to consider.

In the world of architecture, depiction is primarily achieved through photographs and renders.  So I find it surprising, as an architectural photographer, that few if any photographers have added their voice to the discussion.  For that reason, I am currently engaged in the following project: Atmographs or Archmospheres?  The question centers on what is depicted and how, and only jokingly offers two clumsy neologisms as a means of doing so.  The definition of each should clarify things a bit.

Atmographs: the means of depiction, the connotation in photographic discourse, that creates the atmosphere perceived.  The artist paints with heavy brush strokes, the director reinterprets an old play, a bold and personal path is sought to surprise the spectator, shake them up and most importantly reach them.  Here the photographer produces the atmosphere s/he intends to transmit.

Archmospheres: denotation is the opposite side of the coin, and here standard architectural photographic tropes might be employed (the techniques we are all used to seeing and recognizing as correct) but the focus has shifted somewhat.  Might it be possible to centre the photograph less on the material object depicted and more on the atmosphere the architect intended to transmit?

A third question of course is: can you do both?  Might it not be possible to create each sort of interpretation using the photographic toolkit and extending the working relationship from standard commission to a dialectic sort of brief?  It is what I am currently attempting and I believe the answer is yes.

The first sort of pictures might look something like this (insert figures 1 and 2):

The images were the result of lengthy, detailed interviews with K2S and JKMM.  The first mentioned a penchant for the work of Helene Binet and the desire to show the whole through an evocative detail, rather than a general shot.  The latter explained the importance of the children in the place they designed.  In each case, the focus – the atmosphere and material content – were indicated by the architect.

In search of the second kind of image, I returned to the space and tried simply to switch my head off, focusing on more on what it felt like to be there: what were the component parts of that particular place at that particular moment on which might I focus?  OK, obviously there was thinking – analysis – involved in reaching such conclusions, but the important thing was not to follow the beaten path of visual conventions learned over the years.  The visual rhetorics employed in the production of these images sought to communicate something else: the specifics of the location just mentioned.  They try to answer the question: what was it like there at that time?  I have produced hundreds of images of 3 projects by AOA, JKMM and K2S, but the few chosen below should give the reader the idea of what I am after. (insert figures 3 & 4).

At this point, the important thing is the research taking place through the images and the possibilities of a dialectical approach with a client.  I am not writing today to celebrate the triumph of a new sort of photography.   If that ever happens it will come only partially, in collaboration with others, and much later.  What I hope my reader will take away are three ideas:  artistic research, dialectic commissions and atmosphere as subject matter.  I see all of these as an opportunity for architects to extend the reach of their audience and communicate more thorough compelling images.  All of this amounts to a focus on atmosphere, not just objects.  Such work might complement standard architectural photography, not replace.

But just what is an atmosphere?  Bohme defines it as the space of moods in one essay and offers the theatre as an example of how they can be predictably created and inter-subjectively shared.  Zumthor says they are part of our hotwiring, and unpacks the idea explaining the integral parts of his toolkit – what lets him make atmospheres?   So what are they in a photograph?

I believe atmosphere is what connects the person looking at a photo of an architectural work to the thing they see.  And this is an important point, because it is true for practitioner and layman alike.  The atmosphere is what keeps you listening to the song, regardless of whether or not you can read the sheet music.  Atmosphere is as relevant to the specialist reading this journal as to the angry citizen lambasting architecture in the popular press.  Atmospheres are important, inter-subjective, understandable.  One thing I don’t understand about atmospheres at this point, however, is why more photographers publishers are not talking about them.

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research log: a dirty job

By knocking on doors I was able to get the perfect vantage point for Kaisa Talo, but unfortunately they were not able to open the dirty windows.  As a result I have spent the day retouching the image, which has meant cloning out dirt on the window and significantly reworking the contrast via several separate masks for the facade, each main window, the door, surrounding buildings, etc.