RL: questions about grids

I am putting thoughts on a page to clarify my intentions and problems with these grids, both for myself and the other doctoral students. I realize that the unwritten rule states that you should not explain artwork, especially your own, and that is a good place to begin with my problems.


Problem 1: audience


I feel torn between what I should say to architects vs. photographers vs. academics, or any combination of the three. By that I mean I have certain propositions I would like to put forward, visually. I am trying to construct coherent arguments, but I also want the images to look good – individually, as 9 series and as a whole. How to do each of those things seems to shift radically depending on the audience. To add to the problem, I have literally shot 10s of thousands of images from which to choose from, and I am finding the process of sifting though them and even locating certain images problematic.


The following are 9 examples of each of those problems.


Problem 2: conventions grid


This is my starting point, maybe. These 81 images represent 9 columns of clients top pics: 3 daytime exteriors, 3 interiors, three nighttime exteriors. But these are not all of the purchases, so there is room to manoeuver. I am trying to argue that these blue, empty, crisp images are examples of the conventional standard architectural photograph. That standard is determined by what is purchased and published by the architectural community (architects, publishers, developers, trade magazines). I have tried to pick images that suit my purpose from a larger group of images that were purchased and/or published. The main problem I face is whether or not this should be the first or second image in the series.


Problem 2: nostalgia grid


My step one in thinking about the representation of architecture through photography was to go back in time. I shot historic buildings and availed to present them as black and white photographs reminiscent of those published prior to the 70s (in some cases 80s). Problems are of two sorts: where to place this series and which images to include.


Should this be the first set of images in the dissertation (the first grid and small portfolio) because it is the furthest point back in history? Or does the fact that these are only a interpretation of historic photos, not actual ones, mean that they should come later? As I see it, the order could start with this grid, then move to the conventions grid, and from there to others. Or should the conventions grid be the starting point, with subsequent grids acting as a sort of commentary about that grid?


I am also wondering which images to include. One is grid comprised of two buildings: the Finnish Parliament and TKK because these were actual commissions. In both cases the client liked the black and white images but chose to go with colour versions because they felt it was safer. It seems a good idea to stick to images that were commissioned wherever possible since the relationship between photographer and client is central to my research. However, I have better images from other shoots: Bauhaus, La Grand Motte, Ville Savoye. These are key projects in the history of architectural modernism and make for stronger statements and in my opinion, nicer images.


Problem 3: greyscale grid


Problems here are the same as before: which images to include due to a conflict over aesthetics vs subject matter and the ever present concern of academic rigour (weakened perhaps by the inclusion of too many variables). The idea of for this grid came from the course I taught: grey matter. I am writing an article about the subject and my students are exhibiting their work at the architecture museum. So I could use student work for the grid (labelling it as such) and centre on the process of teaching. Alternately, I was commissioned by the architects of the buildings my students photographed and could use my own photographs or a combination of the two. None of the grey images I shot were purchased, hence this selection becomes a clear look outside the frame of conventional practice. So which of these two points should I focus on with this grid, or is a combination both possible? After all, 81 images are rather a lot.


Problem 4: construction (time) grid


Here I am interested in telling the untold story of construction. As luck would have it, I was commissioned to shoot a building from beginning to end. However, should I stick to the 81 image format? My doubts are due to the fact that I have some very interesting before/after shots that give a sense of the passing of time and the remarkable changes a building undergoes. But I don’t have enough of them to fill a grid.


Problem 5: difference/same grid


Here I am trying to show how things you do with a camera have significant consequences for the way space is seen. By using the same lens, same format and similar vantage points (axial, some low, some mid-height) I was able to make varied spaces appear more similar than they did to me when I was there. I think this is a good opportunity to visualise practical decisions and their consequences in terms of representation (discursive practices). Many of the images come from a commission to shoot theatres for a book. However, the inclusion of certain churches gave me the opportunity to extend the field – I thought it was amazing to see how the Pantheon could be depicted to appear similar to Aalto’s Kulttuuritalo. But again, would it be best to stick to one commission?


Problem 6: people grid


This grid is of people decreasing size, starting with portraits that relegate architecture to scenography and ending with little ants that fill up vast geometries. Habitation – use – is the bugbear of architects, because it is messy. It is also the enemy of photographers[i] because it makes access and the process of shooting that much harder. So this grid is another example of images that do not fit the accepted industry standard for architectural photographs, hence another look outside the frame. But is it right to separate them out or should incorporate them into other grids? I think the answer is “No, it’s OK like this.” But do you agree?


Problem 7: abstract


I wonder about the layout of this grid? Would it have more visual impact if it were somehow organised according to HSB or similar?


Problem 8: landscape/colour grid


This grid is laid out according to bands of colour. So is the grid about colour or landscape? I view it as the combination of both which comes under the rubric of context. Context is important because it is a shift from discrete object to surrounding environment. Similar things happen when you shift the focus to things taking place, details, light, etc. That shift interests me greatly.


Problem 9: up in the air grid – what to end on?


Perhaps it is best if we just discuss this.


Additional problems:


In Design exports: pdf/jpg





[i] A notable exception is Iwan Baan, whose background as a photojournalist means he works with environment as he finds it – people and the messiness of their lives, included. As an architectural photographer, you normally wait for a space to be cleaned-up, emptied-out, decorated and furnished but not too much, unoccupied, untarnished, timeless and unreal. Photoshop, the internet, office, hotel site and restaurant managers, homeowners, property developers, crane and platform operators, pilots, PR agents and security guards each have their role to play in the construction of that narrative.



Notes to return to:

Normally, when architectural photographers talk about their work, it is to share information like the sort found on this page:


The technical how to stuff.

Normally, when academics talk about photography, it is to share thoughts about their areas of study: post-structuralism, feminism, marxism, the standard isms. I doubt there is any need to provide a link to any of the well known, well explicated never dry well that is the brilliant work from the 70s and 80s, to which we still return, or the more recent and equally wonderful updates from Mitchell, Batchen, Bates, Cotton, Frosh, Klein, etc.

The reason I write now – and the fundamental reason why I decided to undertake the doctoral research exercise in protracted masochism – is that I believe there is an important space in the middle of those two voices, two camps, two fields, two schools of thought, two ways. Something like the critic as artist, or the artist as critic. I see a need for a translator, diplomat or liaison. Someone with a stake and foot on either side of the divide. Because the two sides are not listening to each other at the moment. They are each preaching to the converted, and with a medium and practice like photography that seems an unnecessary two-culture binary, since photography is itself made up of those two key parts and should not be looked at as one half by one half. I can give two examples of why the divide is problematic.

Commercial and amateur photography makes up most of the images we will ever see in a life time, and a small percentage (ever growing in number?) of people ad to that fine art photography. I would say, however that most of these practitioners do not read what theorists write about photography. I would also guess that many would reply, like Andreas Gursky, if they did start to read what academics say about his practice, that much or all of that writing is irrelevant. So academics often write about photography as though it were an excavation into a pit filled with ancient Gujarat literature, legible only to a small panel of trained experts who think and write about that distant culture cut off from but still an antecedent to the world we live in. Or its a bit like science fiction writing: you make up a world to write about in order to reflect and critique the world you do live in. This point is important because it means that there is a total disconnect between theory and practice. Because on the other hand theorists are not really interested in how photographs are made.

This point was driven home the other night. I was having a lovely conversation with a professor about photography and architecture, during which we discussed the possibility of doing a keynote together, each taking a different position on architectural photography, the third space (emergent from collaboration) etc. But soon it became apparent that the points I wanted to articulate were ineffable. I was told as much.

I said it was important to state that images look the way they do in large part due to the conditions of production. Each theatre I was shooting for a book project (which we were discussing) was willing to give me only 1-2 hours to shoot. They were not willing to let me alter the lighting. They were very difficult to gain access to and had to be contacted repeatedly over the course of several months via mutual friends and colleagues. In short, the practical and mundane issues of phonecalls, emails, coercion and ical had far more to do with the end result (what the pictures look like) than either my ideas, her own or the book publishers. Added to that, none of the funding for the project came through, so that means everything has to be done on a shoe-string which complicates planning, adds to  stress, and limits the amount of equipment it is feasible to travel with.

None of this mundane stuff should be discussed, she said, because in the end, what you are left with are the images. And I can relate to that sentiment up to a point. I constantly tell my students I am interested in results not excuses, and that they should centre on the work not themselves when it comes to overcoming difficulties along the way. The trouble is, since no one talks about these things, they become the naked emperor elephant in the room. These key determinant factors are eschewed in favour of discourses about discourses, so part of the reason for why things are the way the are is overlooked – because it is uncomfortable, embarrassing, irrelevant to talk about them. Theory not practice. Business as usual in academic life, far away from the petty concerns of businesses? I think that is a big mistake.

For that reason, I am writing this blog. I hope to produce a body of texts by the end of this year that will be engaging to read. I hope to have ready a volume of images that will dialogue with those texts as well as merit contemplation on its own. I hope both appear professional, original, worthwhile. But without this back story they are not only a lie, they are a complicit part of the problem. I could go very conspiracy theory here, but in short, there is a gap between talking about technical excellence, equipment, practices, aesthetics or writing about photography as a part of culture, discourse, power, communication, belief.

That gap is where I fit.

Isn’t there a third space for practitioners with academic training to reflect their dual position back to each of their two camps? I guess I hope to be a sort of cultural liaison, but more and more I think the role of translation is what I have to offer, since these two sides are not listening to each other because neither it seems is willing to take the time to learn the others language. I guess it is because they don’t have to. But for some odd reason, I do.