Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: Defining Place as a Memory

I often take photographs of places.  I create stories of places through themed exhibits of images that communicate a specific place as I see it or as others tell me they know it.  These place photographs are born of remembrances.  Memories of a place and what occurred there can be kept forever as a marker of a wide spectrum of emotions.  A place may call to mind unbridled happiness, ineffable sorrow, wistfulness,  hope, connections with loved ones.  The conscious recollection of place may also bring to mind a specific moment when life changed: a birth, death, marriage, graduation, a milestone that altered our very existence. 

Some time ago the impact of place affected me very deeply.  In my childhood, I had a best friend.  Growing up in Brooklyn during the late 40's and early 50's was conducive to such very close relationships created by proximity.  In those years, mothers opened the front door and commanded their small children to "Go play in the street!"  Today, in NYC, such a parent would be harshly rebuked, but in those years it was the ting to do.  I, sent outside, found another such child and we became fast friends.  Our parents, after we 4-year-olds introduced them, socialized and our universe was circumscribed to one street.  Others drifted in and out of our lives, but my friend and I remained constant as the North star.  Then we each moved away from the street: the place of our early childhoods.

We were still quite young and while my family relocated only a few miles from "our block," my friend now lived in another state. We tried to remain in touch, nurture the friendship that had been almost our whole world, but time passed and space separated us.  The bonds of our friendship remained pressed in memories and black and white, scalloped edged photos.  Then one day I got a call.  My friend had passed away and her children, never having seen where their mother's early childhood years had been spent, asked me if I would give them a tour of the places my friend had told them about in her rememberences.  I willingly arranged a date and we met in Brooklyn.

Everything changes, yet all remains the same.  As I guided my friend's children through the old neighborhood, memories flooded over me.  Even though some things had changes, here a cement driveway where a garden had flourished; there a brick facade covering the worn shingles I remembered, the street looked as it had many years ago.  I brought my childhood snapshots and more detailed photographs from my collection, for I had returned to the street several times to chronicle its changes.  We exchanged pictures like sacred objects because these images were recounting my friend's history for her family.  Although the young people I was with had not been to Brooklyn, their mother's personal oral history and my narration created the visualization of a place, a slice of her life for them.

The places in my own memory have been quite varied and each evokes its own individual and very different memories.  As a photographer, I try to define place as a connection with those who see my photography.  My own intellectual and/or emotional ties to a place are evidenced through angles, forms, values and composition.  The Apollo's marquis, shining in the evening sky brings to mind some of the greatest music I know; Newport's mansions are remembered as waterfront "cottages;" my years at Brooklyn College remain imaged by the clock tower and Vienna will always be imprinted by Otto Wagner's architectural genius.  These black and white architectural photographs are my memories.  I am ever hopeful that those who see them will call upon their own remembrances of place.

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion

Apollo Theater, NYC: Black and White Architectural Photography

Newport, RI: Black and White Architectural Photography

Brooklyn College, Brooklyn: Black and White Architectural Photography

Vienna: Black and White Architectural Photography

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: The Proof is in The Proof

Digital photography is not as sure a thing as one might expect.  In the "old days," it is true that until I got into the darkroom or the photographs came back from the lab, I was never quite sure what I had, only what I wanted/ needed.  I remember once photographing an oil painting for a book cover.  The client was the book publisher, who had located the perfect image for the book: an antique oil painting.  The the owner of the painting, a gentleman art-collector, was to receive a "portrait" photograph of his rare and expensive art, in addition to recognition and, I suppose, a fee.  I was, understandably, a little concerned about the outcome of the commission because the painting was rare, large and, as with most oil paintings, varnished, which creates glare.

I drove to the collector's home, about an hour outside of New York City with a couple of cameras, lights and other equipment, but I was determined to shoot the painting in natural light without artificial lighting of any kind. I have always believed that photographing a subject with natural light is best, if possible. I had asked the owner of the 2'x4' painting if we could take the art outside into the natural light.  He agreed.  The day of the shoot was overcast: perfect lighting for a little/no glare photograph.  The gentleman seemed surprised that I knocked on his door with only a Nikon slung over my shoulder.  "Where is your equipment?" he asked.  "Here," I replied, pointing to my camera. The painting was carefully removed from its place of honor and taken out to the circular driveway. As the owner held the painting, we angled the art so that the light would not reflect off the varnish and I took the photographs, hoping for one usable image to be reproduced for the book cover.  I took one roll of film (the framed painting was heavy and unwieldly) with the proviso that I might return if none of the shots was satisfactory.  When the film came back from the lab, I had 34 out of my roll of 36 frames that were fine for publication.  Of course, there were other times when I had to re-shoot the subject because I was not satisfied with any of the results.  The point is that until the "for print" or "for exhibit" photographs are printed or proofed, there is no way for me to know the actual success of my work. 

Many of the 10,000 photographs I took in India for my book look fine on my computer screen.  Unlike the film photographs I used to take, my digital photography is ready as soon as I boot up my computer and slip the camera card into the reader.  However, I am not photographing for the web.  I am using my photographs of India for a print book.  Therefore they must be proofed by printing out the images.  I make smaller copies of the originals, in sizes suitable for a book (Few I know want a 30"x35" book!). Then I print out the proofs on my ancient ink-jet printer.  The sound of the printer is one of the most nerve-wracking I know because I am hoping for just the perfect print. Chugging along, the printer will ultimately elicit my sigh of relief or my awareness of flaws in the image.  Sometimes there are unwelcome surprises in color, even though my monitor is color-calibrated; composition, a bird distracting from the architecture; or clarity.  It is then my job to either fix the fixable or to discard the photograph. 

Proofing is not easy or enjoyable because it is the task during with all the flaws appear.  But I know that the proof of print photography is part of the final steps in my art.  The proofs are the deciding factor in judging my photography and in creating the finest works I can.  No matter how arduous the fixing is, art for me is all about getting it right and completing the photographs so that  my best efforts are evident in my photography.

Udaipur, India: Black and White Architectural Photography

The above photograph of the interior of a temple in Udaipur, India required much proofing because the original photograph was taken in extreme low light. The first proof indicated an image too dark for my purposes. The composition was also a problem because I wanted the magnificent arches (made from single pieces of stone!) to be the focus of my black and white architectural photograph.  I also wanted the door at the end of the corridor to be highlighted because I felt a strong sense of spiritual journeys in India's places of worship. Juxtaposing two focal points and lighting the photograph in my computer took patience, but for me, the final proof (of 8) is worth it!


Monday, July 4, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: Finding a New Focus

I love to take photographs.  Even beyond looking through my lens, I love to look directly at things: study them, observe, look at how they are crafted and what makes them tick.  In particular, I look at the same architecture again and again.  It is my nature.  As I walk through Manhattan, often on my way from Penn Station to Grand Central Station, I admire the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the New York Public library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue.  I never tire of seeing these icons.  At Grand Central Station, I appreciate the same murals, carved ornamentation, renowned clock with its opal faces, grill work that I've photographed so many times in the past.  And to further that train of thought, on my recent trip to India, after getting my bearings in that exquisite and exciting architectural paradise, I noticed that I was searching for similar architectural motifs representative of India's architecture and its details at each place I focused my lens.

How to keep the work fresh.....or more to the point, how to keep myself passionate enough to keep photographing architecture again and again?  I ask myself how others have kept their work alive as they repeat the same studies or use the same subjects repeatedly. There are, of course, many answers and examples from which to draw.  Monet, for one, painted haystacks, waterlilies and the fields where he lived over and over again.  Each painting is perhaps the same subject but infinitely different.  The light, constantly changing, creates numerous alterations in each work.  Color or values, perspective, composition each contribute to a completely different work.  Ansel Adams' studies of natural landscape; Frank Lloyd Wright's furniture designs; Tiffany's stained glass masterpieces all attest to a similar theme, yet are marvelously different works. 

There is another piece to the puzzle of creating art that is infused with the artist's passion and continued sense of discovery that is expressed to the viewer.  The word create implies, paraphrased from the dictionary: the evolution of self thought through imagination as invention.  I like to think of the question Einstein posed: What is more important, knowledge or imagination?  Einstein's answer was imagination, for without it one cannot get to the next level of knowledge.  Therefore, I use my creativity not to repeat while photographing but to expand; to look deeper; to go beyond what I've done before. To imagine the subject in its numerous possibilities.

At no other time in my personal experience was the repetition of subject and the imaginative perspective more relevant than while I looked at the magnificent mystical architecture in India. Always similar yet extensively diverse.  Outside of Jaipur on the road to Agra and in the village of Abhaneri , I visited Chand Baori, a step well that is more than one thousand years old.  In India step wells were used to conserve water and, after experiencing my first sight of a step well in Delhi, I became captivated by their beauty and functionality.  These are not merely wells but entire environments, with religious monuments, small chambers, larger rooms, carvings, statuary, pillars.  Abhaneri's step well, Chand Baori has many enchanting passages and chambers: small spaces complementing the vast well itself.  One small hallway dotted with ruins fascinated me and I took about 80 shots of the corridor.  The same space offered many images evoking different expressions of what I saw and felt there.  The narrow place also  offered shelter from the sweltering sun and its cool shadows of history claimed my attention and my desire to preserve these moments of my journey.

Chand Baori, Abhaneri India: Architectural Photography

Chand Baori, Abhaneri India: Black and White Architectural Photography
Chand Baori, Abhaneri India: Sepia Architectural Photography


Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: But Is it Authentic?

Recently I had the pleasure of joining two artist friends at the home of another artist, whom I was looking forward to meeting.  As it happened,  I had several poofs of the photographs for my book on India's magnificent architecture with me.  My friends encouraged me to show these to their friend, who had several black and white photographs hanging on his walls.  After he studied my photographs he acknowledged "Very nice work." He asked me about my cameras; were they genuine?  I knew exactly what he meant.  "Digital," I replied.  "Oh," he said, not unkindly.  "I prefer authentic photography: film."

Of course I have heard this many times since I switched to digital photography from film.  However, the artist's comment begs the question: What is authentic photography?  Well, photography is, in my opinion, light imaging.  This type of art goes back to the caves, before recorded time.  The cave people did not have film to my knowledge.  They used available light sources and objects with which to create projected imaging.  Then, in the early years, way before the legendary George Eastman and even before Leonardo's use of the camera obscura, the Chinese had a light imaging devise in 5th century BC.  It was a type of pin hole box for controlled light imaging.  Thus, when Eastman developed the ancestor of today's camera, was that authentic?  AND, was film authentic after glass/ lantern slides were so successful at capturing images?  There are countless examples of using light imaging, aka photography, through the ages.  As one technique succeeds another, is it more valid or a betrayal of the older technique?  This question seems to be more prevalent in the field of photography than in any other of the arts.  For example, I never heard that a literary work was less authentic because it was written on a computer and not in longhand.  Or that a painting was less valid because tubes of paint were used and not pigments contained in animal organs.

I believe it is the artist's self-expression that determines the worth of the work of art.

For most of my life I have devoted myself to art, whether it be painting, drawing, design or photography.  With each new available technique and equipment, I have gained knowledge about my personal aesthetic and its process.  I was trained in classical art techniques, architectural drawing (aka drafting), film photography and its developing and, for that matter, piano.  However, when novel ideas about art became available to me, I may not have embraced them, but I took advantage of new tools and ways of creating art.  I never thought one art was more authentic than another or one way of artistic creation was "better." For me the truth lay in how I used the techniques and materials to express my art.  And, of course, the completed work.

There is a story I like to tell about the worth of art.  My paternal Grandfather was a master jeweler. He came to the US in the late 1800's and apprenticed for seven years with a master in gold and precious stones.  His fame was within the industry and he designed and crafted marvelous pieces of jewelry for many wealthy and well-known people at a wooden bench in an office on Nassau Street in Manhattan, when Nassau Street was the center of the jewelry trade.  Occasionally, relatives and even I would ask him if some jewel or art object was "worth it (meaning the expense)."  His sage reply was always the same: "If you like it, it's worth it." 

Is digital photography authentic?  In my opinion and to paraphrase my Grandfather: If you like it; if the work appeals to you, it is authentic.

Black and White Architectural Photography: Amsterdam

Black and White Architectural Photography: Catskills, NY

Black and White Architectural Photography: Snug Harbor, NYC

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography and the Art of the Familiar

I recently received a request for an interview from a Malaysian university student majoring in design.  Very respectfully, through a series of questions, the student wanted to know what I thought of Art Deco.  I responded that I love Art Deco and believe that Art Deco will always be relevant to art.  Thinking carefully about the questions as to why I feel the way I do about the Art Deco genre, I understood that it was familiar to me as an aesthetic I grew up with and deeply admired as a child.  For that matter, Art Deco, with its geometric shapes and designs, is easily recognizable to most everyone anywhere.  Art Deco is based on the rudimentary mathematics we learn at a young age in school.  It echoes the straight lined forms of our lives and the everyday encounters with building, transportation, networks of communication and so forth.  In other words, Art Deco artists, architects and designers take the familiar and create the dynamically beautiful art that can translate geometric shapes and lines into art.  (Of course, math in its own way is art, but that is a different topic.)

So then, if Art Deco is familiar, is that cause to love the genre as I do?  I think so.  From the beginning of time, artists have been devoted to recreating, communicating and expressing their art through the familiar.  Monet did not simply paint water lilies because because he loved them.  They were familiar to him in his water garden in Giverny.  That he created the garden or that it was specifically planted as inspiration matters not.  Monet, over and over again, painted the beautiful blooms, leaves and reflections as well loved subjects.  This repetitive return to subject has been a mantra of many notable artists who either are commissioned to paint certain themes (John Singer Sargent's society portraits) and/or artists who see something in a subject they wish to capture again and again (Constable's landscapes).  The well-spring may also be from the imagination of the artist (Botticelli's paintings of mythical subject or Munch's psychological themes).  Whatever the reason, the artist may explore, out of necessity (commission painter to the court, such as Velasquez) or desire (Henri Fantin-Latour's flowers) or sheer enchantment (Disney's animated animals) art that is based on familiarity with the subject.

Art Deco themes have existed from the cave paintings, and probably before "discovered art."  The visual appeal of intricately interlocking forms attracts me as it does so many others.  I might spend a long time in Rockefeller Center simply looking at the exquisite friezes, details and murals.  The Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and many other spectacular examples of Art Deco architecture have captured my attention almost every time I am in Manhattan.  I use these building motifs repeatedly in my architectural photography.  However, the brickwork and stone Art Deco architecture I grew up with in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx is just as fascinating.  It is familiar and I return to it again and again, searching for new insights and opportunity.  And, the more I search for the new and unique, the more I return to find ever original aesthetics in the familiar.

Here are some of the Art Deco buildings I cherish and return to for inspiration, appreciation and pure aesthetic enjoyment:

Brooklyn Central Library: Sepia Architectural Photography

Brooklyn Apartments: Black & White Architectural Photography
Pine Street, NYC: Black & White Architectural Photography

 Bronx Apartments: Sepia Architectural Photography

 Bronx Apartments: Black & White Architectural Photography

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: Novoimago

Almost every artist seeks improvement, advancement, recognition for good work.  Of those artists whom I've encountered, few are completely secure in their capabilities for self-expression and their "place" in the art world.  With the exhilaration of creating a work of art, there comes for many, the doubts: Could it be better?  Could I do more?  Have I stretched my artistic ability?  Of course there are some who exceed their expectations and, in my opinion, that is wonderful.  Art, by its nature, is a singular, insular experience.  Even while working on a group project, there is the personal input, so deep that it must come from an inner source.  This effort, either combined with the work of others or built on previous personal projects, requires total dedication and devotion.

Through the years I have found that the art of creating itself is the most intense and productive aspect of my photography.  The picture taking, photographing subject is the chase.  Then remastering the images demands all of my skills and attention.  For many years these pursuits in my passion for photography and for creating the finest photograph I could absorbed all of my concentration towards my art and my profession.

In addition to photography, as I have mentioned in the past, I was involved with other art forms, such as drawing and painting.  These gave me insights into my photography and helped me with many aesthetic principals, such as composition, form and values.  For a number of years I did not spend too much time on these artistic endeavors, rather sticking solely to photography, transitioning from film to digital.  In the last couple of years, I have been exploring one facet of photography: its two dimensional properties. I have always sought the three dimensional on the flat paper or canvas: the elusive quality of depth and space that some techniques can render.

 After many attempts at using art media in photography and not producing a mixed media work but rather an enhanced photograph, I chanced upon a unique elucidation.  I used, very sparingly, gold leaf of various colors and pencil, ink, charcoal and pastel among other traditional painting and drawing media in my photography.  Although the art materials are incorporated into the photograph, they are used in the subtlest ways, lightly, sparsely, dabs of light, lines of definition.  The result, novoimago, is a photograph.....but there is a depth there that I have never achieved in other photography.  The light shimmers a little more and the darks glow.

The novoimage image is of Art Deco Bronx architecture.  The fabulous Art Deco that once pervaded all of New York City is still very much alive in the Bronx.  Novoimago embellishes the photograph with added depth and an ephemeral quality that makes it more alive and creates an entrance into the actual two dimensions of the photographic medium.

Novoimago: Bronx, NY

Friday, May 13, 2016

Tips for Sepia Photography

Whatever your photographic subject, you will want your sepia photography to be excellent.  Here are a few tips that have worked well for many of the photographers I know who specialize in sepia photography, including me!

1.  Critical in any visual: recognize your light source.

 The light source defines the image.  You may use one specific source of light or many, but you should pinpoint the origin(s) of the light before the first shutter click.  Why is this so important?  Light creates form and interest.  The light source lets you know where to place your highlights and shadows.  The light source actually shapes the highlights and shadows in the image.  For example:
this photograph of a charming courtyard I took in Vienna is dappled with shadow from the graceful tree in the near background and trees whose branches frame the upper left boarder but most of which are not seen.  The natural light from the upper left/and some center light filters through the leaves to create the lacy shadows.  The elegant wrought iron railing also casts some shadows.  But notice that where the light is blocked, for instance by the near wall of the stairs, there is a dark shadow , which forms a distinct shape.  Too, the facade of the building is in a lighter tone of shadow because the light is not directly illuminating it.  The near building on the right is lit by a softer ambient light that we know as daylight and not by specific and direct sunlight.  

Vienna Courtyard

2.  Define your subject.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn holds many happy childhood memories for me.  I especially loved to ride the Carousel and to try to catch the brass ring for a "free" ride.  I wanted to capture the magic I felt on those wonderful carefree days in my photograph of the Prospect Park Carousel.  The distinct focal point of the image is the structure that houses the Carousel.  This is the building that came into view after my trekking across the grassy lawns of the park.  The twinkling inner lights beckoned me to the fantasy wooden horses within.  The trees and shrubs around the lovely old brick building, somewhat stripped like a circus tent, create a frame and heighten my anticipation of the joys of childhood.  As a child, I felt as if the borders of foliage were like gates to pass through to get to the ultimate delight of my Carousel ride(s).  In the photograph, I have created a story surrounding the subject of those joys.  Identify your subject first and weave a pictorial story around that particular focal point.

Prospect Park Carousel: Brooklyn

3.  Know if you are going for high or low contrast.

While you are shooting, it is a good idea to decide whether or not you will want your photograph to have high contrast or to have far more subtler tones (low contrast).  Perhaps you only work with dark darks and brilliant lights.  Then your decision is made for you.  Personally, although I think that my photographs are recognizable as my work/style, I prefer not to limit myself by creating only high contrast or low.  Therefore, when I am looking at my subjects, I get a feel for the shadows and the afore mentioned light.  I decide where the darkest darks are and try to find form and definition in those ares while shooting.  There is nothing worse than a black blob in my photograph, except for a white/blown out light.  In the brightest lights, I look for detail.  Once you have downloaded the shots, even if you are working in the studio, the light has changed.  Far better to decide the nature of the photograph while you are taking the pictures. 

On the left, I saw the entrance to this grand old Manhattan building from behind a staircase.  I was intrigued about coming out of shadow and into the light.  The arch and circular motifs added definition to the darks and gave me an opportunity to "glow" the lights through the image.  The high contrast theme of the sepia photograph adds to the overall feeling of emerging from shadow to light.

The photograph on the right is a hazy summer's day image that is meant to tell that story.  Walking on the road in a New England town, I spied a pretty, old B&B.  The sun was shimmering with that warm, fuzzy heat of summer and I liked the subtle tonalities of the scene.  It is critical to add some darker and lighter elements to the image to create a feeling of form and space; however, these may be very slight in tonality.

It should be mentioned that high contrast and low contrast sepia are far different from their counterparts in black and white photography.  I, personally, find that sepia can be a softer, more delicately muted medium than black and white, even in high contrast sepia images.  Slamming in the darks or evoking those blinding lights (always with detail) in sepia photographs still produce a somewhat more understated photograph than the same image in black and white. 

High Contrast/Low Contrast

4. Understand the tonal properties of sepia.

Sepia, like black and white photography, has specific tonal properties.  Sepia is a monochromatic medium, and as such focuses primarily on subject rather than color.  Photography, for the most part, seeks to provide three dimentionality on a two dimensional plane.  Even abstracts mainly want to create a certain level of depth and spatial relationship.  This is where tone comes in.  The tones or values of light and dark in any visual work provide form and depth.  Darks usually afford a proximity to the viewer while lights recede into the background/distance.  The subject has many tones of dark and light to create that three dimensional feel.  Try to find these lights and darks and blend the various tones into your work.

It must also be considered that sepia may be cool or warm as a tone.  It is much more color-orientated than black and white, which may also be cool or warm to a certain degree.  Whereas black and white does offer an infinite tonality range, sepia goes even further because its origin is in color. It may be noted that I shoot all of my photography in RGB/color, which I believe gives me more opportunity to express subtle shades/tones.  However, I certainly respect those photographers who use monochrome to shoot and who have contrasting views to mine regarding tonality and achieving it in photography. 

The photograph on the left of the Astor Houses in Harlem is a very cool sepia palette. My intention was to create a tranquil row of houses in a low key tonal range that showcased the beauty and history of the architecture.  On the right is a warm sepia photograph taken in Newport, RI.  It was a lovely fall day and the warm sepia tones highlight the sunny/shady park-like setting.

Each photograph was originally taken in color.  The sepia tones were added after the images were converted to black and white in the computer.  I then gradually "built" the sepia tones to where I wanted them.

Cool Sepia/Warm Sepia

5.  Decide before hand if you are working on individual photographs or a series.

A series of photographs using sepia values is usually more successful if the tonalities are in a similar range and temperature.  Of course, that is entirely up to the discretion of the photographer.

The top two (below) photographs are of Miami.  The warm tones and the bold contrasts communicate my feelings about the Florida city: heat, shadow, Art Deco, nightlife, tropical. Warm sepia tones with high contrasts.

The center photographs are of Dresden, Germany.  I was there in cool weather.  The German light is a cooler light at most all times. It has a mystical quality: a soft, tangible feeling of ancient stone and history (although Dresden was rebuilt in the last half century).  There is a dreamy quality about the place rather than the roaring vibrancy of Miami.  Cool sepia tones in low contrast

Finally, a stand alone view of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn.  Some tones are warm and some are cool.  The darks are more subtle than those in the Miami photographs, but not as ethereal as the Dresden images.  In this one photograph, I captured my feelings about looking across the river to the magic spires of the Big Apple.


Last word:

No matter what medium you use for your photography, sepia, black and white or/and color, always find the light and utilize its marvels to enhance your images.  Remember to focus on your subject.  And, perhaps most important: find your voice through your photography, which ultimately is a form of your self-expression.