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