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Feature article

Melbourne School of Design 2014 by John Wardle Architects and NADAAA_Photograph: John Gollings

The Camera Never Lies

WORDS BY John Gollings

It’s probably a miracle that a building survives its birth. To be conceived, rendered, marketed, value managed, financed and then actually built while remaining true to the original concept is rare.

At this point in the life of a building comes the photographer who tries to make amends for the difficult birth.

I think of the building image and the reality as distinct items. I’m not too concerned with a faithful reproduction but rather an image that conveys the spirit of a design with a sense of context and a memorable composition.

The actual built form is often constrained by regulation and excrescences relating to performance, such as air conditioning plant and public lighting.

I have no compunction removing these elements to avoid distraction for the viewer.

An architectural photographer is documenting someone else’s creativity which implies great restraint with the image. Theoretically the image should be a window to the building, shot with natural perspective under regular light and with no photographic effects such as trick filters, distorted colour, production artefacts or artful compositions of shadow and pattern.

In practice this theory gets modified by circumstance; time, weather, access and design motifs which need exaggeration or isolation to be legible.

The final composition is a subtle balance which has to show the building’s composition within the surrounding context, in turn framed by the photographer to keep clarity, legibility and memorability paramount.

The old cliché about light being so valuable to a photographer needs another judgement. It is that the light on the building needs to be considered first. There will always be a particular play of light that best renders the form of the architecture and it is not always the most poetic to the photographer. I remember well, Harry Seidler rejecting a photo of one of his buildings with a spectacular sunset because it was a rare, non-typical moment. He wanted hard, top lit midday light which showed the awnings performing their shading task.

My primary task when looking at a building is to ascertain the single best image to represent the exterior of the building and another for the interior.

Beyond the initial publication it is this single image that will be referenced and republished. This is the so called hero shot, or ‘money shot’. A job is never finished until I have identified and captured it.

I shoot very few details, especially if they are of momentary patterns or rhythms because they are about the photographer’s creativity, not the architect’s. Equally, I’m surprised by the number of architects who are seduced by an artful image of their project, akin to an Instagram snap with nineteenth century romantic pictorialism rampant. It gets very subjective but I think the photographic style should not be at odds with the architectural style.

There is no point to a photograph unless it is published! Originally a fine, handmade print was produced. Then came mechanical reproduction in books and magazines along with the democratisation of the photographic image. Anyone could own or view a copy and even original photographic prints could be mass produced.

With the Internet came electronic distribution with an attendant assault on ownership, copyright, attribution and quality. The photographer and architect see no recompense for an image passed from site to site except for a credit if they are lucky. Ironically the data is useless for anything other than a small electronic viewing, an ephemeral experience at best with none of the pleasure of a tangible object.

If architecture has an advocate to spread design culture it is the photographer, not the architect or the building. A building is frail and naked, the architect is verbose and impenetrable, only a well found photograph has a chance to mutely provide a glimpse of meaning and beauty.