As photographer Andy Day brought up during the RIBA’s Run, Jump, Shoot public workshop last week, so much of architectural photography seems to depict “ post-apocalyptic visions of empty worlds experiencing seemingly endless summers .” Why is this so? Through a discussion of the transformation of architectural photography paired with a hands-on photo shoot of the Alexandra Road Estate , London, participants had a chance to challenge this idea and leave with some fantastic photographs.
To kick off the session, participants met at 66 Portland Place, the RIBA’s headquarters, to hear presentations by Justine Sambrook (Curator, Robert Elwall Photographs Collection) and Andy Day whose photographic work focuses primarily on parkour and free running.
Image: Thamesmead, Greenwich, London
© Tony Ray-Jones / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Justine spoke about the history of communal housing, connecting the buildings themselves to the changing standards of photographs at the time. Through photographs documenting housing estates such as Thamesmead, Park Hill, Ronan Point, and Alexandra Road, she explained how photography went from focusing on iconic, peopleless images, to more realistic depiction of buildings in use. Participants then had the chance to handle original photoprints (such as of Thamesmead, image above) from the Photographs Collection, normally held at the RIBA in humidity-controlled storage.
Andy followed by sharing his views on successful architectural photography. He used visual examples to emphasise key ideas such as:
- empty space
- converging horizontals
- geometric shapes
Central to this was the importance of people in architectural photography. Throughout the presentation he brought up a few interesting questions for participants to explore:
- are architects building for people or for other architects?
- how can the photographer incorporate people to capture more than just a “ post-apocalyptic vision of empty worlds experiencing seemingly endless summers ?”
- is the photographer’s job simply to document, or should they aim to make the piece more than just the building?
This was the challenge as participants headed off to Alexandra Road, a successful example of a public housing estate which, as we discovered, is still a vibrant community buzzing with activity. Photographers took the chance to capture the incredible views.
Article by Kate McMillan, British Architectural Library , RIBA
The winning photographs
After a sunny afternoon spent taking photographs at the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, my fellow workshop leader Andy Day and I were excited to see what the participants had produced – and we weren’t disappointed. I wasn’t surprised that the standard of the images submitted to us was so high. Alexandra Road is exceptionally photogenic, with its curving pedestrianised street, stepped façade and myriad of lush hanging plant life – not to mention the colony of cats keen to have their portraits taken!
Andy was experienced in shooting at the estate and instructed participants to look out for picturesque shadows and textures, stairwells and ventilation holes down to the car park below ground that created interesting visual opportunities as well as other top tips for achieving a good shot.
We decided to give two prizes of an A4 print of their choice for our favourite shots from the day. It was very hard to choose just two, but eventually we picked images by Vitor Fernandes and Ron Hewitt.
Vitor’s image makes clever use of the pattern formed by the sloping concrete walkways, defined by a fringe of plants that create a dramatic swathe of shadows in the strong sunshine. The figure breaks the regularity of the rhythm and adds a visual focus to the shot.
Ron’s photograph instead focuses on the activity of the residents of the estate. It is beautifully framed and adds an element of humour and dynamism to the architecture with this unusual situation.
Although these two were our ultimate winners, we were so impressed with all the work submitted to us, so well done to everyone and thank you for coming along!
Article by Justine Sambrook, Curator, Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, British Architectural Library , RIBA