The Art of Collaboration

Still flush from receiving an AIA Collaborative Achievement award, the photographer Peter Aaron discusses the complexities of working with architects.

Architecture, by its very nature, relies on the participation of other disciplines, so it is no surprise that the American Institute of Architects annually bestows an award for collaborative achievement. Though many of the recipients work in the expected auxiliary fields—contracting, engineering, landscape planning—others make their contributions in the way that they represent the profession and its achievements. Past honorees with a less concrete connection to architecture include Bryan Bell (2007), coeditor of Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (Met­rop­olis Books, 2008); the artist Martin Puryear (2003); and the photographer Jeff Goldberg (1999). We were pleased to learn that the AIA chose Metropolis this year among its honorees—along with the photographer Peter Aaron, whose work regularly appears in our pages. As those in the publishing industry know very well, photographers play a significant role in our perception of architecture. Since most buildings can’t travel, images are usually the way in which they are conveyed to the world. A photographer’s interpretation of the built environment lends a project a particular look, sometimes even improving on the original. Metropolis’s photo editor, Sarah Palmer, recently spoke to Aaron about his three-decades-long career, how digital technology has transformed the way he works, and why architects are wrong about wide-angle shots.

How did it feel to win the AIA Collaborative Achievement award? Do you see the work you do as an act of collaboration?
When I heard about it, I flushed with excitement. I realized I’ve been at it since 1975, which was thirty-four years ago! It feels wonderful to be recognized for all that work. “Collaborative achievement” is the operative phrase, because the beauty of the picture is predicated on the quality of the subject matter. Ezra Stoller used to say that you can’t make great pictures of mediocre architecture. The best I can do is to attempt to show the Platonic ideal of what the architect intended.

Tell me a little about how your career evolved.
The most important thing was meeting Ezra and then going out with him on shoots for two years, from 1975 to 1977. He explained quite a few important things to me during that time, among them that, as a photographer, he is at the service of the architect. His goal is to make their work award-winning, not his work. He also said that photography is a series of shots, and that individual shots are rarely powerful enough or iconic enough to stand alone. It’s the sequence that tells the story.

That’s very interesting from a magazine’s point of view, because we don’t get to show that many shots. If space is limited, we’ll publish a single money shot for each project.
Yeah, so, God willing, you’ll come up with these shots during a shoot.

Describe how you approach a building as a series of shots.
I’m mindful that there’s a front, sides, and a back, and when I present the work, I present it in a progression. I walk in the front door, and around the first, second, and third floor to make it more understandable.

Do you always make notes first?
I do a walk-through with the architect to figure out what he thinks are the most important aspects of the building. And I try to put time-of-day notes on my list of shots, in terms of where the sun is, and then to prioritize it be-cause there’s never enough time to do everything. You might as well get the most important stuff.

Do you think that what you see as the most important aspects of a building is similar to what the architect sees as most important?
Often, it’s different. I think the architect, having spent five years on the project, becomes blind to what makes the building interesting to the rest of the world. I’m there to cut through some of his blindness. And the architect often picks the wrong time of day for these shots. It surprises me that they could be so skilled at what they do and yet ask me to take a picture when the sun is completely flat and full-bore on the side I’m trying to capture, when, in fact, it’s better as a shadowy picture.

When you’re walking through a building, do you see photographs? Do you write a shot list in your head, or do the pictures come as you’re shooting?
Oh, that’s interesting. I see a lot of it in the initial walk-through, but there are also surprises that come up. It’s important to look for details, vignettes, little bits of the building that represent the whole, because a big dose of wide-angle pictures is a turnoff. If you have to look at a page of wide-angle shots, it’s all going to be a blur. You really have to vary the shots, so I spend time looking for these rich, close details that help tell the story.

And what about the fact that we’ve gone into a digital world now where all the rules have changed?
At the end of 2004, I stopped using film and now only shoot digital, which has basically opened up the field to a lot of im-provements, including being able to have people in the shots without worrying about blur, without worrying about mistakes—you get to see the poses instantly.

At the magazine, we always want pictures with people in them. Buildings are used by people, so we believe we should show them, but a lot of architects want the buildings to stand alone as depopulated sculptures. Where do you stand on the people issue?
I think it’s better to have people, but the architects may have been reacting to the fact that it was often unsuccessfully done. If people are posed well, it helps show scale. Some of Ezra’s famous pictures of, say, Ronchamp, by Le Corbusier, where you saw monks standing around the chapel, were posed so beautifully that it definitely enhanced the picture. It used to be a threat, actually, when a magazine editor asked that the pictures have people, because it was so hard to achieve good posing with long exposures and other adverse circumstances. Now it can be done with ease.

In terms of adding people to the shots, or doing composites, obviously you’re not constrained by the ethics of photojournalism. I would love to hear you to talk about the ethics of architectural photography.
Yeah, this came up when we first started getting into the digital world; there was lots of talk about the ethics of changing the photograph. There’s a rule at the New York Times, for instance, that they’re only to receive raw files without any putting together of layers—but that was a reaction to the possibility that you could change reality. I think it’s a sliding scale of ethical issues. I would say that, certainly, putting people in and out of pictures at will does not affect the architecture, but changing anything on the building gets very dicey. If you have a beautiful house but the architect doesn’t like the drainpipes and gutters and he asks you to take them off, that’s overstepping the line.

What about exit signs or fire extinguishers?
Exit signs I think would be okay, fire extinguishers would be okay, but once you start changing the basic design of the building, it doesn’t really exist in the world and shouldn’t be in the photograph.

What about the idea of architectural photography as product photography? You are working with the architect to represent their work. Do you ever feel constrained by that?
I just see it in terms of good and bad photographs, good and bad aspects of the building. If the architect is pushing me toward something I don’t approve of, I resist, and the more I resist, the better the pictures become. I’d say something that’s almost universally true is that the architect likes very wide-angle pictures that sometimes show three and even four walls. That’s a huge mistake. By showing everything, you wind up showing nothing. I push the architect to exclude as much as possible, so that we don’t have rooms that are so wide-angle they look like football fields.

And in fact, a wide angle completely distorts the appear­ance of the building.
It certainly does. And while the designer might understand it because he has spent a lot of time there, the uninitiated viewer will have no understanding of the building based on that picture.

We sometimes struggle with getting pictures that show the functionality of buildings, as opposed to the pretty details or sculptural aspects that may be beautiful but don’t tell us how the building works.
If all you show is the exterior, the lobby, the circulation areas—and you never get to a destination such as an office, a cafeteria, or whatever’s at the end of those halls—then you don’t understand why the building is there in the first place.

Do you prefer shooting exteriors or interiors?
Interiors are more fun because you have more control, especially over the lighting. On an exterior you’re a victim of circumstance, of how the building is positioned with regard to the sun, the landscape, and the weather. The main difference between exteriors and interiors is that you can control light and people.

You are obviously a very well established architectural photographer—are you pursuing any personal photographic projects?
Personal work has always been a little dicey, because there have only been a few project ideas that ever stood the test of time for me. I photographed the châteaus and vineyards in Bordeaux many years ago, and now I want to show the changes that have occurred since 1969. I think I’ll bring a completely different eye to it. And so much has changed in the way wine is made that I believe I’m going to see a lot of differences in the processes and the way the people look, as well as in the way I photograph. Right now that’s the only thing I’m interested in pursuing. But I haven’t done many personal projects in my career. I think I might start doing more.

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