Architectural Photography Should Interpret, not Just Document, the World

Infusing life into architectural photography, the legacy of Julius Shulman

Bilyana Dimitrova, the architectural photographer and former photo editor for Metropolis has curated an interesting exhibition for the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University, in Los Angeles. Entitled Beyond the Assignment, the show features work from ten of the top architectural photographers in the country, including Peter Aaron, Tim Hursley, Lara Swimmer, and Paul Warchol. The following text is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue.

I first spoke with Julius Shulman in 2006. I was working as an architectural photographer and had just started part-time as the photo editor of Metropolis. I was working on the magazine’s 25th Anniversary issue, the biggest issue of the year. I was assembling photographs from twelve of Metropolis’ heavy hitters, the key photographers who had helped the magazine disseminate architecture and design to the world for the past quarter century. Julius was, of course, one of these photographers, and I had to call and ask him to write something about the photographs that he had submitted. I got a two-page handwritten fax from him that I still have to this day.

Getting to talk to Julius meant a lot to me. His enthusiasm for life and the love he had for his work was infectious, even over the phone. He was proof that if you do what you love, you will love doing it until the end of your days. Similarly, the photographers included in the exhibition Beyond The Assignment: Defining Photographs of Architecture and Design all share a love for what they do and, while on assignment, imbue their photographs with their own curiosity, wonderment and joy. Their images show us how this type of engagement with the subject makes for photographs that hold our attention and can render the built environment unforgettable.

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Courtesy © Alan Karchmer

The idea for Beyond The Assignment first came to me in 2009 as I was looking through my own archive, selecting images to print and hang in my office. I kept gravitating to images that were not really about the architecture or the design that they represented. They were images that captured my own elation as I found and captured something extraordinary. They expressed my unique experience of the architecture or the design and how it moved and inspired me. The realization that I was moved to create these types of images while on the job reminded me how much I love what I do. My work serves a function for my clients and the architecture and design community, while allowing me to express my creativity, a perfect blend of work and pleasure. I started to think about why this mutual benefit was an important component of my practice, what it added to my work and, by extension, to the larger discourse. I also started to think about the images that turned me onto the field of architectural photography and which photographers were behind them. Quickly a show of these types of images started to evolve and take shape in my mind.

Courtesy © Bilyana Dimitrova

I have admired so many of my colleagues over the years and, of course, as a photo editor at Metropolis magazine I was regularly working with great talent from across the country. I specifically admire the work of those photographers that have a conviction to create images that push beyond the expected, offering inventive and artful ways of looking at the built environment. The selected photographers in Beyond The Assignment have all chosen architectural photography as a way to satisfy both creative and professional pursuits and therefore they not only expertly document but also artfully interpret our world. This combination allows them to create images that make lasting visual impressions that ingrain the architecture and design in our collective consciousness. Furthermore, these types of images allow the architecture and design to live on beyond the life of the architect or designer, and even beyond the life of the project itself.

Most of us experience the built environment through the photographs that document it. As architectural photographers we’re regular contributors to the dialogue of architecture and design. Through the dissemination of our images, we define how the public sees the built environment. Despite this powerful position, more often than not, we’re anonymous figures hidden behind the projects that we shoot. Or, as in the case with Julius Shuman, Ezra Stoller and a few others, we receive recognition only towards the end our careers. Beyond The Assignment aims to correct this oversight by bringing into focus some of today’s leading architectural photographers, none of whom are anywhere near the end of their careers.

Courtesy © Joe Fletcher

The selected photographers represent the talent that spans across our country, hailing from Chicago, Washington D.C., Little Rock, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. They also represent the talent that spans multiple generations, helping us to look back to what is now the field’s long history. Several of the photographers apprenticed with the pioneers of the fiield. Paul Warchol and Peter Aaron apprenticed for Ezra Stoller, the preeminent pioneer of architectural photography on the East Coast and founder of the architectural photography agency Esto in 1966. Jon Miller apprenticed for Bill Hedrich at Hedrich Blessing in Chicago, the first photo studio in the U.S. dedicated to architectural photography as a practice. And across Lake Michigan, Timothy Hursley apprenticed for Balthazar Korab in Detroit. Having photographers in the exhibition that have had the tutelage of some of the field’s founders allows for a reminder of their founding principles, principles that encourage the architectural photographer to really look at the architecture and design, swallow it whole, tell its story in pictures, show its character, individuality, and essence, and even bring it to life.

While Beyond The Assignment examines the work of ten specific photographers, my hope is that it encourages the architecture and design community to take better notice of the field of architectural photography and its many practitioners. At a time of information overload on the web, who are the photographers that force us to pause and really look at the architecture and design that’s presented, and therefore make it more memorable? Who are the individuals behind the photographs that hold our attention as we sift through content and allow us to take the time to reflect on what’s being built today? The photographers exhibited in Beyond The Assignment, represent other photographers like them in the fieldwho aim to create lasting visual impressions in an age when limitless architecture and design news can be digested and forgotten in seconds on the web.

Courtesy © Lara Swimmer

Despite sharing the same conviction to create indelible images that make architecture and design unforgettable, the photographers represented in Beyond The Assignment are all very different. “We’re all like snowflakes” as Jon Miller says in his interview about his colleagues at Hedrich Blessing. The exhibition Beyond The Assignment explores each photographer’s unique take on their subject through their images while this catalogue explores their unique experiences in the field of architectural photography through their own words. The interviews that I conducted provide an opportunity for the reader to learn about the photographers and their distinct practices on multiple levels. They elucidate the photographers’ professional history, the connection they have to the history of the field and their present pursuits. All combined, the interviews offer both a comprehensive look at formative moments in the field as well as its present state. They ask the question, “What’s in store for architectural photography and its practitioners in the future?”

It is an absolute honor to have these questions posed within the context of the Julius Shulman Institute and to have had the support and encouragement from its director Emily Bills. For the architetcural photographers reading this, I’ll end with my favorite line from the two-page fax that I got from Julius Shulman back in 2006: “We must assume our responsibility to infuse LIFE into our presentations!”

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