Catherine Slessor on Architectural Photography

The 2013 Arcaid Images Architectural Photography Award judge explains what makes an award-winning photo

On 28 February, Building Images, the inaugural exhibition of 16 shortlisted photographs for the 2013 Arcaid Images Architectural Photography Awards will open at London’s Werkstatt cultural centre. The awards were judged by a panel that included architects Zaha Hadid, Eva Jiricna, Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk as well as The Architectural Review’s Editor Catherine Slessor. Ahead of the show’s opening, we talked to Slessor about the criteria for judging the award, won by Ken Scluchtmann, and just what makes for good architectural photography.

What makes for ‘good’ architectural photography?

It should make buildings live in the mind of the viewer. It should make you feel like you’re there, drawn into the building or landscape. It should intrigue and beguile, daunt and confront. It should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Architectural photography is a distillation, capturing and expressing the essence of the architect’s ideas, but it’s also about the photographer’s eye.

When this relationship is at its most intense, it can define an era. For instance, American photographer Julius Shulman’s evocative and instantly identifiable black and white shots of Californian houses in the ‘50s and ‘60s epitomised not only a progressive new era in architecture, but also how it was presented to the public, as a seductive modern lifestyle. A new kind of architecture found a new means of visual and cultural expression.

More recently, the work of Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, who favours a more informal, cinéma vérité approach, has redefined the look of architectural photography. Baan vividly documents what I would describe as the secret life of buildings, how spaces are actually used and inhabited by people. It’s much less self-consciously posed and gives more of a sense of real experience.

What criteria did you have as a judge in determining who should win the prize?

It’s hard to define, because it’s not necessarily about technical, compositional or aesthetic perfection. That can sometimes lead to a very sterile outcome. Rather, it’s about the photographer’s way of seeing. Everything flows from that. Obviously there has to be a level of technical skill, but it’s how this skill is used to create a kind of transcendence and connect more deeply with the viewer.

“It should make you feel like you’re there, drawn into the building or landscape.
It should intrigue and beguile, daunt and confront”

Which photographs (aside from Ken’s winning image) really jumped out at you, and why?

I was drawn to Duccio Malagamba’s shot of the Dalian Congress Centre in China. It’s simultaneously beautiful and bleak – the beautiful new building like a delicate piece of sculpture or haute couture set against the backdrop of a still terraforming cityscape of bleak and anonymous skyscrapers. It’s exceptionally evocative of our times and how architecture is being relentlessly commodified, used as a bauble to prettify what is essentially a terrifyingly banal and overscaled urban development being realised at breakneck speed. By pulling back to include the wider context, Malagamba invites you to consider a much more revealing and complex picture.

And finally, what was it about Ken’s image that made it stand out as winner?

It goes back to this idea of a way of seeing. The choice of subject is unorthodox – a viewing platform in a wild landscape. There isn’tmuch formal architecture to behold. But even so, its relationship with the landscape is visualised in a way that is genuinely sublime. By this I mean that the viewer experiences a sense of terror at how the raw power of nature appears to overwhelm the fragile manmade structures clinging to the cliff edge. Confronted by this elemental energy, humanity appears totally insignificant. All we can do is gasp in awe.

It reminds me of that famous German Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’. It’s extremely compelling and dramatic, yet it also has a quiet intensity and beauty in its muted colours and soft light. It doesn’t shout to get your attention but is nonetheless an exquisitely riveting image that touches your emotions in a way that goes well beyond its obvious technical accomplishment.

Building Images runs from 28 February – 25 April at Werkstatt, 7-9 Woodbridge Street, London EC1R 0LL. For more information, click HERE. Catherine Slessor is Editor of The Architectural Review