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Composition in Architectural Photography

Composition in Architectural Photography

In photography, the captured image is created with ultimate sensitivity to the world. Photography must humble itself to the cosmic forces that drive our purely organic nature into something which, for an instant, works on us, looks right, and somehow snaps into place in our eye, neurons, brain, and emotions (in that order). I don’t yet know if I call that “beautiful.” I think I do. 

Architectural Photography is a phrase begging for clarification. To call commissioned photographs of architecture “Architectural Photography” is to make the leap towards justifying advertising work as art.* In understanding the written rules of photography, the lens, and post-processing, you will be afforded success in taking pictures of architecture. But we must make an effort to understand that the written rule is just one answer, not the answer.

Architectural photography is the decisive moment, as is all photography, as it began with Henri Cartier-Bresson. “Immediate sketch, done with

intuition, and you can’t correct it,” says Henri. And in applying this theorem, I find that we are left with two categories of Architectural Photography and thus two frames of reference when considering composition.

The first category involves the representation of occupancy in and around a work of architecture. Or the representation of architecture in landscape, or even architecture photographed from space as a new semi-permanent dot on our planet (“Oslo Opera House”, Snohetta). This first category aims, in its purest pursuit, to represent our experience of architecture and how it has evidently changed our understanding of other architecture, our world, or each other. Though it may still cling to its advertising origins, it has entered the gravitational pull of art.1

When imagining this form as a dynamic energy - a story of the architecture being told faster than a movie (though never instantaneously) - one considers

the frame as the only editing tool. The material presented in the frame is essential to plot, character development, legibility, mood, and setting. If questioned about the composition, the photographer should be able to answer every “what does that mean?” and “why is that there?” and “how are these connected?” And they all should return to a central thesis2 (“Taxi Driver”, Scorsese).

I owe my introduction to the second category to Ezra Stoller’s shots of Louis Kahn’s “Salk Institute” and Eero Saarinen’s “TWA Terminal”. This category more closely approaches the surface of art’s moon in that it deals almost entirely with intuition. It involves beginning to accept the frame as the canvas and the light and shutter as the paint and brush. Here we scrape the surface of transcendence, art3. At once, reality – gravity – is discarded and replaced with pure composition (“Small Worlds”, Wassily Kandinsky). This becomes the point at which a photograph, a piece of music, a painting, a drawing, a novel, a dance performance, and a bowl of split pea soup are all comparable.

Though I haven’t yet taught myself how to approach an accurate description of what is working in our psyche and why our circuits react, I do know that geometry, textures, and light are the key players, as they are in elegant architecture.

1Art and the value of money are mutually exclusive. 
2Art is of the artist, not the audience. 
3Art is complete transcendence. 


words and photo by Noah Winkler

Kevin De Los Santos