Can you trace your interest in photography to a specific moment? I was interested in art from a very young age. I was always drawing—always. I started painting in high school, and the summer after I graduated, I visited my sister in Texas. Before I left, she gave me her dusty old Konica T4 and a couple of lenses. When I came back to Chicago, I took a workshop in basic darkroom techniques. I don’t think I ever painted again, and for the last 30 years, I have been absolutely obsessed with photography.
You started your career at Chicago-based architectural photography firm Hedrich Blessing. What did you learn from your experience there? I assisted there for three years and then worked as a staff photographer for twelve years. Every photographer at Hedrich Blessing—with one or two exceptions—started out as an assistant. It was really based on apprenticeships, and it was an incredible place to learn about lighting and composition. We’d all go out and shoot projects and then come back, stand around the light box, and critique each other’s work. I learned more from Nick Merrick in fifteen minutes than I did in the ten years prior. The studio was a cornerstone of architectural photography for 88 years, and I was saddened to hear of its recent closing.
When you’re conceptualizing images of a building for an architectural client, where does your creative process begin? My own creative process doesn’t begin until my clients have clearly explained their own. This work that I do—I think I have a pretty good idea of how to do it. It’s not really that challenging for me to make beautiful photographs of buildings or interiors. What’s really challenging is crafting a story. Every piece of architecture has its own story that its designers have been writing for months or years. I would never presume to just walk into an environment and know its story. The success of my work is wholly dependent on my collaboration with designers and architects. A lot of the work that my clients do revolves around a conceptualism that can be fairly abstract at times. Conveying those ideas in still or moving images—that’s what I find most challenging and gratifying.
What’s more challenging—photographing a building’s exterior or its interior? Oh, exteriors drive me nuts. You have to have just the right weather and light. The site needs to be clean, landscaped and free of obstructions. There are so many random variables that can make it utterly frustrating.
When we’re shooting interiors, I have control over the environment and the lighting. Being able to finely tune every little detail is highly satisfying. If we’re shooting a boardroom, we set the height and position of every chair around the table. Then, while I’m looking through the camera, I have my assistants set the rotation of the base of every chair, and then every caster on every base of every chair. We attend to all the details that people don’t really notice—but then when you look at the before and after, you get it. Most of my work—whether it’s commercial or fine art, still or motion—has an innate tranquility to it. I’m constantly working at organizing chaos, balancing activity with negative space and building compositions that aren’t necessarily perfect, but just feel right.
Has architectural photography changed form over your years of working in the industry? Oh yes, tremendously. There are people shooting architecture today who’ve never shot film, and that blows me away. On top of that, add in video, drones and the shift towards using available light. So much has changed.
When I was heading up the transition from film to digital at Hedrich, at one point, one of the photographers looked at me and said, “You know, I really hoped to retire before this happened.” But personally, I’m a big geek, and I love the challenges that all these changes have thrown at me. I think my work was stagnating for a while, but it’s been evolving over the last decade.
What emergent technology or platform should photographers start taking advantage of? The most obvious platform is virtual reality. I hate that stuff, though. I’m really not interested in exploring that at all. We need to fix our non–virtual reality before we dive headlong into complete escapism.
What advice do you have for a photographer who’s just starting out? If you’re interested in shooting architecture, find an architect you admire, maybe someone small who you can team up and begin a collaboration with. That architect is going to have so much to teach you. I’ve talked with a number of architectural photographers who don’t know that much about architecture, and that seems like a missed opportunity. It’s no wonder that many of the successful architectural photographers through history were actually architecture majors in college. Balthazar Korab, the Detroit-based Hungarian photographer, was schooled as an architect. Balthazar was a contemporary of the Hedrichs, the photography family behind Hedrich Blessing; Ezra Stoller, founder of the New York–based photography firm Esto Photographics; and Julius Shulman. In Chicago, there’s also Tom Rossiter, who spent the first half of his life as an architect before becoming a photographer.
Did you ever learn anything about photography through architecture? Photographing architecture is all about organizing visual information. I often describe it as graphic design with a camera. That’s all architectural photographers are—graphic designers with cameras. Architecture is constantly teaching me how to be a better graphic designer.
Are there any particular architectural shoots that stand out in your memory? In January of 2016, my team and I went to South Korea to shoot CJ Blossom Park for global architectural firm CannonDesign. I traveled with interior architect Mark Hirons, who I’ve worked with for many years. There was also Patsy McEnroe, my first assistant; Matthew Rivera, my second assistant; and Joongkeun Chie, who joined our crew locally. It was a big shoot! We spent six days photographing interiors and exteriors. We were often running two shots as once. I would bounce back and forth between sets, often grabbing little architectural vignettes as I was walking. It’s an amazing building, and provided great opportunities for photography. I made nearly 150 images. I was in heaven for a solid week.
What does it feel like to switch gears and work in motion? I get excited because it’s a toy I don’t get to play with much as an architectural photographer. I do get to do some motion work—actually, more on furniture shoots than architecture—but my main focus is stills. When I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I actually ran out of photography classes, so I started taking filmmaking. I’ve been in love with the medium ever since.
Filming architecture is tough because buildings, you know, don’t move. It’s fine to look at a still photo of a building not moving, but staring at the same composition when you know it’s video gets boring really quickly. So we have to find ways to make it interesting, and that means moving the camera. With interiors, that can be awesome because the work can be so much more experiential; the story—the transmission through space—becomes clearer and more compelling. Shooting in motion is compositionally challenging, though. I’m always composing for perfect lines, straight verticals and refined one-point perspectives. If you’re moving through a space on a steadicam or a gimbal, it’s hard to maintain the integrity of that compositional perspective. When we shot a house a while ago, I had 80 feet of dolly track laid so that my tracking shots could remain absolutely perpendicular to the architecture while still being level. With motion, it can be difficult to do all that with the budget that most architecture firms have.
How does your background as an architectural photographer inform your cinematography work? I’ve shot a number of narrative short films, mostly just for fun. I’m sure I’m one of the very few directors of photography who often shoot with tilt-shift lenses on a RED just so they can maintain architectural integrity within the composition of a narrative scene. When you’re doing a wide shot of two women talking to a homeless man, does it matter that the columns under the viaduct are perfectly straight?
Yes, yes it does.