“Photography is truth,” said film director Jean-Luc Godard. Architectural photography, however, often stretches the truth. Margaret Bourke-White depicted the Chrysler Building soaring weightlessly over Manhattan, and Edward Steichen's misty portrait of the Flatiron Building made the whole city seem carved from stone. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier both doctored images of their work in order to make it appear simpler, and Ezra Stoller, arguably the most influential architectural photographer ever, transformed midcentury modernism into abstract sculpture. These images do not simply illustrate buildings—they influence attitudes about architecture. Because many buildings are experienced mostly second-hand, through published photos, a picture can be worth a thousand visits.
What is the most persuasive way to photograph a green building? “The problem of sustainable design is a great one,” says Washington, D.C.–based photographer Prakash Patel. “What is it we're trying to represent? Is it just what you can see?” Fresh air and thermal comfort are experienced by the entire body, not just the eye. Though balanced daylight is critical, photographers routinely rely on heavy artificial lighting, and the results often appear flat and unnatural. Another trick of the trade is to place the camera below eye level so a space seems larger. This is particularly popular with photographers of commercial interiors, including many projects celebrated as green.
These habits can send the wrong signal, says Texas photographer Paul Hester. “Sustainable design isn't about monumentality. It's about livability.” Shooting green requires a shift from what he calls the iconic to the experiential. “What's important is to capture what it's like to be there.” With Lake/Flato's World Birding Center Headquarters (right), he knew that the building's connection with its setting, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, was key. “You're there to be outside, but you need some shelter from the sun. Instead of one big building, it's a series of small pavilions. There's a sense of openness with protection.” A view from under one of the long vaults contrasts its deep shade with the bright, open plain beyond, and the coolness is almost tangible.
“It was a simple shot,” says Hester. “I didn't pose those people. I was taking a break and having a cup of coffee.” (That's his cup in the foreground.) Digital cameras have allowed photographers to be quicker, like journalists, according to Hester. “You don't need strobe lights or double exposures or any other effects. You can focus on the experience and not the technology.” At the Birding Center, “I just waited for people to do something.” This is the opposite of the conventional approach, which requires complicated staging and long exposures and avoids people altogether. “I want people in the photos,” says Hester. “They help viewers understand a place.”
How people in photos help us to understand a place is perfectly illustrated by Timothy Hursley's work with the Rural Studio. One photo of the Harris “Butterfly” House in Mason's Bend, Ala., puts us right at eye level with the owners, as if we are visitors on their front porch. When the photo was taken, construction had just finished, and the Harrises clearly were proud. “They dressed up for the photo,” Hursley recalls. “They're in their Sunday clothes.” Imagine this picture without Mrs. Harris' welcoming gaze and Mr. Harris' rugged profile. It would be an empty portrait. As interesting as the house is, it's not a home without these two.
Since the early 1990s, Hursley has been documenting the Rural Studio work as it evolves, and the outcome is a unique chronicle of architecture over multiple generations (see sidebar below). “I'm building something over time,” he says. “I'm fascinated by the changes.”
Patel agrees that getting to know the life of a building requires more than a typical one-day shoot. “I have to understand the space before I can illustrate it.” Illustrating Carrie Meinberg Burke's Timepiece House in Charlottesville, Va., took more than a single visit. Designed around a central oculus that casts a beam of light along the floors and walls, the house turns daily and seasonal cycles into cinema. How do you convey that in still images? “Because time was central to the design concept, I was forced to come up with a novel way to photograph it,” says Patel. Inspired by sunlight reflecting off dust in the Pantheon, Patel used a fog machine to dramatize the light. “You can see the effect without understanding where it's coming from.” The space varies through the day, season to season. “I went back to shoot it every equinox and every solstice for three years.”
Photography may be truth, but telling the truth takes time.
Lance Hosey is a director at William McDonough + Partners.