Top Ten The best German architectural photographers
Architecture criticism and architectural photography are inseparable - and yet they are fundamentally different. The one describes a space, a building, a city in words, the other captures the light that emanates from the architecture: through sober documentation, “unbribable” commentary, or sensitive narration, poetic rapture. In Falk Jaeger’s work as architecture critic, the architectural photographer turns into his alter ego. He has selected the best of the profession and presents them with their various approaches and pictorial languages in brief portraits.
One might think that taking pictures of houses cannot be all that difficult. They don’t run away and wait patiently for the right light together with the photographer. Sometimes, however, the waiting is in vain, and often conditions are not comfortably manageable as they are in the studio. Thus it becomes clear that in photographing architecture, one very much needs a feeling for the motif, the right moment, the congenial view, and imagination. These ten selected photographers demonstrate this, constantly surprising the viewer with new perspectives, atmospheres and effects.
Architectural photography is also a completely independent field of work. Unlike fashion, cars, or food the issue here is not setting the motifs in the right lighting with the purpose of selling them. The houses have already been sold. For the most part the photos are commissioned by architects who want to have their works documented and often have very definite ideas about how the buildings should look and how they should affect the viewer. Sometimes, however, the photographer turns an unremarkable building into a star, and the photo itself becomes an icon. Many an architect has brought his or her building like a child into the world and left it to others – and therefore to the photographer as well – to absorb and interpret their work.
The fact that buildings are generally photographed without users, in other words without people is a phenomenon that is difficult to explain – the more so since architects mostly put pictures of people into their renderings of planned buildings.
Perhaps the reason for this lack of people in typical architectural photographs is that the work of a photographer, depicting a building, is like composing a still life. Living creatures are only a disturbance here. But given a choice, most architects also go for an image without people. Modern architecture has striven since its beginnings in the early 20th century for clarity, simplification and abstraction. People, by contrast, bring disorder and life into the building. Elite architectures of one kind or another cannot tolerate this at all – which calls their reason for existing into question, but that is another story.
The documenting architecture, the attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the work of the architect, present it as faithfully as possible and render it accessible, is an important task of architectural photography. Architectural theory speaks of the form level, the topological, physically present architecture. This level is every-day working life for most architectural photographers. The axis of symmetry, where present in the object, is obligatory. But photographers also choose other angles, avoid perspectival distortions, wait for optimal light conditions. It is no accident that some of the architectural photographers have passed through the school of the photographer Dieter Leistner in Mainz or at the Fachhochschule Dortmund. He radiates and has perfected this approach of careful geometric composition, harmony and balance. Thus images of high intensity and precision arise, in some of which an effect can be observed that the idealised image has in a certain way detached itself from reality.
But there is also the level of appearance, in other words the architecture as it is perceivable, influenced by weather, the observer’s movements, or other conditions of reception. When Hans Georg Esch stages his panorama photos of Chinese metropolises, he does not wait for a smog-free day, but instead reflects the poetics of the schematic layout of Cityscapes. Others compose photo essays on this level and do not necessarily document the architecture per se, but instead the ambient as it is.
The third level, that of the image, is the subjectively experienced reality of the architectural form and its appearance, and arises in the mid of the observer. This is the level on which Friederike von Rauch works, for whom architecture is a raw material from which feelings and dreams can be made.
Thus, a variety of approaches to the subject exists, and thereby also very different signatures among the Top Ten of architectural photography.
Whether chance once again or fate, in any event, during his photo design studies in Dortmund, Braun encountered the renowned architectural photographer Dieter Leistner and later Jörg Hempel, under whom he obtained his certification. From then on he no longer did portraits of people, but of buildings.
The tranquillity and composure with which he proceeds are striking. How he avoids dynamism and spectacle. How he evens out the balance of image details. How he deliberately chooses the medium shot to reduce things, but also to focus on parts of the whole and disclose their own, inner composition. Images of great intensity arise, captured with a contemplative, but also definitely melancholy gaze that presupposes serenity.
The changing appearances of architecture also awaken Marcus Bredt’s interest; dramatic weather situations, atmospheres that change with the light. And he tells the stories of the buildings, the builders, the construction workers, the employees without whom the buildings could neither arise nor continue to exist.
He is currently making use of new technical possibilities to do justice to the dimensionalities of megacities in his cityscape documentations. Taking these incredible leaps of dimensionality into account, his panoramas of Chinese metropolises convey fascination and trepidation, provoke both amazement and shudders. They become accessible in lavish exhibitions and large-format photo volumes that Esch realises with great dedication.
Emotion and dynamism come into play as well. Gonzáles responds to the motifs with a decided subjectivity and enters into a personal interaction with them. Thus at times her images disclose new, never-before-seen sections and perspectives that arise from an unconventional interpretation of the encountered artefacts. Light plays a decisive role as compositional factor in the work of Brigida Gonzáles. A nice blue sky is not what one wants if one intends to strengthen the buildings’ character, stage them, sometimes even going so far as a science-fiction impression. She expects this freedom of approach from her clients.
He compares his way of calmly and carefully realising photographs with a skilled craft rather than with hyper-creative artistic work. He aims to capture the precision of the works, stimulate imagination and thereby render the designed space legible, making the spatial experience comprehensible. He avoids fashionable modes of expression, since “Architecture and art documentation gain in significance the older they become, because depict our built history.” He sees in his German way of photographing a “dryer, more reserved” style that contrasts with the “kitschily colourful” architectural photography of the United States, but which in his experience is nonetheless also finding recognition across the Atlantic.
He has recently added other attitudes and styles, since the buildings of architects such as Barkow Leibinger or Roedig Schopp open up a different access and new perspectives on the built environment.
Richters also delivers the orthogonal “architects’ views” as obligatory programme, so to speak. But where freestyle is concerned, what interests him is the “magic of first arrival” at a place, visually capturing and decoding it. He approaches the building, encircles it and documents his process of getting acquainted with it. In this way, he seeks to convey both the architectural conception and the character of the architecture.
Friederike von Rauch
Her colour palette is pale, subdued almost to the point of monochrome, the diffuse light flowing gently, conveying a reserved stillness, deserted museums after closing-time are her places of longing. She gives longing an image and a form: she is the poet of architecture – with a camera.