A SENSE OF PLACE
A strait-laced institution dictates a straitlaced, technically simple interpretation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHENEVER I MAKE A PICTURE OF A BUILDING, any building, I have an intention in mind for it, a definite way I want it to be presented, and so am faced with much the same choices I might exercise in the making of a portrait. My choice of exposure or composition has to be deliberately designed, as that is where all comment on the building’s age, features, provenance, or context is based. This means that every time I shoot a site, there has to be an active discussion in my head on every aspect of lighting, texture, color. Buildings, for me, are never mere background. Indeed, properly seen, they often speak louder than the people passing in front of them.
One of the biggest decisions in this process is how photographically representational I want to present the structure. Sharp lenses, for example, convey a kind of straightforward, documentarian approach. Brick looks like brick. Reflections in windows are simple, without capturing stray information from neighboring activity. Colors are natural. Definition is clear and clinical. That’s one way to show the building, and choosing that way means purposefully choosing the glass I’ll use to shoot it.
A former robber baron’s estate, now a historical park, may be better seen with a softer lens.
Recently, I have also re-acquainted myself with the look of soft or selective focus lenses, which takes the depiction of buildings in a much gauzier, vague, even whimsical direction. You can make a place seem as if it’s part of a recurring dream. You can boost contrast and efface small details. The result strikes some as “anti-real” but, since buildings store memories as well as people and furniture, we are already imparting surreal qualities to them as they surface from our collective subconscious. Both optical approaches have their virtues.
In the top image, the college building is captured in the way we suppose that we actually see, in something of an “official” view that might comfortably adorn the school’s brochures. In the lower shot, a building nearly as old as the college is softened deliberately to evoke the fairy-castle quality that an old mansion from the early 1900’s conveys to the modern visitor. Under our gaze, the “use” of such a structure invites personal interpretation, since, as a modern-day city park, its old, specific use as a personal mansion has become unmoored. Liberated from its old associations, we are free to assign new ones, and to make images that reflect that flexibility.
Camera technology has expanded over the centuries to facilitate choice, because people are always struggling to reflect new ways of seeing. If your gear tells your story, you are one lucky kid. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter a damn how accurate, or expensive, or highly rated it is. It’s a pen in your hand. Make it write the light the way you want.
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