Atmosphere might be compared to the genius loci, a benevolent spirit who has been demoted over time. Can it protect us if we cease to believe in it?  What will happen when the jinn is forgotten altogether, vanishing into thin air?  

This question is posed to the reader regardless of his or her background, and is hence ironically placeless. Ironic, for it will soon become clear that place is a crucial issue addressed within this exposition: the representation, consumption, production and reproduction of particular places seen in photographs (loci qua foci, to be more concise).  Architectural practices are particularly central to the author's perspective on photography. Of interest also are photographic practices and what they have done to construct the way we see architecture. Of course, perspective is an old trick used to reduce points of view to the singular - but in this case that singularity is bifurcated and the author is stuck in the middle.  


The mechanics of such tricks, it will be seen, are perhaps more important still for an understanding of the broader issues addressed here. What, I have availed to ask, are the conventions (received as correct, professional practice by a particular clique) used to deploy spaces and places? Those conventions and the spaces they connect to, will be addressed together with the notion of place - a particular nuance of space. But first it must be stated at the outset that this research question (which the patient reader will find articulated clearly at the end of this introduction) was not directed to or from a supposed universal. It was initially aimed at people in one profession and constructed from the specific perspective of another. I am referring to architects and photographers, as the reader will no doubt have realised, six of the first and one of the latter (me). But first we must look at another pair of practitioners, as historical context and background must be established before present specifics can be addressed. 


Architects and philosophers have examined the notion of atmosphere as a communicable aspect of the phenomenological experience of space, a social construct and a means to an end in the design of spatial experiences. Their work forms much of the context for this study and informed to a large extent the content of the interviews conducted. Atmosphere, it is hypothesised, allows for a shift in the focus of the architectural photograph.


Jean Baudrillard addressed atmosphere in his early work, The System of Objects. The work looks at the world “no longer given but produced…constructed” and asserts that, acting as an “engineer of atmosphere” [1] mankind has converted space into a system into which cultural meaning is projected. The bourgeois engineering of one sort of space is central to his argument. Atmosphere is defined as the “systematic cultural connotation at the level of objects" [2]. This notion of atmosphere has proved an important part of the background for this study – a means of questioning the principal concepts and a possible explanation for the uniformity of architectural atmosphere as found in publications.


Another key component to the enquiry is Gernot Böhme's understanding of atmosphere. In addition to depicting material objects removed from their context, photographs might be used as a method to explore and represent Böhme’s term “space of moods” [3]. His discourse is particularly a propos as it addresses the subject “both from the side of subjects and from the side of objects, from the side of reception aesthetics and from the side of production aesthetics” [4]. Aside from being expressed in terms strangely Cartesian for a phenomenological discourse, the production/reception binary opposition is significant for the representation of space. It is not architecture but scenography which Böhme uses as a testing ground for thought experiments into atmosphere. He writes: "It is the art of the stage set which rids atmospheres of the odour of the irrational: here, it is a question of producing atmospheres. This whole undertaking would be meaningless if atmospheres were something purely subjective. For the stage-set artist must relate them to a wider audience, which shall experience the atmosphere generated on the stage in, by and large, the same way" [5]. The idea that you can identify and synthesize distinct atmospheres and deploy them with predictable results to an audience (implying interpersonal agreement in reception) is the second motivation for this experiment. You can make and receive atmospheres in a way that is intrapersonal and reliable he says; as proof he offers the work of scenographers. Could the same be said of architects and photographers?


An architectural vision of atmospheres is provided by Peter Zumthor, bringing us even closer to the focus of this photographic project. Zumthor presents the idea of a set of component parts crucial to the production of atmospheres in his work. He argues that “we perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which we humans evidently need to help us survive” [6] The point is that if atmosphere is part of the way we encounter the world, shouldn’t the spaces we inhabit take it into account? His talk is instructive as it centres on methods and means, “the task of creating architectural atmosphere comes down to craft and graft [...] processes and interests, instruments and tools” [7] he says, giving nine specific examples of things he uses to produce atmospheres. I will argue that the representation of such spaces ought to raise similar questions because much of architectural space is represented and hence understood through photography. Shouldn't what we write about space and how we depict it through images have atmosphere as part of the core vocabulary? One is almost tempted to ask here, can the subaltern not speak? [8] What are the consequences of banning, avoiding or overlooking this aspect of our views on the world?Trying to establish the atmospheres of a selection of photographs (and document the reception of each as commercially viable or not) might also allow for an investigation into certain institutional practices largely ignored by architects, photographers and publishers, at present [9].


Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa has recently addressed the subject as part of his exploration into the embodied image and haptic architecture in the Finnish Architectural Review [10]. He is an interesting point of reference for this study, as he has spent several years writing against the use of photographs in the deployment of architecture [11]. Building on my understanding of his arguments about architecture and images, established through several written works, I was fortunate to interview Mr Pallasmaa and discuss these issues with him. From the outset he took a far less black and white position on photography than expected. Statements like, “I cannot think what architecture would do without photography, and I respect good architectural photography,” were abundant. It seems, in fact, that his argument points more to the need for a deeper and richer understanding of the world through the images that represent it rather than eliminate image making from certain fields. Images must awaken the imagination, not shut it down: “There is always more to a photograph than the picture. It conveys because of our fantastic sense of imagination [sic].” Pallasmaa’s argument for the sort of poetic image discussed by Gaston Bachelard strikes a chord: all spaces have an atmosphere, so presumably do all photographs. 


Photographers, however, appear to have neglected atmospheres entirely. Given the dearth of commercial photographers reflecting on and writing about their practices, such silence is not surprising - but no less alarming.  What if doctors said nothing about medicine, leaving the articulation of that practice to those that might achieve it from the safe distance of theory? That type of specialised articulation of practices in photography is sorely needed, according to Christopher Bedford in the Aperture publication, Words Without Pictures: "If photography is to be understood.... this will require a rich and thorough understanding of the myriad decisions that precede the production of the photographic image, ranging from the conceptual and obtuse to the mundane and pragmatic" [12]. Indeed, it is difficult to think of anything of critical substance written by architectural photographers since Eric de Maré and Julius Shulman's expositions of their work in the 1960s and 1970s [13]. All the while and to this day, architects and academics from diverse backgrounds have had much to say on the topic. But rarely if ever have they done so with any photographic understanding. For that reason, this exposition attempts to make a step towards one such articulation, and focusses on atmosphere in the photography of architecture as a means of doing so. In order for that to happen the following questions must be addressed:


Given the diversity of the world architectural photography represents, is it not strange and intriguing how often the same atmosphere is repeated in such photographs? 


What would happen if new options were pursued as a means of representing an architectural work instead of sticking to conventional practices? What would the images look like and how would the architectural community react? 


What might these atmosphere-centred photographs be called? Are they Atmographs or Archmospheres? These are two clumsy neologisms in need of definition [14]:


Atmographs: via this means of depiction connotation creates the atmosphere perceived in a photo. This sort of photograph might attempt to reveal the invisible or overlooked, challenge or confront statements made by the architect or simply reinterpret existing forms of representation [15]. Here the goal is to look beyond the clues given by the architect in the interview.


Archmospheres: denotation and standard architectural photographic tropes are employed here but the focus has shifted somewhat. Might it not be possible to centre the photograph less on the material object depicted and more on the atmosphere the architect indicated as relevant and significant in the first interview of this process? The intention of the architect is relevent here because their commercial practices are significant to this study - this is not fine art work but rather a fusion of commission-based art practices with artistic research practices.   


Finally, are we really stuck with one type of photograph or the other? Or can we synthesize the photographer's and the architect's propositions to create a third? Can we perhaps extend the working relationship extant between client and commissioned artist by applying this method? Might it prove possible to create a new sort brief influenced by the method of the dialectic?

Field-testing was conducted on the basis that such a brief can be created – but not without dialogue. Interviews took place before and after photography in search of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Whilst far from falling neatly into each of the three categories, images were produced with the hope that a half way point between photographic and architectural practices might produce new sorts of images, some atmographs, some archmospheres, surprising to client and artist alike. This idea of a dialogue between architect and photographer, where propositions are synthesized to produce unanticipated images instead of the standard proposition of the commercial brief where novelty, innovation and surprises are anathema to good commercial practice, is the second main idea offered here. I introduce the terms dialectical interview and feedback loop in order to discuss that idea, which will be returned to later. Before that, there is a very present need for a roadmap.


This study is not a view from nowhere - the sort proffered by science - yet as we are still within the confines of academic practice, the standard structure one expects when reading this sort of document has not been all together eschewed. A section on materials and methods follows this introduction. In it one will find a brief description of the concerns behind the medium of experimentation (photography) and methods of inquiry (interviews and photography) as well as commentary about certain unanticipated national conventions (customs) encountered due to the fact that fieldwork was conducted in two countries. Findings take the form of interviews and photographs. They are each presented as separate artefacts that turn the reader into viewer or listener, thanks to the (multi) medium through which this article is accessed. Discussion assesses the value of both method (dialectical interviews and an attempt to produce images with a focus on atmosphere), findings (the work produced and industry response) and the future viability of each. It is there that some value may be found. For it asks what the specific applications of this work outside of this experiment might be. Can research lead to new practices?  

Lastly, though it may seem like several questions are being asked in the short space of a few pages, I believe they can all be condensed down to just two: one specific and small, but acting like a centre of gravity, such as the nucleus of an atom, and the other larger large and gaseous like a cloud, in which electrons orbit that nucleus in ways difficult to pinpoint but not impossible to predict. The tiny lump at the core is the question of whether atmosphere might replace material objects as the focus of architectural photographs. It was the specific point of departure in all discussions, the concept at the back of my mind when making images [16], and the concept to which I now return when trying to articulate practices and analyze results. The gas, to use Van Helmont's word for chaos [17], might be described as that cluster of questions whose orbits all describe conventions and practices.  Asking questions through photographs and interviews, releases a lot of such gas into the atmosphere. We learn much about two practices - photographic and architectural - which have more in common than might at first be thought, and have been locked together since the invention of the former, which might be said to account for the reinvention of the latter.

Materials and methods >>>


[1] Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (London: Verso Books, 2005) pp. 26-28.

[2] Ibid., p. 49.

[3] Gernot Böhme.  "The Space of Bodily Presence and Space as a Medium of Representation" Available at: Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.p. 5.

[4] Gernot Böhme. “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres" Available at: Date accessed: 1 November 2012, p. 3.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Peter Zumthor. Atmospheres: Built Surroundings - the Things Around Us (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006),  p.13.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri.  "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Available at: Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.

[9] David Bate is quick to make this point but chooses not to develop it: "A study of photography…conducted through investigating the key institutions that use it…might reveal the systems by which photographs are produced, the arteries of power and decision making, or even the creative space that photographers are supposed to occupy. Such a project is probably urgently needed" David Bate. Photography: Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009), p. 1.

[10] Where images are used, that is. He also of course argues that images are over used and we are over-reliant upon vision, particularly in the introduction and first chapter of The Embodied Image Juhani Pallasmaa. The Embodied Image. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), pp 10 - 22.


[11] Juhani Pallasmaa. “Space, Place and Atmosphere – Peripheral Perception in Architectural experience”, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, (Helsinki: 5 March, 2011) pp. 21 - 25. 

[12] Christopher Bedford. "Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All it Can Be?" Klein, Alex (Ed.)  Words Without Pictures.  (New York, Aperture Foundation, 2010) pp. 4 - 11.

[13] See for example:  de Maré, Eric.  Photography and Architecture, The Architectural Press, London, 1961; Julius Shulman. The Photography of Architecture and Design: Photographing Buildings, Interiors, and the Visual Arts. Whitney Library of Design / Watson-Guptill, 1977. 


[14] Neither category refers to a snapshot, which is what academics normally mean when they talk about photography. The articulation of professional photographic practice (commission based, especially) is almost wholly lacking from theoretical discourse which enters into semiotic debates but often lack first hand knowledge about how images are actually made.  This point is made by Sabine T. Kriebel in "Theories of Photography: A Short Story".  Elkins, James (Ed.) Photography Theory. (New York: Routledge 2007) pp. 3 - 49.


[15] David Bate writes about still life images in a way one might easily apply to the architectural photograph: “Different objects are shown from different angles but there is hardly much range between products and they are almost always systematically photographed in the same ways".  Bate, David. Photography: Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009), p. 117.


[16] A work flow which starts with visiting physical sites, looking at or remembering other images, continues during the act of photographing these sites, which is a kind of embodied practice, a present enactment of years of prior practice, continues with review and selection of images and then passes on to retouching, re-retouching, and more often re-retouching before going on to the final phase of submission for print, web or archive.