Materials and Methods

To field-test the dialectical process, photographic experiments were conducted over the course of a year in order to articulate questions in a visual form and interview architects and publishers about their response to these new techniques. The contact points between photography and research are several, but crucial to the work is the desire to produce questions via photographs. In this way, photography is used as a method to enquire into conventional practices within three intertwined industries: photography, publishing and architecture. The method of investigation combines artistic and ethnographic research with discourse analysis. All of those terms require some unpacking to make sense within the context of this study.


In this project, photography plays three roles: photography as a research object, photography as research method, and photography as research result.  


1. Photography creates a focal point to allow for discussions about conventional practices in the architectural press, versus an atmosphere-centred alternative at the earliest stage of field work: interviews with experts. The advantage of using images to this end has been demonstrated by advocates of photo elicitation. In practice, it facilitated discussion, especially where the person interviewed was not comfortable speaking in English.


2. Photography is also used as a research method. The idea is that there is important knowledge stored in artistic practices, knowledge that can be shared through a close study of methods and practices. In order to prove this, new work had to be produced. As commission based photography is the concern, it was understood that the interviews would act in place of standard photographic briefs which stipulate under normal circumstances the number and type of images to be taken by the photographer. The interview enacts the dialectical process normally lacking in commissioned photography. Hence, both the process of commissioning and that of producing commissioned work is altered by the dialectical process. A feedback loop of ideas and interests replaces the one-way street of client/artist commissions.


3. Photography is also an important nexus between artist and viewer at the final stage of the project.  In order to continue the process of dialogue with a greater audience, an online gallery, which is currently under development, will allow readers to view the photographs and judge for themselves whether or not they agree with assertions made about the value of atmosphere and the validity of its reification through images produced. The images will be shared both in printed publications and via an interactive website. The link to the website in its current, preliminary phase is:  Fine art exhibition is neither relevant nor sought.  


Ethnography is crucial to the study in order to gain additional knowledge about one half of the field of enquiry: architecture. Not an architect myself, the interviews act as method to gain insight from working experts. Ten years of work as an architectural photographer allow me to understand what is expected as a commissioned artist, but do not allow a similar understanding of what is expected of architects. Reading is a useful means of understanding architectural concerns, but is often unsympathetic to photographic practices, as in the case of Juhani Pallasmaa and Neil Leach [16]. In the end it is the interviews that have proved an invaluable method for enriching mutual understanding of practices and points of focus. In order to set them up, an email with a link to a Prezi presentation was sent to approximately ten Finnish and ten Danish architects. Six case studies were eventually selected out of the twenty initial contacts.

Finally, discourse analysis plays a crucial role in the process [17]. Frequently, one encounters differences between what is asserted through text and the images that support them. One cogent example is the frequent discussion of people-centred buildings and the human scale in architecture, illustrated by images without people in them. In this sense too, interviews with architects were a valuable tool to sketch out a map of their work and compile a wish list of ideas about how to represent it. Simultaneously, it was hoped that the sort of rhetoric they were influenced by would emerge in the course of discussions. In short, it appeared meaningful to ask: what do you believe and how would you show it? The second round of interviews involved questions that would solicit responses to both sort of images: archmospheres (illustrations of asserted interests and wants) and atmographs (images not asked for but possibly of interest). In this way, the client might serve to test the aspirations and the rhetorical field in which the photographer works, and vice versa. It was also hoped that methods to develop a third way would emerge.


Images result from two interviews with Finnish architects AOA, K2S and JKMM and Danish Henning Larsen, 3XN, KHR and PLH. The first round of interviews was conducted before any photography took place, the second after one year of visiting and photographing the chosen site. The first round consisted of four main questions with a series of sub-questions connected to each. They were as follows:


• Do images make buildings?

• What is an atmosphere?

• What was the role of architectural photography in the birth of modernism; what is it now; what do you predict it will be in the future?

• What images of your project would you specifically like to see?


The second round of interviews involved looking at photos of each project and discussing the results. The first part used photo-elicitation techniques for looking at photographs of each project. The architect was asked to do the following:


• Choose the preferred image in a category or theme of architecture from 3 atmospheric options.  

• Potentially distinguish between images they liked and images they would purchase.  

• Choose 2, 4 or 6 images through which to tell the story of the project.

• Show a favourite image of architecture (not from this project and not from a project of their own).


 It is here where attempts are made to analyse potential slippages between the subject's voiced opinions and their, perhaps ingrained, business sense of what is suitable. Drawing attention to preferences versus purchases, it was hoped some light might be cast on core beliefs about the use of images, thereby problematising them and raising awareness about decisions that result from those beliefs.  

The interview also included an evaluation of the effectiveness of key concepts: dialectic, conventions and atmosphere. 

One such interview is included below.  


Before moving on to the results section, it seems worth saying a word or two more about the differences of this process as experienced in Finland and Denmark. In the case of the former, it took nearly a year of phone calls and emails before it became possible to speak with anyone from any of these three offices. In the end, it was only through personal contacts used as a form of reassurance that meetings eventually became possible.  However, once the initial meeting took place, all architects were extremely open, helpful and dedicated to the project.  They were thoughtful and insightful in the interviews and eager to help in any way possible to make the project possible. The experience in Denmark was diametrically opposed.  

After a one week visit to Copenhangen, I managed to meet with all of the major architects there: BIG, 3XN, Henning Larsen, SHL, Dorte Mandrup, CF Møller, PLH, KHR and COBE.  All were very interested in the project and agreed to collaborate with me. Then they all disappeared. BIG and COBE eventually took the trouble to email saying there had been a change in their policies, after several inquiries from me; Henning Larsen had a shake up in their staff, Dorte Mandrup and SHL simply vanished. In the end I did half a shoot of Henning Larsen's IT campus, half a shoot of KHR's school (because the staff forbid me to shoot after the architect had agreed) and a great deal of time was spent in 3XN's school and riding the metro from one PLH station to the next.   


Ultimately, these factors had much to do with the selection process of partners in this experiment.  I mention them in an attempt to articulate the mundane and pragmatic elements that Christopher Bedford calls for, as they have as much to do with the final outcome of a project as any creative decisions. They are all too rarely discussed. Are they considered unseemly or just unimportant?


Results >>>



[16] For a scathing attack on the evils of photography, read: Neil Leach. Anaesthetics of Architecture. (Boston: MIT Press, 1999).


[17] One might quite rightly ask, how does this differ from iconographic methods or semiotics, particularly as images are not generally considered discursive?  However, it is the institutional practices, the core beliefs and the default behaviours that are at issue here. Why do photographers shoot the way they do? Why do architects commission as they do?  What influences the belief that one sort of photo, is correct whilst another is not?  Are there photographs which the client might like personally but see as unfit for commercial practices? The objective with the second interview was to begin to open up a discussion about potential discrepancies between preference and purchases, and in doing so open up a discussion about the discourses that influences certain commercial practices and the rhetoric that influences them. 


Click on the image to open interview in separate tab