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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Thomas Misik


Some people dismiss architectural photography by asking the question Who is responsible for the beauty of the photograph—the photographer or the architect? It’s a legitimate question. The architect, after all, designed the structure in such a way that it was intriguing to the eye. If not for the architect, there’d be nothing to photograph—so surely much of the credit should go to him (or her, as the case may be). As far as that goes, a contractor oversaw the actual construction of the building. If not for the contractor the structure would have remained a pretty sketch on the drafting table—so perhaps he should also receive some measure of credit for a good architectural photograph.

Really, all the photographer had to do was set up the camera and open the shutter for a fraction of a second. If natural light was involved, there might be an idle period, a spell of standing around and waiting for the light to be just so—but surely all the hard work has been done by the time the photographer shows up, tripod on his shoulder.

Hasn’t it?

 

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The answer to that question depends on the type of architectural photography. Most of the photography in the genre consists of those sad little digital images shot in a hurry by a real estate agent who wants to give prospective buyers a very general hint of what the property looks like. That’s not really architectural photography—it’s barely advertising photography. In fact, much of it only counts as photography because it results in a photograph.

Several steps up the photographic food chain are those photographers who document buildings, concentrating not on showing a potential buyers how many bedrooms are in the house, but on the architectural details of the structure. This is one of the oldest forms of photography—not necessarily because of an interest in architecture but because early photographic processes required long exposure times, which made photographing moving objects impractical. The technology has changed, but modern photographers interested in architecture take the same essential approach. These photographers are skilled craftsmen involved in a highly technical process, relying on sophisticated lighting equipment and medium or large format cameras.

But at the very top of that food chain are those photographers who turn craft into art, who interpret what the architect or builder has created through the filter of their own imagination. These photographers rely on the compass of their own unique spatial awareness to identify the telling architectural details. Those details may not be—and often are not—the ones intended by the architect to be noticed. The fine arts architectural photographer is more intrigued by form than function, and is as far removed from the camera-toting realtor as the architect is from the construction worker.

 

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Thomas Misik is one of those photographers. Born in 1973, he studied architecture at the University of Hanover and fine arts at the Academy of Visual Arts in Braunschweig, Germany. As an architect himself, Misik’s approach to architectural photography is shaped by a philosophy different from that of other photographers.

Architecture is the physical manifestation of the human need for shelter filtered through the demands of utility and the human desire for self expression. A well-designed building finds a balance between those needs and demands and desires. Fine arts photography, on the other hand, only takes that last element into account—the desire for self expression.

Yet both the architect and the photographer are concerned about the arrangement of objects and structures in a given space. For the architect the space is three dimensional; the photographer’s workspace is bounded by the frame of the viewfinder or the flat surface of the ground glass. Each, though, has to decide what goes in that space and what is excluded from it—and for each, those decisions are deeply personal.

 

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In Misik’s hands, the architectural space becomes still, pure, devoid of the burdens of utility. A hallway is a study in geometry and light—never mind the reality of a hallway’s function to channel people efficiently from one place to another. Beams, ductwork, floor tile, columns, acoustic roofing—these are treated only as line and form. As a photographer Misik has no interest in the load-bearing qualities of a column or the noise reductive properties of roofing material.

To his photographer’s eye, Misik sees no qualitative distinction between the grandest vestibule and the most humble of corridors. He considers a parking structure or a conference room with equal gravity. He sees them only in terms of form and shadow, geometry and light, color and structure.

Misik also does something wonderful: he incorporates distance as a compositional element. It’s almost as if he enlarges the space within the frame through the suggestion that there is still more to be seen—if only we could poke our heads through the flat plane of the photograph. Notice how in each of the photographs presented here Misik uses the hidden distance as a lure to draw the viewer deeper into the image. We always want to see what’s around the corner, what’s beyond the edge of the frame.

 

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There are no people in Misik’s photographs. That’s not unique; it’s a fairly common approach to architectural photography. It’s part of the artistic decision process—include what is important, exclude what is extraneous. That approach applies to all art forms. By eliminating the people—the people for whom the structure was designed and built—Misik simplifies the image. He purifies it. People are…untidy. They add layers of complexity and disorganization. Visually, they’re unnecessary.

People also provide scale, which limits and defines the photograph. The slight ambiguity caused by the absence of scale (or the minimal use of scale) reinforces the importance of the other compositional elements. In addition, by refusing to identify the structure in the photograph or its purpose, Misik removes still more of the context. This leaves the viewer with only those elements contained within the frame—only those elements Misik wants us to see.

So then, let’s return to the question posed at the beginning. Who is responsible for the beauty of the photograph—the photographer or the architect? In Misik’s case, I have to say the photographer. His intention is different from that of the architect. His goal is different. And the metric by which his success is measured is different. He takes something provided by the architect and turns it into something of his own.

I think it could be accurately said that Thomas Misik remains an architect; it’s just that now he’s an architect of the imagination.

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Utata Sunday Salon is a weekly overview of a selected photographer researched and written by Utata’s Managing Editor, Greg Fallis (It’s Greg).Photos used in the Sunday Salon are stored on flickr.com and obtained via the flickr API and unless otherwise noted they are copyrighted to the photographer being presented and are used here under Fair Use. You must be a member of the flickr group Utata to read the Salon discussions. Want to suggest a Salon? Let us know.