Buildings house us, and our dreams. Whether by necessity or narcissism, they are living manifestations of this undying thing called the human spirit. Urth ambassador Mandy Sham takes a look at how to embody the inner architect in your photographs.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
In the year 1984, a hairdresser named Ho Chi Kam ran a salon in a claustrophobic shack sandwiched among many.
His business was located inside Kowloon Walled City — a Chinese military fort turned high-rise slum that snaked through three hundred interconnected buildings in Hong Kong. The settlement, which housed ramshackle dental clinics and noodle factories alike, formed a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the working class — spiralling from the labyrinthine lower levels to the rooftops, where residents would relax on plastic chaise lounges and practice instruments.
“Architecture quite literally lays the foundation for the stories we want to tell.”
Thirty years later, I visited the park where Kowloon Walled City, now demolished, once stood. But the narrative, as it were, continued elsewhere — in the buildings that towered resolutely over me, or public housing estates that weaved private and public life so intricately together. It was in Hong Kong, early in my experimentation with photography, where I first felt myself drawn to these relationships between people and buildings. I enjoyed the permeability of walking from one shopping mall’s sky bridge to the next; the spontaneity of open-air food stalls on the side of busy streets; the sheer density of apartment windows fluttering with yesterday’s laundry.
Where photography is an artistic expression used to frame stories, architecture is the frame within the frame. It’s the way we examine our relation — whether strengthened or fractured — to the places we inhabit. Its role, should we assign it one, is immense. We can use it in photos to examine, to manipulate, and to question. We can use it to set context or create atmosphere. Architecture quite literally lays the foundation for the stories we want to tell.
Shoot with Intention
When I first started out in photography, the appeal of architecture went beyond its aesthetically pleasing qualities. Buildings didn’t move — they were patient, and held no qualms about being photographed repeatedly. But this doesn’t mean that a photographer should shoot blindly by virtue of having that ability. I’d recommend using this luxury strategically — by seeing architecture as a training ground for experimentation with angles, lines, and composition.
Throughout that process, start to delve a little deeper into the self-inquiry about what story is unfolding. Ask yourself: what’s the context? Remember that photography doesn’t exist in a vacuum; photos are about the subject in the shot as much as they’re about the relationships surrounding the subject. Buildings are usually built with some kind of functional design in mind, so consider what function it is that they serve, and who for. Take residential buildings for example — is the one you’re shooting designed to be compact, as in densely populated parts of the world? Does it prioritise aesthetic or utility?
In the photo below of an apartment in Azerbaijan, I wanted to show the peculiarity of its compact design and uniform colours, but also the personality of every window, with panes partially open or completely shut.
“Approach architecture as something living and dynamic.”
See Buildings as Animate Objects
If buildings could talk, what would they say? The mark of fine architecture photography addresses this question at its core. It helps to approach architecture as something living and dynamic — because, in many ways, it is! Buildings and structures mirror our day-to-day realities from the time that they’re built, but they never stop evolving. They age and deteriorate; they may be restored or transformed. The passage of time imbues them with stories. Our treatment of a shot can differ dramatically once we shift to this paradigm.
While in India, I visited the City Palace in Udaipur: a stunning palatial complex of marble and mirrors, towering arches and open courtyards. From a photographic standpoint, it’s heaven — there are many stories to be told, and many different ways of telling them. You can juxtapose crowds in relation to the space, emphasising the present day function of the palace as a museum. You can choose to highlight the intricate materials used, and what they might suggest about lifestyle and climate. Or you can shoot from balconies and doorways, illustrating what it might have been like to live there as a maharana, or king of kings.
“Consider your own position as you photograph. Are you in or outside of the building, and what might that suggest about access?”
Consider the Vantage Point
Architecture, taken symbolically, can lend insight into the social structures and habits of whatever countries they belong to. One way to highlight these is to consider your own position as you photograph. Are you in or outside of the building, and what might that suggest about access? Do interior-facing windows and open hallways imply a certain openness? If you carry a drone, can it be used to illustrate the density or sprawl of a place?
In the case of residential buildings, I’ve found that photos taken inside a complex feel far more intimate — a reflection of a specific place, and the people who live there. On the outside, however, the potential scope zooms outward, providing a visual glance at community life and social commentary. In this way, you can imbue photographs with a sense of presence — of having been there and committed its essence to memory.
It’s for this reason that I personally find skyline shots a little boring and uninspired. The shot is essentially the same everywhere, and offers little insight into the people who inject meaning into that city or town. To me, it’s the equivalent of looking at a Google Satellite image of Earth. The vantage point I want is to be on the dunes with others, looking up at the stars (or you know, planes — I’m not picky).
“I personally find skyline shots a little boring and uninspired. The shot is essentially the same everywhere.”
Be Inventive with Composition
When I first started using Instagram as a showcase for my photography, it altered my style in a number of ways. I began to keep my lines straight; I started challenging my sense of ‘landscape’ by shooting vertically; my shots gradually became wider and less subject-oriented. (Then there are, of course, classic guidelines of composition like the rule of thirds.) While I felt that these were helpful building blocks, it also became easier — that is to say, automatic — to fall back on them for reliably ‘good’ content.
Photography has its structure and a fair measure of control. Photographic composition, not unlike music composition, implies a certain existing framework. With something that is more static in nature like architecture, you have ample opportunities to improvise. Use photography to capture the totality of a place, versus the most classically picturesque version. (And no one’s stopping you from capturing the latter, too!) The point is that being ingenious with how you capture will extend back to why you capture — and invigorate your visual sense of purpose.
“Buildings add so much texture and context to stories, but they first have to be seen as capable of doing so.”
Remember Your Role
Finally, remember photography is a construction of the narrative — and like the buildings being photographed, it too is orchestrated by an architect. Shooting structures can be a conduit for your own photographic sensibilities, so long as you consider your own role in giving them character and depth. To sum it up: how can you shoot intentionally? How can it be made different, fresh, or personal? Buildings add so much texture and context to stories, but they first have to be seen as capable of doing so. The challenge, in essence, is that the building is static. You, the photographer, are not. Work with that to empower your creative voice in telling visual stories.