What makes an award-winning photograph?

To me, the appeal of architectural photography is its potential, versatility and unpredictability. I enjoy viewing work which breaks established approaches to depicting buildings and which stretching definitions – as architects themselves do. I like that symbiosis between the two sides.

Or on the other hand, I equally enjoy seeing the subject treated as documentary, abstract or ‘portraiture.’ I like surprise, provocation, mystery; those photographers who play with and explore building materials, textures, design details, and collude with or challenge the architects’ plans. That can range from concentrating on details, placing the entire Shard tower in context, or offering new interpretations of domestic, institutional or public architecture.

These are exciting times for architectural photography. The arrival of digital processes was a boon to architects and designers and they also enabled the photographers to expand
technically and compositionally, to move away from conventional front and side
elevation shots, and to delight in the abstract possibilities.

This is the new era of architectural photography. But of course, it began almost a century ago with Rodchenko and his confederates, and their influence spread across Europe soon after - closing in on detail, playing with scale and light, and adoring the architects’ obsession with geometry.

Half a century ago, Oscar Niermeyer’s fantastic abstract forms fed the photographers of his age, and Brasilia remains irresistible to photographers of any level who relish those
contrasts between the dazzling sunlight and the whiteness of his buildings with the sculptural
shadows they cast. Today, that still inspires many of the entries we see in this competition - in very different contexts and with very different buildings.

Cliché’s inevitably run through architectural photography as they do through any other category of photography. Sticking to a rigid viewpoint is historically the norm, but those rules have widely been blown apart – or are exploited to their extremes. Dramatically altered digital techniques make all these changes possible, taking subjects away from literal depictions, and including important references to match new imaginative environmental architecture.

While it is tempting to choose an interesting building for the competition, a good entry doesn’t need to be a landmark or a super-contemporary abstraction by a Hadid or a Piano. There is equal pleasure to gain from mundane, everyday subjects. For instance, one of the interesting architectural images I saw last year at the PhotoEspana festival in Madrid, was of a tower block in Romania, taken by a local photographer. By positioning himself at a distance, he exploited the grassy foreground and presented the apartment building as a sculptural monolith, emphasising its grandeur, diminishing its scale, and glorifying what is
actually quite an ordinary, mundane building.

I was impressed by the photography of Andre Boto, a finalist in last year’s Art of Building competition. For ‘Vanishing Point’ he positioned the camera inside a quadrangle, pointed upwards through the atrial space to the sky, like some telescope imagery.

In capturing the public’s interaction with the built environment, it’s always exciting to see works which avoid recreating the visualised reality of an architectural drawing – unless it
is ironic or satiric comment. But those drawings can also stand alone as subjects – and I look forward to seeing some in competitions like this one.

I love a documentary approach, involving a single subject or group of people, and reversing the focus from human to building. Paul Stephenson, another finalist for the 2010 Art of Building competition, exemplified that approach with ‘A Taste of Summer:’ a
barefoot girl plays in the fountains against the backdrop of London’s Southbank, overwhelmed by the presence of the South Bank cultural hubs and the London Eye’s geometrical beauty.

I was delighted to see so many of last year’s finalists’ images demonstrating a fine art approach. How best to make a distinction between that and say, documentary, will doubtless have given we judges rich territory for debate. The great thing about The Art of Building competition is that it encourages entrants to break the rules and to explore
and capture the built environment in a fresh and imaginative way.


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