David English: Expressive Architecture

I love old movies. And now that I’m interested in photography, those movies have become fertile ground for inspiration. That’s especially true with my architectural shots. When I shoot with a 24mm Summilux or 18mm Super-Elmar, those images already have a larger-than-life perspective due to the wide-angle focal lengths. But it’s when I edit those images that the movie influence really starts to kick in. I’ve begun to process some of the architectural shots to take on a moody or expressive tone. And that has reflected back on how I prefer to photograph the architecture — with a strong preference for cloudy skies or intermittent rain.

Certain movies circulate through my brain as I edit the images, much like a catchy tune or advertising jingle that becomes stuck in your head. Some of the most expressive architecture can be seen in the German UFA studio films from the 1920s, including Dr. Mabuse (1924), The Last Laugh (1924), Metropolis (1926), and Faust (1926). Those films sometimes used forced perspective to simulate an extended deep focus. This darkly lit visual style returned in the mid-1940s with the Hollywood film noirs. And you can see it in more recent sci-fi and comic book inspired movies, such as Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), and The Dark Knight (2008). Those films often have shadowy, dreamlike buildings that seem to have a life (and history) all their own.

My interest in photographing architecture has been gradual. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome by overdoing it and thus become bored with the subject. If I’m visiting a city, and the weather is right, I’ll search for interesting buildings with the hope that I’ll be able to do something creative with the images later on. I’ll also return to the same locations when I revisit a city, with the idea that I might get a better shot or have a better understanding of what I’m trying to achieve.

The time of day makes a big difference. Midday light (direct and overhead) doesn’t work well for creating a provocative mood. Late afternoon seems to work best. Intermittent rainy days are especially good, because you’ll see reflections coming from the wet glass or polished marble. Be prepared to duck in and out of shelters as the rain comes and goes. I always have a lightweight parka in my bag, as well as a plastic wrap to cover the bag itself.

Overcast days will give me a chance to frame a building against clouds, and I’ll often choose a preset or setting in Lightroom or Silver Efex Pro that accentuates the clouds. I’ll use that as a starting point and then work to bring out the building (or certain elements of the building). I’ll often process the image several different ways. One version might be unusually dark. Another might take an infrared approach. Another might emphasize a particular element to help balance the composition. I almost never crop. The theory is that I should be getting it right during the shooting, because I’m there and in the moment.

The photo titled Manhattan Building had ideal lighting conditions with varying light and dark areas reflected off the building. The irregular shaped structure and oblique angles help to keep the rectangular forms from seeming too boxlike. Much of the streaming light effect is accentuated by the black-and-white processing, in this case using Silver Efex Pro 2.0. The original photo has to provide a strong foundation, but it’s remarkable how much you can transform a photo when processing it, just by experimenting with the sliders and settings, if you have a rough idea of where you want to go.

I used clouds to heighten the drama in the photo titled Tokyo Building. The framing works especially well here. I had similar shots that were aimed slightly higher or lower, but with this one, the vanishing point is just outside the frame. It gives the impression that the converging lines might go on forever. I didn’t notice this optical illusion until the image reached the processing stage. I might consciously use it again if the structure has this same kind of uniformity.

Expressive architecture doesn’t have to be dominant within a composition. The photo titled La Lunchonette has three main spatial layers: the statue and menu just beyond the glass, the wire grid within the glass, and the buildings reflected by the glass. The unlikely combination of a religious statue and menu pages already gives the photo a surreal quality. The dark buildings then act to intensity the overall strangeness of the image. The wire grid sets up a diagonal that contrasts the buildings, but parallels the outstretched arms. Without the wire grid and reflected buildings, the image wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

For some unknown reason, I’m drawn to architecture that has a reflective surface. The ultimate take on this is when you can find a reflective building located across the street from another reflective building. If the light is right, you get a visual echo chamber that sets up complex contrapuntal rhythms, much like a Bach fugue. The photo titled Reflected Buildings shows the IAC building with the 100 11th Avenue building being reflected back into it. The two buildings are located in Manhattan and were designed by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, respectively.

I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with an M9 for more than two years. Its small size has allowed me to take it with me on business trips and comfortably walk for hours searching for unusual subjects to photograph. If you had told me several years ago that some of my better photos would be of moody, expressive architecture, I would have wondered how in the world that could happen. That it did happen—and so unexpectedly—speaks well of the creative potential locked into the M9 and Leica M-mount lenses. And it doesn’t take much to unlock that potential, even for someone relatively new to serious photography.

-David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2 and moved to an M9 in November 2009. You can see his photos at www.protozoid.com. His main website is www.davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is www.classicfilmpreview.com.