It’s been a while since the last Architecture photographer we featured here in ArchDaily, but we are back presenting one of the most experienced photographers in North America: Brad Feinknof. As he states, his passion for photographing architecture stems directly from the influence of his grandfather and father, both successful architects practicing in Columbus, Ohio. He has personally been shooting photography for over 20 years, since graduating from Cornell University with his undergraduate degree in Design. Brad went on to spend his post-collegiate years in New York City assisting prominent photographers Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Arnold Newman and Joyce Tenneson. Today, many of the ideals Brad obtained from his New York experience carry over to his clients; — the consistent pursuit of perfection, extreme attention to detail, uncompromised professionalism and the utmost quality in service. Following his return to Columbus, Brad established feinknopf photography, rapidly growing an established clientele among architectural, engineering and construction firms. In serving these clients, Brad has traveled throughout the United States shooting projects, many of which have been published in major publications. From the multitude of projects I have shot of the years over 100 have gone on to be AIA award winners.
1. When and how did you start photographing architecture? I have been surrounded by architecture from birth. With both father and grandfather being architects, it has always been in my blood, but the path to architectural photography was neither intentional nor expected. Growing up, I spent many hours walking construction sites, and in my teens, working construction. The intention was to ultimately become an architect and follow in the family footsteps. When it came time for college, I went to Cornell University and pursued a degree in Design & Environmental Analysis/Facility Planning and Management, as is seemed a good lead into Architecture in Graduate School. During my junior year, many of my friends were Photography Majors and they encouraged me to take a photography course. My first photography teacher and mentor to this day was Barry Perlus, who is now head of the Photography Department at Cornell. I had never been interested in photography previously, as I had only know it as a tool of the newspaper and yearbook staff, and I had no interest in photojournalism. Barry opened a world where photography was a deliberate act, almost painterly. You were not “capturing an event,” you went out with intent and created. Once photography was presented to me in this new and magical light, I was hooked. My journey than led me to New York City in the pursuit of learning from the best of the best and had the good fortune of working with many, as stated in my Bio. I loved New York but the day to day effort of existing is such a city was more than I wanted and knew I wanted to get married and have a family. I returned to Columbus, OH, my home, and after a few years, opened my own studio. I started out shooting Architecture, Corporate and Portrait work, and over the years the balance has decidedly swung to Architecture. It is all very exciting to me. It is not merely about taking pictures, it is about giving something back to the architectural community from which I came.
2. Are you an architect? No, my degree is in Design & Environmental Analysis/Facility Planning and Management. As I have said, “Along the way I decided that I would rather be paid to appreciate architecture than to do architecture”. I think I would have been just an OK architect, but I think I am better as a photographer.
3. Why do you like to photograph architecture? It is almost a psychological thing. I take great joy in hearing an architect’s thought process — what is the architects inspiration for their work? It is great fun for me to move through a space, see its evolution through time, season, weather, occupied, not occupied, etc. It is not about, “taking a picture of a building,” it is about the experience of “being.” Though I certainly have my ideas on how to shoot a building, I see myself as a collaborator. I really want to get inside the architect’s mind. It is then my responsibility to find those magical moments that embrace the vision. I had the great fortune to work with Charles Gwathmey on a shoot where Charley was present, and it is an experience that is magical to this day. That is what it is all about.
Going back to Photo 101, photography gives one the right to stop, look, and appreciate the world around you. If you stop to appreciate a building, a rose, a crack in the sidewalk, and you are a doctor, everyone thinks you have lost your mind, if you are a photographer, everyone says, “Oh, he is a photographer.” It gives you the opportunity to stop and smell the roses.
4. Favorite architect? Totally unfair question. The real answer is, whoever I am working with at that moment in time. I immerse myself in my work and want the very best for my clients. I am not here to judge but to appreciate and therefore I am always looking for the beauty. Even a warehouse can have beauty if seen through the right set of eyes. That said, there are certainly those whose work I undeniably appreciate. I cannot tell you the joy I have had photographing the work of Rafael Vinoly. My father, the architect, was always far more concerned with whether a building WORKED than merely its beauty. It is wonderful to be beautiful but if it does not work, than what is the point. There is much avant garde architecture that makes the viewer say WOW, but does it really perform for the inhabitants? What I have found, photographing Vinoly’s work, is that his project’s may not receive the attention of many of the periodicals, as some of the starchitects do, but his buildings WORK! The Pittsburgh Convention Center virtually redefines the Convention Center and that it needs not be a dark black box. Vinoly’s labs have made people understand that the walls do not need to be cinder block and the lab benches do not need to be wood with black tops; they can be spaces full of light which are modern and functional — spaces that a scientist can look forward to going to everyday. To take the conventional notion of what is a space and to redefine it is a special gift, which Rafael and his principal collaborators, seem to understand.
I could go on with favorites all day (Santiago Calatrava, Coop Himmelblau, OMA, Kieran Timberlake, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, etc.) but that is not what you asked. There are many doing some amazing work. I also would like to say that there are many great architects lost behind the cloak of the big firms. Great work is being done by Cannon Design, HOK, SOM, Gensler and NBBJ but, in many cases, who is considered the architect to the general public? I feel there are many who go largely unrecognized.
5. Favorite building? Again, an unfair question. The Pittsburgh Convention Center holds a special place in my heart, as my relationship with Rafael Vinoly was initiated as a result of that project. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall both helped to redefine cities or at least a portion of them. Calatrava never ceases to amaze, and I love the Milwaukee Art Museum. That said, Phillip Johnson’s Glass House needs to be recognized, as well as Frank Lylod Wright’s Falling Water. I would rather appreciate them all for their own specialness than to pick favorites. That is not how my mind works. We all exist in a special moment in time, and we should embrace that moment and enjoy it. Why say that this is the best or my favorite, when there is so much to enjoy?
6. How do you work? My assistant, Lauren Davis, helped me to understand that I don’t know the answer to this question. After 20+ years, there is so much that I do that I don’t even think about, it has become second nature. I guess the process is something like this: I like to walk the project with the architect and experience it through their eyes. I then want time, time to understand and to appreciate what I am working with. I do light my project, but sparingly. I do not wish to create something anew but merely to show the work in its best possible light. I see a great deal of photography that is heavily lit, and it is very sexy and serves a specific purpose, but it always seems to be more about the lighting than the building. I want the architecture to shine through, not my photography to be the star of the show. I want the reaction to be, “What a great building,” not “What a great photograph of that building.” I prefer to have a minimum of 3 days at a project, if possible. That seems the minimum amount of time to experience a building, and over that time, you should have many opportunities to see the project under different weather conditions, at various time of day, etc. Weather plays such a huge role in what an architectural photographer does, so understanding weather and how to make it work for you is a big part of the equation. I cannot tell you how many times I have spent days at a building, and then I happen to walk through a space that I have walked 30 times before and something jumps out, due to sun position, a certain physical location, weather condition, time of year — something that was never seen before. The important thing is to be open to these experiences and be ready when they happen so that you may capture that decisive moment.
I always go back to Malcolm Gladwell’s premise from his book the Outliers called the 10,000-Hour Rule. That the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years. I have spent at least an average of 10 to 20 hours a week shooting architecture for over 20 years. At this point, architecture speaks to me. It is the ability to be open to that which you are hearing and having the knowledge to put that into tangible through time of day, lens selection and vision.
7.- What kind of equipment and software do you use? My camera body is a Cambo Wide DS, and I have 6 Rodenstock Digital Lenses from a 28mm up to a 90mm lens. I have recently upgraded to a Phase One IQ160 Medium Format Digital back. On the back end, we have Apple Computers and are retouching in Photoshop CS5. We use a handful of plug-ins but the importance is being REAL. I was once asked, “How much do you charge to drop in those magical skies in post?” I had to laugh because I never dropped in a sky in my life. The beauty of learning with film is you had to do everything in the camera and with lighting; there was no Photoshop, and that is where a great deal of photographers fall short. They grew up in the digital age and utilize Photoshop as a crutch, as a fixer. Photoshop is there to help you remove dust, to correct color, to augment and remove when necessary. It is not to create. The more you can rely on your photographic skills and the less on your computer skills, the better photographer you will be.
The Rodenstock lenses are amazing, and the Phase One back is just incredible. That said, anyone can open their pocketbooks and buy nice equipment. These are all merely tools. The greatest tool I have are my eyes, and eyes that have been trained over 20 years of looking.