In my opinion, Portugal has been producing a constant amount of high quality architecture, very well executed. Unlike countries in which there are a few “gems” and the rest doesn´t matter, the average level is very good as you can see on our Portugal section at ArchDaily, ranging from small houses to public projects.
And thanks to photographer Fernando Guerra, and his brother Sergio (FG+SG), we’ve had the chance to see it on ArchDaily with very good photos.
His website Ultimas Reportagens has become the most extensive archive on Portuguese contemporary architecture (385 projects, 20,000 images), and has been recently redesigned in order to improve the browsing experience. Also, as you can see on the interview, Fernando has worked very close with Alvaro Siza, documenting 51 of his projects so far. Most of this work can be see at the recent book “Álvaro Siza: The Function of Beauty“.
Fernando and Sergio are also into the publishing business, you can buy their books directly from their store.
Now, to the interview:
1. When and how did you start photographing architecture?
Perhaps I was influenced by a number of architects in the family, and, of course, also by my fondness for drawing as well as accompanying my father on his job…I became interested in becoming an architect early on. It was all very natural, and I don’t remember when I decided to follow this path.
I’ve taken photos ever since I can remember. It was a simple adolescent hobby that was transformed into a profession, or full-time occupation, without losing its enjoyable aspects or the search for new images that transcend the mere documental process. It is a difficult task given the daily regimen of picture taking, but up to now I’ve been able to maintain my enthusiasm every day.
I completed a degree in architecture in Lisbon in 1993 and thereafter went to Macau to work as an architect for a very large studio where I learnt almost everything I know about architecture. I spent the next six years taking photographs on a daily basis, but mainly of people, travels, etc.
At the time, I did not attach great importance to take photos of buildings, not even those I designed or collaborated on. I always ended up being careless and missing the right moment to take pictures. Just like any architect…everything had to centre on someone and not something. My aim was to photograph and travel to different places. Off the beaten path. This is what I ended up doing in countries like Vietnam and Nepal, among others.
In 1999, I returned to Portugal, where I set up a studio and began working on a few architectural projects and participated in public tenders with some regularity. At the same time, I taught classes in Coimbra at ARCA University. Also at this time, Sérgio had completed his degree in architecture, and began working for a studio here in Lisbon.
Always with a camera at hand, I would now and again receive jobs photographing architecture. Meanwhile, with Sérgio’s organizational assistance, I was able to consolidate the process from there. We began to make a return, and requests for new jobs began to appear with some regularity. Slowly, we would meet with clients, among whom were the most respected Portuguese architects, until four years ago, when I left teaching and the studio to dedicate myself full-time to what I actually enjoy: architectural photography.
2. Where did you study architecture?
I studied at the Lusíada University in Lisbon, where I think there was already a dose of reality regarding the architecture profession.
However, the way in which the media depict the work of an architect can give the wrong impression. There is still a cult of personality surrounding the architect, which will probably always exist. But this can be deceptive with regard to the ease in completing a project as well as in the process to achieve it.
3. Why do you like to photograph architecture?
What I do with photography is to reflect what I see on a daily basis, as everyone does, even if unconsciously. I don’t have major references for architectural photography, so-called masters, but I have a huge number of references from street photojournalists. It is their work that nourishes me. The process is different, but the conceptual base is the same: being in the right place at the right time. The unrepeatable moment also occurs in and around architectural photography. There is no tradition in traditional architecture of showing great concern for special moments, but rather a hard and fast sober register of reality. Luckily, this is changing, and it seems that it will no longer be the rule. The moment is essential in architecture.
4. Favorite architect
Working with Siza today is above all like working with a client who surprises me each time I am confronted with one of his works. The attention to detail, his dedication to the project’s design is total, despite his 75 years. On a trip we took together to Japan this past September, his energy left me thinking that I was the one who was his age. When he is recognized on the streets of central Tokyo and stops to sign autographs for his admirers, you understands even more the dimensions of his work. He’s an example for all Portuguese architects, and one whose recognition continues outside of Portugal, now with the important gold medal from RIBA.
Practicing architecture does not imply its publication. Neither is this Siza’s objective. He works because he’s an architect and architecture is within him. He expresses it and it emanates from him. It is up to us to visit and divulge it. In the public domain, the recognition of a building’s “exceptional” nature is often through photographs. This means that in order to reach a wider audience, the architect depends a great deal on who photographs it, and principally on the way it is photographed. With Siza, his ample spaces are always conditioned through absolute control of light. I only hope I can continue to do justice to this light with the same enchantment that I had when I studied architecture and used it as a reference point in my small projects.
5. Favorite building
One of Siza’s projects that has affected me the most is the Anyang pavilion, 30km south of Seoul in South Korea. When we travel to the other side of the world, we can’t postpone a session due to poor weather or insufficient conditions. We have to create the images with no excuses. Thus, during the summer of 2006, I went to Anyang to photograph the small pavilion built on an open square carved into the mountain, and I was greeted by a week of incessant rain. It was one of my first projects for the studio and I couldn’t nor wanted to make excuses for an incomplete or insufficient piece of work. Filled with anxiety, I did what I had to do: I took pictures…
And it was worth it: The rain became part of the session, providing an unusual atmosphere. The fog ended up hiding some of the less interesting buildings nearby, and the gushing water created cascades that I have not seen since during recent visits to the building. To complicate matters, that same week inside the pavilion, on the only day I had other people working on the project, I did not have my tripod with me, for various reasons. I had to improvise using an old picnic table I found close to the pavilion to support the camera and provide the stability I required. Some images had an exposure of 4 seconds, but the improvisation worked.
The photographs I took on those days were published all over the world, and in their own way helped Siza win several distinctions such as an award from Wallpaper* magazine in 2006 as the gallery of the year. My most published photograph is probably the one of the girl on the inside by the window which was the cover image for different magazines like Casabella or the Japanese A+U, among many others. It went well. And it was worth it. It was the start of a collaboration that has turned into a friendship of which I am proud.
Long before pointing a lens at his work, I would buy magazines and books containing his projects and visited his buildings more with the curiosity of an architect than a photographer. To be able to share a close relationship with a master is an honor that one never completely becomes accustomed to, but which we easily forget when taking a stroll or sharing a meal, above all because Siza closes the distance with his natural manner. He’s the antithesis of an inaccessible media star.
6. How do you work?
When we started, we had to win architects’ confidence by showing them work completed in our studios. It wasn’t much, but I had to produce it even without a commission. Then, we moved on to unauthorized jobs or requests from the studios themselves, and little by little I built up a solid portfolio which in turn attracted new commissions. It was a very slow process. It is strange today to see young people who want to start out photographing architecture, hoping straightaway to receive direct commissions. It requires great investment and patience on our part. Things don’t happen from one day to the next. Nowadays, I know that the studios trust my work, but they also appreciate all of the work that has followed mine, which is promotion of the works themselves. These days, it is not enough to provide a few beautiful photos of architecture. You have to know how to show it to the right people, promoting the work on the Internet as well as among the main publishers. Gaining the trust of publishers is also something that is won over time. Suggesting the right work to a publication can make the difference between total ignorance about a project and its worldwide acclaim. Taking advantage of existing networks, both online as well as the printed press. We are now represented by View Pictures, as well as a German and an Italian agency which helps to bring Portuguese architecture to more international magazines and books. Furthermore, FG+SG has already functioned as an agency for a few years now.
7.- What kind of equipment/software do you use?
Digital. And I use different formats. Not just 35mm. It is unnecessary to stick to a single brand or technique. Despite being sponsored by a few at the moment.
In the meantime, I am always buying material and testing accessories. It is part of the enjoyment that is this profession. As I collaborate with certain manufactures of cameras or accessories, I sometimes have the opportunity to work with material that is not yet available to the general public and that constitutes part of its development.