In this interview, originally published by Paperhouses as "Decisive Moment: Conversation With Fernando Guerra", the Portuguese photographer details his career in architectural photography, and how he approaches the art of photographing buildings. As an advocate of free sharing and online publicity, and one of a new breed of photographers who - shock horror - likes to include people in his shots of buildings, Guerra is well placed to explain how the world of architectural photography has changed over the past decade.
I do not want to call it an interview—it was a fabulous discussion that Fernando Guerra led as a loose narrative with notes on work that he practices with hedonism and filled with life. They are all stories dedicated to the great beauty of doing what one loves and letting it grow.
Read on after the break for the interview
Paperhouses: How did you decide to be an architecture photographer?
Fernando Guerra: Actually, it happened almost by accident... Rewinding my story, when I came back from Macau after having spent five years working as an architect, Sergio challenged me to photograph architecture. At the time there were no real opportunities in Portugal besides Rui Morais de Sousa in Lisbon and Luis Ferreira Alves in Oporto, and both were only responding adequately to all existing systems. Only the top studios photographed their work, not just because there was no such tradition but also because the publishing market was very rudimentary.
It is funny to see how everything changed... I was in some manner part of this change. When I started photographing architecture, Sergio and I were going against the flow. Actually, there was no such thing as a movement, simply because there was no interest in publishing and there was no internet. I always like to remember that ArchDaily emerged in 2008 and therefore the phenomenon is really recent!
When we started, Sergio would identify a piece of architecture and I would immediately go and photograph it without permission... Sergio would then call the studio and, in light of their constant lack of interest would say “but we've photographed already.” That would catch them completely by surprise! It was this unexpected way that we started, without ever thinking that things would take the course they took. There is really nothing better than things that happen naturally!
In short, this business started from Sergio’s passion for architecture and mine for photography and this has always been and still is the most important.
PH: A photograph of architecture is often impersonal. Is there a conflict between the story of the people and history of the work?
FG: When I started, I simply wanted to take pictures. I never questioned myself on how to do one thing or another, it was natural and it developed while my photography matured. If today my process is considered normal, back in 2001 nobody took advantage of the decisive moment.
For me, a house only makes sense in a moment, an hour, an instant. This makes the picture interesting not only for architects, because it shows the project well, but also for people like my mother, who is not an architect, because she can see a beautiful photograph that is not just a photograph of architecture. It is more than that ... and that was something new.
When in 2004 I was shooting for Wallpaper*, they dryly told me not to put people in my photographs. It's really amusing to see that ten years later Wallpaper* not only uses my photographs without asking me to change anything but uses photographs with people. This genre of photography is different from that boring architecture photograph from the past that recorded only elevations...
PH: Purely descriptive...
FG: Photography does not interest me if it only describes architecture...
PH: When you decide to photograph a building, is there prep work done with the architect, something beyond the experience of the work itself?
FG: No, for me the first look at a site is very important. I start the moment I arrive at a site. This, of course, is a challenge.
My job is to be a messenger. I have to absorb what is there to convey it to others and I have to have the humility to see that the day is not about me but about the work and the architect. This enchantment of the first look and the Sun is what drives me. Throughout the day I try to follow my eye and catch a beautiful thing, the essence, the concept.
I basically do what other people do on vacation—I travel and I take photographs!
PH: That is great, you turned a passion into your everyday life!
FG: It is. My big question is how to make this into a business and also, of course, how to arrive with a fresh look to work every day.
My relationship with each building lasts one single day. The next day I depart to another site, and approach both as if they were different people with different characteristics.
I turned my childhood’s passion into what I have and what I am today. It was very natural...
PH: Is there a common thread between the work of a sixteen year old Fernando and your work today?
PH: Not even what you are looking for?
FG: That, yes ... The goal is the same. In fact, I mix exhibitions and catalog photographs that I’ve made today, and from 2002 and earlier.
But at the time it was all so different...
Today it is not enough to take a beautiful picture, you need to take beautiful pictures every day, be very consistent. On the other hand, the expectations in terms of architectural photography in 2003 have nothing to do with the expectations of today: ten years ago an architect would ask me to shoot for a book and did not consider the internet, today the internet is central.
PH: The issue of intellectual property in the Internet age, is it a complicated issue?
FG: If it were not for sharing, work would be meaningless. A book reaches two hundred or three hundred people but the internet reaches far more. Nowadays people do work for the Internet; five years ago they wanted to be published in Casabella (still today I guess...) but today they ask for ArchDaily.
In 2002 I had a website with my name fernandoguerra.com and felt the need to change and be more than just an “I.” In 2004, I launched Ultimas Reportagens which for me is a library, not a name.
At the time all publishers told me it would be the end of my work because with the photos free, no publisher would want to publish them. Well too bad, pal, I said. I still uphold that sharing is essential.
PH: What is your expectation regarding the use of this large library at Ultimas Reportagens?
FG: I offer the photos to everyone; students or people who are doing research on architecture. The idea of Ultimas Reportagens is to display information forever, even after I die. My work is not a building that can be demolished after thirty years...
PH: And one does not have to go to the national archives to see it either...
Moreover, we continually introduce improvements to the site. It has changed four or five times since 2004 – not only in the number of images but the way you view them. Recently we have introduced full-screen photos, and we are progressively updating the archives. In addition to the photographs we also have the ability to locate sites on a map, which allows people to make a route with the different buildings. Ultimas Reportagens became much more than what I anticipated...
PH: Since the library is open, people naturally use the images that are there. What is your perspective on their use of your work: reproduction, collage, derivative works...
FG: I do not care! The excessive protection of the watermark or not cropping the picture only because it can get badly cut, are things that annoy me particularly. Alterations happen with everything after all; an architect can also design a project that is built differently.
I have a special affection for many of my photographs and although I like what I have done, I'm more worried about what comes tomorrow than about a watermark. A photograph taken two years ago has now followed its course. For example, I remember a while ago seeing a picture I did in Tumblr. It was posted by some kids and shared in 50,000 different places! That to me is delightful! The fact that my name was not mentioned is not a big deal. Of course, I would not want Coca-Cola using a picture of mine without talking to me, but I believe that work follows its way...
Anyone who is not prepared to share today is in the wrong business! If I see a picture of mine in several sites knowing that after 20,000 shares it will no longer have my name, I prefer that to any watermark. The watermark brings me no work or and does not change the value of the work. Those who care about these things are stuck in the past.
PH: The democratization of media is the direction of history. The property is first and foremost a manifestation of fear.
FG: Yes, and a watermark distracts from the photography... that is nonsense.
PH: This is also a question of attitude towards public education.
FG: Absolutely, in Ultimas Reportagens we have 40,000 photographs and the inventory continues to grow. It is a time capsule.
This library is not some idea by a kid who’s about to jump to something else. I do not want to go back to design. This is my legacy. I will do this until I drop, or maybe I’ll drop while I’m doing this (laughs), but this library will always be online. Those who hire me know that.
On the other hand, I am always aware of technology. We are indeed on all platforms: Pinterest, Instagram , etc... Instagram is actually part of my day-to-day.
PH: This dialogue with time is an approximation to film?
FG: I like to tell stories. There are many sets I have worked on that would make a good story.
I have an untold narrative for each project. Shooting photos from sunrise to evening—a day at work—I create notes in a loose narrative that everyone can build upon.
The people of my photographs are like actors and the houses are like a stage. That's how I look at my work: an open narrative.
FG: I see a lot of things ... but not just movies, I am alert to everything that surrounds me.
I have a breakfast routine every morning, of looking at photographs that interest me. I consume blogs, Instagram, amateur photography... In fact , I feel 100 % amateur! I still shoot with the same enchantment I had at the age of nineteen!
We are bombarded with so many images that it is hard to say if there is an Art that educates me more than another. In fact, besides photography I am passionate about classic cars and hold real love for restoring them! I have a very wide universe... For example, I am now launching a line of accessories by Portuguese artisans.
We must be open to everything. When I started Ultimas Reportagens in 2004, I was open to everything, open to combine technology and tradition and that's what gave me overwhelming feedback. This accessory line I'm now doing is similar in process.
PH: Has your process evolved?
FG: When I started photographing, I was forced to use giant slides and rolls of 10 photographs. It was so expensive! My fascination with machines is not only about inspiration but rather it reveals the attempt to figure out what can be done with the equipment that exists, because there are things technologically possible today that were not before.
I have lived through the change from analogue to digital photography, which was very interesting. In 2001 nobody photographed with 35mm because they all had optical benches and large machines. On the other hand, I just had a huge Pentax 6:7 with wood handle and primarily used small machines. Hence my photos are so mobile! The other photographers had huge plates, and it’s hard to run after a dog or a cat with big machines... I had a small machine, like a Leica, and that gave me a lot of freedom. I was able to photograph more loosely, as if it were travel photography or street photography. Deep down, I transposed traveling photography to architecture.
A turning point I recognize was the moment I made a picture for Gonçalo Byrne in the rectory of the Aveiro. When I looked at that picture I realized it could be so much fun. All the elements that I wanted and that define the decisive moment were there! It was a picture of a staircase, with people in various places and various layers of information that made it unique. I thought “this can be done in another way. This way! " and it started there. I have a bag or belt with a half dozen lenses, and like being in a corner watching life happen. Invisible. It interests me to feel the rhythm of the people, the building breathing, and capturing these moments. I am interested in life.
PH: The Aircraft Carrier exhibition in Storefront for Architecture is I think, a continuation of the Israeli pavilion in Venice in 2012. How did this work?
FG: To me the best part of the work was to be transported to the other side of the world where there are lots of talented photographers to do it...
They invited me to participate in this project for the Venice Biennale. I was not involved in the Portuguese pavilion at the time but suddenly I was to appear with huge prominence in the Israeli Pavilion. This was in fact a personal exhibition about a country that I did not know and a people whom I did not know... the process was wonderful!
PH: We all have a cultural background but our perspective of life is not a passport and this was a recognition of your individual perspective.
FG: Yeah. That makes me feel good.
When I started working, I valued the stars of architecture but I am now at the opposite pole. The desire to work with the great names of architecture disappeared and I have gained immensely from working with young people, whom I talk to, have lunch with and work with. We have a commonality of goals and that is more valuable for me than working with someone famous. I like working with people who make me grow.
There are rewards in working with people such as Likearchitects. They are growing and I'm seeing them grow. I have amazing photos of their work, one of which was the cover of Smithsonian in December 2013, a magazine printing close to 2 million copies, where my daughter was once on the cover! It's a very special thing!