It's clear that architecture inspires and impassions Timothy Soar - not only has the UK photographer spent most of his life visiting and capturing great architectural works, but - unlike most photographers, or architects for that matter - he also speaks eloquently about the architecture that inspires him. Describing his favorite building, AHMM's Yellow Building, he tells us it "delivers exquisite simplicity out of a complex lattice. The building has a lyrical poetry in the way it wraps and folds itself around the occupants – deft, confident and generous. It is one of London’s great spaces."
Moreover, Soar believes deeply that his architectural photography does more than merely idealize built forms; not only do his images enable the architects he works with to "refine and amplify" the ideas within their built works, and thus aid them in defining their next work, but it also seeks to advocate architecture for all: "My work as a photographer is predicated on a desire to [...] to be an advocate for design that elevates, to help construct an argument where good design isn’t an occasional, rare and special thing but an everyday, routine and expected event." Read the whole interview and see more of Soar's fantastic images, after the break
When and how did you start photographing architecture?
I have always photographed architecture. For me, it all seemed perfectly natural: I was already steeped in the vocabulary. My father, a lawyer, was an enthusiastic amateur photographer (he exhibited with Edwin Smith, one of the great English architectural photographers). Dad and I used to travel to see the latest new buildings – Centre Georges Pompidou, Willis Faber, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and he loved London’s South Bank complex. Holidays were spent visiting Port Sunlight, New Lanark, The Derbyshire mills of Arkwright and Strutt. He had a real passion for and conviction of the transforming power of architecture and its role in enabling social progress. He, of course, was thrilled when I started working with Foster, Rogers, Lasdun, Grimshaw, Farrell and Hopkins.
Are you an architect?
I originally trained in engineering, and I’ve always enjoyed the process of analysing problems and designing solutions. Buckminster Fuller, Joseph Paxton and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were an inspiration. However, early experience with a engineering consulting company (based in a beautiful Rogers designed building in Royston) convinced me that I needed the stimulus of a less office-based life. I switched to a photography degree and then got a job as an assistant to one of Britain’s best architectural photographers, Richard Bryant. Richard had originally trained as an architect and was the photographer of choice for some wonderful buildings by Rogers, Stirling, Farrell, Henning Larsen, Aldington Craig. I learnt a lot, and laughed a lot. It was a happy time and a great experience.
Why do you like to photograph architecture?
Architecture represents a great deal more than a need for shelter. At its best architecture engages with profound human issues. Even mundane and seemingly unimportant structures can be lifted by sensitive and intelligent design. My work as a photographer is predicated on a desire to broaden the conversation about our built environment, to be an advocate for design that elevates, to help construct an argument where good design isn’t an occasional, rare and special thing but an everyday, routine and expected event. Some of the most rewarding moments in my life have been spent in the company of the occupants of a new building, sharing in the pleasure and optimism that is to be found when a special place has been delivered.
I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with some of the finest minds in architecture. My longest collaboration has been with Allford, Hall, Monaghan, Morris. We have enjoyed an intense and deep relationship. I’ve been working with AHMM since they started. A great deal of time, energy and thought has been put into the way the work of the practice is photographed. One of the great challenges of working with a growing company is finding ways to communicate their strengths as they grow, to help them stand apart and to be noticed. AHMM have a gift for making ordinary buildings extraordinary and achieving high design standards on low budgets. They have a real drive and commitment to refine the process of architecture so that delight is the outcome. Despite the many constraints and challenges involved in the projects they have delivered, there is an elegance in the way they have resolved so many of the complexities of construction. The photography of their work has become a rich and expressive process, finding the ideas and aspirations we talked about 20 years ago realised in thrilling Stirling Prize nominated buildings is a great joy, and the images we make together illustrate the continuity and integrity of their architecture and vision.
My favourite building? There have been many. One of the most satisfying projects to work on has been AHMM’s Yellow Building for Monsoon. The powerful, heroic form of the concrete grid, designed to do away with supporting cores, delivers exquisite simplicity out of a complex lattice. The building has a lyrical poetry in the way it wraps and folds itself around the occupants – deft, confident and generous. It is one of London’s great spaces. The client's desire to integrate office, art gallery and social spaces has produced a place that is about architectural theatre, responding to the grit and mess of life and the freedom of an organised but unstructured space for creative spontaneity. That such a building could be conceived, welcomed and delivered is a testament to communicating the strengths of imagination and pragmatism that the architects have in abundance.
How do you work?
I enjoy building a rapport with my architects, learning about their desires and ambitions, and thereby creating a dialogue that supports both the emotion and financial investment in each project. I like to think that we work together to photograph a building, that what we photograph is not just the idealised photographic form of a particular project but also hopefully acts as a predictor of the next project. By refining and amplifying the ideas manifest in the built work, we can make the case for the nascent ideas and techniques that will define the yet unbuilt work. There are many tortuous steps to take in winning commissions and achieving built architecture, a strong portfolio of images helps reassure clients and can help build the confidence that’s needed to push on into uncharted territory.
What kind of equipment and software do you use?
I work with a technical monorail camera. Essentially, it is the same kind of camera I used when working on film in 8 x 10” and 4 x 5” formats, except that it is now equipped with digital capture. My Linhof camera allows control of perspective to help manifest the illusion of deep space. The minute camera movements I am able to employ subtly manipulate the composition to help reveal the underlying order and structure. It enables carefully constructed images of space that can explore the continuity of interconnected zones, the movement of light, the geometric ordering of planes, views and patterns. It makes for a deliberate and considered style of working, which, I believe, is pertinent to architecture.
Along with the camera I use a Phase One 80mp digital back. The enormous power of the system allows for the exact placing of tones in close proximity, a capacity to reveal perfect textures with a meticulous attention to light and shade. It is this ability to consider and carefully place the relative values of tonality, from the deepest shadow to the brightest highlight, that are essential components of my photographic vocabulary.
I use Capture One software together with Photoshop. However, I am always very careful not to over process the images. I think the human brain has a fine and delicate relationship with the world. We have a deeply ingrained suspicion of the fake, the compromised, style without substance, a lack of integrity, too much Photoshop produces a clinical, computer-generated image that I think people mistrust. I want the viewers of my work to admire the building in the image, not be misguided by the slick processing of the software.