Architecture professor and photographer Henry Plummer has heightened the transformative power of daylight with his cameras and published several remarkable books about light and architecture. His deep interest in light, and his lyrical writing perspective, were formed through his contact with the designer and art theorist György Kepes while studying at MIT. Within his numerous photo journeys Plummer has documented the various facets of daylight in Japan and the Nordic Countries, and of masters like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. As a Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Plummer also still has ambitious plans for future book projects. In the first part of this interview, Plummer shares a variety of insights about understanding light and approaching buildings for photography.
Thomas Shielke: How did you become fascinated with light, and why do you focus on daylight?
Henry Plummer: I have always had a sense of wonder about light going back to my earliest years. Still etched in the back of my mind are childhood scenes in which light was a bewitching presence: stargazing at night in the backyard, the skyline of Manhattan at dusk, an ocean voyage on the Queen Mary lit up on a dark sea, and growing up in an eighteenth-century Dutch Colonial house whose deep windows were always aglow with changing light. Apart from their vocations both of my parents were artists, and as a young boy I was amazed with how deceptively simple oil paint could be used to construct radiant images on canvas. It became rather natural to sit in the studio for long periods and discuss light and color in unfinished paintings.
Although I studied art history in college, it came as a total revelation while a graduate student at MIT that light itself could be considered, and even manipulated, as a material in architectural design, and that something so ephemeral could be knowingly shaped to impart a spirit of place to buildings. The Department of Architecture at the time was a remarkable culture supportive of unconventional student initiatives, and offered the freedom to examine light from a variety of perspectives—light art with György Kepes, architectural design with Maurice Smith, metal sculpture with Michio Ihara, photography with Minor White, architectural history with Henry Millon.
My interests became focused on daylight, not because I was oblivious to the value of artificial light, but simply because I found daylight to be an inexhaustible source of miracles. While lighting fixtures are something added to architecture, natural light is inherent to it since every built form is a form of light. Moreover daylight is transformational, awakening and bringing to life the world around us—landscape and sky, buildings and cities, space and material, not to mention all living things on earth. It is inherently vital rather than static. It is always changing and moving, in a state of becoming, and its qualities at any moment are never quite the same as the moment before or the moment to follow. By contrast and despite its necessity, artificial light is inert and in this sense dead, for even when made to electrically move or transform, these changes are controlled and programmed beforehand, and thus lack the spontaneity and unpredictability of daylight.
A further significance of daylight as a creative tool in architecture is that it has moods, which are able to infuse physical things with a metaphysical spirit, and can totally alter the character of a building. These mysterious phenomena not only illuminate architectural form but also give it emotional depth, while keeping us tuned to the universe outside as well as the world hidden within us. Without the atmospheric presence of daylight, buildings might be able to support our bodies but they would never be able to sustain our spirits—something we require as human beings.
TS: When and how did you start photographing light and architecture?
HP: My interest in photography began as a youth, but I was not consciously drawn to light as a subject until taking studio courses in photography as a graduate student. Minor White had several years previously inaugurated the Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT (in 1965), whose classes as well as those of other teachers in the program, for me notably Jonathan Green, encouraged students to take an innovative approach in exploring the subjects of photographic images, handling light-sensitive materials and processes in an experimental way, and deepening the way images could be imagined and experienced, and their essence communicated to others.
My initial photographic interest was not architecture, but faintly abstract images in nature—simple things like twigs and leaves embedded in translucent ice, the fluid play of light and shade on snow, the chiaroscuro of dried mud, the glowing impressions of sand on a seashore. I was also drawn to the latent poetry of everyday things, which often involved buildings, such as shapes of light in a broken window, a beam of sun in an empty room, or sun glancing over an archaic texture. These subjects were no doubt inspired by Minor, as well as by other photographers close to him such as Edward Weston and Paul Caponigro, all of whom had explored realms of unknown beauty in the most ordinary things.
TS: What role did your MIT teacher György Kepes play in helping you to understand light?
HP: At the time I began to work with György he was already a legendary teacher in the areas of visual design and designing with light, the latter primarily with small constructions that were essentially works of light sculpture. My interactions with him occurred largely in the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, which he had recently founded as an artistic adjunct to MIT (in 1967) and of which he was then Director. A number of artists who were fellows at the Center, such as Otto Piene and Juan Navarro Baldeweg, were exploring different aspects of light art and were open to informal critiques with students, providing helpful feedback for my own ideas and aspirations. Particularly generous was Michio Ihara, a Japanese kinetic sculptor then working with elaborate webs of stainless steel, allowing me to work in his studio and guiding my own awkward attempts with mobile structures and light.
But it was György above all who opened my eyes to the possibility that daylight could be handled as a creative medium—that its flow could be deftly caught from the sky and then projected or reflected, focused or diffused, and sculpted at will with physical forms to make fleeting shapes of visible energy. The notion that buildings, in addition to their many other values and responsibilities, could also be considered “light modulators” was quite astonishing, and I rather crudely began to experiment with these possibilities in a number of aspects of architectural design, as well as in the realm of light art in the context of Kepes’ own ongoing projects.
TS: How did your apprenticeship with the American photographer Minor White influence your photography?
HP: I worked with Minor in two very different contexts. Initially I got to know him as a teacher at MIT, through studio classes and photography critiques, as well as through his organization and editing of thematic photographic exhibitions for the Visual Art Center at the Institute. But my primary involvement with him was outside academia, in a number of photography workshops in New England and overseas, and finally as an invited apprentice at his home and studio in Arlington Heights.
It is difficult to summarize the impact his teaching and way of seeing had on my photographic aims, for they were influential on so many levels. He was passionate about his own work and personified a way of life that revolved around the art of photography. He shared his joy in the patient search—through eye and camera—of undiscovered worlds lying within the sensual events of this world. And he exemplified artistic integrity, through a creative range that extended from pre-visualizing images to the technical precision of making photographic prints in the darkroom.
But more generally, and perhaps more importantly, Minor epitomized how photography itself could become a mode of heightened perception, a method to more deeply contemplate the world, and equally a way to intensely explore one’s innermost being. Beyond the process of making photographs, he was concerned with enriching how we imagine and see, experience and communicate, not only the sublime but also the humblest things around us—and how to transform these commonplaces into wonders. Towards this end, and in addition to photographic exercises, he employed a number of experimental teaching methods to expand vision and self-awareness—Gestalt therapy, modern dance, astrology, Eastern as well as Native American religions, and techniques of elevating consciousness related to the spiritual teachings of Georges Gurdjieff.
TS: How do you approach a building on site when you photograph it for a book project?
HP: Because daylight is so fleeting and elusive, I restrict the buildings about which I write to those I have personally experienced and photographed. This constraint poses many obvious practical problems, for one can only visit and see so many buildings. My general solution to this predicament is to plan research and photographic trips around particular projects, but to also photograph other buildings along the way for future and often still undefined projects.
A person’s initial encounter with a place, and the opportunity it offers for fresh perception, is quite precious and unrepeatable, so I prefer to avoid visiting buildings until I am ready to fully engage and photograph them. Also while there are many logistical problems involved in planning such trips, I try to forget all these concerns while actually in the moment of photography. My tendency on site—especially when photographing light in architecture—is to have no little or no plan at all, and to avoid thinking about building uses or history, the presence and distraction of other visitors, or the names of various rooms and parts. In this regard I have been often reminded of Robert Irwin’s famous comment, that “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” Of course rational thoughts are always looming up in the back of the mind, but I try to press them down beneath awareness until I am finished photographing. My aim is to directly respond to whatever truly attracts and enchants me, free of any practical purpose, producing a rather spontaneous, unexpected, startling, and, if lucky, ecstatic journey through a building—and, for that time, becoming one with the subject of one’s contemplation.
Another set of pragmatic factors I find important to consider in advance, but then develop amnesia about while on site, stems from the cyclic rhythms of daylight. To avoid missing significant solar events, I make an effort while planning a trip to carefully assess the orientation of buildings and their openings, so as to anticipate the times and directions of sunrise and sunset, as well as the arrival of sun on important walls or its penetration of particular windows, according to the given latitude and season. Some of these solar happenings are so pivotal that the scheduling of a visit may revolve around them. This lesson was driven home to me over several decades of studying and photographing the light in Nordic architecture, for at such extreme latitudes the winter sun might appear for only a brief time in the south and make a dramatic appearance at noon, or conversely the summer sun might revolve around the entire building in a circle of impacts.
TS: What are the most challenging aspects of photographing daylight?
HP: Beyond the previous remarks, a further complication of daylight is its ethereal and impalpable nature—making it always unattainable and beyond our grasp. This is especially true with the most delicate tones of ambient light, which we barely notice yet can create a unity of spirit. I am thinking of the transparent veils of color produced by refracted light from the sky, the infinite range of faint shadows and highlights appearing on monolithic forms and textures, and the peaceful tones of light filtered through snow or rain, fog or clouds. More pronounced atmospheric effects can take on a space-filling presence, such as the golden ambiance of sunset or enveloping blue hour of dusk. Related as well as to these natural phenomena are elusive conditions produced architecturally, as in the diffusion of light through translucent membranes, from the dreamy white glow of shoji screens in Japanese houses and temples, to the sparkling hues of Gothic stained glass that bathe the darkness with a haze of color.
To observe and photograph these indefinable harmonies requires a kind of shift in vision, ratcheting down logic while expanding sensibility, replacing rational thought with an ineffable kind of touch or perception. Instead of resorting to intellectual comprehension through reason, I find it more effective to try to grasp atmospheric light through apprehension at a single glance by the senses. This allows one to go beyond the measurable forms of architecture, and catch sight of something immeasurable—a metaphysical presence that clings to the surface and imbues the air with a special flavor, vivifying the things it touches.
A related challenge is the evanescence of daylight. Obviously one can never witness more than a tiny part of the story of light in any building. But one can struggle to see and photograph certain key moments or enduring qualities that characterize a building, and convert its volumes into a place that we are able to experience deeply. This transiency often necessitates revisiting and re-photographing buildings in order to see them at different hours and seasons, or under different lighting conditions or weather.
One must also be prepared to move quickly, and make the most of momentaristic phenomena, for they might utterly change or unexpectedly disappear in a few minutes, or conversely the phenomena one anticipates might not appear until later in the day or months in the future. As a result photography turns into a kind of dance with the building and sky, a process that can be slow and pensive, even demand long periods of waiting, but also at times frantic and intoxicating, and may just as easily cause disappointment when the sky or weather leave built forms mute and dormant before one’s eyes.
Read part 2 of this interview here.
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works for the lighting company and academy DIAL. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the book “Light Perspectives”. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces.