Architecture is mostly known through representations. Even today, when traveling is no longer rare or just for the rich, buildings and places are mostly disseminated and appreciated through images. In that sense, photography has been—and still is—paramount to architecture. The following interview delves into Erieta Attali’s work and the relationship to both architecture and landscape through the lens of her camera. With over two decades of experience, shooting and teaching all over the world, the Israeli photographer reflects on the origins and evolution of her renown practice.
ArchDaily: When and why start with architecture photography?
Erieta Attali: I started photographing architecture without realizing that I was already into it. Since my first year as an archaeological photographer in 1993, I became a specialist in the photography of wall paintings in ancient burial monuments, while working in excavation sites in the northern part of Greece, as well as throughout the Aegean. My long lasting involvement with archaeological but also landscape photography played an important role in the transition process to contemporary architecture, with which I had no association until I came across with the Water Glass House designed by Kengo Kuma in Avery library, Columbia University in the year 2000 but also the work of Dan Graham, Bernard Tschumi, Richard Meier.
AD: What is your process like when you select an architecture work to photograph? What makes you choose it?
EA: My selection process differs from case to case. It all depends on whether my motivation is a personal research or a collaboration with an architect or an institution, foundation etc.
I am attracted to special landscape conditions such as in Atacama desert, the various types of landscapes across Chile, remote zones in Japan, the ice desert landscapes in Norway and the Seine river amongst other locations.
Since my childhood I was obsessed with highways, bridges, and man-made structures situated in rough territories. My obsessions lead me to the selection of specific architecture works therefore architects.
AD: Which is the first question you ask an architect before photographing their work? Is it relevant to build a personal relationship with architects before documenting their work?
EA: There are two different directions in my architectural photography practice. I either photograph architecture as part of a photographic research when preparing a monograph, or as part of a long-lasting collaboration with a certain architect. In the first case, I follow a process that sets some distance from the architect; by saying this I mean, I focus on the work without the necessity to meet with the creator. In the second case, the personal relation carries a certain weight. This is something which I discover gradually before and during the collaboration, and usually with a powerful friendship resulting from the intellectual sharing. I have a preference for long lasting collaborations such as with Angelo Bucci, Kengo Kuma, Marc Mimram, Max Nunez and Martyn Hook amongst others, and certainly some young architects who come along the way such as Diego Baraona, Sebastian Cruz and Alfredo Thiermann amongst limited others. With my architects - as I love to call them - we travel together, making books with them and for them. I try to make very complex projects possible. It is a long process of understanding each other and it takes time, courage and trust. I clearly recall the first time I met with each of “my architects”.
AD: What makes a photo an architecture photo?
EA: Human-made structures are universally considered to be the subject, or content of architectural photography, while the landscape - be it natural or artificial- is usually treated as mere context or background. Content and context however, are equally important and often interchangeable. Through my practice, I have tried to stay away from the content-context dichotomy and instead create images that capture an identity of place; its particular atmospheric quality, lighting conditions, materiality and mood.
AD: How can you reveal through photography the design intention of an architect?
EA: Most of the time, the main and only necessity in order to reveal the architectural intention, is to actually understand it yourself. The understanding comes through engagement (walking, seeing, staying overnight) with the place more than it does through conversation with the architect. Then, naturally, the photography will translate this acquired knowledge into image. A central tenet in my photography is to always contextualize architecture, since the communication/interpretation value of a purely visual/geometric composition is minimal, to none.
AD: How important is storytelling in architecture photography? Is it something you can see through your work or do you look for new stories behind each architecture work?
EA: I have employed narrative elements in my work since my very early days as a photographer: devices that either create particular moods to elicit an emotional response or treat inorganic matter as characters, starring in a story that unfolds into the landscape. Narratives can be told through single photographs and the use of storytelling cues, but also by sequences. The intention of the sequence is to read a series of photographs as a whole and to communicate the sense of approaching a work of architecture from multiple standpoints as it emerges from the landscape. There are certainly different stories behind each architecture work.
AD: You have been teaching architecture photography around the world in the best architecture schools. How do you teach photography to the new generations of architects?
EA: It’s an extraordinary task to be teaching in various geographies from one continent to another, from Australia to Americas, Europe to Middle East and Asia. My teaching has a critique-based structure, tailored to each student’s strengths and research interests. Individual instruction is provided and personalized to each student’s area of interest, often in the context of a group discussion. My students are asked to observe urban locations, specific buildings and/or urban natural expanses. Through these, they are asked to explore spatial and temporal transitions and capture the circadian rhythm of a city or a place, as well as the varying behavior of both light and material. Students are asked to identify and investigate different kinds of light sources as well as the behavior of different architectural textures, geometries and degrees of transparency under the expanded pallet of light. Each individual photographic research is accompanied by a written contribution that explains the choice of project(s) and discusses the correlation between building/s and the student’s visual interpretation of it.
AD: You have been working as a photographer throughout different stages of the media landscape. How has your work or projects have changed with the evolution of media?
EA: I have been using a large format Linhof 4X5 inch camera since the start of my career. I never stopped using film, despite all the complexities involved with it nowadays. My work therefore hasn’t changed in terms of the evolution of the media, but instead my academic and photographic research has helped me grow and produce better work throughout my career. Lately I have been using both a 35 mm digital Leica camera and an iPhone to capture the physicality of wandering fast through the city of Paris.. By employing ‘instant’ ways of looking, multiple frames and narrative sequence collages, I search for a visual representation of everyday life. My intention is to document human action as a component of the built environment, while at the same time refraining from the picturesque and/or iconic representation of a city. The results are interesting. It’s all together a different language.