Is architecture photography fake news?
A few years ago, Azure Magazine published the article ‘Has architectural photography become fake news?’ The author, Nicholas Hune-Brown, explains that commercial architectural photography has always been about presenting an idealized version of a building and that photo-editing software has expanded the horizons of what is possible. From architects to photographers to click-hungry blogs and magazines – almost everyone has an interest in producing “wow” images. The public has become accustomed to flawless, beautiful images.
The question Hune-Brown asks, looks a bit dated, but is still relevant. Nowadays post-processing software is easily available. An important development is the AI text-to-image techniques. It is quickly becoming easy to create good images of non-existing modern architecture. And copying a style of a particular architect is easy, see the article on AItuts '100+ Best Midjourney Architecture Prompts (Featuring Famous Architects)'. Photoshop has included the Adobe Firefly generative AI, making it very simple for its users to generate and change images.
The question of photography as fake-news is far from new. Not only the commercial sector - also amateur architecture photographers and others do their utmost to create aesthetically pleasing images, perhaps in search of Instagram-wow-likes, or to express their vision of a beautiful image. The question also concerns other sectors. Just think of fashion or food photography (do you know how food photos are made? – check out this video by a photographer, or this video by a food stylist). The tendency is for photography to (uncritically) flatter its subject. In portrait photography the subjects - the people - want to look good on photos, and often readily agree with post-processing of images to achieve a representation with less wrinkles, bigger and brighter eyes and other ‘imperfections’ repaired. The point is to match ‘how natural’ the person on the photo wants to be, what the vision of the photographer is, what the company paying for the photos wants and what viewers appreciate. In the commercial sector, AI may change this issue - when AI generated faces (or food etc.) become standard. The debate about 'authentic' will intensify.
A step back to a simple photo. Some people want truthful photos, and believe that ‘out-of-camera’ pictures are more truthful. Truthful is difficult to define. With regards to photography: is it what the camera registers? Before a photographer thinks of improving an architecture image, (s)he influences what the viewer of the photo will see. Which angle / cut is chosen, what will be included and excluded in the picture (people, waste bins, traffic), which lens is used – telephoto, wide-angle or a ‘neutral’ lens (that matches eyesight), will the photo show symmetry, repeating elements, diagonals, etc., generally considered as aesthetically pleasing elements? And what about light and environmental conditions (most architecture photos are taken on sunny days). All these issues play a role before an image is transferred from the camera. Moreover, a camera does not give a true representation of what you see – also high-end camera’s deal with light and contrast in their own programmed way. Night photography is good to discover that a camera will not capture what you see in the real world – light and colour are distorted.
An example. We may look at an example of a photo made with an inexpensive camera during a cloudy and grey day. The building is ‘De Rotterdam’ (in Rotterdam), a big complex with offices, a hotel and residence designed by OMA.
Technical details: Canon Power Shot G1 (an old 2012 model on automatic, i.e. f4, 1/1250, ISO100, at 12mm, small sensor, RAW format).
The first picture shows the ‘out of camera’ version – this is what the camera registers. What I saw in the real world is not the same. The photo is a wide-angle image (my eyes cannot see wide-angle), shot in 1/1250th of a second (my eyes cannot freeze a situation), and in my memory the camera’s image is more pale than the reality was (but my memory is not perfect). The unprocessed version is truer to reality than the second processed version of the photo, but the unprocessed version is not ‘reality’. In the second photo of the building, adjustments are easy to detect: light, contrast, colour, and the image is sharpened.
Architecture photography is an interpretation; a picture can never give a real / true representation and experience. A photograph comprises the vision of the photographer and the subjective interpretation of the viewer. Some Photoshop specialists give another interpretation; the issue is not whether photos are more ‘truthful’, but the issue is that viewer may value a more imperfect aesthetic. 'Truthful' can be seen as a kind of scale, from 'real representation' to, say, AI generated.
Photos on this website
The photos on this website are not for a wow-factor or for generating likes. The idea behind the photos is to show what a visitor can expect during her or his trip. Therefor we apply minimal adjustments, a rather documentary style. This idea is simple when the real-world conditions match the standards of the camera (average light, average contrast) but this is often not the case. For example, on sunny days the contrast between the architecture and the sky is big. Most photos on this site are adjusted; typically: contrast and light – e.g. make the sky a bit darker and/or the architecture a bit lighter. Because of my vision, the camera’s performance, the viewer’s preferences, the quality of the viewer’s screen, the light and weather conditions, etc., the picture and the real world will always be dissimilar.
The photos on this website are two-dimensional images and oriented at the sight, the eye. Visiting modern architecture is an experience that affects all senses – hearing, touching, sense of space and orientation, etc. In Santander, my visits to Centro Botín were very enjoyable because of the building, its situation in a green park, the open space around the building, the smell of the sea, happy people discovering the building the activities going on. Alas, most of these things cannot be traferred through a photo, they can only be mentioned in the description.
An earlier blog on the topic of Art, architecture, and the senses is here.