Simplicity and Complexity
Photo copyright Ezra Stoller/Esto
One of the things that I love about architectural photography is its complexity. I don’t mean the kind of complexity that gets in the way, but rather the kind of complexity that poses enjoyable challenges and rewards our full engagement.
There are many demands placed on an architectural photograph. A good photograph must serve a range of aesthetic and commercial purposes, while navigating a spectrum of technical choices to interpret a large, three-dimensional work of art. That work is itself subject to the influences of lighting, weather, climate, usage, and the rest. Simply put, there is a lot to think about, and one of the joys of the process is corralling these variables and making something out of them.
I tend to favor photographs that make incisive statements, but what Einstein said of science is also true of photography: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” There is a world of difference between simple and simplistic, and one of the enjoyable paradoxes of art is that something very simple can also be very profound.
Here’s one of my favorite examples:
This is an Ezra Stoller photograph of Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut. (For those who don’t know, Stoller is one of the all-time great architectural photographers.) In terms of composition and content, it could be called “simple.” There are five converging planes (walls, ceiling and floor), a subdued tonal range, a single human figure placed in accordance with the classic rule of thirds, and little in the way of decoration or embellishment within the frame. Le Corbusier’s chapel is in many ways a complex structure, and we can be sure that Stoller took great care in creating this image, as opposed to the million other possibilities.
While simple, however, the photo is anything but simplistic. The walls tilt and curve to convey a sense of motion, the ceiling sweeps in a celestial arc, the figure raises a hand to the wall as if communing with the building itself, and the highlights in the center dramatically backlight the figure while hinting at what must be a dazzling vision beyond. In this outwardly simple photograph, the building is revealed as a thing of beauty, a profound metaphor, and a powerful instrument of human experience.
This kind of exercise is central to architectural photography, at least as I practice it. Amid the many considerations that go into a photograph, sometimes I’m just looking for the straightest path to the deepest truth. It’s simple, right?
Thanks for reading,