Do photographs lie? It’s an old question, but no less important for that. Architectural photographers routinely edit photos to remove things like construction barrels, power lines, and other distractions, and I don’t think that has ever been very controversial. But when do we cross the line from dressing up an image to actual misrepresentation?
A prominent example was the dust-up last year over the El Centro building in Chicago. The building won an architectural prize based on the photographs submitted to the jury. After the fact, it was revealed that one of the photos had been edited to remove a large block of unattractive climate-control units from the roof. As Blair Kamin wrote in the Chicago Tribune, this “turned El Centro's jumbled top into a razor-sharp edge.” (You can read Kamin’s story and see some photographs here.) Subsequently, two of the three jurors said they would not have given the prize to El Centro had the units appeared in the photo. The third juror did not go that far, but he did say that it would have made him view the submission differently.
I was reminded of this in a recent conversation with an architect, who said that a photograph should make a space look “better than it is.” In context, I think he meant something more nuanced, such as, “A photograph should present a space in its best aspects so as to reveal the true nature of the design, without actually misrepresenting it.” And I happen to agree with this. But still, how far can we go?
Lacking a definite answer, it may be useful to consider the extremes. At one end of the spectrum, I doubt that anyone would challenge an exterior shot taken when the angle of the sun is most flattering, or an interior view where all the chairs have been neatly aligned in a way that they never are when people are actually using them. It’s analogous to making someone’s portrait: we generally do not insist on photographing someone when he first gets out of bed, and it is perfectly acceptable for him to shave, dress, and comb his hair first.
At the other extreme, most of us would object to an architectural photo that altered the structure itself, say, by putting a window in a blank wall, or adding a swimming pool to a bare rooftop. This might be analogous to the portrait sitter wearing a wig, or putting on a mask. By that point, the photograph has made a significant break from reality, and a viewer might rightly feel duped upon seeing the subject in person.
Between these extremes, of course, is a whole lot of territory, and I leave it to the reader to decide where the El Centro episode fits. I myself never want to misrepresent things, but I certainly want to get past obvious appearances to show what a space means, whether you call that the spirit or the soul or the essence of the design.
Like any other art, architecture (and the photography thereof) can express ideas ranging from the literal to the metaphorical. Perhaps we can navigate the choices by considering the intended audience and the intended effect. To use a simplistic example, a photograph for an architect’s portfolio could justifiably look very different from a photograph taken for the insurance company. A related question is what we think the image should accomplish. Do we want to show El Centro as it actually appears from the highway, or do we want to illustrate the architect’s concept of a “razor-sharp” roofline? Is the photograph meant simply to prove the existence of the building, or should it do something more complex?
Frank Lloyd Wright may have had these kinds of questions in mind when he said, “The truth is more important than the facts.” Indeed, if there is any field in which truth and fact can legitimately go their separate ways, it is the field of art. The El Centro photograph suppressed a fact (there are big air-control units here!), though by doing so, it did emphasize a truth (the architect has terrific ideas about rooflines!) In the end, this is probably one of those situations where we must fall back on good sense, good taste, and our best judgment. But in that process, it may help if we think deliberately about which facts, and which truths, are the ones that matter most.