Context matters. Good designs can stand on their own in many ways, but buildings and spaces inevitably interact with their surroundings. Understanding context can deepen our appreciation of the design; for example, by illuminating the designer’s intentions, or revealing how a space functions. Closely related to context is juxtaposition, in which elements are placed near one another to achieve some effect. This is typically done by using contrasts of various kinds, including styles, colors, shapes, materials, and textures.
All of this matters in photography just as it matters in person. If the photographer is sufficiently aware of them, context and juxtaposition can be powerful tools for communication. The result is a photograph that says what we want it to say about the subject.
To see this in practice, consider two photographs of One Wells Fargo Center in Charlotte. The first version is cropped to isolate the building. It’s pretty enough, but it says very little about the experience of being there:
Compare this to the full photo, which provides the missing context:
The sidewalks and pedestrians convey the scale of the tower, while the black and white buildings on each side capture something of the tunnel effect of walking down the street and coming into the presence of this massive structure. The black-and-white frame also highlights the play of colors across the building, which is a strong feature of this image. The cropped version lets us see the building, but the full version comes closer to an actual experience of the structure and the surrounding space.
Another example is this photograph of the Duke Energy Center, seen across an open space called the Green:
Many photos of this building show it in splendid isolation, or as one component of the Charlotte skyline. This one, however, provides both the context of the Green and a juxtaposition of the building against the sculpture on the right. The angularity of the tower is both highlighted and softened by the organic feel of the green space in front. The statue provides a similar contrast, adding man-made curves of steel to the natural ones of grass and trees. The setting also captures something of the scale of the building, especially if you notice the person walking in the middle ground. Color is again prominent, the blue of the building reflecting the sky, accented by the green foliage and the gray-brown steel of the sculpture. Here there is a suggestion of narrative and experience that makes for a very different image from the typical skyline shot.
Finally, speaking of narrative, here are two different treatments of Cesar Pelli’s Bank of America Corporate Center. In the first photo, the building is viewed within a segment of the skyline, among a collection of other contemporary buildings:
This context emphasizes some specific features of Pelli’s tower, including its height, the somewhat ornate crown, and the vertical lines and textures of its surface.
The next photo was taken from the opposite side of the compass:
There are still modern high-rises at each edge of the frame, but now in the foreground is St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, completed in 1895. The contrast between the red bricks of the nineteenth century and the glass-and-granite of the twentieth is evident. This in turn suggests interpretations that were not available in the first photo. Does the tower represent modern capitalism encroaching on older ideals? The financial looming over the ecclesiastical? Could it instead suggest preservation of the past, or even the coexistence of the old and the new? Or can we simply enjoy this as an example of two contrasting but appealing styles of architecture? Whatever your take, the point is that a simple change of context can provide a completely different range of ways to view the subject.
Architectural photography is a thinking game as well as a feeling one, and attention to elements like these can help us create photographs that do what we want them to in communicating design.