When describing photography, people often speak of “capturing a moment,” or “telling a story.” Let’s call this the “Narrative” approach. It’s a useful metaphor, and we can all think of examples, such as the Civil War photography of Matthew Brady, the “decisive moments” of Cartier-Bresson, or our family snapshots.
The Narrative approach is valuable in architectural photography, as well. It can offer a framework for photographing buildings in use, typically with people in the shot, or perhaps with furnishings and accoutrements that say something about how people are using the space. This kind of photography is terrific for drawing the viewer quickly into a setting, conveying scale, or elucidating the design by showing how it functions. Here’s a wonderful example from Ezra Stoller:
Photo by Ezra Stoller/ ESTO
If every picture tells a story, then this one tells several!
There is another way to think about photography, however, that has little to do with stories or narratives. Let’s call it the “Being” approach. The Being approach does not try to tell us what is happening, or has happened, or will happen. It simply presents the design for our perception and response, nothing more and nothing less. It leaves room for any of the myriad reactions we may have, whether intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. And it disregards time’s arrow to acknowledge that sometimes the thing just is, and there is no need to embellish it with events. Balthazar Korab gives us this example:
Photo by Balthazar Korab
If we wanted narrative, we could say that this is Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, a life sciences research center in California, inspired by monastic architecture, imbued with a certain vision of collaboration and discovery, etc. But the design and the photograph have enormous power without any of that.
It might be tempting to say that the Narrative approach is “humanizing” while the Being approach is “abstract,” or that we need to chose one or the other when creating a photograph. In reality, though, they inform one another, and within a given photo it’s often just a matter of emphasis. Both approaches are humanizing, because both mirror aspects of our nature. We need narratives and stories, because they are one of the principal ways that we make sense of our lives. But as the physicists tell us, time is not necessarily linear; we just experience it that way. Outside of time, we also need simply to be. Design and photography can serve both of these needs.
A good story can help us to understand the design and its consequences. But even if you don’t have a story to tell, you might still have a lot to say.