Johan Tali: A Photographic Project

What would an architectural journal be without photos to explicate architectural space? Can a photo be more revealing and polyvalent than the architecture it conveys? In an attempt to understand what distinguishes actual space from its photographic counterpart and the role of photography in architecture, I asked architectural photographer Tõnu Tunnel, architect Ott Kadarik, architect-photographer-artist Paco Ulman and artist Paul Kuimet, what makes for a meaningful image.

Tõnu Tunnel is known to the readers of Maja primarily because for several years in a row now, there has probably not been a single issue where his photos would not have been used. His trademark is a resourceful eye for composition and sensing the environment around a building. Not many Estonian architects would hesitate to ask him to capture their work. The images he produces are often better than the architect’s vision of a completed building.

Ott Kadarik is a camera-endowed architect who takes shots of things that interest him and if the lens happens to be missing a fascinating scenario, his creative impulse affords him the ability to create one either by rendering or photo editing. His Instagram account @Kodarik is embellished by shots framed beyond this realm, accompanied by succinct contextualising captions.

Paco Ulman is an architect and photo artist, who uses photography to describe spatial peculiarities by beginning where the architect left off and where a photographic intervention enables catching the moment to bring forth that which is spatially paramount. His image focusses on unconstrained space and spatial use.

Paul Kuimet does not describe himself as an architectural photographer, but image space, space caught in or set up in an image is largely the focal point of his contextual and conceptual art.

Tõnu Tunnel 

I’m not sure I can say what is important in a photo. As Edgar Valter’s pokus say, once they arrive at the right spot, they get an overwhelming feeling and they just know. It’s important to get a feel for the space. Is it a house or a landscape or a human-sized installation? Is it interior or exterior space or a mixture of both? Or a meta-level allusion to some spatial format that doesn’t exist yet? The function of a photograph is to save, archive and convey in two-dimensional media spatial experience for those who are yet to experience it directly.

Practice has taught me that architects always want to capture the entire building. And context. And the flora and fauna characteristic to that specific lot. But they do not want to see wide-angle lens distortions. An ideal photograph should communicate the original idea of the architect and the client’s vision, without the hanging tree branches or power lines or vans parked in front of the house with emergency lights on. Although, I don’t mind a tasteful car in appropriate colour coating. Budget cuts and spontaneous contributions to architecture should be left out of a photo. Instead, I prefer getting close to the touch and feel of the material and the lighting. A photographer should consider perspectives recommended by the architect, but remain free to provide surprising and complementing interpretations and connections.

What a person considers important in an image is ultimately particular to the individual. It depends on the where, who and why. Even the function and essential meaning of an existing photograph may change over time.

When taking photos, it is important to me personally that I avoid blindly following rules that someone else may have written earlier, and that I try to have more trust in my own intuition. I want to take photographs in a way that enables getting the same feeling as on site when looking through the photos later. And photos shouldn’t make you bored, not when you are taking them or later when you are looking at them. It’s great when you manage to take a picture so multi-layered that a seemingly simple scene keeps unravelling in the second, third or fourth time that you look at it. I am yet to get to the core of why it is possible to gaze at a landscape painting for 30 minutes but not a landscape photograph. If I manage to instill the pleasure of this slow watching procedure into a single series of architectural photos, I might be ready to retire. But until then I must keep searching.

A good photographer is able take any building and produce a shot that works as an image surface and also captures the viewer. When standing behind the camera, are you able to recognise the spatial quality of the architecture and discern between good and bad practice? When you look at architecture, do you contemplate on the architectural process or try to understand the reasons why an architect may have applied specific ideas or why this or that has happened?

I am currently mainly involved with the subject of architectonics. I aim to mentally conceive and deconstruct what an object consists of. I am studying terminology and methods how to articulate and decompose volumetric space, hoping to be better equipped to grasp the architect’s thought process. Why these elements, why this location, why that scale or those proportions? Ideally, I am able to sense it or the architect provides the input on what the backbone of a project really is about. It is the sketch on the napkin that was drafted during the first meeting with the client.

Since I am still fairly young and with somewhat limited experience, I am only now experiencing a certain growth in courage to have an opinion about architecture. The more I investigate, the more I learn to see spots with strange joints where the contractor has cut corners, so to speak.

Discerning between good and bad architecture is largely a matter of gut feeling, I suspect. Does the space function as it is supposed to? Do you feel good when spending time there? Am I able to identify my location within the building and am I able to navigate there without having to ask for help? During my photoshoots it is always fascinating (but tedious) when I have to explain myself to all kinds of security personnel who come to ask me what I am doing there. After hearing a satisfactory response, the bored security guard doesn’t want to leave, lights up a cigarette instead and starts talking. This is actually where the practical drawbacks of a young building surface. The pains of tuning climate control, problems with acoustics, illogical switches or details already wearing down – almost all the things that need to be covered with the architect in the preparation phase and paid attention to on site during the shoot. Flaws and failures to muffle a bit in the future, or excellent solutions to highlight.

Paco Ulman

Concept! – says the proper artist. Aesthetics! – says the photographer. Technical execution! – says the other photographer. Space! – says the architect. The cute factor! – says the Japanese architect of small houses. Story! – demands the journal editor. Likes! – sighs the influencer. I know exactly what it is but I’m not telling you! – snaps the art critic. Sometimes I feel I might know! – says the author.

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 spring edition (No 100). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.

JOHAN TALI is an architect at Molumba, a doctoral candidate and teaching staff at the Estonian Academy of Arts, and co-curator of the Open Lectures-series, organised by the academy’s Faculty of Architecture.

HEADER: “A Conga Man”, Tokyo, 2017, by Ott Kadarik.