Q&A with Architectural Photographer Steve Hall
Architectural photography is an art that mirrors architecture in its meticulous eye for detail, scale & context. The trade’s practitioners are part photographer, part designer and part director. A strong working relationship between designer and photographer is critical to the capture of photos that perfectly convey a building’s character and story. We caught up with one of David M. Schwarz Architects’ most trusted architectural photographers, Steve Hall of Hedrich Blessing Photographers, to talk about his approach, his career and his experiences. Mr. Hall has photographed dozens DMSAS projects, including most recently: The LINQ, Sundance Square, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and Orioles Spring Training Facilities at Ed Smith Stadium.
At what age did you get your first camera?
At about 10 years old I declared myself the family photographer. My father would constantly remind me not to take too many photos because film was expensive – he was correct!
What kind of camera do you currently use?
Hedrich Blessing (HB) Photographers use Arca-Swiss view cameras, similar to our old 4×5 film cameras, but smaller. They are equipped with Phase One P4 digital backs (39 mega pixels raw). I also carry a Canon 5D Mark lll for wide angle and editorial images.
How much equipment comes with you on location?
Less than in the film days, but we still carry a significant amount of gear. Additional lighting is often essential to creating shape in the elements of an interior. Most interior work is now shot during daylight hours, so we use strobe lights in those conditions. When photographing The Smith Center [for the Performing Arts], I had eight strobes for the daytime shots, but also brought 18- 600 watt omni lights for the concert hall. The dark interior palette of materials ate up the light. For the overall shot from the stage, two assistants and I used all 18 lights for the first exposure, then tilted the mezzanine lights onto the main floor seating for a second. The two images were merged so that we ended up with 24 spotlights on a single shot.
Now that you have gone completely digital, is there anything about film you miss?
I miss the days of having a team of people, my clients and assistant, working toward the common purpose of making a series of resolved, finished shots in the field. The patience and craft required was considerable. I also miss the anticipation on a Monday morning of opening my box of middle “test” sheets after a week out of town. One always hoped for beautiful glowing film, a few great surprises and a lot of compliments from the other HB photographers!
Which photographers have had the greatest influence on your work?
Early on I studied the modern masters: Steiglitz, Sheeler, Walker Evans, Weston, Atget, Strand, Callahan, Lisette Model, and many others. I was fascinated at how each of them pushed the edges of the photos, everything considered. For architectural work I studied both Ken and Bill Hedrich, then worked closely with my current HB partner Nick Merrick and later with Jim Hedrich. I have a ton of respect for Ezra Stoller who worked in NYC during the period of classic modernism (the 50s and 60s). More recently I have become a big fan of Thomas Struth.
What would you consider to be your top three favorite photos (by other photographers) of all time?
Tough question! I’ll have to peek at my library for today’s favorites. [Harry] Callahan’s Eleanor 1947 – a minimalist nude that looks like a pencil drawing. Emmet Gowin’s Pivot Agriculture, 1987 – this abstract aerial shot looks like an etching. And Robert Capa’s shot of the soldier swimming ashore on D-day is as intense as it gets.
Can you tell us an interesting story about working as an assistant for your mentor and our previous lead photographer, Jim Hedrich?
Jim enjoyed the work but I believe he loved the people even more. He told me that he loved design, but that spending his days with the client is what interested him most. Jim always displayed a relaxed demeanor no matter how difficult the situation, whether or not the project was complete, and regardless of how challenging the lighting was. I worked with him for a year. Early on I coined a phrase for him, “The Hedrich luck factor”. On many occasions we were faced with grim, grey light, with little hope for more than shooting a bright exposure in the dreary light. Once we were on a magazine shoot on a pier somewhere in the northeast. The shot was the 4th of July; a preppy couple riding in their Chris Craft, flags flying. I was desperate, thinking that we would have a mediocre shot at best. I saw a tiny hole appear in the clouds, nudged Jim and pointed up, but he seemed unconcerned. By the time the editor had the boat and models ready, a beam of sunlight began to move our way. Only then did he quicken his pace and go to work with his Nikon F2, shooting two or three rolls of Ektachrome. The light faded and he had captured the moment.
Jim taught me that with effort and patience you can always come back from any situation with good images. If you take a look at the first round of Bass Hall photos you will notice how tight the crops are to the floor. In many areas the stone floor had not yet been installed so Jim made a bunch of great details.
Which shoot locations have been your favorite thus far?
Asia is incredible – Japan, Indonesia, Thailand. Traveling overseas is an event that requires a lot of preparation and anticipation, then decompression upon return. It allows ultimate focus without any interruption; you are in the zone. I love going to smaller American cities and towns, places you would never go on vacation. The residential locations are incredible, too – Jackson WY, Moab, Aspen, the dunes on Lake Michigan. Last week, I worked in a 34th floor condo looking over Lincoln Park to the city and lake, a fantastic view from a new tower here in Chicago.
How long does it take to set up each shot?
Some images are made as quickly as I can focus my camera, generally when photgraphing exteriors with great light and a more obvious composition. The tougher shots are often interiors with dark palettes, one’s requiring additional propping and lighting – the new library at The Woodley that needed a lot of books, for example – or a room that has a lot of furniture that needs to be culled. A more involved interior may take two hours, an overall shot of the performance space within a concert hall may take three hours.
Why architectural photography?
Architectural photography is a discipline that allows a photographer the freedom to work closely and creatively with an architect in the interpretation of the building. I was never interested in working in a studio reproducing layouts for art directors. We are fortunate to have a role in presenting the built environment to the public. As I approach 30 years in the field, my body of work is becoming significant, it is taking on a life of its own. The images are part of what is probably the longest running collection of architectural photographs, 85 years of continuous work at Hedrich Blessing. It is also rewarding to know that the photographs we make each day will someday reside at the Chicago History Museum. CHM currently owns and houses the collection of photographs from 1929-1979. They are preparing to take the 1980s beginning later this year.
Do you have any particular favorites among the buildings you’ve photographed?
So many. Early on it was the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – not my favorite building, but a great commission for a young photographer. The DMSAS concert halls are exquisite and an exciting place to set a view camera. Working at those venues is as close as it gets to working in a cathedral. Shooting Aqua in Chicago near the summer solstice was fantastic. The light illuminated the balconies in a way that made the building look like a lantern in mid-afternoon.
What’s the worst thing that ever happened on a shoot of one of our projects?
Around the 11th hour of our first day, a Monday at Schermerhorn [Symphony Center], we had finally finished three hours of lighting the overall elevation to the stage, with the seating concealed below the floor. It was then time to move the seats to the floor for a second view, with seating. We heard a commotion, [DMSAS Principal] Craig [Williams] went to investigate. A contractor had caught his jacket on a sprinkler head in the giant lift elevator, the pit flooded with several feet of water! We made our exposure but soon were told that the team of elevator experts, from Seattle, would arrive Wednesday at 10 pm for an all-night repair. Our shot list was lengthy, so we had a tough decision. Work all day and night on our last day, Thursday, or come back in a few weeks to finish the hall shots. I suggested we grin and bear it, since it would be easier than two more flights with the gear. We started at 7 am outside on Thursday, worked all day around the building, had dinner at 8:30 pm, and then went in for our grueling second shift. On my last exposure at 7 am Friday morning, I was swaying precariously atop a ladder on the stage overlooking the piano. A feeling of euphoria hit as I yelled, “it’ a wrap!” Craig suggested we go to breakfast. My assistant was done, but we went. I still laugh at the absurdity of some of these situations and the fact that a picture rarely tells the whole story!