find_photog find_assist join_asmp
 

Best of 2011: Alan Karchmer


Architectural specialist Alan Karchmer has the client of a lifetime in nearly ten years of work for the visionary Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Together with his wife, photo stylist Sandra Ann Benedum, Karchmer photographed three new Calatrava projects in Ireland, Belgium and Italy during 2010. The marriage of form and function in Karchmer’s photography obviously works — the architect’s only creative instruction is, “Just send us beautiful photographs.”

Alan Karchmer, Washington, DC

Web site: www.alankarchmer.com

Project: Documentation of new structures by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, including a bridge in Dublin, Ireland; a railway station in Liege, Belgium; and a series of three bridges in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

AK: 33 years. I began my freelance practice when I finished my Masters in Architecture at Tulane 1978.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

AK: I joined in 1989, so that would be 22 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

AK: I photograph buildings, their interior spaces and landscapes; the built environment in general.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

AK: I’m tempted to say that would be my Alpa / Schneider / Phase-One / Apple camera system, but that might be too broad an answer, so I’ll narrow it down to the Alpa XY, since this is the system’s lynchpin. It is simple, precise and elegantly designed.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

AK: With my background in architecture I have an informed understanding of the subject and the complex issues that the architect’s work accommodates. I think and see like an architect, and use my skills as a photographer to distill this into images that make the architect’s accomplishment apparent to observers outside the design professions. I strive to create photographs that are honest and convey a sense of real experience. I show a building or place at its very best and most dramatic by finding the perfect vantage point, at a time when the light and conditions are ideal.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

AK: I try to find out as much as I can before arriving on site. I study plans and any snapshots I can find by researching the site on Google Earth. I try to allow plenty of time with the building before I start shooting, without the pressure of “getting the shot,” to become familiar and get comfortable with the subject. I figure out how the building or structure functions, how it is used, how it fits into its context and how it responds to light, and I conceive of a series of photographs that will tell the story. I make a working itinerary, assigning certain photographs to specific times, but while working I keep my eyes open to new possibilities. It plays out much more loosely than this may sound.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: How did your work first come to the attention of Santiago Calatrava and what was the first project you photographed for him?

AK: I photographed his first building in the U.S., the Milwaukee Art Museum, for Architectural Record magazine in 2002. When he lectured at the National Building Museum the following year, I introduced myself after his presentation, and mentioned that I had photographed the Milwaukee [museum] for Record. He remembered the photographs well, and described this one defining image in particular, in which I showed the moving, sculptural brise soleil in stages of opening. He asked for my card and the next day I got an e-mail from his office asking see the complete series of photographs. I was going to New York the following week and arranged to meet at his office there with his wife Robertina, who manages his practice. I left that meeting with assignments to photograph a new bridge in Buenos Aires and an opera house in the Canary Islands.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: What has been your most challenging encounter with Calatrava’s projects? What is easiest or most accessible about this work?

AK: The most difficult assignment was photographing the 2004 Athens Olympics Sports Complex. My wife, the photo stylist Sandra Ann Benedum, and I traveled to Greece in the spring of 2005, almost a year after the games had taken place, and found the beautiful site in serious disarray. The only venue in operation at the time was the stadium, and it was used for soccer games. To protect the rest of the site from soccer hoodlums, the fountains and other structures had been surrounded with steel barricades — hundreds of them. And recent torrential rains had washed debris over everything. To top it off a dust storm from North Africa stalled over the area, which clouded the air and covered everything with a brown film. It took two weeks of pleading with the minimal administrative staff that remained on site to get things cleaned up and moved. But if I didn’t persevere and make it happen the session would have been a disaster. We prevailed and got some beautiful images. Looking at the photographs, one would never know what the site looked like before the session.

That is the exception, however, and it had nothing to do with the architecture itself. Calatrava’s buildings and bridges are beautiful, dramatic, monumental works that assume a huge presence in pastoral and urban contexts. They are sculptural and photogenic, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are easy to photograph. Creating compelling photographs of beautiful structures requires a great deal of insight and creative thinking. It is inspiring to be charged with interpreting works of art.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: What has been the encounter or project that has been most enjoyable, rewarding or fun for you? Are there particular anecdotes or war stories about photographing the work of this architect that you always retell?

AK: There have been so many wonderful experiences in this work. The most rewarding moments happen when I have found the particular vantage point that reveals the structure in an ideal way; the context of the environment is stunning, the light is beautiful, the sky and clouds are perfect. It is even better if it happens to be 72 degrees with a pleasant breeze, but even if it is terribly hot or cold these are moments to savor. I am so fortunate to have many of these experiences to remember, and grateful to my clients for creating the work that gives me this kind of opportunity, and for trusting me to create the images that will come to define it.

When photographing Calatrava’s opera house in the Canary Islands I knew, in concept, the perspective I wanted and set out on an overcast day to find the POV. I located a view that took in the sweep of the Santa Cruz de Tenerife harbor with the monumental structure prominently in its setting. I knew the time when the light would be ideal and returned a couple of days later to execute the shot. Everything was perfect. But part of the incredible cloud formation that made for such a perfect sky was rapidly encroaching on the sun and I had minutes, I hoped, to get the shot. I scrambled to set up the camera. There was no time to shoot a Polaroid to study the composition, check exposure, or confirm focus. I made two exposures on negative film. There wasn’t time to bracket transparency film. By the time I had two exposures down, the clouds overtook the sun and the light was lost. But I had the shot. When I got back to the car, our driver was pacing nervously with a club in his hand. The graffiti scrawled on the rocks, which I hadn’t thought to translate, were threats from a gang that had claimed the territory.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: You mention that when you asked Calatrava to brief you on the first project he assigned you he indicated he did not feel it was necessary, saying, “Just send us beautiful photographs.” Have you been able to meet personally with the architect since that time? If so, what kind of insights did this provide about his work?

AK: I’ve met with him briefly on a few occasions, and was able to spend time with him at length at a dinner on the occasion of the dedication of the three bridges in Haarlemmermeer in the Netherlands in 2004. He spoke about the great importance he places on photography of his work, but mostly he talked about the importance of creating, and seeing, poetry in the world.

But, in terms of the way I work, the sense of authorship that comes from being trusted implicitly for my skill at reading and interpreting a building (and the fear of falling short) has a powerful and stimulating creative effect, which has made me a better photographer.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Please compare and contrast your training as an architect with any training you had as a photographer. Did you pick up photography in architecture school or before that?

AK: I got a used Pentax Spotmatic while I was in architecture school, and was happy to learn that photography comes naturally to me. In contrast, the design process was always a struggle, so I moved toward interpreting architecture rather than creating it.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Did you have significant photographic mentors or work first as an assistant? When and under what conditions did you start your own business?

AK: I took a class when I was in architecture school to learn basic camera and darkroom techniques, and I spent one summer taking a course learning to use a view camera. Otherwise I am self-taught as a photographer. I planned my design thesis to use photography as a tool to document and analyze patterns of design in the fabric of historic neighborhoods. While there would have been advantages to learning the craft and business of photography as an assistant, I had to figure things out for myself, which is how I prefer to learn. I received an NEA grant to produce an exhibit about architecture in Memphis, where I grew up, at the Brooks Museum of Art. So my work was on display before the community where I would begin my practice. I didn’t have any photographic mentors or colleagues, and after a couple of years I was desperate for feedback on the work I was doing, and particularly on the techniques I had developed, so I wrote to architectural photographers Steve Rosenthal and Norman McGrath, and to Erica Stoller at Esto, all of whom graciously agreed to meet me and review my portfolio.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Did you have significant architectural mentors? Did you ever work as a practicing architect yourself?

AK: I’ve never practiced architecture, other than on the renovation of my own house, which I must say I am proud of. But otherwise I have spared the world.

My early clients gave me great opportunities and helped hone my understanding of what architects value in the images of their buildings. The architect Errol Barron in New Orleans worked with me while photographing one of his houses that ended up being published in Architectural Record Houses in 1980. He would take a Polaroid and draw on it where the furniture should be repositioned to get the room to read properly. That simple exercise provided a huge lesson and helped me to understand how the photographer can modify a space so that the two-dimensional image more accurately represents the real experience.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Your partner, Sandra Ann Benedum, is a photo stylist. How long have you been working together and how did this working relationship initiate/develop?

AK: We’ve been working together for almost 25 years, since before we were married. She started helping to prepare and style spaces on interiors assignments, and it immediately became clear that she has the “placement gene” — that innate talent to arrange things to make a space look beautiful.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: What does a stylist do in architectural photography that would be analogous to the work of a fashion, still life or portrait stylist?

AK: When photographing interiors, particularly smaller spaces like residential interiors or offices, it is almost always necessary to adjust the placement of furniture and accessories to get everything to look right for the camera. The stylist collaborates in getting this accomplished. This can involve the positioning of furniture, removing, rearranging, or adding decorative objects and accessories, flowers, people and so on. It’s like dressing the room. We take snapshots of the original condition so everything can be replaced precisely when the shot is completed.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Benedum is also your wife. Does she handle other aspects of your business or client contacts in addition to working as a stylist?

AK: During assignments she will handle some of the coordination with the building owner or management for access to spaces, control of lighting, maintenance support, getting vehicles and obstructions out of the way and such. On the business side she helps with accounting, marketing materials and some of the client communication.

Importantly to me, Sandra has a great photographic eye and sense of color, and she brings a different perspective with ideas for shots that I would not have seen. On the opera house in Valencia, I was intently working on a shot at dusk when she “made me” take a look at this incredible image with the convergence of the building, the moon, and clouds in the evening sky. It ended up on the cover of the Taschen Complete Works (to differentiate from the Rizzoli Complete Works where we also have the cover). I was just the camera operator.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: What kinds of challenges have you experienced in living and working together 24/7? Do you have any insights about how to maintain a positive working relationship in a partnership of this sort?

AK: We have the same goals in creating the images and share an ability to analyze what needs to be done on site and respond accordingly. Acknowledging and respecting differences in vision when they occur helps us realize a better result. With long days, and sometimes weeks of travel, we make an effort to respect each other’s individual creativity without letting it affect our love and friendship.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Are there other members of your team or dedicated collaborators (e.g., assistants, digital techs, lighting crew, workflow specialists, etc.) who you find are indispensible or of primary importance to your work?

AK: There is a terrific assistant I work with regularly in D.C. and on domestic assignments, Chris Flynn, who is a really talented photographer in his own right. I edit images from the sessions and generate preliminary proofs. When I am swamped with work, Bryan Becker, another talented photographer specializing in architecture, occasionally takes on some of my final image processing, but I prefer to keep my own hand in this end of the work when I can. There is a measure of artistry that goes into building the final image where elements from various captures are layered together to manage exposure, add people, cars and such that may not be in the spots I want them at the same time or in a single capture; secondary things that enhance composition. I enjoy this part of the process and prefer to stay involved.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: When working on projects for Calatrava, how do you organize and delegate to your team? What is the greatest and least amount of people you’ve directed or collaborated with on any of these shoots?

AK: I work with a relatively compact array of equipment and have a fairly small footprint so I don’t need a lot of support, and I prefer to keep it that way. On the assignments I have done for Calatrava it has been just me and Sandra. If I need an extra hand to carry equipment I find someone locally to assist me. I use supplemental lighting on many assignments, but fortunately I have never needed to add light on any of the Calatrava projects. That takes away a lot of the heavy lifting. Of course it is never an issue with the bridges, and the interiors of his buildings are mostly large open spaces with abundant, beautifully managed natural light. His office has always provided a local contact to help in gaining access to buildings and other places that I need as vantage points.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: You transitioned from being a large-format film photographer to medium-format digital, and now work with the Swiss camera Alpa. In what year did you make this shift? Please talk about this transition. Has this had any cumulative effect on your photographic vision or your approach to projects?

AK: I made the transition in 2006. I had been looking at different options and wanted a system that would enable me to maintain the compositional experience I had with a view camera. Working with a DSLR was too easy and focusing was problematic when simply putting a digital back on a view camera, especially with extreme wide-angle lenses. So when Alpa introduced the XY with full vertical and horizontal movement, there was finally a camera that would allow me to continue working in the digital medium with the same studied and deliberate method of composing photographs that characterized my [work] when I used a view camera with film. I was able to get one from the first batch of 25 that Alpa released. Schneider’s Digitar lenses left nothing to be desired. While it is possible to shoot directly to a card with just the camera and the back, I prefer to work tethered so I can evaluate compositions on a larger screen in the field. I couldn’t imagine going back to using Polaroids. The opportunities that digital imaging affords to fine-tune color, manage and extend tonal range, and build photographs with ancillary elements from different captures greatly extend the creative options.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: How do your preparatory discussions with a client differ, based on whether it’s the architect, the developer, a supplier, an editor, etc.? Do you find yourself speaking in different jargons, to make each of them understand your esthetic intentions?

AK: My clients are mostly architects or, occasionally, architectural editors, and we all speak the same language. I like for architects to introduce me to the building as they see it, discussing various issues they had to address in the design. This ranges from functions the building is intended to accommodate, to how it relates to its site and context, to circulation, structural considerations, materials, details of construction and so on. I want to know about external forces that may have influenced particular aspects of the design, and aspects of the design they find to be especially successful. I can usually figure these things out for myself by studying the building, as I do in the work for Calatrava, but it is efficient and useful to hear it from the author. And I enjoy the dialogue.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: One section of your Web site is organized by building types. Do you find this type of breakdown to be particularly helpful or appealing to presenting your work to potential clients?

AK: The work on my Web site is organized by architect and by building type, in addition to a section on published work. Whether potential clients find me through a search or I direct them to the site, some will be interested to see the work I’ve done for specific architects while others may want to see what I have done with a particular building type or scale of building.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Are you attempting to maintain a ‘signature’ color palate across all assignments, or do you edit your Web site to reflect this? If the former, what happens when a client requires a different approach?

AK: I don’t think about my work in this way. I believe I approach each assignment in a way that is appropriate to what it is. If you find a “signature” palate I think that perhaps there is a common thread in the way I see things. But if such a thread exists it is innate, not deliberate.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer

ASMP: Do you have a favorite type or style of building to photograph? If so, why?

AK: In general I respect and relate best to buildings that are of their time and place. Historic buildings can meet this standard as well as modern ones do. I favor buildings that show a thoughtful response in how they relate to their site and context. This could be a building that is unto itself in a pastoral setting, or a large or small building that is part of the urban fabric.

© Alan Karchmer
© Alan Karchmer