Bharath Ramamrutham: On Architectural Photography

In conversation with photographer Bharath Ramamrutham, we discuss architectural photography as a discipline and a passion, and the various processes underlining a meaningful photograph.  


The following text is the edited transcript from the interview with Bharath Ramamrutham, conducted on July 10th, 2020.


I. Origins [00:15]: 

Bharath Ramamrutham [BR]: I grew up in a very simple traditional family. I was very fortunate because my father – an engineer and a marketing man – had a very keen sense of design. He also had an abiding interest in architecture, as well as photography.

I remember when I was about 14 years old, I asked him to get me a camera and he bought me an Agfa Click 3 (one of those really old-fashioned things, then for 35 rupees). It used to shoot monochrome film. We converted one of the bathrooms at home into a dark room and he bought an enlarger. We started processing film and making prints at home. He also travelled a lot around the world and whenever he travelled, he would buy camera equipment. Therefore, he always had a good camera with him and he would shoot on Kodachrome almost exclusively.

It was my job when he came back after his trip to take that film and get it processed. We would set up an evening slideshow at home on our Kodak Carousel projector, and I would do my part – setting up the screen, the projector and loading the tray. The whole family would sit together and he would show us pictures of places that he had been to, and majority of these pictures were related to architecture and design, not street photography.

That bug really got me at that time. This wonderful curiosity about places – wanting to know about architecture, and see more through travel.

When the time came to choose a career – in the mid-70s – photography was not a career option, but I wanted to do something design related. I decided to study architecture, and I did not apply in multiple schools of architecture; I just applied in Ahmedabad, where I got in at CEPT. It was the best thing that happened to me – I loved architecture; I love the process of discovery, and of learning to see things.

I kept practicing photography right through the time I was studying architecture. These two things coalesced, and I knew that at some point of time I was going to be a photographer. And so, here I am, many years and a series of serendipitous events later! There was no conscious decision to take it up as a professional career or a money-making plan.

II. Early Projects [04:28]:

BR: I never really finished my architecture programme because I came right up to the final stage, where I required just three months to finish my thesis. I had done all the research, but I hated writing – those days there were no computers and you had to sit down and write everything. I was in a very rebellious phase of my life, so I decided not to do it.

I came away from Ahmedabad, and happened to meet Charles Correa in Bombay, who offered me a job. I worked with him for almost two years, photographing his work. He would constantly commend the work, saying it was really good architectural photography. He would spread the photographs on his desk and discuss them with me.

That was the moment I decided to become a professional photographer, and went to London for two years to study photography.

I actually started professional photography, in the early 1990s in Bombay. Early commissions were mostly friends. I was very fortunate because I asked a few of the architects how they get their buildings photographed, and almost in unison they all threw up their hands and said photographers today do not understand architecture. That is when I stepped up and offered to help if they needed anything photographed going forward.

I spoke this language of architecture, and I could communicate ideas with the architects I worked with. In this process friends became clients, and new clients came on who then became good friends. I worked a lot with people like Ratan Batliboi, and Kamal Malik.

It was great fun in those early days. I started my career with large format, because that’s what I trained in at London. I realised that if I wanted to do serious architecture photography, I had to have large format equipment. I was shooting exclusively with the View Camera – different formats – but exclusively with the View Camera. That was a major part of the learning for me: taking photographs with a view camera on film is a very different process from what people follow nowadays.

I think a lot has been lost, as digital technologies have changed things. Maybe some things have been gained, but I think a lot of the essence has been lost of photography, which I am trying to bring back to all the young people I converse with. I make a real effort to talk to them about those fundamentals on how to take pictures, or what kind of frame of mind should you be in when you take photographs.

III. Process [09:01]:

BR: The process is a critical part of the photography. First, I study the drawings of the building. I meet the architect and discuss the project. In case the architect is not able to visit the site with me, I will discuss in great detail the project itself, but not so much from the client’s perspective. More in terms of context, the building itself, and the concept behind the project. Once I am done with that, a very critical part of the process becomes a recce trip.

I spend at least a full day if possible, experiencing the project. It is almost never that I go in directly and shoot a project. I always spend at least a day planning my shoot – observing the sun angles, because I want to see how the building behaves in different kinds of light. I study exactly what would happen at different times of the day, and choose my angles very carefully by marking them all on drawings. Either I would start shooting the next day, or I would come back a couple of weeks later, depending on the schedules.

Once I get to the site with my final equipment and I am ready to start shooting, I take it very slowly. I do not rush into it, but I do not waste any time. I will look at the light again, and track its movement through the day. I sequence the shots according to the way the sun moves. Through the day I will follow that. There are always moments during the shoot where I notice some magic happening elsewhere, and I will quickly try and capture those elements.

Digital technology has helped now, because you can move that much faster, but the preparation is still critical for me. The approach to the photography happens by really understanding the project, and this remains a meditative and contemplative process.

The relationship that I establish with what I am photographing is very important. You have to approach photography with a certain amount of humility, and not with arrogance and disrespect. When you do that, I have always find that the building opens itself up to you. Only if you have that receptive quality in your mind, will the building reveal its secrets. I always have great respect for the work, and so everything that I do is about the work. It is not about my effort or my ego; it is about the effort that has gone into it the project – the details of the concept or the ideas.

IV. Mentors and Inspirations [13:32]

BR: There have been many influences in my life. In the early days, it was architects, designers, and photographers, all of whom were a very critical part of the inspirational process. As I was studying architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was a huge inspiration. I used to be a big admirer of his work, and I read everything that he had written. Mies Van der Rohe, and the Bahaus Movement was a fantastic eye-opener. Then of course, art history and design – Piet Mondrian and the style movement in Holland.

I really got into looking at other photographers work only towards the end of my course as an architect – the early photographers were Julius Shulman and Ezra Stoller. I thought their work was absolutely mind-blowing, and I learnt a lot from studying it.

When I started studying photography a little bit more seriously – it was really a process of learning and evolving over a period of time. The great masters, Cartier Bresson, André Kertész and Edward Weston were a very strong influence, because they were all shooting objects of design, and were really studying light. They were shooting cityscapes and landscapes. I still go back and refer to stuff from the classical genres, as they were very powerful influences on me.

There has been a massive change today, from analog to digital photography. This has changed the way people approach photography, and it has its positives and negatives. Apart from that change, a huge leap came with the advent of cell phone cameras. Today there is not a single phone manufacturer that is selling a phone anymore, they are all selling cameras. At one level it is fantastic, because I think it has empowered everybody by giving them a powerful camera. At the same time, I call it the democratisation of photography, because it has made it accessible to everybody and a phenomenal number of people have discovered a creativity through the process of taking pictures. They have discovered new ways of looking at things, and despite all the clutter that exist in the visual field today, I think a lot of people have really benefited from it.

I have always believed photography has that ability to change the world, and I think the cell phones are going to be a very powerful tool to be able to do that. We cannot live our lives in today’s world without images. It adds to our sense of awareness of the world around us. The only issue I have is – I believe that people need to slow down a little bit, because photography suffers when combined with the speed at which we are living our lives. You are flying through things, and then you do not really understand what you could potentially do with that. I always encourage people to slow down, and look at things carefully.

I think the transition has been phenomenal. I am not averse to it. I believe we have lost certain things, and I am trying to bring that back. To bring people back to the essence of photography. To help them to understand those initial stages of the process. It just enhances people’s work, and enhances their perception of the world.


DISCUSSION PART II

 

V. Analog vs Digital Photography [00:14]

BR: Well, the transition from analog to digital was a difficult one for me. I fought it for as long as I possibly could, and I kept shooting film till the very last lab in India shut down. Once that happened, I saw the writing on the wall. I have always been interested in technology, and I believe that it has got phenomenal advantages and benefits. So, I bought my first digital camera. I bought a little Nikon which was three-and-a-half megapixels. The great thing about that camera was that it was like one of those twisting Nikons, you could twist the camera, and suddenly it freed me to be able to shoot from all kinds of angles, because it had a screen which I could look at.

Whereas with the large format, and on film, you are pretty much stuck to shooting everything at eye level. You could go higher with the ladder, or you could go down to a little, but apart from that there was very little else you could do. You could not lug it around; it was not portable in that sense. There was a certain kind of freedom which the digital camera allowed me, which was fantastic.

There were certain fundamental things which I never got into. For example, a bad habit some people follow nowadays is taking a photo and then immediately looking at it. When I am shooting, I do not look at the picture. I am looking at what I am photographing, because I always set up the camera with the viewfinder and then I step away, using a shutter release cable to actually capture the image. I do not shoot tethered, so I do not like to see what I am shooting immediately. I do not even show the clients the pictures immediately, because as far as I am concerned, it’s still a work in progress. When I go back to the office, I might download the pictures, but I do not look at them for about three days. I need that breathing space and that time.

I am not into that instant gratification, because I believe that there is a sacrifice you make, when you make decisions too quickly. I encourage younger photographers to try and take pictures after switching off the viewfinder, and learn how to be confident about what they are shooting. It is a kind of insecurity – if you have to keep looking at the viewfinder every time you take a picture.

I do not do much advertising work, but the advertising industry works exclusively like that. There will be four art directors all looking at your screen, or looking at your tethered laptop and waiting to tell you how to readjust the image. I generally do not like that, and very rarely work like that.

So that has been a big change, because I think even the process of photography is a very meditative one. With the large format, and with film – you set up the camera, put a big black cloth over your head, and the subject that you were looking at was upside down, and laterally inverted on a very dim ground glass, so you had to wait for your eyes to adjust to that light. And then you had to compose your shot. It was a slow, meditative process, because you isolated the world around you, and it was just you and the image. Then you put the film back on, and then you stood next to your camera and waited for the magic to happen.

I would spend hours sometimes, waiting. Suddenly elements will come together, the light will change, and you will have a certain configuration of clouds. You had to manually cock the shutter release, so there would be frenzied activity for about 30 seconds and once that was done, the shot was completed.

That I miss, and I think that is very difficult to bring back into the process, because of the instantaneous nature of digital photography.

The second aspect of digital, which I think has been very negative, is over-processing. In the old days we did not have the blessing to be able to process our own pictures. We had to make sure that everything was clean and in its place, before we took the picture. I joked to people, that in the old days we used to think and then shoot. Today, you shoot and then think. People are taking pictures quickly and then going back to the computers, over manipulating and over-saturating images. And these are trends, ultimately, I do not disallow that – people have different tastes and everybody wants to do it differently, but I still believe in a specific purity to an image. I try to do as little processing as possible.

It really depends on the kind of client. There is a lot of manipulation that happens because of demands from clients. Hotels have different requirements. You have to iron the bed sheets before, and during processing, because invariably wrinkles show up as soon as you have angular light hitting a bed sheet.

I keep that well under control, and try not to overdo that. We clean up the dirt on the road, or some people sometimes, if it is intruding upon the building.

We will make the picture as clean and as impeccable as possible, but we do not take it to a level of rendering. Lot of photographs nowadays look like renders. I think different people have different opinions about this, I do not get into arguments or discussions about these, to be very honest, because to each his own. I work for my satisfaction, and I work for the client. I have to be content with what I am delivering, and I would not be happy delivering over-manipulated images.

VI. Practice [08:58]

BR: The reason I became a photographer was never a commercial decision. I did it because it was a passion that would not go away. I had studied architecture, and learnt enough about architecture to realise that it needed a huge leg up. I felt that photography was a great tool to be able to expose people to good architecture. Even though there were hardly any magazines at that time, I realised that publishing was a great way to actually propagate the cause of good architecture. For me, architecture has always been the end story.

All the photography I do is about architecture. It is about making people look at things, and aware of what they have around them. Photography is not an end in itself. It is always a means to an end. It is about communicating, sharing and applying something.

In the early days, books on India, for example – whether they were scholarly or academic books, all the pictures invariably were shot by foreign photographers. There were one or two well-known Indian photographers, like Ragubhir Singh, but they were few and far between.

These were people who were photojournalists, but nobody was doing architecture photography at that time. I decided I was going to do books on India. I met up with some people from Marg – Marg publishing was at least active in that world. Even though the books were academic and scholarly, I thought it was a great opportunity to learn new things.

At the same time, I met George Mitchell, who is a very strong influence in my life, because he taught me how to look at heritage and historic architecture, and how to photograph it. For me, that was a great learning.

Till about 2005, until the advent of digital photography, I had done a number of books with different publishers. Both in India and outside India and ranging from, academic books to little guide books. I did a little book on Elephanta caves – shot also on large format.

2005 was kind of a turning point because I switched from analog to digital, and I had moved to Madras. I realised that every client was calling me in for photography. They would be potential activities that they were looking at, which they had no support for. They had nobody to guide them and help them.

Slowly we started widening our bouquet of offerings. I took on two or three young people first, because we had a series of projects for Saint-Gobain. We would create calendars for them every year, both a desktop calendars or wall calendar, and they gave us complete freedom to conceptualise. This was a big trigger for us.

Then we started our own publishing company, because I felt that there were book ideas which I had, which publishers were not willing to bite. Publishers tend to look at things in monetary terms. For me was about passion – I wanted to do things. It started slowly, because then we wound up Madras and moved to Goa. Now however, I have more than 20 books in my name, and I feel very satisfied about that.

I have never been into advertising and I have always believed that is a very transitory thing for images, because they do not last. Whereas it is always fun to see a book, 20 or 30 years later, in somebody’s house, or in some book shop somewhere, being able to say these are my pictures. I think they have a longevity. I did the book on the Mansions of Chettinad, which are disappearing very quickly.

For me, that was like an ode to that amazing, conglomeration of buildings and villages and a unique hybrid style of architecture. Very few – even to the Chettiar community – people realise the value of what they have. The last book I did was on Hampi. There have been so many books on Hampi over the years, but I just felt that nobody had really celebrated Hampi without that scholarly or academic approach. They are very descriptive, very monument and archaeology driven.

Over the years, I realised that I could add tremendous value to my photography, because with clients I could hand hold them through the process, and ask them exactly why they were taking pictures. Then guiding it and customising the whole thing for them and seeing it through. Right from blocking the concept of the photography, taking the pictures, to a delivery of something – a brochure, leaflet, pamphlet, or a website.

That photography became far more enhanced. I realised that I was not spending enough time just doing photography, I was getting involved in too many other things. I have a great passion for the image, whether the image is in a book, website, print, or it’s a picture hung on the wall. The images are as important as the process of creating that image, and the ultimate use of that image.

There is no distinction between personal work, professional work, or passion work. I throw myself fully into everything that I do, and I think I have been saved to some extent because I do not do advertising. I do not do that commercial kind of work. I steer clear of that typical advertising work. Every project is personal, passion-driven and the books that I do are a direct translation of that passion. Invariably it will be an idea that I have had for years and I have been working on in bits and pieces.

There are always multiple concepts, or ideas like that which are at various stages of gestation, and ultimately, it is about raising the funds. As a publisher, I do not have deep pockets. I do not look at publishing books and selling them on my own. We always find the third parties who are interested, as part of whatever they’re doing or something which is critically important for them. Then we are able to identify people like that who can potentially fund the project, and then I work with them, sell them the idea and convince them to do it with me.

All my projects are very personal at that level, and there is no real distinction between my work life and leisure. When I did go on holiday, I used to avoid taking my camera with me, but now I have started carrying one. I do not carry my big photography gear, though. I will take a little pocket camera and I will shoot with that.

All my life has been like a holiday though. I go to temple monuments, historic places, exotic architecture structures, and spend time there. I find sitting in an office highly stressful. When I go out and I am shooting I am much more comfortable. There is no stress, I am completely at one with what I am doing. I do not feel pressure from any clients or corporations.

I still have that desire to go back into analog someday. Now with black and white coming back a little bit, I have taken out my large format camera, which I preserved all these years, and I am cleaning it up and I am trying to just wait and see how I can start doing something with that again.

VII. Learning Architectural Photography [22:35]

BR: You can teach people how to take pictures: the process of taking an image and the technical aspects of it. You can teach people how to buy a decent camera, and a decent tripod. You can teach them how to hold the camera – about aperture and shutter speed – and that is generally what most of the teaching today is focused on – the taking of pictures. However, you cannot teach a person how to see the world differently.

I think that is a process you can only work on with somebody. It is an evolutionary process. It does not happen overnight. Today you can use the internet and learn how to take pictures very easily, but can you learn how to see things? I think that is far more than just taking pictures. It is like architecture. I always believe that architecture is also far more than just a building.

It is so all-encompassing; it influences every aspect of our lives. It has an influence on how we live, and how we read. You cannot teach architecture – you can teach people how to build – but architecture they have to understand for themselves. They can only understand it if they are hungry, and they learn to look.

It is the same thing with photography. I always make a difference between looking at something and seeing something. We all look at things, and we take pictures of things without trying to see it. That process of seeing is the next stage.

It has to have that kind of ‘Eureka’ moment for a photographer who is learning how to take pictures. It is only when that little thing happens, they realise this is something which is far more than just about taking pictures. That is when you know that the transition can happen. Feedback is a very critical part of the learning process. To get the correct feedback from people, who talk to you and discuss the photographs.

Being a photographer is as elevated in terms of what you do with your contribution to the world with photography.

I do not consider myself an incredibly creative person. You give me a blank piece of paper; I will not know what to do with it. Put something on that paper, however, I could give you a very pertinent response to it. If you show me a photograph, I will give you authentic feedback based on what the image is meant for. All of that is very important to understand before you just randomly judge something.

I believe architecture, design, and photography have this incredible symbiosis, and they have tremendous amount to learn from each other, and to contribute to each other. It has been like that for years, since the advent of photography. I think not many people have recognised that amazing synthesis and power of these three things taken together. To really understand the world, and to really get a sense of that interconnectedness in this world, these are three essential components.

It is something that I have been propagating even to educationists, at least for a year; kids should be exposed to both architecture and photography. I think in school it needs to be taught as a compulsory subject. Photography has to be a critical component of our education, because it is about slowing down, and starting to look at the world and really understanding what you are looking at. Otherwise everybody just slips through life. There is no real depth. I think that is a very important thing which I am trying to pursue now.

I want to be able to help young people. I think that is my calling now, for the next 10 years. There are so many photographers now, possibly cheaper than me. Architects would gravitate towards them and I do not believe them, times are tough, but I think my contribution lies elsewhere now.

I think I can help young photographers come out up to par. A lot of young architects come out of schools of architecture, and they are a little lost. They do not really know what they want to do. I think photography is an immense tool. It is about arming yourself, equipping yourself with the right skills, ability and understanding of things.

That is why architects come out hugely empowered from schools of architecture. They pick up all kinds of things. It is possibly the one thing which has contributed most to people changing professions.

I think it is fantastic. I think photography is a great field, and everybody should learn how to take good pictures. Even an average corporate kind of person, ends up taking great pictures because he is got this phone now in his hand, and I think that is wonderful.

Right now, we are still in the throes of that excitement of shooting everything you see. I think that will filter out, and separate the wheat from the chaff and it will become a lot more meaningful. It is about sharing awareness and helping to build awareness from people. A lot of it has to do with an understanding of how the world works, and architecture and photography are the best fields to be able to help you to do that.

That’s me ♦


GALLERY

Bharath’s images of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Mies Van der Rohe’s work photographed by Bharath 

 

Large format images of the Naik Palace 

 

The Madras Connemara Library photographed on large format

 

Images from the Saint Gobain Calendar catalogues 

 

Graf Media Publications 


Bharath Ramamrutham is one of India’s leading architecture, interiors, landscape and travel photographers. With a background in architecture and design and an abiding interest in the arts and crafts of India, his work in both the built and natural environments covers architecture, interiors, hospitality, industry and landscape. In addition, his love and fascination for travel has inspired him to document people, places and traditions all over India. Over the years, his work has come to exemplify not only the classical and purist approach to the medium, but the definitive pictorial statement on Indian architecture, design and the landscape. Bharath’s vision of establishing ‘Graf Media’, an integrated design, visual communications and publishing company began when he collaborated with a variety of creative minds on a wide range of books and other communication material across all media. With his meticulous attention to detail, refined aesthetic sensibilities and progressive design concepts, and with a strong focus on being image led and design driven, Bharath along with his team at Graf Media, are constantly in demand to provide end-to-end visual communication solutions to a range of diverse clients from architecture, design and industry.

Images © Bharath Ramamrutham.
Video Interview by Matter.


 

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