In conversation with Niveditaa Gupta, we discuss the various narratives that drive a contemporary photograph, along with the values and potential of architecture photography in India.
The following text is the edited transcript from the conversation with Niveditaa Gupta, conducted on December 13th, 2021
CHAPTER 01: ORIGINS [00:25]
Part I – The Theory of Photography [00:39]
I never anticipated that I would get into photography. I was not interested in photography as an amateur passion that you pick up while you are in architecture or design school, because we had a lot of photography exercises, but I never felt that I could use the camera to photograph things which I might be architecturally interested in. As part of my dissertation, I wrote a paper on architecture photography. In the fourth year of architecture school, everybody had to write a research paper, and so I went through the archives of architecture photography all over the world, to study just how the evolution of photography happened over the years.
What became more important? Staging a photograph and the content of the photograph, or two dimensionality? That is what got me interested in architecture photography – the theory of photography. My paper was about analysing the most iconic photos of the most iconic buildings that we have studied through the evolution of architecture, and then studying why that particular photo became popular. I objectified those parameters that were making that photograph popular. I studied whether those parameters were at a very superficial level, or whether they were a very deep understanding of what the content was.
Through that, I discovered the work of Hélène Binet, Ezra Stoller, Julius Shulman and Erieta Atalli – who is also a professor at Columbia, and has done amazing work with Kengo Kuma. Their work made me think that there is something to architectural photography, beyond the pure documentation of spaces. There is something artistic about it as well, where the perspective of the photographer was being brought into the frame. Which is why I decided that I will get into architecture photography. I wanted to see what observations and commentaries I could make, that would be different from what was already being said in the Indian architecture environment.
When I was doing my architecture internship in Auroville, I went around photographing buildings, which were made by Aurovillian architects and I made this photo essay of all the buildings there. That was the last week of my internship. That is what I brought back with me, and showed a lot of different architects in Delhi, saying, “This is the kind of work that I am interested in doing with the buildings that you are making, maybe we could work together?” That is where the professional architecture photography story started for me.
I have done my Masters, and also done a lot of writing about architecture, but it all came down to this: I want to photograph buildings.
Part II – Changing Perspectives [03:50]
My Masters’ programme was one in Fine Arts photography, and it was at the Istituto Europeo Di Design, which is in Madrid. This was not a very long programme – it was a one year programme about fine art photography. It did not have anything to do with architecture. In fact, they were very bothered by the fact that I kept photographing buildings in Spain, but that is not my fault, because Spain has some beautiful buildings.
While I was studying there, we had a lot of courses with fine art photographers from all over the world, like Martin Parr, who had made photo essays which were not about realism anymore. It was critiquing the hyperrealism of photographs, even though it was not something to do with architecture. The post-modern, hyper-realistic photo had become the norm around the world, and their work spoke as a criticism of that. I was very inspired to do something like that for architecture, and the one-year course kind of opened my eyes to all the different ideas that you can bring as a third person, instead of just documenting the design ideology of the architect.
After that, I interned with an architectural photographer in Spain. That was a short internship, but now he has become my mentor. His name is Javier Callejas. We worked together on a lot of shoots in Spain, and that gave me the technical know-how, and also exposed me to the work of a lot of Spanish Architects for whom he was photographing. This opened up my experience to architecture photography. That one year was not just about the Masters’ programme, but also about this. Then I decided to come back to India and work here.
Part III: Initial Projects [05:45]
I decided when I was back that I would open heartedly write to architects whose work I have admired, and I had been following, even while I was in Spain. Or whomever I had interned with, or written to requesting an internship. For example, I wrote to Samira Rathod from Samira Rathod Designer Atelier, and Mahesh Radhakrishnan at MOAD Architects. I just wrote to them saying, “This is my body of work from Auroville, and this is my body work from my Masters, (which was also about two dimensionality in images), where I had photographed a lot of buildings in Spain. I would like to shoot some of your work because I believe in your design sensibility. Would you like to give me a chance?” So, that is how I started the communication with Samira, Mahesh and a lot of other architects. From there, whatever little project I could do with them was okay. I was okay with the scale of the projects, and initially even doing some free commissions, because I just wanted to get into the vibe of starting to shoot with them. I wanted to show them what I could bring as a fine art photographer, not just as a commercial architecture photographer. That is how the profession for me started.
CHAPTER 02: PROCESS [07:12]
Part I: The Narrative of a Photograph [07:22]
When a photograph is being commissioned, what is the conversation that you are having with the architect? Is it that you have to try to replicate the vision as it was, and try to catch the concepts they had in mind when they were designing the space? In this case, it is a very planar conversation, and the photography is also very “single-pitched”, because you have to take a step back and allow for that vision to come through in the photograph. Then the main questions become, what lenses are you using? What angles are you choosing to represent this to the best of your abilities?
On the other hand, if the conversation is that you have to photograph this building as a third person who is experiencing the building in its natural context, open and accessible to everybody as users of the space; then it is more interesting, because then it is like any other space in the public arena. It is a building that is open to criticism. It is open to be used and inhabited by anyone and everyone. Anybody can go in and photograph the space. If ten people go in, they will have ten different viewpoints. The conversation from the beginning is, “I am inviting you to bring your viewpoint to this building.” In this case, I believe that the image can be as far off from the realistic representation of the building, as it can be. You could also be in a helicopter, looking down and having a bird’s eye view of the building, which no one will ever have at the ground level. If you have a certain idea in mind about how that building will look in the context of its surroundings, which you think can best be conveyed from that angle – that is more of an artistic or a poetic story to tell, than to represent it in its exact manner. Maybe not poetic or artistic – but a story to tell. It is a kind of fiction that the architect and photographer are creating together.
It is a story, and that is very different from getting commissioned to shoot the architects vision just as it is.
In the first case, you would not be surprised when you visit the building, but in the second case you definitely will be. Whether you might be pleasantly surprised or not is a different conversation.
I do not mind the fact that fundamentally we are supposed to experience the building in person, but how many buildings can you experience in person? As people who are now mostly virtual, we are experiencing more things online than we are in person, and there are entire metaphysical universes that are being built for this purpose. Our virtual lives will get more and more intricate, and I think more people will be more interested to see how we represent a building virtually, than people will be interested in visiting a building, which is sad. I wish there was a way to change how much you can tamper with the experience of the building in its virtual presence, to make it more realistic, and as close to its physical experience as is possible. There are 360-degree walkthroughs even today, but that has not panned out to be a successful way of experiencing a building till now. I think everybody is still experimenting with this thin line between a virtual representation of a building, and a physical experience of a building. It is about the conversation you have in the beginning; what sort of language you would want your building to speak.
If you have seen the building in the initial stages of construction, then you have a fair idea of how the building has responded to its context. That is something that you can reflect in the photograph, by making it more than just a photograph.
It can also become a video documentation, or a photo essay, which is not just about the building anymore, but about the circumstance of having a building in that environment. Then it is not documentation; it is more of a criticism of that building. It is a third person’s understanding of that building. That third person could be me, but it is also how I see other people using that building. However, if the architect comes with a commission and says that, “This is a building that we have made, and we would like you to photograph it” – your experience with the building is very brief. You have to manifest what you can in the short period of time while you are there to shoot it. In that moment, you have some creative liberty to imagine what the building is like. If it is an exterior shoot, for example, you can bring in people and shoot it, or you can do it as it is naturally, in its environment. If you have not spent much time in the space, maybe the understanding of the space is a little premature.
That is something that photographers have to play with, and use to their strengths, instead of trying to challenge it.
Part II: Finding Meaning [13:32]
Sometimes, I think the meaning is constructed, and sometimes, I think a photograph is constructed around some given meaning. This is the difference between the different buildings that I have photographed. Sometimes it is like a blank canvas; where you can stage an entire truth, but that also has a very focused art direction with the architect, where we decide a particular concept and we invent a particular space which might not exist right after the photo shoot. For me, even that is interesting. It is exciting, the fact that there is a short span for which the building performs as something else, and then you never see that building in that light ever again. We have done that for a couple of shoots.
When I was working with RENESA Architects, I was photographing this restaurant that they designed, called Unlocked Cafe. Sanchit is the head architect, and we decided to shoot that restaurant in the off hours when it was shut, in complete darkness. We moved around all the furniture, and removed some furniture in the restaurant space. We only used a couple of chairs, as we would want to position them, to create these frames which are shot in complete darkness with only artificial light. This is never the scenario of how the restaurant will look like, but we decided to play with this idea of ‘Geometrication’ which had been used during the design stage, and we decided to bring it into the photo shoot. This was an extension of the concept of the building, but not an extension of the completed space. That is one way to approach it.
The other way, is when you already see something meaningful in a building, and then your photograph is the best representation of that meaning.
The meaning could be any moment, in terms of light and shadow, or any particular photo that describes the space as the entire concept that it was designed for. These are two ways that you can approach photography.
Part III: Interior Vs Exterior Photography [15:44]
One for me has been more challenging than the other. For me, shooting interiors has been more challenging, because the exterior is something that we do not have a lot of control over, in terms of light and context, but we can choose our moments. In contrast, when we take residential interiors; for example, there is a certain set of rules that an architect plays with; which is that you must always have a bedroom or a living room, and these are functionalities that have been carried on over generations. The designs have changed and extensions have been made to these concepts, but the concepts themselves are the same. This is a challenge that we as photographers, but also architects, are playing with equally. It is something that needs to be made different every time, and that has to reflect in the design, and the photograph. In this context, I think the architects are asking themselves the same question.
Exterior photography can be done in a more ‘Ansel Adams’ way, where you happen on certain moments, but in the interior space you have to create certain moments more.
Part IV: Post-Processing Images [17:17]
I feel like whenever we are editing images on the computer, we try to replicate exactly what we saw while we were shooting the building or the space. Sometimes we are restricted by the equipment that we use. For example, sometimes the perspective looks too distorted. One of the reasons that happens, is because we use a lens that tries to capture everything at once, but then it distorts the image to make it look much bigger than it actually is. We are restricted by the technological capacity that we have right now, and that will improve over time. In terms of post-processing, however, it boils down to trying to replicate what you saw, or what you wanted to add as a filter on top of what you created at the shoot. For example, if I have to do a black and white shoot, I will not shoot in black and white because I don’t do film photography. I don’t shoot in analog, I shoot in raw digital formats. The black and white colours are added later, but that does not mean you have not imagined what the black and white image will look like, while you’re shooting. You have a very clear idea of that, and then you take it to the computer and then you edit according to that. You do not come up with a new meaning of black and white photography and add that to your photoshoot of that particular building. You do not create something that was different from what was envisioned during the photoshoot with the architect.
One of the things that I did for my Masters’ project was very interesting. I took photos that I had previously taken in Auroville, and from traveling around Hampi and other temples around South India. I took those photos and I re-aligned, distorted or cropped them, to create new compositions out of those old photos. In this way, I got these new photos which were looking very different from the originals. They did not have any sense of place; they were black and white and did not have colours. There was more ambiguity, and you could not tell from looking at the photo, where it was taken. I created this series of abstract photographs, which show some element of space and give you a feel and textures of the space, but don’t reveal exact spaces. That is a different way to approach the photography of a space. You could work like that, but then you have to have a very clear conversation with the architect about shooting like that.
CHAPTER 03: REFLECTIONS [20:08]
Part I: The Search for Sensuality [20:20]
I have been looking for a lot of sensuality in buildings. I love to play with light and shadow. This was something I started with, and played with a lot, even as part of my Masters’ project. I would create a very abstract photograph out of just light and shadow, or look for interesting details. Any architects who were working in that way – I was interested in their buildings. It might not have been a particular building. For example, with Samira, there was the Bhadran School (the School of Dancing Arches), where I decided to visit the school when it was under construction, and just watching that building grow since then, has been part of its personality. I photographed the under-construction building in a very different way, compared to the final product. I think if I had not done that, then I would not have done justice to that building in particular. I think that there are a lot of architects in India, who do work with light and shadow in a very dramatic way, which is missing from some European work that I had seen while I was doing my Masters. I feel like there is more drama, and it is a more subjective representation of space here, than it was there. I really looked out for that when I was trying to find work, when I came back to India.
Part II: Photographic Authenticity [22:00]
I think there is no such thing as authenticity in photography anymore, because we are at a point of time where everything is post-photographic.
Everything that we shooting right now is a criticism on the last photograph that was taken.
My ideas are inspired by something that I have seen, or taken inspiration from, during my education, or by being exposed to an unlimited number of photographs on the internet. I can bring the authenticity of myself into photographing a building, but there is a certain level of inspiration that has always been borrowed for the photo.
When it comes to representing a truth, and not staging a photo; I am all for staging a photo, if you know exactly why the photo is being staged, and if you know the art direction or language you are aspiring for. There are certain shoots where you will never be able to replicate a particular story that happened with the building. Sometimes you imagine what could potentially happen with that building, and for that, staging and creating a photo essay is a great way to document the space. It will have a very short span of existing as a space in that form, but it will tell a story that will make the people see that building, in a way which is different from the way it will exist from then on. I am up for staging if there is an artistic concept. I do not believe in a purist idea of realism, where you have to wait for a particular photograph or shot, because I have seen what the reality is in terms of photography, and not just architecture photography. This idea that we have, that professional photographers go and shoot this particular ‘killer’ shot, is a myth that needs to be broken. Behind that one particular shot is a film roll of at least 300 shots that have been rejected, and these photos look like photos that could be taken by any student of photography as well. That is the effort and the process, that should not be disregarded when it comes to taking a good photograph. But where is the realism in that? All those 301 shots are real photos. For me, this is the difference between taking a staged photo and a true photo.
Part III: The Symbolism of Human Figures [25:12]
Humans have been used to show scale, as we have seen in a lot of old photographs. It has been a combination of spontaneous and staged for quite a few decades now.
Personally, I find it reductive to use a human being just to show scale. Especially in a country like India, where the culture that a human being brings to the building, becomes the culture of that building.
We can use that so much, in trying to show exactly how buildings operate in India. Buildings are not devoid of culture, nor are they devoid of traditions. There will be some women who will step out at 7 a.m. and use fresh powder to make a Rangoli outside the house. Whether I am standing outside with a camera at sunrise to take the golden hour shot is not important, because that act will happen every day. I am there to capture the building, but this moment is the building itself. This moment is the culture of the building. If I am using humans in a frame, I would like to portray them in a way that shows the culture that they bring to the building. Even if it is staged, there is a conversation from which that staging is coming from. The scenography is always a conversation that comes from certain images that you have in mind, from either nostalgia or having seen something online, which you think compliments that particular design very well. It is very sensitive, and it is not just for scale anymore.
There are so many objects that we could use to convey scale, and there are a lot of photo shoots where that has been done – geometric objects have been used as a still life reference point that remains in one space, but the angle keeps changing. Sometimes, the building itself is the still life. If you are making a video sometimes there is an element of the building which is constantly changing; for example, the light is moving through the building. There could be a time lapse that you could make, or a moment you could capture, where a person is walking across the frame.
Humans add a language of culture and tradition that objects cannot. That has been very interesting to try to capture.
Part IV: Values of Videography [27:34]
I think video for me has been this medium where you can show in a short format, a feel of the building without revealing the entire structure. When I started making videos, I thought there were these rules of videography that everybody was following, like panning and sliding the camera across the room to show the entire space, and all the corners of the space, in a way that it made look like you have not missed out on any of the spaces in that particular building. For me, that was restrictive, and I wanted to see what I could do with creating more abstract videos. That is how I started, and storytelling was a good way to do that. It was abstract storytelling and it did not have a very consistent narrative. That was still more interesting for me than to create a video where there are just some plain panning shots and it shows all the answers that a building can give, instead of asking any questions of the building. That was the main thing I was interested in.
Part V: Aspects of a Good Photograph [28:48]
My professional view is my personal view; that a good photograph is one that makes me feel something.
When I look at it, and if I engage with it beyond a superficial level and I feel something; an emotional connect or some sort of arousal, in any way? That it for me is a good photograph. There was a very interesting thing that happened for one of the projects that I was shooting. It is a community centre close to Bengaluru, in the village area of Hosur. Hosur is a very “tech” town, and there are a lot of industrial plants there. It is surrounded by these fields, grasslands, and a lot of farm lands. The building is standing on a rock in the middle of nowhere, and you can see it from a distance. I went and I shot that building for Samira Rathod. There were a lot of photos from that shoot which were really special for me.
However, I was on WhatsApp, talking to one of my friends who works with Microsoft to make apps that are accessible to rural areas in South India, where they need apps to do things like online banking, and other financial related things. She goes to those villages and talks to the people to understand their level of user interface design. Then they design the app accordingly. I saw her WhatsApp profile picture, and it was her standing with that building in the background, in the middle of those fields. I had to ask, “Where is this? How did you reach here?”
She had been to that village as part of that Microsoft initiative, and she had shot that photograph because she found that building very interesting, and for that village to have that kind of building was a big deal. For me, that is a good photograph, because it created a moment where, someone who is not connected to architecture, felt connected to that building. I have been able to connect to that building because of this moment, knowing that there was someone else who saw the building through the farmlands and at a distance, instead of being up close and taking shots that show it in a lot of glory. There was this meaning that was created, and it was not just my meaning but someone else’s too. There are so many stories like that, where if you feel something, I think it can be called a good photograph. Maybe a good photograph is a boring photograph.
This is why I think technology has become redundant as a parameter to take a good photograph. Anybody can take a good photograph on a phone or a polaroid camera. Maybe we should do a photo shoot where the entire house or the entire building is shot only on polaroid, because ultimately it has to go on Instagram, which is a polaroid format anyway.
It is not about the medium anymore – it is about the moment, and the feeling that it can create.
CHAPTER 04: EPILOGUE [32:15]
Part I: Photographs of Consequence [32:28]
There are a lot of photographers now, who are doing beautiful work. I really like the work of Mitul Desai. He is an architect, but the photos he has captured – for example, when working with Anne Holtrop – have been beautiful. Sometimes it is just a photograph of a quarry, but the way it has been shot in its context, and showing the scale without showing a human being. That is also something that he has done beautifully. I really want to meet him in person and work on some project together. Out of the newbies, I really like Dhrupad’s work, and I found his photographs very beautiful because they were conveying everyday moments of the building, but in a very poetic way. I think his background in filmmaking has influenced his style of photography, so it is very cool to see where it is coming from.
There are different styles of photography in India right now, but there are so many interesting people outside India as well. Everybody is looking at buildings in a very different way. Now, it is more important to do it differently, than it was before, because there is so much exposure to the same thing.
You have to bring something different to the table each time, and you can’t have one particular style as a photographer.
For example, saying you only shoot analogue is a conversation that I do not think is relevant to the time we are in, because as a third person, you have to have something fresh to say about a building every time you’re shooting it. In India, a lot of people started doing that, and I like that.
Part II: The Feedback Loop [34:27]
I feel like there should be feedback on our images, but the platforms that we are using to share our images promote a sense of false positivity, where everybody has to be appreciative of your work all the time. There is no place for criticism when you are looking at images in such a short period of time. If I am on Instagram, I am swiping through pictures very quickly. My reception time on a particular photo is less than thirty seconds, and maybe I like and comment on that photo, but I am engaging that with that photo for a very short period of time. In that period of time, I do not expect anyone has the energy to put feedback on an image, even if it is about architecture or otherwise. We need some sort of platform or event, where there is a discussion on images and maybe a discussion on what people are reacting to; positively or negatively. What is working for the consumer or the user, or the person who is visiting an exhibition, and what is not working?
Right now, it is a monologue and maybe we should get some criticism on what is working in the monologue or what seems too abstract and completely illegible, when it comes to the representation of a building.
I could make a very abstract photograph and to me that might be a very artistic representation of the space, but maybe I have gone so far off from the realism of the space that it is not legible to the person that is following the architect’s work. Maybe they are not even able to recognise that this is a particular architect’s work. The language has been taken away completely. So, I would like there to be some feedback, and maybe we need spaces where we can ask these sorts of questions. Instagram has definitely not been that.
Lately, I do not enjoy posting on Instagram, because there is no conversation on the images anymore. You are just posting your work, and you’re posting the best versions of yourself, and there is no criticism from the other side. If there is, then it is taken negatively or it is not done in a refined manner. You are not able to have an argument, or a conversation, without sounding rude, or ignorant. Maybe we need an event at your studio, where we can do a criticism of architecture photography♦
Images: © Niveditaa Gupta
Niveditaa Gupta is an architectural photographer based in New Delhi, India, who likes to photograph spaces, and hopes to be able to create visuals that can prompt a discourse about architecture itself. After writing a research paper on architectural photography as part of her academic dissertation, she went on to pursue a Masters in Fine Art Photography at Istituto Europeo Di Design, Madrid. Currently, she photographs the work of many architects throughout India, including MOAD, RENESA Architects, SRDA, Kamat and Rozario, and M:OFA Studio, to name a few. She also likes to write in her free time, having written articles for national and international architecture magazines.
On Photography is a series of conversations with photographers of different contexts, discussing the various ideologies behind capturing a meaningful photograph.