In the winter of light

“There are architecture photographers [who] refuse to photograph anything from November up to February,” Michiel van Raaij writes on his blog Eikongraphia. “In their view the long shadows and dimmed light intensity of the winter season compromises their work. The effect is that – in the architecture media – not only the sun always shines, but that it is also never winter.”
There are several interesting observations here, but I’m particularly struck by the thought that the spherical trigonometry of the earth’s surface – and its angular effect on shadows – has an impact on how we might popularly view and represent architectural space.
By extension, then, if raised only on images of buildings in which there are no visible shadows – and in which surfaces thus appear to be all but shaved of ornament – are architects actually designing for a particular season of light? That is, buildings that are meant to look good, and photograph well, only in summer?
How amazing it would be to find that architectural styles begin to change – moving away from the Clement Greenberg-like flatness of international modernism toward a new era of ornamentally active deep surfaces – if something as simple as when photographs are taken were to change.
All the works of Frank Gehry, photographed in the anemic, angular light of midwinter. I sense a book idea here, if any enterprising photographers might be reading this…

14 thoughts on “In the winter of light”

  1. How odd. The transformational aspect of long light is one of the things I enjoy about winter. This is interesting too because where shadows fall is one of the environmental impacts considered in environmental impact statements, and is particularly important with large buildings in densely packed spaces.

  2. The statement by Michiel van Raaij is even stranger since the Earth and Sun are actually closer during winter, so when the sun is up and not obscured by clouds, its light is more intense.

  3. I find that the quality of light in the morning or the evening is always more beautiful than during the middle hours of the day. it is completely irrelevant as to what time of year it is.

    Here are a few architectural photographs that I made throughout the year. With the exception of the snow in one of the images you would be pretty hard pressed to guess when these were taken.
    view the “fortress” portfolio

  4. Those photogs who “refuse to photograph anything from November up to February” could, you know, either go to the Southern Hemisphere in Northern Winter or at least travel closer to the Equator instead of putting themselves out of work for 3 months of the year. God forbid we see architecture photography from outside of Europe and North America in that time. The planet tilts on its axis, so it isn’t as though the whole Earth is blanketed in anemic light which “compromises their work” the poor babies.

  5. I think your onto something here. I enjoy photographing in the winter because the light is more intense and has much more interesting and stark effects when using black and white film. Also depending on where you live in more Northern Climates the trees no longer obscure buildings and provide a less cluttered look to images. I think many photographers shy away from showing something more intense then it actually is, but I think fall provides far better colors particularly at sunrise and sunset) as well as the low angle of light, and winter intensifies this, but you need to work very quickly as the light moves much more quickly. I think these last two points, as well as being out in the cold deter many photographers from working as well.

  6. not that this is really related to this thread, I just wanted to know what you thought of this quote by pesky NY Times writers.”The old paradigm — epitomized by shelter magazines like Architectural Digest and Dwell — that found romance in single-family homes, each with its own lawn, detached garage and septic system, may crumble under the weight of its wastefulness.” What do you think Geoff, its an article about how design actually flourishes during depressions.

  7. This reminded me of architectural historian Gavin Stamp’s assertion that whilst classical architecture was animated by the deep shadows cast by the mediterranean sun, further north (he was a lecturer at the Mac in Glasgow at the time) the same effect was achieved by soot.

  8. Sounds, if not spot on then not completely out to lunch.
    But it isn’t just soot. Especially in places where sandstone rather than limestone or granite are used, the extra porosity of the natural stone also picks up other things. Green in particular. At least in Glasgow’s neighbour, Edinburgh I saw this. The black may also come from a fungus or other oxidation, as some is most obviously not from soot, as some of these structures were cleaned after everything stopped burning coal. Back home in Montreal, anything made of the same materials gets crumbled by freeze-thaw, salt, and general disregard. The cool blackening effect above sometimes does show up but the building usually hasn’t long for the world by that time.
    Here we have clearday wintersun, overcast glowy snowcarpet light, and straight-up grey shite and onions.

  9. Derrick, first I have to emphasize that there is not a connection between Dwell and BLDGBLOG. Nothing I say on this website can be assumed to represent the position of my employer, and vice versa.

    Having said that, I think the exact quotation you’ve pulled from the article misses out on – and even deliberately overlooks – the fact that Dwell often, if not always, emphasizes something close to the opposite. So, yes, we definitely do cover single-family, detached houses; but, no, we don’t advocate expansive lawns of green grass, wasteful sewage systems, and home garages. This has been an explicit theme of the magazine, in fact, at least for the past 18-24 months, during which we’ve covered alternative transportation systems, all varieties of “off the grid” technologies, and at least a handful of more comprehensive “sustainable” forms of urban growth.

    So is a single-family, detached home vision of the future a wasteful one? Of course, it is – but it’s precisely when you’re in a position to address this sort of settlement pattern, due to your popular reach, that you can positively affect the situation.

    I don’t know – I’m sorry if that doesn’t address your question! But it’s probably best to send that to Dwell itself, as a letter to the magazine, and not as a comment here.

    Thanks for asking, though – it’s an important question.

  10. I completely understand that your opinions are exactly that, your own! I was just was curious as to your take on the matter in which i greatly respect. Hope the comment didn’t seem like it was intended to challenge Dwell or you, as I’m a reader of both!

  11. I think it makes a tremendous difference if snow layes or not. With snow you have an additional reflector from an unexpected angle. (Snow and no sun is probably the most difficult task at all. No contrast whatsoever.)
    One more thing about winter photography: no leaves on trees. It is in some cases your only chance to show the house if it is sorrounded by vegetation. I have a beautiful album of Villas in Veneto which is completely photographed in november, with beautiful shadows of tree banches on the fassades, and a mystical foggy background of italian landscape of wineyard hills: like the background of a Leonardo painting.
    Long shadows: think about Finnland. In the scandic north doesn´t get the sun above a certain angle, not even in June: the complete work of Alvar Aalto is photographed with long shadows and smooth light.

  12. I’m a working architectural photographer in Vancouver BC, where we get a lot of grey, rainy days in winter and spring. While doing good exteriors is difficult if not in some cases impossible in winter due to a lot of principal elevations being north-facing, this sort of weather can make interiors a lot easier. You can balance the interior and exterior light without having to either use HDR or throwing a lot of flash/supplemental light at the problem, and depending on the interior, it’s easier to show a sense of ‘gemutlichkeit’ without direct light streaming through the windows.

    Interesting that you would mention Gehry, given that in my experience a lot of his work actually improves in winter, because the lower, harsher winter light gives much better definition to the forms and textures that gives his building their shape. In particular, the exterior of the Experience Music Project in Seattle really benefits from winter light (the colours ‘pop’–yes, you can achieve the same effect on a summer early evening, but then you have everyone wandering through your images). This also holds for a lot of buildings where the visual effect relies on or is improved by surface texture–as long as what you’re shooting is situated nominally SE/S/SW.

  13. Editors of architecture magazines, like myself, feel the effect of this logic every year. In the winter season a lot of publications are put on hold until march-april.

    In the winter season magazines rely on publishing buildings that have been photographed months earlier. It is therefore also always summer in the magazines.

    There is not architect I know that has the desire to change that. So, I suppose, they all do design for a certain season.

    It is also only recently (from the start of the twentieth century) that architects started to think about the appearance of their buildings at night. That changed architecture massively.

    I suppose architects also relate the depth of the relief in their architecture to the geographical location of it. I wonder whether ancient civilizations did that. Perhaps they did. By now one can easily test architecture in computermodels simulating the light on a certain location. In theory Frank Gehry could alter the curves in his architecture relatively to the distance to the equator.

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