PHOTOGRAPHING MODERNIST BARCELONA
Anyone that knows me knows that apart from my love of photography, there is nothing I love more than a bit of nostalgia. With this in mind, I thought it a good idea to write a few lines about combining two of my favorite subjects – Photography and the Modernist movement. More importantly however, is how to create interesting images by using your own creativity and artistic vision, instead of just capturing postcard type shots. Having lived in Barcelona for 15 years, my appreciation of Modernist works has only increased, and it is the Catalan form of Modernism in particular that I find so photogenic.
Since the summer olympics in 1992, Barcelona has since been recognized as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities to visit. A medieval city surrounded by Baroque quarters, beautiful tree-lined avenues, quaint plazas, narrow quarters and architecture in Romanic, Medieval, Gothic, and of course Modernist styles that are in stark contrast to its cutting edge ultra-modern architecture.
THE CATALAN MODERNIST MOVEMENT
Known locally as Art Nouveau in France & Belgium, Jugendstil in Germany, Sezession in Austria & Hungary, Liberty style in Italy, and Modern style in Scotland, many people are not aware that as well as architecture, the Modernist art style is also found in painting, sculpture, carpentry and even in literary form. In 1925 during an exposition in Paris, Art Deco design represented Modernism into a form of fashion.
Photographers that like to shoot architecture are in for a treat when exploring Barcelona. Having no less than 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Barcelona’s response to the Modernist movement has been nothing less than spectacular. The most notable architects include Antoni Gaudi, Lluis Domenech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, however there are many more famous Catalan architects that contributed to the overall beauty of the city and it’s expression of this wonderful art style.
As a general trend that emerged in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, Catalan Modernism acquired it’s own unique personality. Together with Catalan nationalism, socio-ideological elements and the revival of Catalan culture, and thanks to an economic boom due the industrial revolution, Barcelona went through a spectacular urban and industrial revitalization. This new found wealth amongst the social elite was largely invested in the form of architecture as a way to promote Catalan identity and their strive for independence.
Amazingly, 7 of these 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created by Gaudi, with the spectacular Sagrada Familia church being his most ambitious project. It has been over 130 years since the first stone was laid, and it is estimated that it will be completed by 2026. Sadly, Gaudi was never able to complete the project due to his sudden death in 1926. Equally of interest to photographers, is the fact that all 9 of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were built in the Modernist style. What I find interesting about Catalan Modernism are the differences in styles from each architect. For example, the theme of nature is evident everywhere in Gaudi’s work. Domenich i Muntaner used Moorish styles within his designs, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch seemed to amalgamate Gothic and Romantic styles with Modernism.
PHOTOGRAPHING MODERNIST ART
So with all these amazing structures found within the city, how does one begin to photograph them in a way that does not end up looking like a postcard shot? Where do you start and what ideas can you pull out to turn your images into photographic masterpieces? These are questions I am asked frequently from my guests during our workshops. For me, photography is all about ideas. I am often racking my brain in how to convey those ideas to a specific scene, and tend to pick ideas according to what I think will work best given a specific photographic situation. This is actually one of the hardest aspects of photographing architecture, wether it be Modernism, or any other architectural style.
As an example, I will often try to use an element that, at first, may seem to have a negative impact on the scene and turn it to my advantage. One example of this is having crowds of people walking through the shot. Rather than trying to avoid people, or think of cloning them out in post-processing, I may try to add them and work with longer exposures on a tripod or with a wide-angle lens with optical stabilizer to emphasize their movement. More often than not, this element is actually what makes the shot.
Likewise, instead of cloning out a crane or scaffolding included in your scene, use this to your advantage by making it the main element of the image, with a small part of the facade included. Using a telephoto lens to zoom into a worker high up on scaffolding can also be your focal point and will give the viewer a sense of scale.
Another example of adding an artistic touch to architecture is by using the camera’s multi-exposure feature (or Nikon’s excellent image overlay feature). In situations with low light and where a tripod is not available or allowed, a multiple exposure has the added benefit of cancelling out much of the noise that would otherwise be present when using a high ISO. Likewise, an example of photographing Modernism is by using a person in the scene. This can add a sense of scale, become a focal point or simply make the person the main subject with the background used for context.
SEARCHING FOR PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES
Other ways of capturing the intricate details, textures, colors and tones in Modernist architecture is to capture only a small part of the structure. Often, this will give the viewer an appreciation of the amount of care and time that must have gone into their creation. Organic forms created from wood, stone, iron, tiles and glass can make for perfect subjects in close-up photography.
You will notice that most of these images posted are of sections of a building, rather than a building in it’s entirety. While it is often difficult to decide not to capture a building in it’s full grandeur, you may find that there are too many unwanted distractions in the foreground or background, essentially ruining your shot.
Likewise, knowing the right time of day to be at a specific location, where the ambient light and shadows will occur, where directional lighting will illuminate a specific part of an interior and the manipulation of light to achieve the desired effect – for capturing architecture at it’s best, lighting is key.
One of the great aspects of shooting Modernist art are the endless details that can be found. Geometric and organic patterns, lead in lines, symmetry, reflections, textures, tones, juxtaposition scenes – it’s all there for the taking. You just have to use your eyes and search for them.
DECIDING WHAT CAMERA EQUIPMENT TO BRING
Because of the nature of the subject, photographing architecture is usually a slower process than other forms of photography. The photographer may need to do some initial scouting in terms of where to set up the camera for compositions, where the light will fall and when, weather conditions and even how the sky will look at a certain hour. Knowing the opening hours to enter historical sites is important, not only for utilizing the best light, but also to try and avoid crowds.
In terms of equipment, the main consideration would be which lens to use. Ideally, the photographer would have a selection of lenses to choose from according to each situation. Many photographers who shoot architecture always bring a wide-angle lens. Apart from capturing the entire building, these lenses allow you to add the surroundings for context, and the scale when adding familiar objects. They can also be useful for including dramatic skies as an added element. A telephoto lens is an invaluable tool to zoom into details that are not accessible, compress perspective and to keep out unwanted elements from the scene. Finally, a fast standard prime lens allows the photographer to shoot in low light, as well as use large apertures for artistic purposes. These are also useful when tripods are not allowed, which is often the case inside historical buildings.
On the subject of tripods, these are an invaluable tool in getting the most out of your equipment. Keeping your ISO to a minimum, adding motion, creating HDR images or just to compose your images correctly, most architectural photographers will own at least one tripod for these reasons. I find that using a tripod with manual focus and in manual mode allows me complete control of the image-making process.
Watching my guests capture these types of images, and the fulfillment they get when they are able to convey what they had envisioned, is what makes my job so worthwhile. Photographing iconic landmarks in a different way to that of a regular postcard shot is not easy, but with some pointers, technical advice and tips you can turn an ordinary image into something extraordinary. We hope to see you in the future on our Barcelona Photo Adventure!
I love the detail images–i.e., doorknobs, lamps, etc.–as well as the angles and perspective. Great advice–as always–from this mentor!