CD: Tim, we have known each other for quite a while and during the time that we have been friends you have racked up more air miles than anyone I know, more awards than any photographer should be allowed, and you carry on in your humble straight forward fashion. What is your secret to retaining your sanity with so much international travel.
Tim Griffith: Perhaps the simplest response is that I really love what I do. Which makes each new itinerary seem less like work and more like an interesting and sometimes challenging adventure.
In conversation several years ago with a prominent Australian graphic designer, he observed that the hardest part of a heavy travel schedule was gathering the momentum to get up into orbit in the first place. This can consume an enormous amount of time and resources. Once you were there though, it required substantially less energy to just keep going. So I try to keep on the move and feel this brings a certain freshness and spontaneity to the photographs. Every day is a new day.
Along the way, I’ve adopted a few approaches that have made the process easier to manage on several levels. I think of this as cultivating attitude at altitude.
- always be prepared to learn something new.
- develop the ability to adapt easily, to respond to changing conditions.
- it is harder to travel with too much luggage, both physical and emotional.
Most of my time is spent documenting large, iconic buildings and the roles they play within the context of the surrounding city. To do so, you need to get under the skin of a city, get a feel for the culture of a place. That initial exploration is the fun part. But then to communicate that story in photographs, I need to adopt a somewhat dispassionate, detached viewpoint. To successfully describe the experience to others, you can’t be having it at the same time. Understanding the often complex stories of each new place and finding the best way to tell those stories is what keeps me entertained and fortunately, I have found ways to generate a living from it as well.
With an average of six to eight months a year on the road, one is often left wondering where home actually is. Being in that disconnected, observational state can be very hard to shake. However, the extensive travel is such a rich experience and provides a sensory overload in so many ways. I’m always intrigued by the endless interconnectivity of observations and experiences. It’s like your whole history of interaction with the world is kept in a big lottery ball spinner and every now and then the numbers drop out in some sequence or another that makes perfect sense in the immediate scenario but are from a totally different circumstance or time. There’s nothing predictable about the potential relevance, it just clicks in and slams home the connection in some way or another.
Being open to that randomness of experience, that opportunity for something extraordinary to happen, is probably the most important consideration in maintaining some sanity.
CD: You grew up in Australia, live in San Francisco, and keep a base in Singapore. What/who were your early photographic influences? How did you develop, define and refine your vision as an architectural photographer and why San Francisco?
Tim Griffith: Like many practicing photographers of my vintage, I started taking pictures at an early age after being given a Kodak Box Brownie that once belonged to my Grandfather At high school, I was involved in producing the school magazine but it’s fair to say that at that point, photography wasn’t exactly a blinding passion that resulted in a single, focussed career path. When deciding on a direction for formal study at university, I was encouraged towards the idea of combining my interests in both science and design with a photographic course at RMIT. The Bachelor of Applied Science (Photographic Technology), as it was then known, groomed students for employment as research and medical photographers, most often within Government institutions.
After finishing my studies, accruing a total of one day’s assisting experience and shooting the odd small freelance job, I had the opportunity to start shooting professionally from an advertising studio in Melbourne. Somehow I managed to make it through without really understanding what I was doing.
When you do assist, it’s great to get an insight into how photography works on a practical and business level so when you go out yourself, you have some inkling of how problems can be resolved. The downside though, is that I believe it takes you longer to develop your own style.
Having not assisted, I wasn’t carrying the burden of other people’s solutions or perpetuating other people’s styles. Finding my own answers, frustrating though it was at the time, helped me develop my own sensibilities a little sooner.
Probably because of the market size, there were only a handful of photographers in Australia who had gained any prominence in the architectural field. Max Dupain, Wolfgang Sievers, David Moore and later John Gollings, documented the best architecture of the day. And while their images were of interest, I was more drawn to the strength and heroic stature of the international work that was sometimes found in books and journals.
In those early years, I spent a great deal of time hanging out at The Printed Image bookshop in Prahran feasting over the works of Walker Evans, Edward Steichen, Ezra Stoller, Yukio Futugawa, Irving Penn and Gabriele Basilico. Studying the work of these photographers confirmed in me the feeling that I was on the right path. Comparing my own efforts to theirs extended this process of self-criticism, gradually improving and refining the images I was making.
Artists such as Jeffrey Smart, Giovanni Piranesi, and illustrator Hugh Ferris also had significant impact on my developing sensibilities.
While I’ve not formally studied architecture, I do feel I’ve developed a strong understanding of its esoteric qualities through physically interacting with it over many years. The most important basis for creating great architectural photography is to start with great architecture. When photographing architecture I see it very much like a form of portraiture. I’m looking to bring out a flash of interest, a personality trait, a glimpse under the skin – that essence of individuality which connects with the viewer.
The move to San Francisco occurred in 2002. I’d already been shooting in Asia and the States for several US-based firms and interest was growing in having me be more accessible to document additional local projects in California. I settled on San Francisco as it struck me as an interesting mix of the attributes of Melbourne and Sydney. Being close to an international airport with direct flights to a variety of Asian cities was also a major consideration.
CD: The last couple of years of your workshop at the Palm Springs extravaganza has sold out. What is it like teaching and do you feel that it helps your career/vision. Any success stories that have come from the workshop?
Tim Griffith: Conducting the workshop at the Palm Springs Photo Festival continues to be a very interesting experience. Career wise, I doubt that it has had much impact other than to raise my profile a little among the broader photographic community. On a personal level, I’ve discovered that in order to explain one’s passion to others, you’ve first got to explain it to yourself. So preparing the workshop serves as a yearly opportunity to revisit the core principles of my enchantment with photography and architecture. A yearly check up as it were.
Architectural photography is often a rather solitary pursuit and while it has its own language, its own specific problems and solutions, there just aren’t that many opportunities to speak with others experiencing the same situations. The first thing I tell the workshop is that our few days together will be one of the rare occasions they can happily wax lyrical about the complexities of chair arrangements without putting everyone else in the room to sleep. It is heartening then, to not be the only person talking and to see the group interacting and sharing their experiences over the course of the workshop.
Given that I’m usually ripping my own work to pieces, offering constructive criticism on the work of the attendees can be challenging at times. In our field, it is often the case that the client “loves” the images but you’re left feeling that maybe, somehow, it could have been improved further, although you’ve no idea how this might be achieved. I’m told I can be witheringly blunt with my critiques but try to do so with good humor and always offer an alternative solution to the problem at hand. At the end of the day, I want to leave the group with is a set of visual tools and parameters with which they can evaluate and improve their own work into the future.
I don’t know that I could nominate any specific success stories that have come from the workshop. Perhaps the best outcome I could claim would be that irrespective of their relative experience and/or previous success in the field, those who attended took away a greater insight into their own work along with some tools and aspirations to move it forward in some way. Acting as a catalyst in that process of growth for each participant appeals to me more than simply pontificating from a high pulpit somewhere, and the Palm Springs Photo Festival provides the perfect venue for that more hands on approach.
CD: You have managed to be incredibly consistent with your color, tone and approach over the years. Tell me about your camera and software workflow.
Tim Griffith: My primary camera kit is based around an Alpa MAX, coupled with Phase One digital backs. In addition, when circumstances dictate, I often shoot with Canon bodies and tilt-shift lenses. With both of these platforms, I shoot mostly tethered to laptops running Capture One software. In the field, our main goal is just to get the shoot data onto the laptops, so very few of the tools within Capture One are utilized at that stage. Once back in the office, we start crafting the files and can bring to bear more of the fine tuning that the software facilitates.
In terms of maintaining consistency of tone, the thing to remember is that for the most part, I am not controlling the lighting. More a matter of anticipating and responding to it by positioning myself accordingly for my desired outcome. It has always been the same source, albeit through different atmospheres in different countries.
Maintaining consistency of approach remains a more nuanced journey. I definitely try to avoid simply applying the same techniques or resolutions to every project I photograph. If you’re doing it right, the architecture itself will tell you where you need to be. Being open to the subtle changes each project requires while staying within the overall framework of your own visual sensibilities, means that over the longer term, all the work kind of hangs together.
CD: Speaking of Alpa (you knew I was going to go there) – what is it like to work with this type of system – using the Phase P45+ and IQ 260 with the Schneider Digitar lenses versus what many consider good enough – the Canon 17 and 24 T/S lenses?
Tim Griffith: The ability to finely control composition and perspective has always been important to my images. A few decades of photographing architecture with 4×5 monorails influences the way you look at things, the way you represent them. When moving to digital capture in 2004, I wanted a platform that offered the same degree of control and accuracy. At the time, there was very little on offer that addressed all the technical considerations but Alpa soon developed their XY body and then the more streamlined MAX that I currently use.
I have the Alpa kit configured to maximize productivity on location. No padded handgrips (too bulky), viewfinders (unnecessary), cocktail sticks (easily broken or lost) to complicate the process. It’s definitely a stripped back racing version but it handles everything I need with simplicity, accuracy and consistency.
One of the things that many medium format practitioners will tell you is that using these platforms slows you down, both physically and mentally. I certainly agree with this observation and believe it adds a degree of depth to the resulting imagery. You tend to look a little more closely at the subject with more time to appreciate the individual nuances of each scene. And for those of us who grew up using 4×5 cameras, there is still something satisfyingly tactile about the manual lens setting required on the Alpa.
Without doubt, the Canon 17mm and 24mm tilt shift lenses were game changers in the architectural photography field and in many situations they produce excellent results and are indeed, more than good enough. Personally, I have always strived to produce what I hope is the best possible result from any given situation. So where I can, I will reach first for the Alpa/Phase combination. Side by side against the current Canon bodies, the depth of information in the Phase One files is astounding and provides much greater flexibility in finessing the image during post production.
CD: Your advice for an aspiring photographer wanting a career in architectural shooting?
Tim Griffith: It feels like the architectural field is getting harder and harder for a variety of reasons. Although the demand for imagery has increased, the number of players in the game has dramatically increased and the number of end users willing to pay for photographs has decreased. With the relatively lower cost and increased quality of dSLR platforms the cost of entering what was a specialist genre has decreased. In this scenario, the major problem lies in differentiating yourself from everyone else.
The best place to start is by truly understanding your subject. When I look at the endless offerings of imagery on the web and in print journals, my sense is that a lot of people shoot buildings but very few people actually photograph architecture. Learning about architecture and appreciating the experiences it offers can and should take a lifetime. There is no fast track. Architecture, like photography, is something that you never stop learning from.
Developing a career photographing architecture is also something that takes a good deal of time. And to be realistic, is a lot harder to contemplate now that at any time previously. However, as other contributors to these pages have observed across all genres of photography, there is always room at the top for a new voice.
The commercial photography of architecture requires exploring the complex ground between simply pleasing the architect and pleasing your own artistic sensibilities. Of course, the most satisfying circumstance is when both outcomes are fulfilled. Everybody wins. I’m all for pushing the envelope on how architecture can be represented but particularly in a commercial application, I’m also very conscious that the image should be more about the architecture and less about me.
Perhaps the best way to develop commercial clients is to understand how you can be of value to them, not the other way around. It is too easy for aspiring architectural photographers to believe that their version of a design is the best representation, or at least what they think should be of most value to the architect. This is often far from the truth. I have seen countless promotional mailers go straight to the trash because the photographer hadn’t taken the time to research what kind of imagery the potential client was currently using to represent their work.
My other advice would be to be very critical of your own work. Even if the client loves the result, there’s probably some way, no matter how small the increment, in which you could better it. How could you simplify the image, communicate the story better? Play with it, experiment and be prepared to fail in order to grow.
Having been actively involved in commercial photography for thirty years, I don’t know that I have the definitive answer on what makes a successful architectural photograph.
Most importantly though, I’m still looking!