Former student Charles Smith becoming
a force in architectural photography
“Why can’t I live in a house that looks like that one,” is a common reaction to seeing well-photographed homes. The reality is that in the hands of an adroit photographer, any structure can be made to look more beautiful than it is when simply walked through. Charles Smith, AIA (BED ’90, M.Arch ’93) is just such a photographer.
Over the course of his time at Texas A&M, especially during graduate work, he became more and more accomplished, more and more serious about architectural photography. Today his practice is based in Dallas and over 90% of his work is occupied by the photography of structures, with the rest being traditional architectural services. Smith’s skills have played an important role in helping many of his clients win local, state and national awards in design competitions requiring photographs of a finished facility, as well as drawings and models.
For his early development as an architectural photographer, Smith credits David Woodcock and the Historic Preservation program within the College of Architecture.
“If I had not gone through that program, I would probably not be doing photography today,” Smith said.
Second only to Woodcock, he was influenced by Dan MacGilvray, under whom he spent two semesters enrolled in independent studies for the documentation of the historic buildings collected over a 40-year period by the Round Top-based Pioneer Art Foundation. That project gave Smith his first practical exposure to documenting a substantial collection of buildings as part of a historic preservation team making very tangible contributions on a variety of levels.
PEOPLE VS. STRUCTURES
At the root level of his craft, Smith said, portraiture and architectural photography provide fundamentally different classes of subjects, which leads one quite reasonably to conclude that there are differences in the principles that control the photography of human subjects and those that dictate the boundaries of the photography of structures. According to Smith, if there is one principal that permeates architectural photography, it is patience.
He qualifies that point by saying that, yes, there are other more important photographic skills, but that those will never see their full fruition if the photographer is impatient.
“The key is you have to be able to listen to the architect from a photographer’s standpoint…so I think training as an architect is absolutely necessary,” he said. “You have to be able to understand a building, you have to be able to understand the materials, light, shade and shadow, these are absolutely critical to architecture, as well as for photography.”
In architectural photography, patience is often better measured in months rather than minutes or hours.
“Usually spring and fall are my two busiest seasons—spring when everything just starts to green-up, and fall when everything is in fall color,” Smith said. “The sun angles in spring and fall make those really the optimum times to shoot buildings. With a summer sun you have very long angles, whereas during the wintertime you get the nice low angles that provide warmer light.”
Smith further pointed out that when shooting architecture rather than portraits, one must contend with weather, as well as site preparation and the interaction and scheduling with building owners and facility managers. For example, vending machines, which tend to clutter and diminish building facades, must be removed before the shoot. The photographer must also ensure that all the building’s lights are functional and that all its light shades are intact, that the landscaping is appropriate, and that the placement of furniture is optimal. This preparatory process, he said, is part of achieving, “control of everything that’s in the shot. That’s not always possible, but there’s a lot more that has to be done than simply shooting a portrait.”
The ability of a photographer to select the best interior angles, angles that tell a story, is also important.
“If I document a building thoroughly, Smith said, “I like to tell a story of the overall picture and then start looking at materials and how these materials work well with light.”
Looking at Smith’s photography, especially his interiors, one can pick up that he “packs” his depth of field. That is, it is the rule rather than the exception in Smith’s photography to find something interesting going on in the foreground, the background, and also in between.
“You have to tell a lot of story in one little bitty shot. There are also detail shots where you intentionally abstract something from the rest of the building. Those tend to work well, too, but you have to really cover the basics first, and that is to get the design intent of the architect across.”
THE ARC OF THE EARLY CAREER
Upon graduation, Smith landed a job with Frank Welch. Welch was and continues to be a major force in architectural photography, but also is arguably one of the most important residential architects Texas has produced to date. Smith describes him as having been instrumental in defining what might be called modern Texas architecture, or Texas regionalist architecture. While working with Welch, Smith was not primarily doing photography, but architectural work per se.
He admits to doing photographic and documentation work on the side for various architects during that time.
“I really didn’t see going into [photography] as a full-time job. I wanted to go into architecture to be an architect and my original goal was to have my own practice.”
Smith did in fact, practice within architecture proper from 1993 to 1996, at which point a series of projects led him to open his own practice, specializing in the photography of architecture while still offering traditional architectural services. For a year there was plenty of demand, but the practice needed a stronger client base to provide consistent photographic work. Over time, his client base did expand. By 1998, photography was far and away the dominant component of his work.
In spite of the many photographic awards, Smith still considers himself as being quite early in his career, having only completed graduate work ten years ago in 1993. His practice currently is between a fledgling state and the well-established position he would like to eventually occupy in the minds of the architectural community of Texas and the Southwest.
THE POST-9/11 REALITY
As a young practice, Smith’s photography business is not yet immune to the shocks that can make for rocky economic cycles. As in so many sectors of the economy, the 9-11 terrorist attacks produced noticeable setbacks for Smith’s practice. Work had been steady and growing right up until the events of September 11, though “the economy had been taking a turn prior to September 11, but that was the point at which architects quit spending on their photography budgets. The photography budget is usually the first to be cut.”
Not only was there a trickle-down effect from cutbacks in construction spending at the national level, but because of the very public nature of architectural photography, which requires a temporary interruption of routine facility management, there was a perceptible reduction in the number of requests throughout the rest of 2001 and into the next year.
“It’s in the process of making a rebound,” Smith said in a Spring 2002 interview. “Things are slower this spring than they were last spring, but I’m still optimistic about it.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
As the economic anomalies of 9-11 work themselves out, Smith looks forward to becoming something of a fixture in the Southwest’s architectural photography community. Establishing good relationships are critical to that since, “well-known architects tend to use a photographer that they’ve used forever and with whom they have a mutual understanding.”
Once those relationships are in place, they tend to be very hard to shake because the long-time client can call the photographer and request a job, without having to spell out everything they need done.
“Usually, after I have several jobs under my belt with them, he said, “it becomes old hat.”
Building those kinds of relationships is where Smith currently sees himself. From that base, the architect-photographer team can venture into more unusual opportunities that lie off the beaten path, but which promise great results if handled carefully.
Two of his longest standing clients are Corgan Associates and Good, Fulton, and Farrell. Both firms are extremely active with high profile owner-clients of global caliber. Good, Fulton & Farrell recently designed a 155,000 square foot office building for Nokia. Corgan has a wide range of clients in commercial, adaptive reuse, data and telecommunications, and corporate headquarters design for clients including Citigroup and Cisco Systems. If those two design firms are any indication, then Smith may well be on his way to becoming the Southwest’s photographer of choice sooner rather than later.
Many of Smith’s photos can be seen on his Web site at http://www.csphoto.net/.
Click image to enlarge.