One Thousand Museum in Miami by Zaha Hadid Architects. Image © Brad Feinknopf
While most of the professional and academic architecture world managed to, more or less, cope with the new reality of the pandemic by transitioning to remote work, some specialized roles in the industry intrinsically rely on the physical interaction with space in its unique location.
To find out how architectural photographers around the world have kept up so far with the sudden limitations to business, we have reached out to a number of photographers previously featured in Archinect’s popular In Focus series.
We asked them how architecture had been impacted in their region, if social distancing was even possible during shoots, and how they planned on operating now with numerous new safety measures in place.
Business impacts on architecture and photography
How has the COVID-19 pandemic, and potentially also an economic downturn, impacted architecture and architectural photography in your region?
Marc Goodwin (UK): I am not really sure how to answer that because I work in several regions. But I can safely say yes, all the same. I am in Spain at the moment and was meant to travel next to China and UAE. All have been hit really hard to say the least. Everything is on hold and everyone in lockdown. The only action I can see taking place anywhere is people talking about the situation. It is the only thing any of us can do in the meantime, I guess!
Our images typically included people. Will we have people-less images for a while?
— Brad Feinknopf
Brad Feinknopf (Columbus, OH): Without question, my reputation has been built over 30 years, and the last few years, probably 80% of my shoots have involved air travel. You compound that with the stay-at-home orders in place, and we haven’t been able to shoot for nearly 2 months when that order lifts. When it does, it will be a slow process of return. When will I be able to return to flying? Will we start driving to shoots instead of flying? Our images typically included people. Will we have people-less images for a while? Will I be working with an assistant? How are my clients being impacted? There are more questions than there are answers, which makes it a very scary time. That said, we have put a procedural protocol in place, so that we can move forward and continue to work in a safe fashion that will protect our clients and ourselves. We want and need to return to work but need to do so in a fashion that works in the new normal.
Neal Johnson (Louisville, KY): Living in the southeastern region of the U.S. (particularly the Ohio Valley area), the pandemic hasn’t impacted the area as badly as NYC, Chicago, or other metropolises, but the shutdown orders have gravely affected commerce and construction. Clients aren’t building/designing at large enough scales to provide work for photographers. Their budgets are even tighter now, and photography is usually excluded.
Alexander Severin (New York, NY): I am located in New York City and work mostly in the immediate area. All of my clients have implemented work-from-home policies, and design work is ongoing, although sometimes at a slower pace. However, my involvement with projects is at the very tail end. Luckily, designers, owners, contractors don’t seem to be panicking about projects that are 90-95% complete. Right now, it’s a bit of a waiting game — I feel that people are hoping for the best and are keeping the plans we’ve made in place, just without dates to implement them.
Right now, it’s a bit of a waiting game — I feel that people are hoping for the best and are keeping the plans we’ve made in place, just without dates to implement them.
— Alexander Severin
Ema Peter (Vancouver, BC): The pandemic has affected all photographers in Canada. Most projects are either canceled or postponed. In our studio, all our trips to Europe, the U.S., and Asia are postponed indefinitely, and we are trying to explain to the architects that are eager to photograph in Canada that we do need to put work on hold until mid-May at least. We still have up to 3-4 inquiries a day, but as a nonessential business, we are trying to comply with the government’s regulations and stay home.
Adam Gibson (Tasmania, Australia): Yes, indeed. Despite being in an area which is slightly protected from the major cities, we have still had some recorded cases, and as a result, all business has ceased in Tasmania. The result has seen all industries going into a hibernation of sorts. All of the architects I work with seem to be okay, but we aren’t shooting any new projects for a while.
Simone Bossi (Paris, France/Milan, Italy): As I am traveling most of my time, Europe is my main region in terms of work. Right now everywhere, travels are restricted, architect’s building sites are temporarily suspended and film labs are closed. At this moment, as a photographer, I am missing a fundamental part of the process: being present, on that site, at that moment, breathing the atmosphere of that space and feeling its temperature. Even though a crisis will bring always somehow new opportunities, and right now there is time for personal considerations or ideas for the future, I cannot forget that architectural photography as an individual craft is eventually a physical and a spatial fact.
At this moment, as a photographer, I am missing a fundamental part of the process: being present, on that site, at that moment, breathing the atmosphere of that space and feeling its temperature.
— Simone Bossi
Bahaa Ghoussainy (Bristol, UK/Beirut, Lebanon): Since the onset of the pandemic, it was made clear that this was the beginning of an international economic plunge that is going to affect almost all fields and areas. Architecture and architectural photography are no exception to this inevitable truth; construction work has come to a halt due to strict measures for public safety and well-being, delivery dates have been pushed forward indefinitely, office life has been disrupted. While architectural design may still be manageable for offices via video calls and designers working from home, construction and execution can be less forgiving. Architectural photography largely relies on newly completed projects and in many cases, buildings in use. Photographers suffer with both the architects and their clients during these tough times. A delay in a project reaches all of the parties involved. As for projects that have been recently completed — especially cultural and commercial ones — these will probably be rendered differently in a picture if photographed today. A vacant building on an empty street can make a beautiful photograph, but it might not be the idea that the architect had in mind for the project that he/she had worked on for years. This obviously translates differently for each individual case, but generally speaking, it might not be in everyone’s favor to proceed with the previous schedule. There are always exceptional cases and ways to work around certain projects and details, but a downturn seems inevitable.
New modes of operation
Can you describe how the new safety measures have affected your business and daily operations? Are remote work and proper social distancing even possible for photographers?
Marc Goodwin: Of course photographers can do some of their work in this situation. Retouching, emails, zoom meetings and so on. But the hardest thing is not being able to travel, now or in the foreseeable future. I don’t know whether all of my shoots planned this year have just been postponed or are now completely washed away. I suppose my clients are in a similar situation, as are most photographers.
We are doing a safety checklist with requirements that will be sent to the architects prior to any shoot.
— Ema Peter
Brad Feinknopf: We have an entire protocol that we have listed on our website and promoted to our clients via email. We feel we can move forward via social distancing, wearing masks, utilizing sterilized iPads for review to maintain that distancing, and use WiFi and Bluetooth devices to, again, maintain social distancing. They are possible but not with our forethought, and we need to embrace them in order to survive and move forward.
Neal Johnson: For architectural photographers, yes, I believe so. I mostly work solo and have little contact with humans face to face. A lot of emailing and so forth goes a long way without having to interact with one another. If I have to meet with an architect or builder, I follow our state’s guidelines and use PPE when necessary.
Alexander Severin: I am in a lucky position that I was extremely busy shooting at the beginning of the year. I have a few projects to keep me busy with post-production for the immediate future. I moved my entire setup home and have been sharing the dining table with my partner and our two cats (thankfully there are enough chairs for everyone). I am hoping that I’ll be able to get back to doing photo shoots soon. I believe that when the stay at home, directives are lifted, with extra planning and cooperation from all involved, we can conduct both exterior and interior photo shoots safely.
Ema Peter: We are doing a safety checklist with requirements that will be sent to the architects prior to any shoot. We will be doing all exterior projects that do not require going in the building as well as residential projects with the request that we have the checklist filled by the owners as well. We will be requesting the owners to not be on site while we photograph the house, and if we need them to model for shots, they will be there only for the duration of those shots. Also, we will require all surfaces to be disinfected, and we will not be styling or moving any items from the decor — this will have to be done by the architect or designer team as we cannot touch surfaces and the cameras after. Any interiors of offices, universities, and hospitals, we will now be refusing until there is a vaccine as we do not see how we can keep a safe distance.
Less and less human contact will be the norm now in architectural photography which is how I prefer to work.
— Neal Johnson
Adam Gibson: The new safety measures have created a situation where everyone is simply postponing any new work. I agree with the measures put in place but am concerned on how long it will be until we can begin to work again, within the new safety guidelines. I’ve basically stopped working completely, aside from a few small jobs I had on my list to do that didn’t require any other human interaction. I’ve now caught up on all my post-production, so until I shoot something new, I’m essentially out of work. Working remotely is only effective if you have any work to do. For me, I’ve taken to working on my website, personal projects, and spending more time with the kids.
Simone Bossi: I was traveling with a good rhythm across Switzerland, Italy, the UK, Luxembourg, and France just in the month before, and I have suddenly found myself (safely) stuck away. All the safety measures have caused me an extreme slowdown, from one day to the next, and it took me a while to absorb it. Some remote work is part of my ordinary workflow, and I am used to it, but again, they represent just a part of a rhythm that has a certain sequence to respect, again and again. Remote work is possible for a limited specific time only. For now, I have spent most of my time working on my archive without discontinuity. It has been a positive time for me understanding what I have done, what I want to do, and what I can consider as crucial turning points — a reasonable distance from your own work is always very constructive. […] Regarding social distancing, it’s a tricky question for me, because I usually enjoy silently working alone with the space only. However, I can imagine there will be more control and restrictions for travelers to deal with, but perhaps it can positively increase the perception of the work’s value and the effort behind it, consequently leading to a higher quality selection of the right photographer and the right project.
A vacant building on an empty street can make a beautiful photograph, but it might not be the idea that the architect had in mind for the project that he/she had worked on for years.
— Bahaa Ghoussainy
Bahaa Ghoussainy: For many photographers, social distancing and self-isolation are not entirely unfamiliar territory when it comes to being productive. A large part of the commercial architectural photographic process involves working from a desk; this involves back-and-forth communication, retouching and grading images, the final product is even likely to be delivered virtually. The new safety measures have not really affected those aspects of operation; however, most shoots have either been canceled or postponed until the situation cools down. International projects have especially been affected due to the newly implemented travel restrictions. I cannot speak for everyone, but I think one of the biggest challenges for architectural photographers today is the day of shooting, if the shoot is even possible: the photographer would most likely be working alone, location access can be tricky, and while many photographers tend to include people in their images, the site would probably be empty. With residential projects, homeowners may reasonably not be okay with the idea of letting someone into their house during these times, so it could be a bit tricky to not postpone shoots. Otherwise, precautionary measures need to be taken which would mean different things to different photographers depending on their ways of shooting.
Planning the future
What are some lessons learned from these new ways of operating?
Marc Goodwin: I think surely the lesson learned is that we were all on autopilot to some degree. For the past two years traveling, I have met with people around the world predicting a 2008 scenario for 2020 because of what they thought were signs in the building and banking sectors. But only the virologists knew this was going to happen sooner or later, and seemingly no one in power listened. Moving forward, that will all have to change and hopefully will mean interesting developments in remote learning and working that will benefit all of us together with a buttressed healthcare system in countries that have been subject to austerity.
Brad Feinknopf: You probably need to ask me in a few months. Right now, we are on the cusp of being able to once again work. We have everything in place from masks, to gloves, to disinfecting wipes to proceed, but we haven’t tested things in the field yet. I am certain there will be hiccups and challenges, but we are prepared. I love what I do, and I would rather proceed with challenges than to not proceed pursuing my passion. That feels like a death sentence.
I don’t know whether all of my shoots planned this year have just been postponed or are now completely washed away. I suppose my clients are in a similar situation, as are most photographers.
— Marc Goodwin
Neal Johnson: Being adaptive and progressive is always key in a successful operation. The current climate is no different. Less and less human contact will be the norm now in architectural photography which is how I prefer to work.
Alexander Severin: I am surprised that I am able to work from home effectively. I had tried to do so when I started my practice about 10 years ago, without much success. I had trouble keeping a sleep schedule and taking enough leisure time. This time around, I’ve found that living with someone is a huge help. We are able to plan to make meals, exercise, take TV breaks, do a bit of gardening on our balcony, etc. So while we’re both missing our outdoor time, we’ve been able to be both relatively upbeat and productive.
Ema Peter: I think the key lesson was to be more selective about what we shoot and to make sure that we do not put anyone at risk either. I think the key at the moment is to be able to protect our families and make sure no one gets sick.
Adam Gibson: Never take anything for granted and enjoy creating when you can. If anything, this time has made me take stock and to appreciate what I have even more than I do. I’ll be looking forward to applying this new mindset to projects as soon as I can!
Simone Bossi: I was once told by an architect I met during a recent reportage in the Netherlands that sometimes when things are uncertain and apparently there are no solutions yet, the bravest, wisest, and maybe the hardest right thing to do is doing nothing and simply leaving it as it is, for a while. I will wait and leave my camera on the table. I will patiently respect the silent distance between me and the moment when I will enjoy this special privileged craft again and even more.
Working remotely is only effective if you have any work to do. For me, I’ve taken to working on my website, personal projects, and spending more time with the kids.
— Adam Gibson
Bahaa Ghoussainy: The crisis is affecting practitioners working in a wide array of genres, obviously not limited to architecture and photography. We are all searching for the best ways to cope with the newly imposed regulations, and while it may seem as if some areas are more manageable than others, it can be a wise decision to embrace this disruption and test the malleability of our respective fields. Resuming operation while dealing with restrictions amidst a volatile situation is a creative challenge in itself. It proves that there is no one right way to do something and that some steps of the process are more essential than others. Working within structural limitations can highlight the fundamental areas of our practice, it can help realign our approach and rethink our means of operation. This is also a good time to focus on those personal projects we’ve been putting off. The stagnant economy signals a likely decline in commissions for many practitioners. While commercial architectural photography leaves little room for creativity outside the visual architectonic bubble, it can be very fulfilling to dive into some personal creative endeavors. Similar limitations apply when designing architectural projects — whether they have to do with financial restrictions or strict regulations and client requirements — working on speculative projects is always a good exercise as well as a rewarding creative release. We are all aware that we are entering a new landscape; this hard pause is perhaps something we all need, and while it can be tough for many, this preparatory stage is our chance to think creatively, restructure, regroup our thoughts, and boot-up for life after Coronavirus.
Are you an architectural photographer or working in a related industry? Let us know in the comments below how the safety measures in your particular region have affected your business and how you plan to cope with the new circumstances.