Joana França is an architectural and cityscape photographer. She graduated as an Architect and Urbanist at the University of Brasília in 2003 and studied photography at the International Center of Photography – IPC – in New York.
She works with architects and publishers documenting current Brazilian architectural production and its modern heritage. She has also photographed for the Guide of Works by Oscar Niemeyer – Brasilia 50 years (2010), and the Architectural Guide of Brasília for the International DOCOMOMO Seminar in Brasília (2011). She also collaborated with the Architectural Guide Brazil (Dom Publishers, 2013). With her personal work she has shown her images at the solo exhibitions ’50 Years Exhibit’, (Cornell University, 2010), and ‘L’Architecture de Brasilia et Oscar Niemeyer’, (Maison du Brésil, Paris, 2017).
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mrs. França thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us about your backgrounds and how did you start being involved with architectural photography?
Joana França: First of all, thank you for the invitation. I come from a family of architects. My father and mother, and later on, my brother are architects. Also, we live in an iconic modernist planned city, Brasília, home to many of Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings. So, architecture has always been in my surroundings, from my home to the streets. My father taught me how to photograph when I was about 15, and since then my camera has always turned to buildings and urban details. My gaze kept this way all throughout college. In 2003 I graduated as an architect from the University of Brasília. For some time, I knew I didn’t want to be really involved in designing architectural projects, so I started learning more about graphic design and photography. I spent some years doing a bit of it all, but not properly dedicated to anything in particular. And then finally in 2011, I shifted to become a full time photographer, and I’ve been having the best time, since then.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
JF: I see architectural photography both as a technical way of representing a building, the most faithful way, but also an interpretation that each person photographing will make of it. There are no two pictures alike. To me, it is most important to portray the mood and the way the light occupies the space.
And when I’m photographing cities I try to bring as much of the spirit of that community into it. Not trying to hide the presence of humans but, instead, bringing people and their trails to the front stage and let architecture be a refined background to the action. I consider that mix of humanity and construction to be very difficult to master, and it’s a constant effort of mine. I also do a lot of work photographing big art exhibitions both inside museums and out on the streets. It’s really refreshing to get in touch with the artists and to see and register how people react to their work. I see my camera and my job as a key to enter so many grand experiences, like photographing in the Amazon Forest and Ai Weiwei’s new project being developed in Bahia or shoot in the empty Maracanã stadium and then during the final match of the Brazilian World Cup there. And, on the way, I get the chance to meet amazing people.
PK: From your experience what makes the relationship between architects and photographers a successful one?
JF: From the start I consider myself to have been very lucky, for my first big client was Paulo Zimbres, a very respected local architect. I’ve put together a portfolio of my work and went to meet him. From that meeting I went to shoot four of his large scale works to be featured in his special room at the 2005 International Architecture Biennial of São Paulo. My relationship with architects is one of exchanging experiences and references. I find most architects I work with to be as passionate about their work as I’m about mine, and that adds up to great images in the end. During most of the shoots, the architects get to be on-site with me, and I feel like it makes a difference in knowing the project in details. The photoshoot is the last step in a long process of creation and materialization of a project. I have to say I’m very thankful to every architect that trusted me to represent it and show it to the world.
PK: Which are some of the influences to your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
JF: I first came to know about architectural photography when I was in college and German photographer Michael Wesely was in Brasília for a personal project. I took his workshop photographing the buildings around campus, and that was a big realization moment for me. It confronted me with a whole career I didn’t know existed, which was one I really related to. After I graduated, I traveled to São Paulo to take Nelson Kon’s course for architectural photography. He was super welcoming and, besides the classes, he took me along to some of his commissioned shoots. That was a one-month period of most learning in my career. And in 2010 I had the chance to meet Dutch photographer Iwan Baan in Brasília while he was shooting for his book. That was also a life-changing experience to accompany him for a week and watch closely how he brings street photography to present the city and its architecture. It was also the first time I took some aerial shots of Brasília, which changed my view and goals in photography. To this day I think Iwan has the career in architectural photography I admire the most. Nowadays, with Instagram, we are lucky to get the chance to exchange a lot of experience with other colleagues. Some of them are André Scarpa, Rafaela Netto, Ana Mello, Manuel Sá, Pedro Mascaro, Pedro Vannucchi, Maíra Acayaba, Marcelo Donadussi, and so many others.
PK: Some of your projects are self-initiated while others are commissioned assignments. Can you give us some examples from each type and highlight some of their differences and similarities?
JF: I feel like I have a personal project, very loosely being developed, that is portraying Brasília. Its people, its architecture, its surroundings and its changes through time. Hopefully someday, with the help of a curator, it will add up to a relevant cataloging of this particular space and time. Other than that, while I’m out shooting for a client, I might turn the camera the other way (or the drone) and capture images for myself. I can’t call that a project, for the lack of format of it, but many times they end up as fine art prints. On the other hand, while doing commissioned work such as photographing an entire book or architectural guide, I feel like I can also deliver a very authorial work and that sort of fulfills me for the need of a personal project. The difference being I didn’t initiate or pick the theme for it, but the personal and time involvement always ends up being the same.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal style/approach in relation to the broader currents in architectural photography?
JF: I feel that when working on commissioned assignments, architectural photography should show a faithful portrait of its subject, including all equipment and techniques necessary to it. But it also shows some of the personality of the person behind the camera, in the way you show details and the way you chose to post-process. I try to do most of my work on-site and spend the least time on the computer in retouch. For that you will need good equipment, like tilt-shift lenses, and a lot of work cleaning and moving stuff around, in interior shots, and a lot of waiting, for clouds, cars, people to move, for exterior shots. What cameras still cannot deal with very well is the difference between interior and exterior luminosity, and that’s what I spend most of the post-processing hours on trying to make it look more like what the human eye captures. I see a current in architectural photography that takes it further and brings this contrast too low, almost making it look like a render. I prefer a more naturalistic approach to it.
PK: What photographic gear and post-processing workflow do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process?
JF: I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III and to most of my jobs I take a 24mm tilt-shift (mostly for interiors), a 17mm tilt-shift (mostly for exteriors) and a 24-70mm (mostly for details). By far the lens I use the most is the 24mm tilt-shift. And for drone shots, I use a Mavic Pro 2. I’ve worked for some years, at the beginning of my career, without tilt-shift lenses. That is something you can do while you don’t have the money to invest in it. But it’s definitely time-saving and quality-changing equipment, worth investing in if you want to go next level. I do most of my retouching in Adobe Lightroom, and when more heavy editing is needed, I use Photoshop. Shooting-day and post-processing are very connected and for that reason, I do most of my own computer work. Even though I’m now working with an assistant (sometimes on-site but mostly on post), I always do the final retouches before sending the final files to the client.
PK: What are your thoughts about the shift from print to online media? How has it affected the way architectural photographers work and how do you see the field changing in the future?
JF: Hopefully books will always be around since it can be a denser compilation on a specific subject, backed up by theoretical essays. For magazines, I feel the times ask for reinvention. I’m not sure how it will go, since there is so much information available everywhere and, not only journalists and architects but anyone can be an influencer and edit and share this information. As an architectural photographer, and with the reach of Instagram and other social networks as tools, I realize I have some power and responsibility for it, and I make the effort to bring quality information to people who chose to follow what I share. And for the architects that care to invest in representation, it can be an opportunity to show good material in their social media and have a global reach. It was a shame only seeing architecture from big cities published on paper. In Brazil, it was a very narrow way to portray the richness of what the entire country is producing. Lately, it makes me very happy to see a broader selection of regions and cultures represented in websites and awards, even international ones.
PK: How do you approach a project from the communication with the client, to the on-site photoshoot, to the editing of the final selection of images? Tell us a bit more about your process in the various stages of architectural photography.
JF: Usually the possible client approaches me from email, Instagram or WhatsApp. I send them a business proposal and we set a date, according to our availability and weather forecast. I usually don’t visit the site beforehand. I like to work with the surprise factor that comes from discovering the space. What I do for preparation is understanding where the sun rises and sets, so I know where I’ll begin and how the day will end, beforehand. The day of the shoot starts at sunrise and ends with sunset. For larger spaces and more difficult weather it might take longer, like for the upcoming book on the Portuguese Embassy in Brasília I just shot, that took 3 days. In any case, I take as many pictures as I see fit and the next few days, I send the client a selection of low-resolution jpeg files with my watermark and no retouching. The client picks their favorites. I usually charge by the number of final pictures delivered.
Joana França’s website: https://www.joanafranca.com