By Pygmalion Karatzas
New York based Andrew Prokos is a leading architectural and location photographer working in the USA today. He has established himself with the award winning photographic series ‘Gehry’s Children’ and ‘Niemeyer’s Brasilia’ featured here.
Q: Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Your background and how you came about to be involved with photography?
A: My degree is in Political Science, from the University of Florida. I didn’t start photographing until I was about 21 years old, when I purchased my first camera at the suggestion of a close friend of mine who is a painter in Brooklyn. I spent two years living in, and traveling through Europe, and that was a formative period for me conserning my photography. Ultimately I returned to New York just as the tech boom was reaching a crescendo in the mid to late 90’s and worked in advertising until 2003, when I quit to devote myself full time to photography. In essence, I am the classic self-taught photographer.
Q: Your main photographic work focus on the built environment (buildings, archistracts, cityscapes). Could you tell us why you gravitate towards these subjects and how your perspective has changed over the years of photographing?
A: My photography of architecture is an extension of my love of the urban environment in general. I was born in Chicago and moved to New York City at 20 to go to grad school and, as I mentioned, I lived in Europe for two years. I was always surrounded by great cities and great architecture, so it was a natural subject for me as a beginning photographer.
The second part of your question is more complex. When I was starting out pretty much everything I shot was interesting to me because it was a challenge. In time you have to find new sources of inspiration and motivation to shoot. That can mean reinterpreting what you have already shot, or finding new subjects entirely. That often means putting aside commercial considerations in order to shoot what you like, and not necessarily what is profitable.
Q: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and how you approach your projects?
A: With my work I am really portraying a distilled reality of places and things. My goal is not to create a new reality altogether, but rather to capture the essence of an existing one in a powerful way. This is accomplished mostly through composition and perspective, and also to a great extent by what I choose to include and leave out of the photograph.
I am motivated to photograph by beauty and a sense of awe. This is perhaps why I gravitated early on to cityscape, panoramic, and long-exposure work…because I want to convey this sense of being awed to the viewer. Capturing a high amount of detail in my photos is also an important part in conveying what I want to get across. Since the photos are often printed at very large sizes it is important to capture as much detail as possible. I approach the shoot from the perspective of what will make a good series. It can be a lot more work to plan out and often requires return visits to a location, but a coherent body of work does have much more of a chance of getting noticed than a single image, no matter how spectacular.
Q: Tell us a few words about your award winning photographic series ‘Gehry’s Children’ and ‘Niemeyer’s Brasilia’.
A: Well, they are quite different from each other… Niemeyer’s Brasilia focuses on the urban environment as well as Niemeyer’s architecture. I didn’t intend it to be an homage to Oscar Niemeyer, but as the series has grown in popularity I have become well versed in the language of Modernism and Brazilian Modernism in particular. The story of Brasilia is quite fascinating actually, and an important lesson for the world on urban planning and the power of architecture to transform people’s realities. I quite enjoy getting into the historical and sociopolitical details, and Brasilia certainly is the place for that. I really wasn’t anticipating the response that Niemeyer’s Brasilia has received. To date it has been published around the world in magazines and newspapers in seven or eight languages, including a full-page article in Correio Braziliense newspaper, which I was particularly honored to see since it is the home city. CUNY / Queens College here in NYC is incorporating the photos into their Year of Brazil program for 2014 as well.
Gehry’s Children is a lot simpler, it’s really a study in form, texture, and color. I wanted to break down the structure into its component parts and present them as viable works of art in themselves. Gehry’s work makes it very easy to create compelling photos because of the materiality involved. I tend to get lost in his work when I shoot it… you really have to seek out the “correct” shapes or the photos just don’t come across as being that interesting.
Q: What photographic gear do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process? Also could you tell us about your editing and post-processing workflow (which software you use and the role of this technical aspect in your work).
A: This has transitioned with time. I started with 35mm film gear and over time really strived for higher and higher quality so I migrated to medium format and 6x17cm panoramic film cameras. It was really a function of necessity since I sell a lot of large scale fine art prints to corporate clients, art galleries, and art consultants. The photos are often up to 8 or 9 feet wide, and up to 20 feet in some cases. So in terms of my fine art work, and cityscapes in particular, I needed the highest quality capture. Photo shoots for clients are another matter entirely. I have been shooting client work with Nikon digital cameras for years now… the D3x and now the D800e. I have also started to produce panoramas using multiple exposures from these cameras as the quality is astonishing and really does compare favorably with panoramic film cameras. Chrome film is still better at some things than digital… for example capturing changing conditions like sunsets or dusk, or moving objects during long exposures.
Q: Who are some of your favorite photographers and how has their work affected your own? Are there other influences to your artistic approach?
A: I have many favorites… it depends on the era and the genre. The classic black and white photographers were my first inspiration…Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertesz, Koudelka, Edward Weston. And of course contemporary photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, Andrew Moore, Edward Burtynsky, Graciela Iturbide, Frans Lanting. I see a lot of wonderful work out there from around the world when I am researching photo competitions too. It’s a time to stop and pay attention to the work of others.
Q: In my opinion there shouldn’t be an ‘either or’ argument concerning colour and black & white photography, as each one has it’s merits and we are blessed with wonderfull images from both “worlds”. Your thoughts on the subject?
A: I think that the either/or comes into play with some artists who are heavily invested in a style, and that is their signature and they don’t want to dilute the power of their work. That does have validity, however I personally find it very limiting. I tend to shoot more in color, but I will switch to black and white if I think the subject will be more compelling in black and white. I consider them separate bodies of work. These types of debates for me are just noise… if you like to shoot both and are good at it then do it. If you feel that focusing on one makes you a better photographer then by all means, forget the other.
Q: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there’s also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries?
A: To a certain extent it’s a necessity, but only at the higher levels of commercial work. The average architectural photographer, for example, is not called upon to produce art at each shoot… they need to capture a building in the best possible light for the client. This is where fine art photographers are at a disadvantage because they often have a hard time taking off the artist hat and putting on the commercial (client-pleaser) hat. Successful commercial photography is a partnership and requires input by the client and the flexibility on the part of the photographer. It’s teamwork. Fine art photography is the opposite; it’s about personal vision and the artist’s voice. Only at the highest levels of commercial work (in high-end ad campaigns for example), is the client looking for art. Those shoots are few and far between, so the photographer should learn to take pleasure capturing the more mundane things commercial shoots entail, even if it is only a means to be able to produce the work they love.
Q: You have a long list of clients in advertising, real estate, industry, government, and corporate. Could you share with us some key points about the business aspect of photography?
A: It’s important for newer photographers to understand that the business aspect of things is just as important as the creative aspect and often takes up much more of your time. Basic things like having your contracts in order, understanding copyright law, and how to manage client expectations. By the time a client calls you regarding a shoot they most likely have seen your work and it suits their needs, so it’s not really about proving that your work is good enough. Clients want to feel comfortable that they are making the right choice when they hire you, so your job is to instill confidence in them. A lot of business acumen also revolves around anticipating client needs and being patient enough to walk them through the process. It does happen that the client, or more often the art director or creative director from the ad agency, wants to go one direction and you want to go another. It’s important to make your point of view known because they are hiring you in part for your experience and guidance. I have been on location on shoots and had to come up with an entirely new approach on the spot because the one we had discussed wasn’t possible or just wasn’t working. You do have to know when to step in and take the lead and when to fall back and follow. One thing that I enjoy about shooting for clients is that you really become immersed in their world for that time period. You learn what is important to them and what they need to get across to the world through your photos. It’s a responsibility but it’s also fun.
Q: What are some lessons from your experience that could be useful to other photographers in relation to approaching the work itself and also about the fact that “taking the shot” is becoming a small part of the overall process?
A: I’m not so sure that taking the shot is that unimportant. Digital has made the process easier and more accessible yes, but technical skill is still an important component of the photographers work. Having said that, we do have to recognize that technological change is driving everything and has enabled the creation and dissemination of a lot more images than ever before. At the same time, work that used to be available has disappeared entirely or is on the way out… for example the collapse of printed media and the implosion of the stock photo industry, and the trend towards using CG renderings instead of commissioned photography. In this very challenging environment the professional’s role is changing fast. Telling a story with your work is becoming more important than ever, as is producing work that is unique and thought provoking. There is some room for optimism as the demand for images and the appreciation of photography is growing. New photographers also have many more places to show their work and get exposure than when I started.
Link to the above story in magazine format here