Jim Stephenson is a photographer and film-maker concerned with the documentation of architecture and the built environment. Trained as an architectural technologist, he worked in the industry for ten years before focusing on architectural photography full time. His background allows him to converse meaningfully with his clients, and confidently conveys this in his work. In the past few years, his approach has taken on a documentary-style edge as he studies and depicts how people interact with buildings and spaces.Working across the UK and around the world, Jim has had his images regularly featured in numerous print and web media, of projects by a wide range of architects, including BIG, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid Architects, Foster & Partners, MVRDV, Sou Fujimoto Architects, among others. His image archive is represented by View Pictures, and in 2018 he received the Blueprint Magazine Photography Awards in Architecture & Time, and was shortlisted at the Architizer A+Awards.
His personal passion for the medium is also evident with his initiatives as founder of the Miniclick Photography Talks, Design Brighton and the Threshold Architecture Hub, co-producer of the web video series Lightbulb, and with his collaboration with film-maker Edward Bishop, producing short films of architectural projects.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Stephenson 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 background and how did you start being involved with architectural photography?
Jim Stephenson: Thank you for inviting me! I’ve been documenting architecture as a job for about 7 or 8 years now. Although (of course), I have a strong interest in photography, it’s really just the tool that I use to explore and investigate the built environment – my interest in the subject matter is what allows me to dedicate so much of my time to it.
My Dad works in architecture and has always worked from home, so I probably learnt to clean a Rotring pen when I was in primary school! I started working with him at 16 and when I was 18 I moved to Brighton, UK to study Architectural Technology. During my course, I took a year out to work for an architecture practice in the USA and my boss there was a keen photographer. He taught me that if you can spend years designing every detail in a building, you should at least be able to take one good photo of it. There I was introduced to the work of people like Julius Shulman and Ezra Stoller, and in the town I was working in there was a Frank Lloyd Wright house – we all took the afternoon off one day to visit it and a colleague took some beautiful photos. It was here that these connections between drawing board (as it was then) and camera started to form.
When I came back to the UK, I graduated and worked in a few different practices but I was still taking photographs whenever I had the chance. It grew from there really. I’d become a bit frustrated with some aspects of working in practice, then the recession hit in 2008 and I took the (probably quite stupid) decision to pick that time to set up on my own, photographing buildings instead of designing them.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
JS: I consider my work to be more toward the documentary end of architectural photography, rather than the polished, product-like photography you often see. On the shoots I enjoy the most, I like to have people, activity and (some) of the mess of life in there. The building forms the backdrop to all the life that inhabits and interacts with it – at its most exciting it’s theatre, it’s a stage set.
On shoots, I work in an additive way. I set up a shot, framed around the architecture (which usually isn’t going to move), then I wait and wait for everything else to be in the right place – light, people, clouds, vehicles, etc. Sometimes I might just be waiting for a person in a red coat to walk past. Or a cyclist. There’s a lot of patience involved, but it pays off – much better to get one shot you’re really happy with rather than 50 average ones in the same time.
Because of my background in practice, I like being around architects and designers and ideally, I like to work closely with them on shoots. Not too closely (nothing worse than someone hovering over your shoulder), but it works well when my client and I understand each other’s creative process.
PK: Could you elaborate a bit on the documentary-style depicting people and their interaction with the built environment that your work is focusing on these past few years?
JS: I’m not evangelical about it, and there’s plenty of photographers who do beautiful, more sculptural work (I love Hélène Binet’s work, for instance) but for me, I spent so long designing to human scale, for use and inhabitation, that I want to try and show that in my photographs wherever possible. This is what really excites me as well – the way a completed building is used. Does it match the way the architect expected it would, is there a surprise, how do people react to it with their body language? I also like finding ways to show inhabitation without showing people – a little bit of unfinished washing up, or an apron hanging up in a kitchen. A little bit of mess, a little vignette of life, some humanity.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Architectural Review ran a supplement called Manplan. In it they commissioned documentary photographers and photojournalists like Tony Ray Jones to document the built environment in the UK. The resulting images are not always the most ‘traditional’ photographic representations of architecture, but they’re a really important historical document. I like this idea; that photography over time becomes a historical document. I try to imagine someone in 100 years looking at my photos and thinking to themselves how different it was then. Robin Wilson recently introduced me to the work of Eugene Atget and Christina Broom. I’d love people to look at my photos in 100 years in the same way I look at their photos of Paris and London now. In the same lecture (it was a great lecture), he also introduced me to Dell & Wainwright, in particular their photos of the London health centers in the 1930’s which have an almost absurd sense of surrealism in them, often as a result of the presence of life but the absence of the human figure. I love that.
I try to strike a balance between what my clients need from the images, and documenting what is there and how the building is used. Sometimes that balance can be easy to find, sometimes it’s a bit more work…
PK: What are some of the influences to your photographic work and in which ways have they affected your approach?
JS: I’m a nightmare to watch films with. I always want to pause each scene and look at the lighting, the composition, what’s in the frame and what’s left out, why is the protagonist on that side of the frame, why is the light coming from that direction, what happens when that person crosses the room. I’m sure I drive my wife crazy!
A lot of my influences come from cinema. One of my favorite things to read in a film review is “Every frame looked like a photograph / painting”. If I read that, then I’m into it. Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ is a really good example of that. I am completely fascinated by the rigor in almost every single frame Wes Anderson has ever shot and his cinematography is also quite architectural, which helps.
There are some photographers whose work has that cinematic feel to it. People like Alex Prager and Matt Henry. Maurice Broomfield’s images of British industry in the 40’s and 50’s. Oh, and Laurent Krontenal’s work ‘Souvenir d’un Futur’ looks like he’s made a beautiful film from any JG Ballard book. These cinematic influences aren’t necessarily explicitly apparent in my own work, but that sense of composition and the figure in the frame, as well as an idea of a progression from one image to the next (even if it’s a series of photos in a scrolling blog post) is very important to me.
Meredith Bowles, of Mole Architects, recently commented that a film I’d made with him and two other architects remind him of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’. I immediately picked a copy up and it really had a big effect on me. Those dark spots, and their power to add texture and richness to an image are really important (and had often been eradicated in all that bright, white architectural photography).
PK: The relationship between architect and photographer is at the heart of this type of photography. From your experience, what makes such a relationship successful on both sides of the equation?
JS: It mostly boils down to communication and trust. My job is usually to document the architects intent, realized in built form. I like to talk with them about their ideas as well as what worked and what didn’t work so that when I start photographing, I feel like I know something about the project and why it exists. From a very practical point of view, it means I know what to look for.
Once I’ve started photographing, the best shoots have an element of trust in them. Hopefully the architect will trust me and my creative process. There’s an element of direction that goes on from the client, and this can be good, but ideally a balance is struck so it doesn’t become too overbearing.
PK: What photographic gear and post-processing workflow do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process?
JS: I’m not so interested in gear, beyond it being a tool for documentation. I use a Nikon d850 for stills and video, Rode mics, Nikkor lenses (tilt shift and primes), Rhino sliders for video and I work with DJI drones as well. In post-processing, 95% of my work is done in Lightroom, occasionally jumping into Photoshop for more specific adjustments.
The post processing, and more specifically the edit (as in, choosing which images work to tell the story), are absolutely intrinsic to the creative process and I always do this myself with stills. For video, I work with an editor, Gabriel Gane, who has a talent for finding a way to tell a story with moving images and narration.
PK: In collaboration with film-maker Edward Bishop, you also produce short films of architectural projects in addition to your still images. Could you tell us more about this collaboration, and your thoughts on this medium’s contribution to the presentation of architecture?
JS: Edward’s background is in feature films, advertising and music videos so when we started working together about 4-5 years ago, we combined his skills and bank of technical knowledge with my architectural background. I think when we started, playing to our own skills, a lot of the time my role was more in art direction than anything else – picking which parts of the building to document, how to compose the shot, etc. These days it’s evened out to the point where we’re both able to work independently and maintain a visual continuity.
To be honest, the early films we made together came from a “Why not?” point of view. Our cameras we use for stills can shoot video as well, so why wouldn’t we? Quickly though, we started to use film as a medium in and off itself. All work of architecture has a story imbued in it somewhere and film is a spectacularly good way to tell stories. Being able to move the camera, even a small amount, and being able to have people move in and out of the frame can tell the story in a completely different, more immersive way. We can include interviews with the designers, drone footage and time-lapse. Still photography continues to be very important, but in the documentation of architecture and the built environment, video can be a massive tool for us.
Underpinning our film work is a rigor that demands every shot is a deliberate decision, as it would be in a photo. The framing, the pace and length, the composition and the presence (or absence) of life are all deliberate decisions and this flows into the editing process as well – what shots go where and for how long.
PK: You are also the founder of Miniclick Photography Talks, an organization curating talks, workshops, exhibitions and publications around still and moving images. Could you tell us about it and how photographers and the public can benefit from its events?
JS: We’ve hosted a free photography talk in Brighton every month since September 2010. The idea behind them is that we invite a different photographer to come and discuss their work each time, with a focus on stories and ideas rather than kit, and in that way, we hope to make them accessible to everyone, not just exclusively a photography crowd. We’ve had an incredibly diverse range of photographers from all over the world come and talk for us, from big names to up-and-coming people. These days we also host exhibitions and run workshops.
I hope people come away feeling inspired by the talks they’ve heard. For me (since I studied architecture at university) it has been my photography education. I’ve learnt, and continue to learn, so much from each and every talk we do – even from photographers whose work might not seem directly connected to mine.
Jim Stephenson Architectural Photography & Film website