Architect Marcela Spadaro from Argentina and photographer Freya Najade from Germany form the NAARO photography studio based in London. The practice is dedicated to capturing the unique qualities of contemporary architecture by combining their complementary expertise and establishing a creative dialogue with the architects they work with.
NAARO studio is dedicated to documenting contemporary architecture around the world. Based in London, they strive to create images that reflect the unique qualities of the projects they photograph. NAARO’s vision is the result of Freya Najade and Marcela Spadaro’s combined expertise, encompassing a wealth of practical experience drawn from their complementary backgrounds. Freya, born in Germany, is an award-winning photographer whose strength lies within the documentation of the social and built environment. Marcela, born in Argentina, is trained as an architect and has worked for over 10 years at the forefront of contemporary architecture at Zaha Hadid Architects. Their work has been shown in a number of publications including: Domus, Wallpaper, ICON Magazine, , among others. They also teach an intensive architectural photography course at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Ms. Freya Najade and Ms. Marcela Spadaro 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?
Freya Najade: You are very welcome and many thanks to you for your invitation and for your interest in our work. My background is in documentary photography, which I studied at London College of Communication, which I continue to practice today through my personal work.
Marcela Spadaro: Thanks again for inviting us to this discussion. My background is in Architecture and Art. I studied architecture in Argentina and fine art at Central Saint Martins in London and worked for 10 years as an architect at Zaha Hadid Architects before founding NAARO with Freya.
FN: The start of both Marcela’s and my involvement with architectural photography coincides with the beginning of NAARO and it happened rather organically. At the time I received a commission to document a building through the gaze of a documentary photographer and I decided to involve Marcela in the discussions of the project. She and I had been interested in each other’s work for a while and this seemed to be a great opportunity to do something together. We very much enjoyed that first project and decided to explore our collaboration further
PK: It is not often that we see photographer duos in this profession. How did you decide to collaborate and how does such a collaboration work in practice?
MS: The way in which we collaborate has really evolved over time. At the beginning, because of our different but complementary backgrounds, we mostly worked closely together on our assignments. Freya knew a lot about photography, equipment and how to tell stories through images, and I knew about Architecture, in practice and theory, as well as image making; and we were both very excited to combine our creative sensitivities to the documentation of the built environment. But as I said that changed over time, we have now learnt from each other and developed a photographic approach we both identify with. Because of this we now also photograph and post-produce projects separately and trust that we will both achieve a NAARO documentation.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
FN: The concept of ‘documenting a building’ is very important for us, that is, to tell the story of a building through a series of photographs. I think that ‘what story you are going to tell’ is what makes one documentation or photographer different from another. There are always aspects of these stories that are particular to the project we are documenting and in addition we would normally look at portraying the relationship between the building and the context, the building in use, and empty. In the last case, intending to capture what we call pure architectural elements, such as composition or materiality, and we are also always keen on achieving a good balance between overall shots and details. When focusing on details we would look for those moments or gestures that we feel contain a bit of the genetics of the design – a very traditional approach within photography, in fact.
PK: The relationship between architect/designer 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?
MS: I think that a mutual understanding of each other’s work is at the core of a successful relationship. Whenever we receive emails asking as ‘how much we charge’ we generally suggest our potential clients to have a meeting first. We think that a conversation between the architect and photographer is key. It allows the photographer to understand the ideas behind the projects but also the architect’s wishes and needs in relation to the photography. At the same time it gives us photographers the opportunity to suggest new and unexpected possibilities in terms of how a project can be conveyed visually. Furthermore, a long-standing relationship has the possibility to evolve, ultimately allowing for a more mature and hopefully successful collaboration based on a mutual understanding on each other’s potential.
PK: Who are some of the influences to your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
MS: At NAARO, Freya and I bring a lot of creative influences that come from outside architectural photography, despite the fact that today we look at and are inspired by a lot of architectural photographers. Freya’s influences include the photographers Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld, Taryn Simon, and Brian Ulrich; while mine include a series of architects and artists such as Zaha Hadid, Iris van Herpen, Tokujin Yoshioka, and Lucy Hardcastle. From the contemporary architectural photographers, we look a lot at Hélène Binet (we love the way in which she captures matter, form and light), Iwan Baan (whom we find at his best when capturing the experience of being at a building rather than the building itself), Fernando Guerra (in particular, his almost cinematic approach of portraying a building through a very extended series of images), and Hufton & Crow (whose images reveal a fantastic sense of composition and an exquisite treatment of materiality). All these characteristics that I mention in relation to these photographers have affected the way in which we work. From previous generations the works of Ezra Stoller, such as his documentation of TWA Terminal, and some works by Catherine Opie, such as her ‘Freeways’ series, have also inspired us.\
PK: What photographic gear and post-processing workflow do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process?
FN: Our photographic gear relates to a certain extent to our post-processing workflow and the way in which we enjoy moving around a building when working on a documentation. We like to feel agile while travelling and moving so we generally don’t carry lights or a lot of devices to control light, unless it is absolutely necessary. Therefore, like many contemporary photographers, our photographic practice consists a lot in ‘collecting data on site’, in particular different exposures and people, that we will then compose in post-production. In terms of cameras, we use full frame digital cameras, both Nikon and Canon (our latest acquisition being the Canon 5D Mark IV, which we have fallen in love with) and I would say that for an architectural shoot 90% of the time we have our digital cameras attached to tilt and shift lenses and a tripod. In addition to land photography we are also focused now on aerial photography, so our gear includes a drone. We find this piece of equipment absolutely fascinating, not only because it allows us to capture a side of buildings otherwise unseen, but also because it is influencing architecture by making architects think about the roof when designing their projects. Our post-production workflow takes place in Lightroom and Photoshop, the latter being the software where we carry out most of our post-processing work.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movements in architectural photography?
FN: This relates to something Marcela has mentioned before, we think that we are in a particular moment in which the conversation between architectural photographer and architect has become very relevant and I would say that the attention to this conversation reflects very much our approach to documenting buildings, rather than the pursuit of a particular style. We are interested in understanding the ideas, proposals and experiences of a project and, depending on what these are, we feel free to use different methods to convey them in the best possible way. For example, some projects may require more of a deadpan photography approach, with a slightly detached camera, while others may benefit from a camera that gets closer to the building’s user, where the building becomes a backdrop to human activity. Marcela’s training and professional experience as an architect has been very helpful when trying to understand the work and aspirations of the architects we work with.
PK: Alongside your commissioned assignments you also teach architectural photography courses at London College of Communication, University of the Arts. Could you tell us about that experience?
MS: Yes, this has been a fantastic experience for us so far. The course is an intensive three day training where we teach our students all the basics of what we do when practicing architectural photography professionally: from looking at the different approaches to the documentation of projects, showing our photography gear, explaining settings we use when photographing, going to site with them to document a project, and editing and re-touching a project. We also teach more business related aspects of our practice such as how we contact or are contacted by architects, and how we invoice a project. When planning the course we asked ourselves what we would have loved to have learnt from other architectural photographers when starting, what questions we had, and we made sure to cover these. The feedback has been really rewarding with some of our students going on to produce fantastic work and beginning to be competitive in the field.
PK: What are your thoughts about the shift from print to online media? How do you think has it has affected the way architectural photographers work and how do you see the field changing in the future?
MS: Freya in particular is very sorry about this shift, as she loves to hold books and look at images in print! I think that for architectural photography this shift has significantly affected the way in which architecture is consumed around the world and the relationship between architects and architectural photographers. Just a few years ago the visual spread of buildings was done through books, magazines and exhibitions or by physically visiting building sites: it was common for architects, students and artists to plan trips to visit architecture around the world. Today, while we continue to travel, and as you point out ‘to a less degree’, to consume printed images in books and magazines, the experience of getting to know new buildings has changed drastically. I recently gave a lecture on Architectural Photography at Architecture Fringe Glasgow where I showed a screenshot of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion by Francis Kéré, which opened on 20th June. The screenshot was from the Guardian online, from the same day in which the building opened. This image of the building, was available on the same day of the building’s opening to everyone with access to internet almost instantly, and as such became the image by which a large part of the world got to know the building right at the moment of its opening. In this context, the question for architects is: with what kind of image will my building make its first step into the world, and that is one of the reasons why architects are more and more interested in working closely with photographers.
FN: In terms of visions for the future, with the fast development of technology, this is very difficult to predict. The instantaneity with which images are spread around the world not only affects architectural photographers’ images, but everyone’s images! So today we see in the Internet countless images of buildings that are taken with a phone by visitors and uploaded onto social media, and these images have of course an impact on how a building is perceived around the world. I think that this phenomenon will certainly influence our practice in ways we are yet not able to tell. Another aspect related to technology that I think could affect the practice of architectural photography in the future is the current development of what is now being called as the portraiture of unbuilt architecture: renders. It is fascinating to see how closely reality can be emulated through these visualizations, almost to a point in which sometimes one has to look carefully to distinguish whether we are looking at a render or a photograph.