By Pygmalion Karatzas
Rasmus Hjortshøj is a trained architect and photographer specialising in architectural and landscape photography. Based in Copenhagen, he has worked in architectural offices like 3XN, SLETH and COBE and eventually opened his own practice – COAST – combining architectural design, planning, research and the visual portrayal of the built environment. Recent photographic works include West 57 in New York, Grove in Miami, and Navy Yards in Philadelphia by Bjarke Ingels Group, Ragnarock museum, Nørreport Station Area, and Smørblomsten kindergarten by COBE Architects, TAMA library by Toyo Ito, New Museum and Kanazawa 21st Century museum by SANAA, among others.
His Ph.D. research focuses on how cityscapes and coastlines influence each other and together redefine building typologies. His desaturated approach to iconography brings out a timeless feeling and presence to both man-made and natural subjects, while the detached perspective echoes the ‘New Topographics’ objectivity towards the man-altered landscape.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us a bit about your background? and how you got involved with architectural photography?
Rasmus Hjortshøj: My pleasure – and thank you for having me! – I’ve been looking forward to this talk. As a super brief background story, I can say I come from the north of Denmark from a little seaside fishing village called Skagen. I studied architecture in Aarhus School of Architecture before moving to Copenhagen, where I have been working as a design architect in buildings and urban planning for the past 8 years. At 3XN then SLETH and finally COBE Architects before I decided to fully commit to my own company COAST. Right now I am conducting a PHD on transformations and aesthetics in the in coastal territories at the Aarhus School of Architecture, which I’m super excited about.
PK: How did you start being involved with architectural photography?
RH: I got involved with photography around 5 years ago, or such, right after I started working at COBE architects. It came about through a mixture of me wanting to express myself in other ways than through the mediums I was already working in – drawing, mapping, renders and collages and of COBE providing me the freedom to do so. I had for a long time been interested in the representation of architecture and not only the actualization of it, so wanted to express the discussions we as designers always were having about concepts and narratives by putting it into effect though already existing works. As part of this process I was also becoming increasingly involved with not just the building designs, but also with the context and the effect the buildings had on their surroundings. Prior to this I had taken some time for myself after I left my first job to go sailing for a while, where I not only had time to think about the things I dreamt about doing through my career, besides designing buildings, but it also provided a quite exact 1:1 view of how the coastal towns we inhabit are creating such a strain on our surroundings – especially on the oceans. So to answer your question I would say that it came through many factors, one being just a sense of exploration/curiosity, that slowly led me into the direction I am taking now: documenting and photographing the built environment, researching on a PHD on the entanglement of society and nature in the coastal zone, and holding on to the profession that is still the basis for all my work by still being engaged in designing architecture and planning projects.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
RH: I can try to explain where I see myself right now, but it’s really an ongoing process. But in terms of architectural photography a very distinct approach has always been that I wanted my images to be sort of an homage to all the extremely talented people that have invested their time, energy and days and nights into drawing the buildings I am now documenting – their rigorous work on for instance creating a certain detail or making all the ends meet in a beautiful elevation. I wanted to let them know that: ‘Hey – your work didn’t go unnoticed! This is how I experienced it.’
In terms of vision or style I like a calm image accentuating geometry and composition and to capture how the most arbitrary angle can make a building stand out in a way, that you perhaps don’t notice by just walking by. From the very get-go I have been interested in what I guess you can call a ‘desaturated aesthetic’. By applying a tight framing and only render what is necessary to unfold a certain narrative I think it is possible to uncover or highlight elements that sometimes gets diminished by the oversaturated. When successful I think this approach can promote a certain mood or help convey an underlying atmosphere that is not only present at a certain moment in time, but can make the situation more or less timeless.
PK: Who are some of your influences and in which ways have they affected your work?
RH: One inspiration is the extensive and intensely beautiful archival of industrial buildings documented so truthfully by Bernd and Hilla Becher – this is up at the very top of ‘sources of inspiration’, as the case is with so many other architectural photographers I’m sure – but one of the reasons I fell so in love with their work and expression had to do with where I was in my life and career at this point, where I increasingly started to enjoy the simplicity and rationality of architecture that, so to say, designed itself. Where the ego of the architect stepped back just to produce the right design on the premises of the cityscape. I felt that the Bechers had the same notion of artistic expression when it came to photography – to step back and to let the focus be on the subject rather than on the artist. To try to objectively convey how the world and it’s objects have just evolved in their own right. In doing so, you of course then start to introduce the discussion of subjectivity vs. objectivity – how a representation never is objective but always is part of a distinct rationality and a will of expression. It nonetheless has a quality of honesty, humbleness, and a ‘matter of fact’ approach that is very appealing to me and that at this point of time had a big influence in my work.
Another big influence I must mention is Andreas Gursky because he is one of my earliest inspirations in photography for his much more subjective approach – like he is searching for the ‘sublime’ rather than only ‘the matter of fact’. The way he is able so create such a distinct atmosphere around a piece of concrete infrastructure in a somewhat man-made yet natural setting is amazing even though You are never quite sure about what is real and what is staged or manipulated. There is a duality in this that I am not always convinced about, but the shear beauty of his images is an aspiration and goes very well together with my own tasty in art and photography. It doesn’t have to be derived of narrative and symbolism but should also not be overly stated – as long as there is a clear aesthetic choice and a high level of ambition and coherence the quality usually stands out. Anyway, these influences go along with many other artists but these are the ones who have lend me the most direct influences to my current work.
PK: You have also mentioned a strong influence between your photographic perspective and cinematography. Could you tell us about that?
RH: Yes. The imagery of movies are still by far my main source of inspiration. I could name so many directors/cinematographers like Chivo, Roger Deakins, Robert Elswit (with PT Anderson), and Robert Yeoman (with Wes Anderson). But when discussing atmosphere and aesthetics and how much you are able to convey in a single shot – without even moving the camera – the opening scene of Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’ (filmed by Harris Savides) is one of my favorites. In 2 min 25 seconds Coppola is able to set the mood for the rest of the entire movie by filming a car going in circles in one continuous static shot from a tripod. It’s not just any car, It’s a high performance Ferrari, driving on a race track in the desert outside LA by a famous Hollywood actor. In certain movies this would be the climax of a story to highlight how the main character ‘made it’. In ‘Somewhere’, however, Coppola unfolds a certain atmosphere in an undramatic shot of the desert, with part of an oval race track in the foreground (cropped) and the monotonous sound of an engine as the Ferrari is going around and around and around. Until it finally stops, the main character is introduced looking largely unaffected. 2 minutes and 25 seconds to deflate the Hollywood dream, but doing so in the simplest of shots, where instead of highlighting the thrill of the ride, she highlights the uniformity and the desolation of the desert. Like the quote from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’: ‘In the desert there is nothing – and no man needs nothing’.
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?
RH: It’s about trust and about putting yourself into the place of the other. Knowing what you need to deliver and in return have the freedom to deliver what your interpretation of the subject is. I think the reason why I have such a strong relationship with many of my clients is that I understand what they were trying to do or say, because I have been in the same situation or discussions myself. And they can tell that, so they trust me as well. A specific example is with the book and exhibition project Our Urban Living Room by COBE Architects. A process where the architect and the photographer already knew each other so well, that there was a trust established already. COBE trusted me to capture the images they needed and I trusted them to be open to alternative angles and narratives. We very much pushed each other back and forth so the whole process was very intuitive and creatively free. And I think we ended up with a great format and narrative of the studio’s extensive and impressive portfolio from Copenhagen.
PK: What photographic gear do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process?
RH: I use a Canon 5DS R setup because of the great quality I feel I can get out of a very compact and versatile package. I have been scouting the market so much for the perfect gear for me, but it’s just not there yet. Canon and their tilt shift lenses that I am using now is yielding impressive quality and I love how I can just throw it in a bag and head out into any condition – natural or urban.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movements in architectural photography?
RH: My approach has always come through architecture and urbanism. I like taking a step back and unfold the broader setting in a light that doesn’t take away focus from the object and to connect the situations, buildings or man-made territories that I am interested in. A trend more belonging to urbanism theory, where natural and man-made territories are entangled and where the borders between what is natural and what is urban becomes blurred and undefined – that there is no theoretical difference between photographing a man-made cityscape or a man-made landscape – they are both constructed worlds comprised of geometric patterns, but claiming different atmospheres. Hence the reason I insist on keeping tonality passive and geometry active in the images and to frame it tightly whether it’s a cliff side in Iceland or a building in Miami. This obviously does not correspond to every assignment I do and every picture I take, but as an overall theme or narrative this has become a very conscious approach in my work.
PK: Your studio combines architectural practice and research with the visual portrayal of the built environment and ephemeral coastal territories. How do these two parallel practices inform, influence and collaborate with each other?
RH: Photography started for me as a personal form of expression of just the buildings I liked. The fact that this expression would evolve to where it is today and be so entangled in my current practice and constantly being informed by where that practice is taking me, is a really great experience. My fascination with building design refers to my interest in cityscapes, which in turn refers to how these cities are influencing the coastlines, thus influencing the climate and in return starts influencing how we re-define the cities and their building typologies. It becomes a never-ending circle of interesting subject entangled in each other requiring a specific narrative to the conveyed – as photographs, maps, articles, moving images or a mixture of them all. And this is exactly what I am working with right now in my PhD.
PK: Some photographers work both on assignments and on personal projects, which adds an artistic aspect to architectural photography and a freedom to expand the subject matter beyond work that functions only for specific clients. What are your thoughts about the value of personal projects for the photographers and for the cultural role of architectural photography in general?
RH: For me there has never been a real gap between the two approaches – one is transgeressing into the other. Like I mentioned earlier, my work started as purely personal, so I think this switch between private and commissioned work is paramount. My best example is when I was in Japan a while ago to photograph the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa by SANAA – purely for myself because it’s one of my favorite projects. Four of these images ended up at the MoMA NYC as part of their exhibition ‘A Japanese Constellation’. So yes, remember go for the personal stuff – always!
PK: How do you see the architectural photography industry changing in the future with the shift from print to web media?
RH: I think it is super complex because there are so many worrying facts to consider about us transitioning from the physical world to the virtual world – and yet it is completely natural. The internet of things freaks me out but at the same time I know I certainly will be part of it – that I already am. But I recently read an article stating that people might perceive the societal transition we are witnessing today, in which social media and global connectedness are having a huge impact on the way we in the future will perceive social relation and family ties, as something dangerous. How the individual strings of the social web tying us together as families and groups of individuals are thinning and being diminished. But that in actuality they are just altering into something different while multiplying in numbers. We don’t necessarily loose social relations, we merely are adapting them to present times. I see this being related to the same digital transitions we are seeing with physical objects, like you are referring to. Obviously we are spending much more time online than ever before so we expect our content to be accessible and digital – which also increases the exposure young artist are able to get. But I think there is a clear trend of retaining the physicality, the texture and the touch of certain objects and media that we are engaging with. That people are very aware of the need we have for physical encounters. Therefore, I think there will always be a place for the physical photographic print because it is so obvious that the experience of the interaction with the physical photograph is much more intense than when you interact with it digitally. The number of strings diminishes but the strings instead gets thickened.
Rasmus Hjortshøj website:http://www.coastarc.com
on instagram: @coast_studio