By Pygmalion Karatzas
Shannon McGrath has been photographing architecture and interior design works for 15 years. She is commissioned by pre-eminent architects and designers around Australia for her ability to get under the skin of a project, and not only capture its pure essence but also her client’s formal design intent. Passionate and professional, Shannon’s images are known for their beautiful portrayal of light and form, with a soft realism that celebrates the subject matter.
Shannon’s work appears regularly in publications as a regular contributor, and she travels extensively both nationally and overseas photographing buildings and interiors. She has been invited to photograph several published book projects and artistic series, and is also an award-winning photographer.
Always seeking to add new layers, Shannon is studying her Masters in Fine Arts at RMIT to complement her previous training. She is increasingly exhibiting her personal artistic work throughout galleries in Melbourne, drawing on her love for constructed spaces and continually exploring the interior/exterior nuances of life on a day-to-day level. In honing her art practice, Shannon continues to glimpse into spaces beyond and the intricacies of what lies beneath.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Ms. McGrath, 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 did you start being involved with photography and also architectural photography in particular?
Shannon McGrath: I originally started out doing fine art but architecture was my subject so it was a natural movement to venture into photography as this was a medium that allowed me access to architecture and the architectural world without becoming an interior designer or architect – I’m not sure I would have had the patience as a designer does to see through each project. Through photography I get to visit and experience many different types of projects by many different architects and interior designers.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
SMG: My photographic vision and approach is quite pure. I listen to the concept of the designer for each project and then when I am on location I assess the light and take it from there. Besides the design, it is the light and the feeling of the spatial relationships that guide me.
PK: What is your experience of the relationship between architects and the photographer?
SMG: Firstly, I will get a brief from the architect, it may be a pdf plan with some mark ups or through a detailed conversation with the designer. This will tell me of what times of the day I have to be there if shooting architecturally as in easterly light will mean that I am there for the morning and westerly be there for the afternoon or if a dusk twilight is required to be there when the sun is setting.
With interiors you don’t have to be governed so much by the times of the day as you can still get beautiful shots if there is no direct sun. This is determined per project. Usually if it’s an internal shoot the designer will be there for the whole shoot. They might have had it styled before I arrived or we work together on the styling aspect as we move through a project. In my view the more collaborative the shoot can be with the designer in a project the better the shots. I really enjoy this relationship with my clients.
PK: How has the transition from film to digital been for you and what are the pros and cons between the traditional and digital dark room? What are your thoughts about the current shift from print to online media? Has it affected the way photographers work and the dissemination of architecture?
SMG: I shot for many years on film and I was lucky to have been in a time in my career to have had the experience of using it. It taught me a lot of this, due to its expenses you really needed to learn how to assess a space and really choose your angles and the right lighting. A lot of photographers I believe who have not learnt this process in the digital age tend to get a bit happy snappy and shoot many, many images in the hope of getting a few good ones where as I believe it is better to shoot fewer and really asses each image stylistically and compositionally to make sure each image taken is usable.
But now shooting digitally I must say has freed me up to shoot faster and get more images out of a shoot. It has not become cheaper as you now have to have the right computers to handle the file sizes and archiving is an involved expensive process. It also means that you need to update cameras, as my purity for the perfect image is a must.
When I shoot architecture and a blue sky is needed and it happens to be an overcast day when it is booked in, I will reschedule the shoot rather than shooting it and dropping in a sky. I am adverse to having my images look fake – and it does no matter how good the re toucher is. Even tough I am shooting digital I prefer getting it right in the frame on location so that there is minimal retouching needed after the fact. I do allow minor re toucher due to the request of the client but its mainly things like ext signs, smoke alarms etc. Small incidentals that perhaps the designer had don’t intended for the original design, but the lighting will always be done on location.
I shoot mainly on my workhorse the Canon 1DsMk2 which is totally fine for most of the projects I shoot as the 22mg RAW is a big enough for their purposes and the range of shift lenses are good. But I also have a tech Camera, the Alpa with a couple of beautiful lenses with a P65 back. This camera comes out when I need a higher resolution and I only use this for my artwork as I love printing large and the level of detail is beautiful.
PK: Could you describe some key moments that made you feel you honed your craft and were milestones in your learning curve?
SMG: The most important time of learning my craft was not from study but when I was an assistant for two years. The learning curb was exponential. From there I have not stopped honing my craft. I believe as a perfectionist you are never really happy with the level of your photography so I am continually trying to improve and define my style.
I have found that working closely with different designers and their aesthetics I have learnt a lot about style and placement of objects and what works well with in a camera frame and not necessarily with what works well in the room itself.
So there is no defining moment it has just been a continual development in the final outcome.
The conditions that allow me to take my best work are a combination of how well the project outcome is, how on board in the collaborative effort of the designer and how beautiful the light is. With these aspects you can get some beautiful imagery.
PK: From your experience, which are some key points about the business aspects of photography?
SMG: I am the business, if I don’t shoot then I don’t earn so over the years I have learnt to be confident in my approach to the business side of things. This takes years of learning and as your confidence grows as a photographer so does the confidence in your value grow.
It is really important that you value yourself, believe in your product and what you can provide as a service. You need to become efficient in your timings and understand the requirements of the projects so you can quote accordingly. You need to be able to cover all the extra bits that are not about your time on the shoot as in equipment, car, insurance, office/studio space, employment of assistants and if need be producers and retouchers. At the end of the day the business needs to be profitable, it cannot be sustained for the love of it.
I have found that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, this is where I get my work from. It has been from many years of saying yes to all projects to build my reputation. I have found that any cold calling or direct advertising has not resulted in work. It’s more about being available, being published and producing excellent work supplying a good end product efficiently, and from that the business built. Its not an easy road, you need to be super keen and not get despondent when the work is not there as this will undo you, you need to be strong in your vision. This is the best advice I can give to anyone that wants to make a career of becoming a commercial photographer.
PK: As photographers we spend time noticing the interaction between architecture and people, which is also at the heart of architects’ designs albeit varied. Could you share with us some of your observations about this interaction?
SMG: It is really important to know and understand the architect’s vision; you are there to document their work so that they can then use them for publication, competition entries and general promotion of their work. You need to understand this to give them what they need. That is also why I enjoy the architect being on the shoot for as we get the shots they need I will also see aspects that they might not have seen and that I know will work in the camera. Really at the end of the day you have to provide them for their needs that works well in the image. It is from my skills and understanding of composition and light that I can then translate this into the image and produce an image that is occasionally better than the reality. This is my approach.
PK: As many photographers have pointed out, the photographic act, beyond its utilitarian aspect, is also a transformative experience in the sense that our awareness of the environment – both natural and man made – becomes more astute. How has this awareness changed/develop for you over the years?
SMG: Over the years my visual sensory has increasingly developed. I am constantly looking at my environment as an image – I find myself all the time catching little glimmers of light, the way it might be playing against built wall, the way it casts a shadow, the way it might be backlighting a leaf on a tree, the way it comes through a patterned curtain and what movements that creates on a internal wall or surface. This is what I’m seeing constantly. I look at objects emotionally through light and graphically through structure; It has helped define my way of seeing.
PK: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there are also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries? How would you define fine art photography?
SMG: For most of my career as a photographer I have practiced commercially but I have found that really as an artist at heart that this has not been enough for me. Although I love my commercial work and I especially love the relationships I have with my clients, I have found that I am really a documenter of their work, of their creative vision. As a creative and photography I happened to have chosen as my medium I have increasingly needed to bring it back to a creative process that feeds my soul, hence the growing investment of time into my art work. As I am currently doing my Masters of Fine Art at RMIT I am now treating the artistic side more seriously and because I now have this creative space for personal expression I have been able to sustain my interest in the commercial work. As architecture and my interest in the bodily and emotional relationship with space is my primary draw card I am getting the best of both worlds. To work commercially in this area, a space where I can explore and investigate my interests. They go hand in hand, one is just as important as the other, they feed off each other.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movements in architectural photography?
SMG: I have always had a personal style that I have honed and continue to finesse over the years which I mainly stick to as this is what feels right to me not according to some trend. Although I will allow my work to be directed by the needs of the client to how they envisage their work.
The main trends I have noticed is whether to strip a space and have a minimal approach or allow the life and clutter of everyday life. Also the trends of with and without people, again depending on the space and it main intentions of a space.
PK: You are working on a book about the ‘Next Wave’ of Australian architects around the country to be published by Thames and Hudson. Could you share with us some of your experiences and impressions from this project?
SMG: This book was shot and published possibly 10 years ago now. It was at a time where my career was just starting out so it was an amazing opportunity to be approached by Davina Jackson and Thames and Hudson. What it gave me was a connection into the wider Australian architectural niche where as previously I was mainly focused in Melbourne. It opened me up to a larger client base and since then my client base has grown throughout the whole of Australia. I also got to go to some amazing remote locations in outback Western Australia shooting architecture for Aboriginal communities, an experience I would never have had if not for this book.
PK: Alongside your commissioned work, you also photograph personal projects. Could you tell us a few words about them?
SMG: My personal work is still directly related to architecture and space. I’m investigating the relationship between outer external surface as the protective barrier to the internal emotional vulnerable space that we blur and distort and hold secretive.