Architecture, apart from providing a basic human need for shelter, is also meant to be seen, felt and experienced. Spaces evoke feelings and influence people's behavior. We mostly come to know of notable buildings from pictures and can decide, with one glance, if it is extraordinary or not. The credit goes most importantly to the designer. However, for it to be captured in a way that is remembered, we need eyes that see light, volume, movement and patterns. This is where the contributions of an architectural photographer come into play.
In this post, we dive into what it means to be an architectural photographer. Gerry O'Leary is an accomplished photographer with over 25 years of experience. We go from how he became a photographer to what makes a good photographer and everything in between. Enjoy!
How long have you been an architectural photographer and how many of those years have been in the UAE?
I’ve been an architectural photographer for 27 years, having had a career change at the age of 30. (That makes me 57 – sounds old when I write it, but I’d rather say experienced, ha, ha.) For about half of my professional career I’ve been based in my home city of Dublin and working throughout Ireland. Fortunately, my work has also allowed me to travel extensively, as I’ve been to 67 countries across five continents.
Thankfully I climbed the ladder of success over the years and was acknowledged as the foremost architectural photographer in Europe, having accumulated numerous international awards and accreditations, mostly in Ireland UK and Europe.
I first visited the UAE in April 2007. I witnessed the mega building-boom and the potential for me as an established architectural photographer. I was immediately smitten and opened a second office in Dubai. This meant splitting my working schedule between Dubai and Dublin shuttling the 8-hr intercity flight twice per month.
Then came the 2008/09 crash, which as everybody knows, brought all matters relating to architecture to a grinding halt. Ireland was among the worst affected countries in the world so the decision to close one office (the Dublin one) was made easy for me. Despite this difficult global recession, I managed quite well and continued to grow my business in the Middle Eastern Region and beyond.
How did you start your journey as an architectural photographer?
I became interested in photography when I was very young, probably around eight years of age, when I got my hands on my mother’s ‘Box Brownie’. This Kodak (branded) camera was the original of the film camera species, with (6cm x 6cm square format) roll-film and just 12 frames per roll. In our case the camera was such a prized possession that one roll of film lasted a whole year and was only used on special occasions. Not bad when you consider we had a very large family of twelve siblings, two parents and a grandparent in the one house. In fact, it was very rear indeed that a household had a camera at all, unlike today when almost every person on planet earth has at least one camera in the form of a mobile phone.
My interest in photography never weaned. I progressed to owning my very my own camera at the age of 12 and my first DSL camera at 19. However, my tertiary education was in surveying and work thereafter followed with a career in construction management, based in London. The third-level study of photography was not an option, as my parents did not deem photography a ‘real job’. In any case no courses existed for photography in Ireland at that time.
It was not until the age of 30 that I surrendered my ‘day job’ in favour of a new career as a professional photographer. This news was a devastating disappointment to my family.
To begin with I was ‘all things to all people’ when it came to photography, I shot weddings, portraits, PR, Industrial, commercial and architecture.
I was a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. I became a dedicated ‘student of light’ as I devoured books and magazines about photography. I was hungry for knowledge and inspired about creativity. I built a darkroom and dedicated my life to the making images.
It soon became evident that I had ‘an eye’ for architecture as more assignments of this genre became my staple discipline. I guess I had a good understanding of the built environment as I spent almost a decade in the construction arena. After my first three years as a general photographer, It was time to specialise and rebrand myself as an architectural photographer. This was a strategically positive move and I never looked back.
I began to win national awards in my country, then International in the UK and onwards to the bigger stage, ‘Best in Europe’. I was awarded three different Fellowships and became a European Master of Architectural Photography. I was getting international recognition and press coverage in Ireland, UK, Europe and the USA.
What are your favourite UAE buildings that you've photographed?
The UAE is a Mecca for an architectural photographer such are the array of stunningly exciting buildings. Among my favourites that I have already photographer are: Burj Al Arab, Emirates Towers, Emirates NBD Bank, Dubai Airport T3, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Yas Hotel.
Who are your main clients?
My favourite clients are architects with whom I have a telepathic understanding. Once we have an initial briefing, they just tell me to ‘go and interpret their building’ – I love that level of trust and understanding – it is usually an open brief.
I also love shooting hotels. This has become my core business. Hoteliers need a full suite of images to promote properties that comes to the marketplace. They know the value of great imagery, and they understand that an investment in premium photography will pay dividends and yield a return in investment. I have a plethora of other clients also, such as commercial companies, retailers, restauranteurs, building material suppliers and so on.
What are the advantages of hiring an architectural photographer for projects?
Experience teaches us that we need to hire professionals if we want to get a professional job done, this applies to all walks of life. Medical, Dental, Accounting, Teaching, Mechanical, Electrical, Building, Architectural Design, and so on. People who short-circuit this way of thinking are behind the curve of progression. All successful professionals and leaders surround themselves with the best talent available to them. Architectural photography is no different. All the best architectural practices hire architectural photographers, it helps them win awards, win new projects, and get valuable media exposure. It also helps document their completed projects for their own websites, and project case-studies etc.
What role does photography play in the documentation process and how does a practice benefit from having good photographs?
In my 27 years as a professional architectural photographer, I have come to learn the value progressive practices place on professional architectural photography. Observe the best-known global practices and see what they do? They make a case study of every completed project by category. For example, Medical: They will have a library of images of all the medical facilities they have completed. When they receive an enquiry for a new hospital, they will then compile a presentation with all their relevant images and information. They may even have project sheets for every project with all the pertinent information, such as project value, size in square meters, year of completion, along with 2 to 3 key images. They perform like professionals. They will make the ill-papered practices look like amateurs. Pitched against each other, who is likely to win the next medical facility assignment?
Where do you find your photographs being used the most? Is it social media, print, online marketing through websites etc.?
I guess image usage varies from practice to practice. Images are widely utilised in websites, social media sites, digital presentations, project sheets, magazine articles, press releases and occasionally books. Leading practices utilise every media channel available and frequently have a PR & Marketing department.
With the onset of social media, people have become more image obsessed. Has this led to an increase in interest in getting buildings professionally photographed?
I agree that the world has become image obsessed with the onset of the digital revolution as everyone has a (phone) camera at their fingertips and some regard themselves as amazing photographers.
There is also the fact that digital cameras have become relatively cheap and more affordable, with some practices ‘investing’ in a digital camera for the ‘keen amateur’ within the practice. All this access has led to the fall-off in the demand for the professional architectural photographer’ to the detriment of the architectural industry as a whole. However, the cutting-edge practices understand the value of hiring the ‘PRO’ and they know that the awards and rewards will be reaped in the long run.
How do you go about incorporating the clients' vision for a project, through photography?
Usually I try to have a meeting with the design director for the designated project to be photographed. During this meeting the architect will outline the key objectives, often presenting 3D visualisations to assist. I usually make sure I capture these key perspectives where possible and thereafter interpret the building from my vantage point. I regard it as a collaboration. Depending on the time allotted and the number of images required, I study the building with respect to the sunlight and the interplay between them. As the subject (building) and the (sun) light source cannot be moved I have work with the light and plan my shots from dawn to dusk accordingly.
What are the key considerations when you photograph interior spaces and how is that different from photographing building design?
As with the making of any architectural image, good composition is paramount, perspective control is of crucial importance and light is the paint with which all images are created.
For Interiors there are some added considerations, space volume, furniture placement, and the inclusion of artificial lighting.
As the image maker I have to consider the juxtaposition of all variables to create a balanced image of artistic merit. After all I compose just like a musician and my instrument is my camera.