There’s hardly a computer anywhere that doesn’t have a copy of Adobe Photoshop, its free cousin GNU Imagine Manipulation Program (GIMP), or another editing program that lets users tweak digital images to perfection. People use them every day, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of architecture images fall under the digital knife.
But there’s a big difference between air brushing out crows feet for your Facebook profile photo and dramatically altering a building’s appearance before submitting images for judging. Lines around the face are a little white lie. Changing the lines of a building in order to win an award is altogether something different, and Chicago’s AIA chapter has a new set of guidelines in the works.
Architecture Imagery has Always Been About Presentation
Imagery in architecture usually works to present the building in its best possible light. There are exceptions, of course. For example, the Orange County government building in Goshen, NY, draws at least some of its fame for being one of the most reviled and unattractive examples of Brutalist architecture still standing. Images of it seem to work in opposite, but it’s still about affecting the interpretation.
For the most part, architecture photographers want to maximize a building’s best features, and the airbrush is a handy tool that helps. Some say that it helps too much, and that it’s quite different from waiting for the right lighting, finding the best angle and even working to avoid ugly elements that might surround the building.
That happened in the recent Chicago AIA chapter Design Excellence Awards. It’s got a lot of people in the industry reevaluating their stance on what’s ok and what’s just not. At least one of the images submitted was found after the fact to have completely erased all traces of a glaring, unattractive feature: The air handlers that Chicago Tribune reporter, Blair Kamin, likened to a freight train atop the building.
Some Architects Believe Nothing’s Wrong with Airbrushing
Some architects, particularly those who endorse photo manipulation, say that a little Photoshop is fine. It’s no different from choosing the perfect location to keep an ugly neighboring item such as a utility pole out of the frame. And in a way, that’s true. If there is a location where the pole isn’t visible, it’s not misrepresentation. And if the photographer is in a hurry, what’s wrong with erasing what could have been eliminated by standing in the right spot?
Of course in another way, it’s just not true at all, especially in a competition where judges don’t have the luxury of visiting the building. Photos are the only basis for judging, and so they should represent the building as it exists, warts and all.
Competition images require hard facts. Otherwise, who is to know what’s real and what isn’t? Some judges expressed to Kamin that seeing the building unaltered would likely have changed their perception of it. That says it all.
After the Design Excellence Awards image issue was sorted, the question remained about whether or not new image guidelines were necessary. In the digital age where photo editing software is readily available, especially to photographers, it’s reasonable to assume that it will be used.
That understanding prompted the Chicago AIA chapter executive VP, Zurich Esposito, to issue a statement. They’re now in the process of revamping guidelines for architecture photography. Because the competition relies so heavily on reality, cracking down on Photoshop fantasy appears to be what it takes to get it.
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Orange County government building, Goshen NY, by Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons