Photographing Architecture | Alex Fradkin
“Architecture and photography both respond to light, highlight form, composition and can evoke emotion", says Alex Fradkin.
How do you photograph a building?
'Architecture and photography both respond to light, highlight form, composition and can evoke emotion. For me, architecture was about creating space and responding to place. As a photographer, sense of space and place are primary inspirations when creating a photo narrative. Now, I am essentially a storyteller,' Alex said.
Now, I am essentially a storyteller
One of Alex’s great passions is to donate his photography to social justice and environmental causes. A few years ago, he partnered with a non-profit foundation to document homeless youth for two years, getting to know each of the youth and collaborating to tell their stories. It resulted in a large format coffee table book and exhibition titled, SEEME. Recently, Alex worked directly with an activist organization during the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. ‘Again I was a story teller, bearing witness and doing everything possible to amplify the voices of those who are too frequently ignored, marginalised and oppressed.’
One of the recent stories that Alex worked on that was deeply fulfilling, was about ‘the ongoing role of some of the world’s biggest banks in facilitating international money laundering, arms trading and the trafficking of goods and people on an unprecedented scale’ – as described by the Pulitzer Foundation, who recognised the reporting project as a 2021 finalist.
Buzzfeed and the International Consortium of Journalists commissioned Alex. ‘They gave me complete freedom to photograph these very banal monolithic buildings. Many of them were located in the Canary Wharf area, and throughout London, and over in New York City and in Washington, DC. These were the headquarters of the world’s largest and most recognized banking institutions. It was a real challenge to photograph these structures them in a compelling way?’
Alex shot at night, and in black and white, lending his images a sense of mystery. The glass facades are as sublime as they are disturbing. Alex was excited by this opportunity to ‘draw on my architectural and artist’s background, illustrating a story that could have impact.’ When the story was released, it was cited as the reason the stock market dropped over 300 points on the same day. ‘And on the following day, it was back to business as usual, the news of one of the largest financial scandals in decades forgotten very quickly.’
A few years ago, Alex was commissioned by the New Yorker to photograph to aftermath of the wildfires near where he grew up in Northern California. ‘I was devastated to see such a familiar environment scorched beyond recognition. The images he created are ‘typologies of destruction and monuments to impermanence.’
Now, when he takes photos of buildings for architectural commissions, ‘I want to respond to the narrative of the building. Architecture has dramatic highs and lows. There are moments of great drama and moments of great subtlety and quietness. I sit there and quietly observing all this before I even start to photograph. I try to really understand the space, capture the shifting light and convey the emotions. Beautifully designed architecture is like a living thing. It has character and moods that can shift from moment to moment. I like to say, you never step into the same building twice.’
you never step into the same building twice
One such space was Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland Canada, designed by Norway based Todd Saunders. The building stands on narrow stilts to ensure it has minimal impact on the rocks, lichens and plants of the coast. It is a structure beautifully in tune with the harsh environment. ‘Arctic storms blow in from the North with great force,’ Alex said, ‘and it's extraordinary, being out there in the ice and snow in the midst of that. The light during a blizzard is my favourite -- the worse the conditions, the more extraordinary the light!’ Photographing the Inn during such storms was a moment when I really began to understand the harmony and fragility between place and structure.’
Alex explained how all construction materials were sourced locally and or from countries with strong environmental and labour laws. ‘There was a real thought process about how to create architecture in this environment that we can replicate elsewhere,’ he said. ‘There are ways of doing that are sustainable. I believe our very survival depends on it.’
Alex’s fine art photographs are collected widely and reside in numerous museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Contemporary Museum of Photography, Museums of the City of New York among several other collections, and has exhibited in galleries worldwide. Alex has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Aaron Siskind Foundation Grant. Alex is currently working on a third monograph of his work and has been featured in over a dozen book publications on art and architecture by the worlds most renowned architects and designers. Twice a year, Alex teaches architectural and portrait photography at the International Center for Photography and in 2018 was an invited participant in the Venice Architectural Biennale.