by Jincy IypeDec 08, 2022
For every person who visits a building, there may be ten thousand who only view it as a photo.
Representing architecture through the medium of photography bears its own challenges and blessings. Is it able to capture the essence of a building to the fullest, perhaps augment its aesthetic presence, or fail to relay it? Documenting buildings also becomes synonymous with recording cultural landscapes and cityscapes, as visual remnants, and the environment these edifices inhabit—built and used by our species across ages. "Design demands observation," said Achille Castiglioni, and what better way to observe buildings (besides visiting them in person), than through photographs, as structural art, cultural symbols, and evidence of our creative finesse and evolution?
Architectural and fine art commercial photographer, Pygmalion Karatzas, has been documenting buildings across the United States with Nortigo—his ongoing series of 'architectonic abstractions'. From the Space Needle in Seattle to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Nortigo relays a visual journey of the pertinent, modern architectural landscape of the American continent, a joyride journal of building details and close-ups through long exposure photography. The series' focus on American buildings, their elements and interiors, is made distinct with an expansive three-point perspective, shot from the ground up, where the captured sense of scale reduces to that of an ant's point of view.
Karatzas summarises the concept of the series, "Nortigo is an exercise in shifting points of view as a gesture to reveal new and interesting information, compositions and feelings from spaces designed to form tangible connections between above and below, by looking straight up towards the ceiling, atrium or sky. The progression from indoor to outdoor spaces supplements the introvert/extrovert design polarity, while the pairing of classical buildings with modern, postmodern, and cosmogenic architecture allows for comparative viewing experiences and a diverse showcase of the built environment." What this took, were 9,600 miles of flying, 4,200 miles of driving, 1,300 miles of public commuting, 750,000 steps of walking, 12,000 still images taken, 65,000 images in timelapse video, 150 buildings and locations from 12 cities—across 142 days on the road.
In a detailed conversation with STIR, the 49-year-old, self-taught photographer elucidates on the meaning of Nortigo, his creative process behind the series displayed in part in the following photo essay, and the nuances of his specific, chosen point of view and shooting style that are perhaps, influenced from his education in architecture.
Jincy Iype: Tell us a bit about yourself, and your progression into architectural photography.
Pygmalion Karatzas: I was born in Greece, and pursued architecture in Budapest, following it up with studying urban design in Edinburgh. I practised architecture for 12 years before taking the decision to focus exclusively on architectural and fine art photography. Some of my creative inspirations while switching to photography was, and still remain, Michael Kenna, David Burdeny, Iwan Baan, Fernando Guerra, Gregory Colbert, to name a few.
My journey into photography began around 2013. As a self-taught photographer, I had a steep learning curve to cover, and I chose subjects from the built and natural environment to build my portfolio. The Fulbright Artistic Scholarship was an invaluable support to formulate and approach both my series, Integral Lens and Nortigo and start practising it, internationally as well as domestically.
Jincy: How was the term Nortigo coined, and what does it mean? What inspired this series?
Nortigo is a combination of the words 'north' and 'vertigo'. Vertigo is a negative feeling associated with the loss of balance and light-headedness when looking down from a great height. What about the opposite feeling? The experience of discovering our 'true north', the positive feeling associated with finding the right direction and correct course both literally and figuratively? I use the word Nortigo for such feelings of inner purpose, of alignment between the personal and the Kosmos. – Pygmalion Karatzas
Pygmalion: This series is part of a larger project titled Integral Lens—a multi-perspectival approach to the study and representation of the built environment through the photographic medium. The project was granted by the Fulbright Foundation with a five-month scholarship across the United States. I visited approximately 80 buildings in 12 cities and photographed using documentary, editorial, and expressive typologies of the medium. With over 12,000 images taken, this body of work needed an organisational structure for display. I chose the rationale of expanding scale—from building details to building portraits, to buildings within their context, to urban projects, to cityscapes to the open landscape. Nortigo was the first series in the Integral Lens book, as it focuses on architectural details and close-ups.
Jincy: "The progression from indoor to outdoor spaces supplements the introvert/extrovert design polarity, while the pairing of classical buildings with modern, postmodern, and cosmogenic architecture allows for comparative viewing experiences and a diverse showcase of the built environment." Why was this intent necessary to unearth and display?
Pygmalion: It was not a necessity, but rather, the joy of witnessing oneness through multiplicity. In his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell unearths this oneness through mythologies of ancient times to modern stories of today. While the architect strives for unique solutions to common design and construction issues, hence increasing heterogeneity, one artistic approach to counterbalance this is to contemplate 'oneness'.
Jincy: How do these photographed buildings achieve an "alignment between the personal and the Kosmos?"
Pygmalion: To quote architect William McDonough, "design is the first signal of human intention.” All designed buildings—from the simplest to the most complex—embody within them the (individual and collective) intention of the designer(s), and at the same time, the process includes numerous externalities that also shape them. One can also include the various iterations, preliminary ideas, and alternate proposals, that a project goes through before it is completed. Beyond the internal discourses of architectural theory, these examples of high-end architecture portray the sincere efforts of thousands of people to express the beautiful, the good, and the true, learning from the past and looking towards the future. In that broader sense, the buildings become manifestations of such an alignment between the personal and the Kosmos.
Jincy: Nortigo enables "the experience of discovering our 'true north', the positive feeling associated with finding the right direction, and correct course both literally and figuratively." Why is the series anchored on this particular 'view', of witnessing the built fabric of an urban realm from the ground up?
Pygmalion: The first reason to anchor the series in one particular perspective (looking straight up) is in order to give the emphasis back on the different subjects, to make the point of view of the camera (and photographer) less commanding. In that sense, a series of straight-on facades could act similarly as the anchor.
The second reason though, that distinguishes this perspective, has to do with active visual exploration outside the norm. For example, we don’t usually walk around the city looking up, as that isn’t practical and we would look silly doing it. As soon as we pause though, and start exploring upward perspectives, we discover a whole new set of scapes and photographic frames, exterior, interior, and in-between.
Jincy: How do you choose specific facets of a building (especially for the exterior shots), to abstract into a photograph?
Pygmalion: The formalistic elements of the facade with the compositional elements of the image become the decisive factor for choosing a frame and a building. Some spaces (like atriums) are prime examples where this perspective will bear results but in many exterior shots, you do not know what will become an interesting abstraction until you look up and start exploring the facets of the building. Put differently, in some cases, you already know what you will capture before you shoot, in other cases the joy lies in the exploration and the surprise with what you find that you didn’t know was there.
Jincy: What informs your creative process?
Pygmalion: It varies with different series, subjects, and intent. For example, my early long exposure to minimalist waterscapes was inspired by an existing body of work I had admired, and I started experimenting with this technique. The Nortigo series was inspired by architectural detail, materiality, and a constant point of view which opens a dialogue between uniqueness and similarity, or other design polarities. In each visited city, I researched its contemporary architecture and photographed as many buildings as I could fit into the timeframe I had. Two opposing forces are at play: the fast-paced editorial/commercial approach and the slow-pace topographic/expressive approach, not only as logistical management but mostly as awareness and fulfilment of both. The post-processing goes through a workflow from Lightroom and Photoshop to fine-tune contrast, sharpness, white balance, and selective exposure adjustments for highlights and shadows, while keeping the overall feeling of realism.
Jincy: Why the focus on the built fabric of the United States in particular? How has the landscape of "classical, modern, postmodern, cosmogenic architecture" there evolved over the years?
Pygmalion: I referred to 'cosmogenic architecture' in the sense that the architecture historian Charles Jencks expressed it in his book, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe. His evolutionary tree tracing architectural movements is a lot more nuanced, but a simplified version helps to correlate the language with societal evolutionary development models like Spiral Dynamics (which is part of the Integral Theory lexicon). Being able to visit many landmark projects given the opportunity to enrich the series across the spectrum of architectural movements. I could not assume an authority on the evolution of each movement over the years. What I do try to practice is understanding and re-interpreting the positive aspects of each with an inclusive mentality.
Jincy: What is something you look for, before deciding on the final frame to photograph a building? As an architectural photographer, how would you describe the essence of your artistic expression?
Pygmalion: A multi-perspectival approach sees photography as self-expression, as exploration, as a vocation, as communication and education, and overall, as a broader cultural asset. This integral framing, inspired by philosopher Ken Wilber, remains at the core of my artistic expression, both as a holistic guide and praxis.
The integral perspective pays homage to the major past and present genres of the field, from the early realists and pictorialists to the postmodernists and editorialists. Put together, they highlight the four broader functions of the historic relationship between architecture and photography (as outlined by curator and architect Pedro Gadanho)—documenting and portraying the built environment and the urban condition; making architecture with photography; producing architectural critique and contributing to urban discourse; establishing an expressive dialogue with the contemporary urban landscape and aspiring to something greater. These are all aspirational roles to strive for within my work.
Jincy: What is your favourite photograph from this series, and why? Alternatively, if you decide to summarise Nortigo into a book, which photograph would grace the cover?
Pygmalion: As it happens, I did summarise Nortigo in a book and the cover I chose was an image from the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle designed by American architect Frank Gehry. In our current, visually oversaturated era, many of the subjects we document have been photographed before by others, making it extra challenging to find something new to contribute. When I visited that building, I was familiar with the very successful images of a colleague, a series of architectural abstracts of the facade. When I shared this image online, I received a comment from a local photographer that he used to pass by that building often and this particular angle and framing was a surprising new perspective for him. Such feedback was rewarding and a good external check for an internal subtle balance between our influences and our own expressions. Going beyond anecdotal impressions, I also submitted this image to competitions and I was happy to see that it resonated with a variety of judging committees.
Jincy: An advice for young architectural photographers...
Pygmalion: Be passionate. When your job is at the same time your vocation, it emanates both in your work and yourself. Inner fulfilment is something we all wish for, yet so many of us keep struggling for it, well into the mature stages of our careers.
Jincy: What is NEXT for you?
Pygmalion: I plan to continue this two-fold creative journey with architectural photography for as long and far as it can take me. Commissioned assignments and personal projects supplement each other and are both equally fulfilling. With collaborator Mark DeKay, we plan to expand our work on the Integral Lens paper both in literary theory and by building case studies from exemplar projects. I am also honoured to have been selected by the I.M. Pei Foundation to photograph projects from the architect’s work. The first phase of launching the official website is completed and the second phase of revisiting selected buildings in Europe, the USA, and Asia is underway.
The last three years have been especially shocking and unsettling for the world at large, forcing us to continually re-adjust to extreme conditions. The healthy version of our collective unfoldment from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric care is being shaken to its core. In such a context, re-examining our fundamentals and finding potent ways to express them becomes even more imperative, for artistic and creative independence.