History of Architectural Photography
and Its Unique Challenges

Architecture has provided primary subject matter throughout the history of photography and thus architectural photography has become a unique niche in the universe of image making.

When photographing a building, the architectural photographer is often facing a dilemma: do you add essence using composition, perspective or other techniques to produce a compelling and beautiful photograph? Or do you prefer to show the scene as it for authenticity or realism?

Beyond these aesthetic concerns, there are technical problems as the photographers in this niche must photograph large subjects (i.e. buildings) while on-location. They are often facing scenes that have colour casts from artificial lighting sources, and a contrast range that exceed that of film or digital sensors.

Since the beginnings of architectural photography 170 years ago however, photographers have worked around the above aesthetic and technical issues, which have evolved through a succession of styles as the field advanced with developments of enterprise, technology and fashion.

Architecture was an ideal subject for the photographic processes introduced by J.L.M. Daguerre and William Talbot in 1839, since buildings were suitable to the very long exposure times required. Two styles of architectural photography emerged: "the elevation" and "the perspective".

The elevation approach treated photography as an extension of architectural craftsmanship and in many ways looked like a drawing in an attempt to illustrate detail as finely as possible. For these reasons, the "elevation" photograph was a head-on, essentially two dimensional image of the building facade.

The perspective of the image was often centred at mid-height of the building, similar to an architectural drawing of that time. To achieve such perspective, the photographer ideally would take the image from an elevation in a closeby structure; leading to the name "elevation" for this style.

The perspective approach on the other hand emphasized three-dimensionality. The aim of the photographer was to show how the buildings looked and thus the buildings were photographed from a corner viewpoint.

The perspective approach on the other hand emphasized three-dimensionality. The aim of the photographer was to show how the buildings looked and thus the buildings were photographed from a corner viewpoint.

This style encouraged creativity on the part of the photographer, and in later decades would lead to more experiential efforts. However between 1839 and 1890, architectural photography looked very much as stand-alone portraiture, characterised by formal composition, rigorously straight verticals, and an elevated perspective-in both the elevation and perspective styles.

One of the great examples of the perspective style can be found in the architectural photographs of Frederick Evans .

Architectural photography had been undertaken before, but whereas it tended to be unimaginative and largely record photography, Frederick Evans looked for particular effects, for example depicting the strength of the stone. "The Sea of Steps" (1903) shows some of the excellence of his work.


It is worth comparing this with the photography of another very accomplished photographer, Francis Bedford:

Christchurch_Gateway,Canterbury,Francis Bedford,1860Christchurch Gateway, Canterbury, Francis Bedford, c1860

Bedford's photography was more concerned with factual imaging, whereas Evans' work is very different indeed, and one can immediately see his fascination for texture, and with his concern to show the effects of weight and balance, space, light and shade.

Interestingly, street-level photography of buildings was not undertaken for some years; it appears to have been considered technically inaccurate or unprofessional.

Washington, DC then played a role in the evolution of architectural photography. Unlike the densely developed European cities or New York, hardly any multi-storied buildings existed from which to photograph the several imposing new structures of Washington, DC. Out of necessity, photographs of these lone public buildings, such as the White House, had to be taken from the perspective of ground level. With time this style came to be accepted.

The Civil War in the United States provided another opening to innovation in architectural photography. Photographers of buildings destroyed in the path of war expanded the framework of composition to include ruins and desolate fields surrounding the building shells, so that the viewer could experience the terrible destruction.

The relationship between architecture and photography has been mutually beneficial throughout the years and a strong proof for that is the selling and popularization of modern architecture in the 1920s and 1930s which occurred only through a strong push on its behalf by a group of progressive architectural photographers who applied unconventional perspectives, lighting, nocturne and other new techniques to help create a new vogue out of modern architecture.


From an article in 1934 by P. Morton Shand:

"The two fields in which the spirit of our age has achieved its most definite manifestations are photography and architecture. Did modern photography beget modern architecture, or the converse?"

Since the mid-1920s, numerous art photographers have been commissioned to photograph architecture for consumer and architectural magazines:

Margaret Bourke-White - well known for her stylized photographs of machinery for Fortune magazine in the mid-1930s - began her career as an architectural photographer; her first published photographs appeared in House & Garden in 1928.

Many images in Henry Russell-Hitchcock's definitive 1936 book The Architecture of H.H. Richardson and His Times were taken by art photographer Berenice Abbott (although she is not credited in the publication).

The classic 1930s photographs of Mart Stam's architecture in Frankfurt, Germany, were taken by Ilse Bing at the beginning of her career.

Cologne photographer August Sander also received architectural assignments, although he is best known for his portraiture.

These photographers and others helped to dissolve the boundaries of architectural photography, creating artistic compositions along with straightforward documentary images.


In spite of the stature of its practitioners, architectural photography was not immediately considered a "serious" art form. In fact, by the mid-1940s, very few commercial architectural photographers had achieved the level of notoriety in trade journals that art photographers had in consumer magazines.

One reason for the delayed acceptance of commercial architectural photography was that in the early 20th century, countries that fostered the new modern architecture - such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands - did not develop a new style for photographing it.

By contrast, countries such as Britain and the United States, which embraced modern architecture as an import in the mid-1930s, did rethink photographic methods. This is evident in the successful commercial work of Fay S. Lincoln, Fred R. Dapprich, and Roger Sturtevant in the United States, and Herbert Felton, John Havinden, and Dell & Wainwright in Britain.

After World War II, modern architecture in the United States became a metaphor for the better life that had long been promised. Architectural photography in popular consumer magazines reflected this value.

Modelled after American fashion photography, the new architectural photography created seductive statements about a comfortable lifestyle and the architecture through which it could be achieved. Variations on this style can be seen in the works of numerous well-known postwar photographers, such as Ezra Stoller, Ken Hedrich of Hedrich-Blessing, and Julius Shulman.


Successful magazine photographers adopted a propagandizing style because they needed to sell modern architecture as a product of progress and technology. The photograph mirrored a lifestyle intended to work within the framework of the building.

Some architectural photographers even included visual "witnesses" - people who illustrated how the spaces could be used. Their placement in photographs of building interiors and gardens demonstrated exactly how these spaces could be occupied. This made images of new homes seem more comfortable to the average American consumer, paralleling trends in television and magazine advertising.

From the mid-1950s to the present, the photographic depiction of modern architecture continued to evolve. As magazine requirements changed, commercial architectural photographers began working in both colour and black and white.


In addition, since the late 1970s, many successful architectural photographers, such as Paul Warchol, Timothy Hursley, and Tim Street-Porter, have received formal training as fine art photographers. Prior to this period, commercial architectural photographers were largely self-taught.

As in the past, the photographer's ability to compose a striking image was key. This aspect of constructing photographs of buildings is similar to the staging of sets in cinema. The perspective of the photograph is not necessarily true to the actual space but rather to the camera's view of it.

Through the repositioning of props, such as furniture, objects, and art, photographs become sets of the idealized image of architecture. For example, when a photographer moves a couch from the perimeter wall (where the actual owner intends it to be located) to the centre of the room and positions the camera behind it, he is illustrating a "space of action" by placing the furniture in relation to an implied event. This can be further suggested by a table with place settings, objects displayed for a barbeque, or personal belongings located throughout a space.

Most architectural photography illustrates occupied spaces, whether a person actually appears in the frame or there is an implied presence. This renders the spaces occupiable by the viewer of the photograph. When people are placed within the frame, they become signs of events taking place and are depicted in the lifestyle or manner appropriate to the building or home.

Since the physical buildings depicted in consumer and architectural magazines are rarely experienced by the viewer, the architectural photographer plays an essential role in the creation of history. The photograph therefore becomes the lens through which we can observe and analyze the evolution of architecture.

--  DPTips-Central.com


1.  "Architecture Transformed: A History of Photography of Buildings from 1893 to the Present", Cervin Robinson and Joel Herschman, MIT Press, 2001

2.   http://www.scphoto.com/html/history.html, A History of Photography

3.   http://www.chaplo.com/commissioning_photography_how-to.htm

4.   http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/evans.htm, Fredrick Evans

5. http://www.clevelandart.org/exhibit/legacy/bios/bios-ef.html, Fredrick Evans

6.  http://www.renew.freeuk.com/learning/arts/oldphotos.html, Early British photography imitating art

History of Architectural Photography

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