Architectural photography like architecture itself is a balancing act between providing a service and creating art. Classic photos are produced for a factual documentation and presenting buildings to the media; portraying objects beyond the typical patterns of looking at them, create a particular reflection of the constructed reality by their very own aesthetics. Gerd Schaller is one of those photographers who know exactly how to stage architecture in the best possible way. The architectural photographer and communications manager has been working with architects, engineers, manufacturers of construction materials, estate enterprises and media for more than 20 years and is most familiar with the requirements of all those involved. In an interview, Gerd Schaller talks about the special features of architectural photography, his way of approaching an object and also about the details that make a good photo.
Building: FIFA Headquarter / Place: Zurich (CH) / Architect: Tilla Theus
What makes architectural photography so special for you?
Gerd Schaller: I am basically fascinated by architecture itself. You may think that it is easy to take photos of buildings. They do not run away, do not change their facial expressions and do not contradict the photographer. But architecture cannot be created in studio lighting. Architectural photography is much more about challenging the human eye and handling circumstances that cannot be influenced - and I do not only refer to changing weather conditions. In addition, there is the wide range of my work concerning documentation and reception, interpretation and staging the situation, which in the end depends on the client’s requirements and the way a photographer expresses his work visually.
Building: Urban Living / Place: New Ulm (DE) / Architect: NUWOG
Building: Museum Art & Cars 2 / Place: Singen (DE) / Architect: Daniel Binder
How do you approach a new project?
Gerd Schaller: I approach it in a very meticulous way. Already upfront I want to know many details about the construction - where it is placed, why it looks like it does, the architect’s ideas and thoughts behind it, also with reference to the materials. I need to understand the building and the architect as best as possible. Most of the time the architect is able to explain the essence of a building through the development process. It is important to listen and, if necessary, obtain information on the regional, political and historic facts. Google and special apps do, of course, supply additional impressions and data that shape a first image. Also, specific perspectives can be planned depending on the weather and position of the sun. It is definitely not enough to depend on a short confrontation on site for the purpose of a photo.
Building: Centrum Bank / Place: Vaduz (LIE) / Architect: Hans Hollein
Building: Hotel Intercontinental / Place: Davos (CH) / Architect: Oliver Hofmeister
How important is the architecture in respect of the photographs produced later on?
Gerd Schaller: There is a big advantage of having an extraordinary style of architecture. However, the daily business of an architectural photographer looks very different. Not every building is spectacular. But nevertheless, most buildings are attractive in their own right and it is this charm one has to highlight. And I do not mean to create an artistically overstated production but to document a true image. Perspective, lighting and image definition must be absolutely right. Most important is the fact that one knows one trade and the technology behind it, combined with an eye for the essential and the particular. An architectural photograph is not only good because something very special had been photographed.
Building: Church St. Josef / Place: Holzkirchen (DE) / Architect: Eberhard Wimmer
How much do you rework your photos?
Gerd Schaller: I always try to produce photos on site that are perfect so that I only have to slightly correct brightness, contrast, tonal intensity and certain colours on the computer. In the trade of documenting architectural photographs one should really refrain from a photo-technical alienation. However, one cannot completely do without Photoshop, for example to remove unavoidable interferences in the photo later on. But in the end it is decided in an individual case how many details have actually to be removed from a photo. It does not make any sense for example, to return a building to its original condition by excessively reworking it once it has been used for a longer period of time.
Building: Abbey Library UNESCO World Heritage Site / Place: St. Gall (CH) / Architect: Peter Thumb
Building: Technical University / Place: Deggendorf (DE) / Architect: Bez + Kock
What does a photo have to look like so that you feel satisfied with the product?
Gerd Schaller: I am only rarely satisfied completely. I always detect a small percentage of improvement when looking at the photos. But it is exactly this not being satisfied that pushes me to amend and evaluate my work time and again. The best photos are produced when I can picture all details of the composition and perspective of my photo before actually starting my work, when all framework conditions on site are perfect and I take later corrections into consideration at the moment when I take a photo. Such a moment is extraordinary - irrespective of the quality of the architecture.
Building: House Chasellas / Place: St. Moritz (CH) / Architect: private
Building: Federal Intelligence Service Headquarter / Place: Berlin (DE) / Architect: Kleihues + Kleihues
Is there a photo or a project that you like to recall in particular?
Gerd Schaller: I do not have a favourite photo. It is more the stories behind some of the photos that I have taken. The different impressions for example of a villa in the Engadin above the Sankt Moritzersees, the first glimpse of the simple and still extremely luxurious FIFA Headquarter in Zurich or that of an unusual art museum at Lake Constance remain in front of my eyes. But also historic buildings such as for example the Abbey Library in Saint Gall that is part of the UNESCO-world heritage site, or the view across the banks of the Vitava from the childs room of the former Czech president Vaclav Havel in the Barrandov Terraces unfortunately very neglected these days, touch my heart sustainably. I have very fond memories of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. It was a great honour for me to be allowed to hold some workshops on architectural photography in the well-known school building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius.
Building: BAUHAUS / Place: Dessau (DE) / Architect: Walter Gropius
The interview is published in 2020 on german dpa network and specialist media in AT, CH and DE.
All photos © Gerd Schaller