Thursday, April 17, 2014

Noctural Brilliance

Headstone in Monticello Graveyard
I should keep a pen and paper next to my bed because I have all of my most brilliant ideas just before I fall asleep. At least, they seem brilliant - so far, I can't remember most of them in the morning to really evaluate them. I assume that with a pen and paper on my nightstand, I will soon receive the McArthur Genius Award. My plan was to share my latest insights here, but I can no longer remember them...

Tulips on the grounds of Monticello
I just got back from a 40 hour architectural whirlwind tour with first-year students in the UNCG interior architecture program. A total of 31 faculty and students traveled from Greensboro, NC to Charlottesville, VA and then on to Cumberland, MD and Bear Run, PA in order to visit two great American architectural treasures: Jefferson's Monticello and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Including a 3 hour 'layover' during which we waited for a mechanic to arrive and fix our bus, we were on the trip for 42 hours.

It is interesting to see Monticello and Fallingwater in the same trip because they are so different and yet so similar. Both houses reflect the wealthiest segment of the population, bothy were unusually innovative, and both are attempts at a new American architecture. Jefferson placed his home on the top of the landscape while Wright's building is integrated into it. It is difficult to photograph either of these places. 

Fallingwater: The classic
Monticello Grave Crow
Pictures inside of Monticello are not allowed - supposedly because some of the items in the house are on loan and they don't have the photographic rights to them, but I'm unconvinced that this is true because they don't need to have photographic rights in order to allow non-commercial photographers to capture images. I think that the only time they would need rights would be if they were going to use the photographs to advertise or make money. I think it is probably to get you to buy the book that has pictures of the interior). Fallingwater offers a different tour in which photography is allowed, it is a longer tour and more costly, so they freely admit that it is a way to earn the money needed to support the entity. 

The other reason why these places are difficult to photograph is because they are so iconic. The view dead on of the back of Monticello is on the nickel and the view of Fallingwater can really only be captured from one particular spot and it is the photo that is always seen of the building. When so many other people have photographed or drawn a building from the exact same view it seems almost silly to photograph it again. After all, my picture of Fallingwater looks just like everybody else's picture with the exception of the time of year foliage or my technical abilities. 
Fallingwater: The zoom

I was determined to see if I could get a different image. After all, I have seen collections of images of the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument in which each image has really been distinct, and surprisingly different than the postcard image that I was used to seeing. Fallingwater is particularly difficult because there are only 3 views of it possible, two of which are at least partially blocked by trees. It is designed to be hidden, so the question becomes, how do I capture the experience? I figured this was a good time to experiment since the 'perfect' shot is one that I have seen so often, it would be easy to compare and contrast.

Fallinwater: Alternate View
Generally, I try to look for another angle, then for a different context, and then to the details rather than the whole. On this trip, students were spending time sketching the different buildings and so I tried to use them to create a different setting for the architecture. I also tried zooming while I took a long exposure shot of Fallingwater - I didn't have a tripod, so it's not great, but it was the first time I have tried that. I also worked with the exposure time as much as I could, it was a pretty gray day and so I couldn't underexpose too much, but I did manage to move the waterfall from nearly frozen to blurring streamers of water.

Fallingwater: Student Context
I don't think I captured anything particularly noteworthy, but it was an interesting exercise. It made me really think about what the point of taking a photograph is if it is just like 1,000 others that I have seen and that I could print off the internet. There is something about having 'captured' it yourself but then it also provides you with a platform for experimentation because you don't have the same amount of initial exploration to do. It's harder to see anything new that might be there but also to realize that sometimes there are things to be learned by understanding how and why others have captured a particular image which can only really happen when you are looking through the viewfinder yourself. 

It's always a challenge to create images of something that is so iconic and so restricted - it's not the images that I created that made it worth it, it's the experience gained in the way of seeing that was the most valuable for me.