A Matter of Perspective
The Art of Building Architectural Photo Montages
TEXT AND IMAGES BY JOCK POTTLECREATING PHOTO MONTAGES IS A PAINSTAKING, DETAILED PROCESS. HERE, A PHOTO MONTAGE OF THE TIMES SQUARE TOWER BY DEVELOPERS BOSTON PROPERTIES, DESIGNED BY THE ARCHITECTURAL FIRM SKIDMORE, OWENS, MERRILL, IS SHOWN IN VARIOUS STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT. IN THE TOP IMAGE IS A DIGITIZED BLUE SKY. SUPERIMPOSED ON IT IS THE ACTUAL SCENE AT 42ND. BELOW THAT IMAGE ARE TWO VIEWS AFTER THE MODEL HAS BEEN DROPPED INTO THE DIGITIZED STREET SCENE. NOTICE HOW PEDESTRIANS, STREET LIGHTS, AND TRAFFIC HAVE BEEN PLACED IN FRONT OF THE MODEL TO SUGGEST REALITY.
How often do we drive past a newly erected highrise or sprawling
industrial complex, never giving a moment's pause to how the
structures got there. The journey from napkin sketch to condo is a
complex one, and the creation of an architectural photo montage is
a critical factor to all parties.
Worth literally millions of dollars to the clients who commission photographer-architect types to construct them, photo montages are de rigeur on virtually all big-ticket or high-risk construction projects.
Consider, for example, the developer of a Manhattan highrise who needs signed leases for 60 to 80 percent of the units before his bank will finance groundbreaking. Or town planners who must present their concept for a renovated downtown area to civic leaders before a bond issue is floated. Or fundraisers for a local opera house who need to generate enthusiasm and support for their project.
Enter the architectural photo montage.
USE YOUR ILLUSION
You've seen them before, but probably didn't know them by name. Architectural montages are those rather imposing photographs you find in the sales offices of new rental or coop apartment buildings or posted outside construction sites that portray the building in its future environs. Creating these illusions is a painstaking, detailed process that combines traditional and digital photography with studio craftsmanship.
Let's take the Times Square office tower designed by the international architectural firm Skidmore, Owens, Merrill for their client, Boston Properties.
I began the project by going to the site, 42nd Street where Broadway and 7th Avenue meet, with the architect to shoot the existing environs. These pictures will show the building in context, with people, traffic, and the buildings around it, which is what you want to capture. I shot at street level rather than from a higher vantage point, because the client wanted the final montage image to project power and strong vertical lines.
Even on a Sunday morning, traffic and people hurry by and street lights and utility poles pop up in the worst places, so patience and waiting are the passwords. I shot Kodak Portra 125 negative film because it gives you more detail in the shadows. We scan the film anyway, so it doesn't matter if we start with negative or positive film. To get a wider perspective of the building's future environment, I also shot the site from 46th Street. Satisfied we'd captured every necessary detail, we headed back.
Once I scan the film and pull up the best shot on my PowerMac G4, I have to match the lighting on the scale model of the tower, sitting on the set, with the lighting in the onsite photo. I approximate with my eye and my 120mm lens. I shoot some Polaroids, Type 55 film, and compare. When the match is good, I cover my computer screen with an acetate and draw a vanishing point line right on the acetate.
THE BIG DROP
It's time to drop the model into the scanned image. The trick is to have the facade align with all the buildings down the block. I do this by trying different lenses, coming closer and moving further from the model. When the vanishing points align and the lighting is just right, I'm ready to start shooting with my Sinar p 4x5. I use Kodak Ektachrome and light the set with Arri tungsten, 750 fill lights, and Inky Dinks.
For a couple of hours I shoot, scan, and strip; shoot, scan, and strip. Since I'm trying to create an illusion of reality, I have to be sure pedestrians, traffic, and street lights appear to block the building. All sorts of adjustments have to be made to render a real feel to the final image. With a series of nets and cutters I create shade on the buildings, making sure to cast highlights on the client's tower.
Using Photoshop 5.0, 5.5, and LivePicture I further tweak the image. I erase the background on the model shot, making sure I retain the whole building.
For some clients I just shoot the models without adding the real environs in the background. What photo montages accomplish that 3-D models can't is "forcing" the viewer, if you will, to see the building the way the client wants to convey it. You can emphasize or deemphasize whatever the client wants us to see. That's the beauty and the strength of the art.
It's been years since Helene DeLillo, digital imaging consultant, taught me the art of photo montage. These days my 150 projects a year bring me in contact with up-and-coming architects from Romania, France, England, Asia. I enjoy sharing the art with them and keeping a youthful perspective on the architectural scene.