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Arcspace.com presents the architectural photography series

sponsored by the Danish Architecture Center, edited by Pygmalion Karatzas

The photographic studio Hedrich Blessing was founded in 1929 by Ken Hedrich and Henry Blessing based in Chicago USA. Since the beginning of the studio’s creation a relationship between photographer and designer, as well as a mentorship/apprenticeship between senior and younger photographers was established, both of which became the studio’s leading philosophy and history. In 1937 Architectural Forum commissioned Hedrich Blessing to photograph recent works of Frank Lloyd Wright and in the ’50 the studio became associated with the modern movement, particularly with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Albert Kahn, Buckminster Fuller, Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, Harry Weese and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Although most widely known for its architectural photography, Hedrich Blessing has been working with designers in related fields such as industrial, annual report, product and editorial. Today four photographers build upon the studio’s tradition: Steve Hall, Tom Harris, Nick Merrick, Jon Miller. Each began as a photographic assistant and was mentored by one of their predecessors. In the firm’s 86 year history there have been twenty photographers. The Hedrich Blessing Archive from 1929 to 1979 is housed at the Chicago History Museum. Nick Merrick regularly gives architectural photography workshops, and Jon Miller gives lectures to design students, museum audiences and other interested parties. In 2013, the studio started offering time-based media in Motion+Sound, ranging from fully produced narratives to more basic time-lapse photography. With a long list of high profile clients Hedrich Blessing is one of the leading architectural photography firms in the US and internationally.

Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Nick Merrick thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us about your backgrounds and how did you start being involved with architectural photography?
Nick Merrick:  I became interested in photography as a teenager, and studied it in college. I have both a BFA from the University of Michigan and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In college I began working with an 8X10 view camera and fell in love with the medium while photographing the urban and suburban landscapes around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I have always had a fascination with the built environment.  I kept hearing about a firm, Hedrich Blessing, that worked with large cameras, so I looked them up and was given a job as an assistant in 1977. I went “on camera” in 1979 and my commercial career as an architectural photographer began.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
Nick Merrick: I think about photography as a continuing exploration into seeing, as clearly as possible, the structure of the physical world. Part of this is analyzing the design of the structure and all of its formal characteristics, and then finding the photographic form, which will allow the viewer to interpret the 2D photograph and create the “3D reality” in their mind.


Pygmalion Karatzas: The relationship between architect and photographer is at the heart of your studio’s development and history. From your experience what makes such a relationship successful on both sides of the equation?
Nick Merrick: Architecture and photography are both applied arts, so there is a natural affinity.  At this stage of my career, I now have many client relationships that span 20 to 30 plus years, although often, younger designers from the firms attend the photography sessions, so I am constantly interacting with and learning from new people.  Personally, I love what I do, the collaboration with the architects to craft and create photographs that are expressive of their design. For the architects, I can only hope that my photographic vision helps to enhance their architectural vision, and by doing so, the photographs help in getting projects published and awarded, help win new commissions and grow their practices.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Which are some of the influences to your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
Nick Merrick:  Early on I was greatly influenced by the work of Frederick Sommer and a more even distribution of information across the image, a deliberate flattening of the pictorial space.  At the same time I was influenced by the work of Ken Hedrich and how he understood and created the illusion of architectural space through lighting. Ken’s photos tended to be dramatic, often pictorially controlled by a single grand gesture. Reconciling these two seemingly disparate pictorial devices is probably what has kept me interested all of these years.  My wife, Shaun Gilmore, is an artist, and we spend a lot of time looking at art.  We just saw the terrific Agnes Martin show at the Tate Modern in London. I spend most of my time while looking at art, trying to decipher the meaning behind and the construction of, the pictorial space.   There is always more to learn.


Pygmalion Karatzas: Your career spans more than 30 years and the studio’s more than 80. Which aspects of your work have remained consistent and which have evolved and changed over the years?
Nick Merrick:  The formality of my vision, and the high level of craft, has not changed.  Over the years, my understanding of architecture and design has grown, so I believe that I bring an informed sensibility to the making of architectural photographs now more than ever. Hedrich Blessing has always made metonymy a strong part of our visual practice, letting a part stand for the whole.  It is a means of being highly selective, and to allow the design precepts of the architecture to influence the design of the photograph. This has not changed. Clearly, the tools have changed, film to digital and tungsten to strobe lighting. It is now easier, technically, to photograph interiors in daylight, to balance the various colors of different light sources, and to incorporate people into the photographs in more natural ways.


Pygmalion Karatzas: The mentorship/apprenticeship aspect of photography is also an integral part of the studio’s tradition. Could you tell us your thoughts on this aspect’s role in the growth and advancement of the photographer?
Nick Merrick:  It is huge.  All of the photographers of Hedrich Blessing started as an assistant.  You cannot go to school to become an architectural photographer.  It is highly specialized, both technically and visually, and as a business. The photographers of Hedrich Blessing taught me about color, lighting to give buildings and objects 3 dimensional shape and form, and being clear, visually, as to what the photograph is about, to name just a few things.  I take it as a responsibility to pass on the knowledge that I have gleaned to my assistants. Ultimately, if you have a good assistant, you become a team, discuss the photographs and problem solve together, so that both the mentor and the apprentice come away enriched, having learned from each other.


Pygmalion Karatzas: Alongside your commissioned assignments you also teach architectural photography workshops. Could you tell us about that experience?
Nick Merrick: I teach for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.  When we first moved to New Mexico in 1991, Reid Callanan, the director of the workshops, reached out to me to see if I would give it a try.  He convinced me that it was a good way to give back to and connect with, the larger photographic community.  He was right then, and he still is.  Most of the people who take my workshop are working professional photographers from around the world, but mostly North America, who want to hone their skills and get a creative jolt.  As most photographers are solitary workers, unlike Hedrich Blessing, I try to foster a very open dialogue within the group so that we all learn from one another.  It is a very intensive week.  I try to shake people up a bit at the beginning by talking about what a photograph “is” and how it “functions”. Most professionals, I find, stop thinking and questioning the basis of their work.  Of course, I am trying to get people into a more open learning state.  We are on location every day, photographing a range of building types during the week. Usually, as a group, we pick a view that I then photograph as a demonstration.  Typically, these are interior views that require additional lighting.  I am describing my thought processes and decision making, as I am creating the photograph, and since all visual decision-making is highly subjective, the group is asking a lot of questions that I try to answer.  The participants than break into groups and make their own photographs, which we will review later.  Specific technical and visual ideas will typically be discussed, as part of these larger group reviews, daily. These discussions are often fascinating and wide ranging. Also, I give individual critiques of each participants work during the course of the week.  It has been an exhausting, but incredible, learning experience, each time that I have taught the workshop.


Pygmalion Karatzas: From your experience which are some key points about the business aspects of photography?
Nick Merrick:  Hedrich Blessing is unique in that we are a studio with a group of practicing photographers, and we have honed our business practices over the years to add efficiency and value for our clients. The client and their needs should be preeminent.  It should always be about the photography.  Your clients must be convinced of your value.  You should come with energy and be easy to work with.  Your business practices should be direct, client friendly, and easy to understand.

Pygmalion Karatzas: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there’s also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries?
Nick Merrick:  I don’t tend to think along the lines of trends, which are usually defined by people outside the actual practice of photography, and are usually short lived.  Most serious photographers that I know make a range of different photographs for different purposes.  My personal, non-commissioned work, shares much in common, structurally, with my architectural photography. I often use it to teach myself how to see, simply and directly, and to explore the mystery of simple facts and human perception. For the last 2 years, I have been working with my 8X10 view camera, making black and white contact prints of the Cholla cactus on my property in New Mexico.

Pygmalion Karatzas: In addition to your still images you also use videography to present some projects. What are your thoughts about this medium’s contributions to the presentation of architecture?
Nick Merrick:  Architectural videography is clearly in its infancy. Most of what I see out there is not particularly compelling, it has not added much to the conversation or our understanding of architecture.  And I admit that my own ideas are not fully formed. I think that it will take years of work by serious practitioners before we can answer that question.
Video Hedrich Blessing Motion Reel: https://vimeo.com/60656012
Video Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Headquarters: https://vimeo.com/58135638

Pygmalion Karatzas: Concerning the photographic gear we notice two main/broad types: the large format and the DSLR users. Aside the technical aspect, I want to ask your thoughts about their differences on the experiential aspect and how that is evident in the result.
Nick Merrick:  I have been a view camera user my whole career.  It fit my “formal vision”.  I was never comfortable putting a 35mm camera up to my eyes, as I wear glasses, and I loved the instant abstraction of seeing the world upside down and laterally reversed on the ground glass.  I don’t see the color, I see only the shapes and tones, and can work the composition until it comes into balance.  The frame becomes more deliberate, selective. The DSLR and its predecessor the 35 mm film camera, lends itself to a more editorial ‘journalistic’ look, no matter the subject. It just so happens that this look has become popular for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the quantity of photos made and delivered.  The web demands content, not necessarily, quality.  Clearly I am making broad generalizations here, as most serious photographers pick the tools that allow them to realize their vision.

Pygmalion Karatzas: As many photographers have pointed out, the photographic act is a transformative experience in the sense that our awareness of the environment – both natural and man-made – becomes more astute. How has this awareness changed/develop for you over the years?
Nick Merrick:  I have always been interested in the built environment.  Often our experience of that environment is frenetic, chaotic, so the act of finding a point of view, with a deliberate frame, has been a way to find the order within the chaos. So it is transformative, personally, in that respect, and has not changed much over the years. As an architectural photographer, the photographic act allows me to make observations about the architects’ intent, their design decisions made manifest in the photographs of the completed building.

Pygmalion Karatzas: As photographers we spend time noticing the interaction between architecture and people, which is also at the heart of architects’ designs albeit varied. Could you share with us some of your observations about this interaction?
Nick Merrick: As photographers we spend time looking at the buildings, light bouncing off of surfaces.  We are rarely on location long enough to find out how the building functions for it’s end users and with certain building types, we often are there before the building is occupied.  Ours is a superficial ‘noticing’.  Architects, on the other hand, think about this interaction in great depth, and I rely on them to tell me how they expect their building to be used so that I can find and create photographs that express that.


Pygmalion Karatzas: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movements in architectural photography?  
Nick Merrick:  Ken Hedrich was the first architectural photographer to move from the prevailing documentary approach of the early 20th century to a more expressive, interpretive style.  Bill Hedrich, Ezra Stoller, and Julius Shulman were the notable architectural photographers to follow in his footsteps and firmly establish the interpretive style as the dominant look of the 20th century. I think of myself as a refiner. I continue to work in that style, but with a more naturalistic lighting approach, and a more ‘stripped down to essentials’ attitude.  They all worked primarily in black and white, and creating those type of photographs in color was a huge refinement. Today, with the apparent technical ease that digital cameras provide, there seems to be a move back to a more documentary approach, just show the building, don’t edit it, don’t make photographic comments about it.  It is an interesting time.


Links:
Hedrich Blessing Photographers:
http://hedrichblessing.com
Hedrich Blessing Motion+Sound:
http://hedrichblessing.com/hedrichblessingm.html
Hedrich Blessing Archive:
http://hedrichblessing.com/classicportfolio.html
The Hedrich Blessing Archive from 1929 to 1979 is housed at the Chicago History Museum. For inquiries regarding these materials, please contact the Rights and Reproduction Department at: rightsrepro@chicagohistory.org

 

Originally published on arcspace.com, 24 October 2015.

 

Ezine edition of interview coupled with his photographic work: