Juergen Nogai is a German architecture, art and documentary photographer who studied Fine Arts, Film, Theatre and Television Science at the University of Cologne. Juergen started his freelance photography studio in Bremen where he worked for museums, architects, publishers, companies, design- and advertising agencies, but in 2000 he relocated to Los Angeles and began his decade long collaboration with architectural photographer Julius Shulman. His work is part of the permanent collections of numerous museums and his clients include many leading architectural firms and publishing houses.
Q: Mr. Nogai, thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. How did you start being involved in architectural photography?
A: Thank you, it is a pleasure. I love telling stories, and I try to do that with my photography. The truth is that I never really set out to be an “architectural” photographer per say. I was always interested in creating images by exploring the details in my world, and then using my camera as a tool to crop and edit what I saw. I always looked for “guidelines” and ways to reduce the massive visual “impressions” I took in, and distill them down into minimal, abstract images.
The Italian photographer Franco Fontana greatly influenced and inspired me, helping me to develop my compositions, whether they were landscapes, architecture, or human bodies. I was fascinated by the play between the relationships of structures and colors. Through seeing things in those ways, I began to gravitate to, and develop a strong interest in architecture, not only as an inspiring practical solution in terms of the built environment, but as an important force in our life, and what the effect that environment has on our psyche and spirit.
Q: What is your experience about the relationship between architects and the photographer?
A: I enjoy collaborative work that allows and supports everyone to express himself or herself fully, and to do what they do best. Therefore, I really enjoy working with the architects that hire me, because there is always a base feeling of mutual respect. When an architect hires me, he wants me to capture in my own way, the spirit, and the bones of his building. I enjoy discovering that spirit and helping him to reveal it. We usually have an extensive discussion about what the architect is looking for in terms of the kinds of images, specific areas of importance, and the purpose of the photos.
Something that I have often sensed is that although many architects are interested in the process of photography, by the time they are ready to show their building to the world they are too “close” to the projects, and are relieved to have someone like me tell their story.
I try and do that and tell my story of the building, in a way that the viewer, can understand and appreciate the buildings, without needing to look at extensive minutia or floor plans. I see myself as the middleman between the architect and the public.
The way the assignments run depends on what the intended use is. If the architect wants the images for documentation and self promotion, the amount of photographs can be extensive, from capturing favorite details at special times of the day, to a full portfolio of images, and that usually works out to a one or two day assignment.
If the photos are intended to be used in a magazine article, a book or are being submitted for competitions, the requirements vary.
But of course time spent photographing is also dictated by the complexity of the building itself, the site, where the light comes from and how it plays with the building and…the weather!
Each assignment varies in terms of the amount of images and how long I spend, but I can tell you that on the average, when I am photographing residences for a book project, I usually try and capture at least twelve different views.
Once I’m done, I hand everything over to the architect, magazine or publisher, and they decide what images they want to use.
Q: The built environment is one of the main subjects of your work. Could you tell us how your awareness towards it changed over the years of photographing it?
A: Well, yes. Of course the way I look at things changes as I grow with my work. When I attempt to show the buildings and show the viewer what the spirit of the building is, I hope to arouse something, and make them interested in the architecture and what the voice of the architect is, as I perceive it.
Every building leaves it’s mark on me. Every building is a new challenge and I have always enjoyed the journey, whether it was through a high-tech industrial plant, an art museum in an 19th century villa, or a modernist residence in Palm Springs.
The hope is that every building has an emotional capacity and that I can capture that in some way. All of the feelings, many of them unconscious, that we have on a daily basis as a result of the “built” environment, affect us greatly.
Q: The ten year collaboration with Julius Shulman is a landmark period for you but also an aspiring case of collaborative work between two photographers. I imagine you can fill many pages with interesting stories about it. Could you share with us a few of your most memorable experiences with him?
A: Of course there are hundreds of anecdotal stories I can tell, such as when we first met. The day we met, I was on an assignment for Taschen to photograph contemporary views of the Case Study Houses, which Julius Shulman had photographed originally. My editor, Peter Goessel warned me about Julius, saying that, ”… if I happened to meet him, never tell him that I am also a photographer, he hates other photographers.” The very first thing I did was to tell him I was a photographer, and gave him a small book of my work…and apparently that was the beginning of our relationship. He called me the very next day and asked me if I would like to work with him using my camera, as he no longer had one. We would spend the day together, feeling the waters out…and I would not be paid – that time.
Sometimes our collaboration sent us on assignments to buildings that we would otherwise have absolutely no interest in, especially Julius who had been focused most of his career on modernist architecture (he disliked the post-modernist movement). However, when we arrived at a location, we always found the fun in the assignment, and were able to enjoy the building and give it the very best we had. Julius always said, “You hire Shulman / Nogai––you get Shulman / Nogai.”
Julius was always interested in new challenges and understood how to say more with less, he always got straight to the point. One day on an assignment he picked up a section of the Los Angeles Times, pointed to an architectural image on the front page, and said to my assistant and others around us,” Here is the cover of House and Garden––Where’s the house and where’s the garden?”
Q: You still work mostly with analog large format cameras. The way I understood your reasoning (from your FABRIK interview) is has more to do with allowing the time to fully comprehend a building than with digital technologies per se. Tell us about your process in reaching the constructed view to tell a building’s story.
A: Yes, I still work with large format cameras, and I hope to do so for a long time to come, that is if I can still get the film and support services! These large,” bulky” cameras force me to think and plan precisely. I have to set lights, consider the right film, etc. It is more of a challenge and in that way more fun, however it is also physically much harder work.
Nonetheless, I also work with digital cameras, as my clients are often under time pressure, and need quick and easy digital files. I have made peace with digital photography and when I am in the flow I really enjoy it. I mostly use the digital camera the same way I use my large format to create analogue images, and try and do very little work in the post-production, no more than I would do in a darkroom. I am keenly aware of the overuse of digital technology, and in no way do I want to create a false digital version of the architecture I am trying to portray. That would undo all the joy I had in capturing the true story of the building!
People often ask me about “iconic” images, and I have to say that if an image becomes iconic, it is because of the feelings it evokes in the viewer. There is no way to go about making an iconic image, as every image should be able to transport the viewer into the moment it presents. Most of them do not of course. The symbiotic moment between photographer and subject, captured as an image, is alchemy, and sometimes an iconic image emerges, but we never really know when that will be, if ever.
In terms of a client choosing their “iconic “ image from the ones I deliver, to represent their building…that is completely up to them!
Q: Alongside your commissioned assignments you also teach architectural photographic workshops. Could you tell us about that experience?
A: I love to teach. I really enjoy the flow of ideas between myself and the people who take my workshops. I love to inspire them and give them new ways of looking at the environment and they do the same for me. The fun part about teaching is that it is also a place where I can experiment and collaborate on new ways of seeing. I have given lectures at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the Brooks Institute for Photography in Santa Barbara, The Annenberg Center for Photography, and taught workshops at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, and elsewhere. All the people with whom I talk to have a basic love of photography, so that makes it fun.
I always teach the workshops alone, but of course I have assistants helping me, with materials and logistics, especially in the larger classes. There always seems to be so much to teach, and do and time flies by.
I try and make my students aware of how to compose, how to use their heads instead of just permanently running around and “shooting.” I ask them to create a virtual image in their heads, before they press the button. I walk them around and explore the site, with them, we discuss the building and how everything; the light, the landscape, colors, people in the shots (or not,) and weather condition, how all of this plays in to developing the story they want to tell.
I tell them that the image is always done in their imagination, and that the camera is only the tool to capture what they saw, and how they want to portray it. I feel photography is an intellectual process as well, in the way that it leads one into a different way of observing reality. For what I do, a good photo is not one of luck, but of planning and searching for the best way to show how it feels. I try to give this process to my students.
Q: You were commisioned by Taschen to photograph the latter works of Frank Lloyd Wright. A trip of 7,000 miles through 16 states and a total of 45 houses. Tell us about that experience for you.
A: Oh boy, the Frank Lloyd Wright book was a challenge! I was under extreme time pressure from the moment the job came in. The assignment came to me late during the production process of the book, for reasons I cannot discuss here.
A job like that was only possible with precision planning, which was done by my wife Jeannie, who works very closely with me on most of my jobs. She helps keep me free of all the administrative aspects of the business and also accompanies my assistant and me on assignments to do ongoing production, as well as any necessary photo styling.
On this job, case, she remained “on the ground,” in the studio, literally directing me from town to town, setting up photo dates as I drove between states, arranging for cars, hotels and flights, introducing us over the phone to homeowners who agreed, (some did not) to allow me to photograph their homes.
This job was especially crazy because we had the addresses of the houses, but often, no homeowners names. The only way to reach people was to send a fed-ex package addressed to ”Resident /Homeowner”, one people would open before throwing in the trash, with an official letter of introduction from the publisher (Taschen) and a personal letter from my studio. Somehow it worked.
I had extremely limited time at each building before I had to load up my equipment and drive across a county line to the next location. Despite all that, I was somehow inspired by the unnerving schedule and having to instantly plan and think through, because I had no time to waste. The weather was the only thing I could not influence…and the food! It was crazy, but I got the job done in 4 weeks––normally a project like that would have taken 6 months.
Q: You have worked extensively both in Europe and the US. Could you tell us the differences and similarities working in these two continents?
A: Oh, there are definite differences. Starting with working in the U.S., I am still astonished at how open and receptive and welcoming most of the people are. Because I am often commissioned to photograph private residences for books and magazines, the owners are very proud and eager to share their homes. Sometimes it is unnerving how much freedom they give me, allowing me to move freely around their homes. I’ve met some wonderful people during the course of my work who have turned into very good friends. People in Europe would not so readily open their homes and let me run around into their private quarters alone.
Photographing in the city of Los Angeles is very tricky with all the property, image, icon, and licensing rights in play. For example, when working on the Abrams book: Dream Palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age, we naturally had several images in mind from homes which included the iconic Hollywood sign. Oh no we didn’t! For the right to include even the most casual view of the iconic sign, we had to get the clearances and pay. Although it is sitting in the public domain, it is not in fact a public sign, but a registered trademark and icon. No one was going to profit in any way off the Hollywood sign but the registered trademark holder. The photo fees were ludicrously expensive.
The same went for Mexico. Unfortunately, the high day photo / usage fees often prevented us from including some wonderful iconic buildings. I’ve never had any of those issues in Europe.
I also never encountered the liability issues in Europe as I do in the states. I have to be hyper-insured to offset the possibility of a damages lawsuit. Everybody is worried about being sued in the states, and that just does not happen in Europe, not to the same degree.
Q: You have a long list of clients from museums, architects, publishers, companies, advertising agencies, books and exhibitions. Could you share with us some key points about the business aspect of photography?
A: The business aspect of photography is my least favorite part. I never really had to spend time directly promoting myself, and in this way I consider myself lucky! What I mean by directly is that the books, magazine articles, interviews, and lectures seemed to do that for me, but in business sense, of course that is a kind of promotion.
I like to develop relationships with the architects I work with and the publishers as well. A great creative language comes out of long-term collaboration. Through those strong relationships others find me, and the more I work and have a chance to prove what I can do, the more work starts to come my way.
I use assistants of course, especially on the longer jobs, but really even on the one-day photo assignments, because it allows me the freedom to concentrate on my work creatively. I have assistants with who I have grown very close, and remain so. And as I mentioned before, my wife also works with me both administratively and creatively.
Working with her as my stylist is very uncomplicated, as we speak the same aesthetic language! We walk into a room as I am composing the image and she already knows what to take away or what to add. There is a lot of taking away…
Copyright issues are the biggest pain for every photographer. At some point I became a member of an organization in Germany with worldwide reach, the VG Bild-Kunst, a legal organizations that deals with copyright issues and negotiations in all printed and all digital media. But of course, we have to stay vigilant, and have far too often discovered my photos being used in books without my knowledge. Not fun. As far as my clients go, I always retain the copyrights to the images. I have on occasion accepted buyouts, but very rarely. If a client: architect, private homeowner, corporation has paid for my services, I give them the rights to the images for their own promotion and use. I always work with my clients to help the images get published, even if a publisher does not want to pay the usual usage fees. I don’t want to make that a habit, but I think it is important to be flexible and listen to your heart.
Q: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there are also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries?
A: Let me start with Julius Shulman. He would say that he was lucky that his gallerist Craig Krull saw more in his work than commercial documentation of buildings and architecture, that he saw the artistic, creative, and cultural aspect of his photos. Craig Krull brought his photos to the level of fine art, and Julius became an “artist,” which was something he never really thought about. He only called himself a photographer, not a fine artist. He never set out to create a piece of art, or had the intention to create iconic images, as he said, “…I just simply made good photos!”
Interestingly, Julius’ private photography was something he was really proud of, and that never really got recognized and exhibited. I am lucky enough to live with some of them.
As for myself, I began my photo career with early exhibitions and for a while, drifted towards fine-art prints. After numerous shows, those were seen by advertising agencies and became the basis of my commercial work, which has now led me back to gallery exhibitions once again. It is often a blurry line, as commercial work easily crosses over into the art world, as has been proven over and over in the world of fashion, advertising, and celebrity photography. Now we are back to the iconic image discussion!
Whether you are consciously or unconsciously trying to create a work of art it does not really matter. It is important to love what you do.
Q: What are your thoughts about the shift from print to online media? Has it affected the way architectural photographers work and do architects approach the dissemination of their work differently?
A: Hmmm, the digital media issues! Online media is fast, easy and affordable to use. This has affected everything from scheduling, contract negotiations, image prep and delivery times. Hands down, everything is faster. And is expected to be faster. Online media is also an amazing tool for architects who are creating projects in other parts of the world, making presentations across continents, and all the organizational aspects of running business at home and abroad. Doing site plans, detailed views of models, etc. The same goes for photography in terms of photojournalism.
The constant availability of images is staggering and in this vast net of information, images can get lost in the sheer numbers of them, but ironically, at the same time, they survive forever. The makers of images could never say that before.
There is an important factor that I notice for myself while reading digital text and looking at digital images, verses analogue photographs or actually holding a book in my hands. Because the large providers are profit driven, the online world is now constantly bombarded with advertising pop-up flash animations, windows appearing out of nowhere while you are trying to concentrate on the written words, or examine an image. I feel that there is constant distraction and therefore less time in a way to appreciate what we are viewing and reading. This has lowered the overall quality of the images in general, by forcing images to become a bit cookie-cutter-saturated to attract, in order to compete with the distraction of pop-up ads. Hopefully the next step is a new net that will evolve into a higher more refined level. It’s not a question of digital or analogue, it’s a question of quality.
Q: I recently read this quote by architect and curator Pedro Gadanho: “You must have already noticed that within the world of contemporary photography, architectural photography has become a field apart in recent years. It has won its autonomy. It has its own history and references. It has its own authors and subgenres. It is about to achieve perfection.” Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movement(s) in architectural photography?
A: There are many different kinds of architectural photography, and we have to recognize that as a genre, it is part of a broader movement in photography in general.
What I mean is, that there are architectural images that make you feel as though you are in a candy store: kitschy, saturated blue skies you would never see in reality, and that results in a sort of hyper-real portrayal of the architecture itself. These portrayals almost seem to reach a point in which they become architectural renderings.
Then there’s another form of architectural photography, which I would describe as the “ simple capture,” which seems to mirror back in a hyper-clean way, without drama or without any underlying story, no compositional storytelling. The building is just like a building.
When Pedro Gadanho spoke about architectural photography saying,”…is about to achieve perfection,” that is difficult for me to understand, because as I said, photography is ever evolving just like the architecture it portrays. Wouldn’t that be saying that we have achieved architectural perfection, and that ‘s another interview ?
As far as my own work, I don’t relate to either of the examples I just gave, but rather see myself as creating images that capture a part of reality, the reality that I am experiencing. That alone is already subjective enough!
I use the building, or work with the building in order to tell it’s story clearly, and of course my work is “clean’ but that comes as a result of my thoughts as I compose the image. As I have mentioned earlier, I have no interest in creating a virtual-world, by “conquering” the image with photography software.
As an educator, I have seen photography schools, which gave up all their darkrooms and switched completely to digital photography, and this is a big mistake in my opinion. Just as artists must understand the skeleton to one day draw a convincing animated character, I see that photography students should go through the “bones,” the entire photographic process, in order to be able to decide later, how they would like to use the latest emerging digital media, to achieve their vision. The fundamental knowledge of traditional photography gives students a strong foundation to create meaningful and powerful images.
I think that every technology has its place and uses, and of course it is important to mix them up and cross boundaries. However, a successful cross-pollination is only possible if you have worked hard to develop the fundamental strengths to achieve your goal. Abstraction has to riff off of structure.
This was important to Julius as well. He wanted to make people see before they pressed the button. He became very impatient with aspiring photography students who would arrive at a lecture with smart-phones. and start “clicking away.”
He donated money to Woodbury University in hopes of creating a true school of photography as he thought it should be. He often said,” We are not hunters, we are not shooting.”
Link to Juergen Nogai photography:
Link to Nogai_Shulman Archive (video):
Link to Visual Acoustics documentary (video):
Link to Juergen Nogai publications:
Originally published on arcspace.com, 19 March 2014.
Ezine edition of interview coupled with his photographic work: