TUTTI FOTOGRAFI MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
Interview for Tutti Fotografi Magazine.
Tutti Fotografi: When, where and why did your passion for photography begin? What kind of equipment did you use at first? How have these years of fervent technological evolution passed through your work?
Pygmalion Karatzas: During my adolescence years I developed a fascination for cinema and in combination with my studies in architecture, visual arts became a field I admired and enjoyed studying. Drawing, painting, photography, graphics, design, cinematography, were interesting to me from both sides of viewer and creator. After dipping my toes in landscape, street and travel photography during my university years in Hungary and Scotland (1991-96) using analogue cameras, I mainly used photography to document my architectural designs back in Greece (1999 - 2012). Around that time a confluence of events brought back to the forefront my interest in photography: learning post-processing in photoshop for architectural renderings, the advancement of DSLRs and high dynamic range in photography, the booming of web photo sharing platforms, and the construction decline during the European financial crisis. With a Nikon D90, a Nikkor 18-105mm lens, a tripod and some Neutral Density filters, I started to experiment with long exposure photography. The minimalist landscapes and cityscapes I admired in photographers like David Burdeny and Michael Kenna were some of my inspirations and aspiration. At the same time, through the photographic lens I started to re-evaluate my architectural photography and to study professional architectural photographers as the photo editor for the Danish Architecture Center and their e-zine arcspace.com. Combining these two creative fields - architecture and photography - became my main focus. Traveling around Greece, in some European countries and in Qatar, I got to start building a portfolio of fine art and editorial architectural photography, receiving distinctions at international photography competitions and participating in exhibitions. With this body of work produced over a period of three years (2012 - 2014), I received the Fulbright Artist Scholarship and traveled around the U.S. in twelve cities to explore further a multi-perspectival approach to architectural photography. My main gear had switched to Nikon D800, the Nikkor 14-24mm lens, the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest IRND filters, and additional post-processing workflows in Lightroom. So, to answer the last part of your question, the technological evolution has indeed been happening fast, but it hasn’t changed that much for me. When I found what gear I wanted and needed to use for the type of photography I am doing, I remained with it long enough to accustom myself to the point the technical aspects don’t get in the way of the creative aspects. There are always additional gear and tools we can add but in service of the project and vision of the work.
Tutti Fotografi: What do you want to express, transmit or represent today through your images and your style?
Pygmalion Karatzas: I see myself wearing two hats: When working on commissioned assignments for architects and businesses, capturing and representing their buildings and spaces as best as I can is the main objective. On the one end of the spectrum is the personal expression and impression, being true to oneself and to the medium; and on the other end of the spectrum is being true to the project and client, the interpersonal and transpersonal expression. I feel the best work is done when both sides of this spectrum merge and co-create. As an overall mentality, my approach is influenced by my desire and pleasure I had as a student and practicing architect to study buildings and cities I didn’t have the opportunity to visit in person, as well as my love for architecture and urban design. The last years being behind the lens, the love for photography was added, which is summed up in the desire and continuous effort to produce the best possible imagery that describe, highlight and fully cover every project, creating a portfolio and archive that is useful and valuable to the multiple groups of people involved in its realisation and the broader public.
When working on personal projects, I think a transmission that comes across is that of exploring photographically the built and natural environment, finding memorable connections to it, the splendour and joy of being out there working with elements within and beyond our control. In architecture, in photography, and in art we find the intention to put order into chaos. Life, on the other hand, is more messy; hence I believe there is an inherent attraction to more tranquil visuals and moments. In the same way we ideally desire from the public their attention while viewing our work, we as creators also try to present it clear from distractions. The more ad hoc our environment is, the more we have the need to add some order, even if it is a momentary one visible through a particular frame like a spell on visual cacophony.
Tutti Fotografi: Where do you usually get your inspiration from? How do you organize your photographic projects? Are there any curious or funny stories to share that happened while you were shooting?
Pygmalion Karatzas: As the quote from Ansel Adams goes “you don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Nowadays inspiration is available to us by the minute at our fingertips, which has its advantages, but I do prefer the “old-school” notion that in an organic and intangible way we bring all the knowledge, references, influences, biases, predispositions, preferences, conditioning, limitations, backgrounds, etc. to our every click. Aside this general preface, I get my inspiration from studying the work of other photographers. It is also important to allow for the project/subject itself to inspire you. The more time we spend with our subjects, the more they speak to us.
My photographic work generally speaking is organised either by project or thematically by subject. Some projects though are the product of a single day’s photo shoot, while other projects have been a lot more complicated and extensive in duration and body of work produced, so for those cases additional organisational rationals are applied. For example, images presented in this feature are part of a larger project: ‘Integral Lens - multi perspectival approaches to the study and representation of the built environment’. A visual journey of contemporary architecture and cityscapes from United States taken during a 5-month visit, awarded by the Fulbright Foundation Greece in collaboration with the College of Architecture and Design of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Five books have been compiled with 10 series and more than 30 monographs on specific buildings.
Tutti Fotografi: Composition and balancing are two of the most evident elements that emerge from your work. At the same time the blacks seem to be an important part of your aesthetic. Did these elements evolve since you started or have they always been present in your images?
Pygmalion Karatzas: It’s true these elements are evident in my frames. In my architectural studies and practice composition had been an important design elements so inevitably it was present when I started with photography; it doesn’t mean though it didn’t need evolving. Looking back at my photography before I started practicing it professionally I see many compositional flaws or weaknesses.
In a recent architectural photography course I taught along with prof. of architecture Mark DeKay, we took the compositional tools of Steve McCurry for street/travel photography and Ian Plant for landscape photography and we applied them to architectural photography (link: https://issuu.com/pygmalionkaratzas/docs/utk_gr19_course_material). Using these 18 composition tools as a starting point, there is a lot of room to evolve our images for new and experienced photographers alike.
Tutti Fotografi: Does technical equipment influence the aesthetic result of images and projects? Can you please tell us what is today your standard equipment for professional commitments or for a personal job?
Pygmalion Karatzas: My standard equipment these days are Nikon D800, Nikkor 14-24mm and 24-70mm lenses, Manfrotto 055 tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head, Formatt-Hitech Firecrest IRND filter 3.0; and for post-processing Photoshop and Lightroom. With drone collaborators we use either the DJI Mavic 2 Pro or the Phantom 4. Being able to capture wider angles with the 14mm lens or to expose for 2-4 min. with the 10-stop ND filter are the more straightforward influences of such gear. Using Lightroom and Photoshop also affects technically the results giving a more natural high dynamic range, contrast and sharpness to the images. It remains a valid point that the gear doesn’t make the photographer, but at the same time in order to achieve very specific results certain equipment are needed.
Tutti Fotografi: In your opinion, what is the most important element that could make a photograph look great? (Light? Composition? Technical perfection? … Development?)
Pygmalion Karatzas: I would say all the above, plus the subject matter itself and what the image transmits to us when we view it, the feelings and thoughts it evokes, the concept and vision of the creator, to name a few more. Experiencing an image has two components working together: on the one hand we have all these technical aspects as you mentioned (composition, light, development if it is in print), and yet on the other hand we also have the consciousness / interiority of the viewer, his attention, focus, interest, predispositions, etc. Photographer and Zen teacher John Daido Loori in his book ‘The Zen of creativity’ elaborates on these later aspects as much as he does on the former. Interested readers can read more about this in the article ‘Zen and Photography’ - https://www.pygmalionkaratzas.com/articlezen.
If one is interested in creating images, then of course going “behind the curtain” and learning how to do them is useful and necessary. But when one is viewing an image, all the how-to can become a distraction from fully connecting to it and experiencing it. In his section titled ‘Jeweled Mirror’ he talks about how creative feedback helps us find out the impression our work has on the audience and evaluate the extend that it relates to our initial intentions. It is emphasised here that as we enter a particular state of consciousness when creating art, the same is valid for the act of perceiving art works. He also discusses the issue of “barriers” in artistic expression and experience like originality, attachment, being overly influenced by our teachers or the photographers we have studied, and how these barriers can become our blind spots.
Tutti Fotografi: Do you try to maintain through your projects and works a coherent aesthetic style? How can you do that? Which are the linking elements through different works?
Pygmalion Karatzas: One way to accomplish a coherent project is to use the same point of view while photographing diverse subjects. My series ‘Nortigo’ utilises the perspective of looking straight up towards the sky while photographing interior and exterior spaces. The linking element in this case is the one-point perspective. In the series ‘AQAL views’ the linking element was water in cityscapes. By using long exposure, the water surface is smoothened allowing for the cityscapes to be punctuated. Square 1x1 format or pano 2x1 format also assist in the formulation of the continuity. In the series ‘Boomeritis’, featured here, landmark buildings are treated as portraits either in their context or in closeups setting them apart. In this case the protagonist is architecture itself, form and materiality becomes the linking element. In the book collection ‘Integral Lens’ I edited these series together and the organisational element was scale, going from part to whole to group to system.
Tutti Fotografi: In a certain way the approach to shooting, developing and printing of Zone System is very similar to today’s Shooting-for-Data that is commonly used in Raw photography. How important is nowadays thinking of the aim of an image when planning a shot?
Pygmalion Karatzas: When I was photographing with film I was not printing my own negatives so I don’t have a first-hand experience with that process but as far as I understand it nowadays the way we work with the digital negative (raw file) is similar. In my own work and genre I tend to underexpose in order to be able to work with the highlights and shadows in Lightroom during post. Another thing to consider that affects the photo shoot is using a tripod in order to be able to shoot in low ISO values under any light condition, which also relates to the aim of the image - that of being able to process it with less noise.
Tutti Fotografi: Is still the print the preferred destination for a B&W shot? What are the best printing practices that you’ve come across so far?
Pygmalion Karatzas: Having our images in our hands printed is for me too still the preferred end product of photography, be it in books, magazines, public exhibitions, private collections, decorating spaces, etc. With the volume of images produced and “consumed” nowadays and the taking over of the dissemination by the web, inevitably we end up printing less of our work and online viewing outlets are the new norm. I have been using various printing studios in my region (Aegion, Patras and Athens) for my fine art prints and blurb.com for my portfolios and monographs. I have been satisfied with the printing quality of Blurb and their user interface.
Tutti Fotografi: Talking about your specific photographic genre, not only to B&W photography, what are the main limitations of new photographers who try their hand into your genre?
Pygmalion Karatzas: This past year I developed and conducted with prof. of architecture Mark DeKay and editor/coach Susanne Bennett from the University of Tennessee Knoxville an academic photography course on architectural and landscape photography. Some of the difficulties I noticed our students dealing with had to do with gear, with post-processing, with composition and framing, with allowing more time to fully explore a location or subject; and finding a comfortable balance between dealing with the technical aspects, envisioning their end product, and enjoying themselves in the process. Which is totally understandable when one is starting out. We structured the course to include classroom presentations, in situ workshops with the instructors, assignments to explore places photographically on their own, and guest talks / guided tours with local professionals in the related fields. The fast-paced rhythm of dealing with new information, people and places required for our exterior professional advancement was counterbalanced with the contemplative and reflective mindset needed for our interior personal and interpersonal development. If you do love your field and are eager to work hard on your advancement, the limitations became challenges used creatively. I am happy to say, all our students embraced these challenges and enjoyed themselves while doing it.
Tutti Fotografi: Please give to our readers some tips for getting the best out of their B&W photos. If you’d like the most, instead of these tips, you could tell us 5 good reasons to choose B&W photography and / or 5 good reasons… not to!
Pygmalion Karatzas: Some images work nicely in black & white, while others in colour, and there are also cases where desaturated or muted colours add to the feel of the image. Some people even make things more graphic with parts of the frame in B&W and parts in colour. All these are fine in my opinion as long as they work aesthetically and visually with the image. I work in B&W, in colour and sometimes in between. I will edit some images both in B&W and colour, then I will decide which version I prefer more, sometimes the choice is obvious that one works and the other doesn’t; but there are also times that I like both edits and I will use them in different contexts. For example the first image in this feature (Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle) has been edited in both versions, the B&W fits well in the ‘Boomeritis’ series while the colour works better in the ‘Nortigo’ series. The colour version adds a layer of visual information, the B&W version subtracts a layer of visual information. Technically speaking, I could push contrast and dodge & burn more in the B&W, whereas if you do it in colour in tends to oversaturate and looses its natural feel. I have read some beautiful explanations and analyses on the use and affect of B&W photography, I do agree with some of their points. In some cases colour can be distracting to how the photographer wants the viewer to experience his image, and a B&W treatment can add take the viewer beyond our usual ways of perception. I have also noticed the transition of postmodern photography to colour, I can appreciate their view that making a colour image work can be more difficult and their position for a return to realism at that particular evolution of photographic history. I have answered around the question because I prefer not to give such “aphoristic” statements. If one considers the broader field, things are not so black and white (pun intended).
Tutti Fotografi: Can you choose a "Favorite Photo" from your archive and tell us how, where and when it was taken? Why do you love it? Tell us something more about it…
Pygmalion Karatzas: We tend to speak more about our latest work, but in this case I will choose an image from my earlier series ‘Morphogenesis’ and the image ‘MAXXI Museum’. It also includes a curious story about its creation, which was one of your earlier questions. The image was taken in 2013 in Rome at the MAXXI Museum. I walked from the Colosseum all the way to MAXXI (5,3 km.) with all my gear (camera, tripod, filters) to capture some long exposure images of this building by Zaha Hadid, only to find out to my disappointment that I wasn’t allowed to set my tripod even outside at the courtyard. So I ended up taking hand-held shots. I used my Nikon D90 and the 18-105mm lens. For this particular shot I wanted a square frame so I took two images and stitched them together to get more negative space on the top. I replaced the sky with another long exposure sky which I felt was a good fit to counterbalance the diagonal extrusion of the building. So one part of the story relates to the limitations and obstacles we meet related to our gear or the conditions in the field. The second part of the story relates to the life our work has after its creation, and to the ‘reception and response’ aspect in art and literary theory. The image - as the cover, along with a selection of related images from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland, Greece and Qatar, comprising the ‘Morphogenesis’ project, was featured in numerous fine art and architectural publications, received distinctions in international photography competitions, was part of exhibitions and fundraising in Italy and Greece, and culminating in being the portfolio awarded an artistic scholarship. Aside the obstacles of its creation and the accolades that followed, for me it is an image that combines representational and expressive approaches to architectural photography; it can stand alone as an independent visual artwork and be part of an editorial coverage of this iconic building.
01. Museum of Pop Culture (Experience Music Project Museum) in Seattle designed by Frank Gehry, 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas
The building is located in the Seattle Center, originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair. I had seen beautiful images from this building by my colleague Andrew Prokos and when I got the change to visit Seattle in January 2016, it was a must on my list of buildings to photograph. I spend the whole day doing a complete editorial photo shoot with exterior, interior, day, dusk, and long exposure shots. At some point during sunset, sun rays hit the gold metallic facade and its fluid geometry creates a very photogenic play between form and light. The square crop of this particular frame was done to align with a series of images (titled ‘Boomeritis) showcasing closeups of diverse architectural languages, their materiality and forma.
02. Rainier Tower in Seattle designed by Minoru Yamasaki, 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas.
This 156 m skyscraper (by the same architect who designed the World Trade Center in New York) was completed in 1977, and has an unusual appearance, being built atop an 11-stoery concrete pedestal base that tapers towards ground level like an inverted pyramid. To emphasise this feature, while at the same time keeping the frame aligned with the Boomeritis series, I processed it in high-contrast, applying difference exposure values on the main facade with layer masks, some local dodge and burn, and I also applied a tilt-shift filter around the edges to further bring the viewers eye in. Photographed during the same trip to Seattle in January 2016 as the MoPOP image, while wondering around the city center.
03. Mechanics Monument Plaza in San Francisco, 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas
On the intersection of Market and Battery Streets in San Francisco there is a small city plaza called ‘Mechanics Monument Plaza’. The corner office building on the north side has a distinct wave-like facade with black & white stripes separating the floors. During my photo-walk in the city on January 2016, I met with fine art photographer Nathan Wirth to talk about photography and visit some of his favourite spots. I had seen images of this characteristic building focusing on the facade, so I decided on a frame that sets it in “dialogue” with the neighbouring skyscrapers, adding to the dynamic design by comparison. It was a one-minute long exposure shot with neutral density filter, but even though it was a cloudy day, the sky was changing fast from clear to full of clouds. At the time I was eager to capture more cloud movement, but at the end I prefer this image with less of a dramatic background. The proverb “Zebras don’t change their stripes” springs to mind when I see the image; the notion dating back to Biblical times that we can’t change our essential nature.
04. Marina City Towers in Chicago designed by Bertrand Goldberg, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
This mixed-use building complex opened in 1967 and in 2016 was designated a Chicago Landmark. It was the first post-war urban high-rise development credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities. The bottom 19 floors form an exposed spiral parking. Beneath the platform, at river level, is a small marina for pleasure crafts, giving the project its name. Its iconic structure has appears in popular culture in music albums, TV and cinema. I chose this frame following the one-point perspective of the camera looking straight up to pair some of the ‘Boomeritis’ images. The photo walk took place in mid December of 2015, raining on and off, which made in my view a good case for photographing in “bad weather”. I was disappointed at first to not have more favourable conditions for architectural photography, wind and temperature made the photo shoots more difficult, but some of my favourite images from that day were under such conditions, giving me the mental note not to be discouraged by bad weather.
05. JFK Presidential Library & Museum in Chicago designed by I.M. Pei, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
I visited the JFK building on November 2015 during a photo-walk with fine art photographer Thibault Roland who was living in Boston at the time. Having a clear sky day, I focused on doing an editorial photo coverage of the interior and exterior, but as I was processing the images I found in some of them the opportunity to process them in black & white with additional contrast and local dodge and burn. Inaugurated in 1979, Pei’s designs give plenty of frames for formalistic compositions, using parts of the building as leading lines.
06. InterActiveCorp Office Building in New York designed by Frank Gehry, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
I was photographing in New York for about two weeks in November 2015, covering as much ground as possible every day, to photograph the numerous landmark projects of the city. The Inter Active Corp office building designed by Frank Gehry was completed in 2007 located in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan. The cell unites have the appearance of sails skinned over the skeleton of the building, which is more evident from across 11th Avenue. I used a 30-sec long exposure with neutral density filters to reduce the heavy traffic in front of the building and a dark background/foreground to emphasise the white treatment of this facade.
07. McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago designed by OMA, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
The McCormick Tribune Campus Center is located in Mies van der Rohe’s 1940 masterplan for the Illinois Institute of Technology. Opened in 2003, it was the first building designed by architect Rem Koolhaas within United States, featuring a noise-absorbing steel tube wrapping the elevated metro that runs directly over the building and, inside, a dense mosaic of programs (bookstore, cafe, auditorium, computer centre, meeting spaces). On Dec. 6 2015 I visited the campus to photograph some of the historic buildings and the latest additions. I experimented with the exposure times every time the train was passing in order to find the right one, as too long would make the train disappear completely because it was moving fast, not long enough wouldn’t capture the movement I wanted. In composition tools we often mention that diagonals add movement in our frames; in this case the diagonal movement is both metaphorical and literal, which I felt was well-fitting for this building.
08. Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas
I had spend a couple of weeks in Los Angeles between Dec 15 and Jan 16 photographing in various locations of this 100-mile “satellite” metropolis - as Deyan Sudjic called it in his book - which of course is impossible to cover extensively during such a time-frame, so during the last day a good friend of mine living in LA suggested we do a “drive-by photo shoot” of placed I couldn’t fit in the schedule of the previous days. Driving on Wilshire Boulevard, we made a stop at the iconic “Johnie’s Coffee Shop”, which was not functioning as a dinner but only as a set for movies like the Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs, American History X. Across the street was the newly renovated Petersen Automotive Museum. With a 100 tons stainless-steel ribbon assembly facade, it attracted my attention. Having little time, I could only take a few shots from across the street against the sun. Closing down the aperture allowed the sun to appear as a starburst. Additional post-processing was applied to further hide the unwanted elements at the edges and a tilt-shift filter to reduce the radiance of the sun. Local dodge & burning was applied to emphasise the ribbon assembly. One would assume that in natural lighting conditions a surface in which the sun is behind it, would be in shade, but in same cases the surface is lit by the strong reflections of the sun from the buildings across, which existed in the original and punctuated in post.
09. Bay Bridge, San Francisco 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas
During my visit in San Francisco, the famous and highly photographed Golden Gate Bridge was under heavy rain while the day I was photographing around the Embarcadero waterfront I had good weather. The unpleasant conditions turned my efforts to capture some long exposure urban waterscapes in other locations around the city that might have not been on my list coming in but turned out to be equally rewarding, which was another lesson to remain open and keep exploring an area. The Bay Bridge (shown in this image) and the Aquatic Bay (shown in the next image) are two such examples. The Integral Lens (link https://www.blurb.com/b/8010730-integral-lens) collection curation started with closeup details and portraits of individual buildings and zooms out to public urban spaces and cityscapes, following my personal educational trajectory from studying architecture to my masters in urban design, as well as the broader notion that architecture is ultimately “the stage on which our lives unfold” - to quote the Italian architect and historian Bruno Zevi (‘Architecture as Space’).
10. Aquatic Pier, San Francisco 2016 © Pygmalion Karatzas
Continuing the story behind the photo shoot of the previous image (Bay Bridge), the next urban waterfront location I explored during my San Francisco visit in January 2016 was the Maritime National Historic Park. The hike up to Black Point gave a good vantage point of the Aquatic Park Cove overlooking the pier and Alcatraz Island in the background. The overcast weather and the time approaching to dusk I got a 2 min. long exposure with “cracks” of light barely making it through. The happy accident was that they kind of followed the shape of the pier as it was formed from that perspective radiating from the off center point of interest between the pier corner and the island, which is one of the reasons this image is special for me - effort plus good luck is always a good combination.
11. Charles River Esplanade & Back Bay, Boston, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
Having lived most of my life near the water, a deep connection with this element has been formed. Scenes that combine landscapes with waterscapes are dear to my heart, which also explains my attraction to the minimalist long exposure imagery of photographers like Michael Kenna, David Burdeny, and the plethora of other artists that comprise this expanding fine art genre. Arriving in places, the new and unfamiliar instinctively is counterbalanced by the familiarity of the waterfront. When we put aside all the analyses and pause from all the search, we find what they refer in Zen as “the beginner’s mind”, a fresh look as if we just witnessed the wonders of this world. When all is said and done, comes a peaceful feeling of completion and the shear joy of being. When we momentarily drop all we know and the anxiety of the unknown, we can rest in “one taste”, in the unifying consciousness that all are one.
12. Lower Manhattan, New York, 2015 © Pygmalion Karatzas
Urbanisation trends show the majority of the world’s population living in major urban areas, making the city our ultimate home. One of my favourite quotes is from David Harvey’s ‘The condition of postmodernity’ - “Living in a city is an art and we need the vocabulary of art to describe the peculiar relation between humans and the material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, that the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics.” I would like to acknowledge fellow photographer John Kosmopoulos for this image as it was during our photo-walk in New York that it was taken at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, Old Pier 1. The Manhattan skyline is such an iconic feature of the city and this abandoned pillars create an excellent leading line. I chose not to put my tripod all the way down at the waterfront, but further back to include retaining wall rocks as a gesture of the city rising out of them.