Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Photographing Buildings

There have been a few comments on earlier posts made recently about what it might mean to photograph buildings, versus people, especially with reference to structures with vigorously defended copyrights (Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower).

The first thing to note is that an encounter with a building is not, fundamentally, a social encounter. Yes, yes, you could fiddle about and say that it is after all because "social" means a lot of things or whatever, but what I mean is not that. When we meet a human being, these is a whole mess of communication, of back and forth, and glances, body language, words, gestures. None of that happens with a building.

So, a photograph of a building does not constitute a bisected social interaction in the way that a photo of a person does. Yes, both photos conjure you into the presence of the subject, but the building's half of the interaction is pretty much the same as it would be in real life. It just sits there. You can't go into it, or walk around it, but otherwise the interaction is pretty much the same. Where we lack the instinctive/somatic tools to make complete sense out of a photo of a person, I do not think that we lack those tools to make sense of a building photo.

The practical issue you encounter when you photograph the Opera House is copyright, of course. If I photograph your photograph, I've copied it, and the right to do so is to a degree controlled by you. Ditto a painting. The line gets blurrier when the object is a sculpture, or when your art is only part of my picture, and the laws bend, duck, and weave in efforts to accomodate that.

Architects, I think, claim that the visual form of their buildings is a thing that it subject to copyright? And that therefore they should be permitted to exert a degree of control over anyone copying that?

This sounds like bullshit to me, to be blunt. By placing the building in public, they permit it to be seen. The gap between being seen and being photographed is not that big. We are at the very remote end of a spectrum, far away from the "photographing a photo" end, and I think that legally this is the extreme end as well. Copyright law has been stretched this far, but not much farther. This seems like a purely monetary deal to me, the architect or designer wishes to both put their work out in to public spaces, but simultaneously control as much as possible about ways one might turn the visual form of the thing into money.

This seems to be related to ideas around the ownership of ones own likeness. While an attractive idea, it's not at all clear to me what a reasonable basis for this is. Privacy seems like a reasonable thing, the idea that I might want to get up to shit that's none of anyone's business is real and ought to be protected. The idea, though, that I can parade around in public, be seen, and still somehow control my likeness by judicious use of the law seems absurd.

While there is an argument to be made that "well, this is the sweat of my brow, I reserve the right to profit from it" the argument seems a little thin, and tends toward stifling the desirable consequences of copyright rather than encouraging them.

The point of copyright is to increase creation for the public good, not to turn every goddamned thing into a money spinner.


  1. “If I photograph your photograph, I've copied it, and the right to do so is to a degree controlled by you.” ONLY to a degree - remember Richard Price’s appropriation of the Marlboro Cowboy? Sam Abell was not a happy camper, although Phillip Morris USA likely owned the photo.

  2. I can understand why we photograph buildings. They are part of the environment in which most people grow up now, so they are interesting to us. From that point of view, photographing natural landscapes is exotic, so maybe that's why we're interested in them.
    One minor thing that has annoyed me for a while is trademarked corporate logos on buildings. If you take a photo of that skyline, you're limited in selling that image because of the presence of the logo, I believe. I know that stock photo agencies reject photos in which trademarks appear, even if inadvertent. So something was taken away from me by the presence of that logo for which I received no compensation from that corporation. But then I'm really offended by advertising billboards that ruin my view, so I might be out of time.

  3. Copyright in photographying buildings only intervenes when you're starting to make money out of the pictures. This means that for 99% of the people, it is a non-issue.

  4. I suspect in many cases, it's about controlling (or 'protecting') the image of the builder/architect/owner as much as directly spinning money. Also a reflexive legal clause because everyone else is doing it, so if you don't, what's wrong with your building (or your lawyer)? Lawyers make money from lawsuits. Ergo ...

  5. I haven't read any of the foregoing that you are responding to but, I think you are barking up the wrong tree a bit here.

    For architects our interest in copyright over buildings doesn't extend to visual representations like photographs. In the main Architects are delighted if our designs pop up on instagram or (in the recent past) Flickr feeds. On the other hand if you made a building that was exactly like one I designed I'd be rather miffed, unless you were the client that commissioned the design. Even then, if you get another designer in to implement that design (this happens often with branded environments like shops, mass homebuilding) you'd better be sure that you have the rights to do so, which like anything can be bought.

    The reason for enforceable copyright of the image of a building can vary too, in your Eiffel tower example it's not the building that's got copyright controls it's the lighting. So if you are in Paris during the day, go for it.

    Buildings are a social construct and have meaning, but it's all mainly derived from a wider social context which needs to be taken into consideration. I don't believe it's possible to tell the whole human story of a place without reference to all of; people, their environment and the prevailing political climate. As soon as those facts come in to play you'd get fair use - so a photograph of rough sleeper's tents under the Eiffel Tower would be OK (aside from France's stringent privacy laws...)

    Sadly too many enthusiast photographs of buildings are simply meaningless technical exercises in pretty photographic techniques or 2d composition (c.f. the late, unlamented Ming Thien), in the same way that much landscape photography is. Of course this is what the purveyors of architecture like to see, but it does ring hollow. The best images include people, Julius Shulman included models and assistants in his images and, along with David Hockney's paintings they still pretty much define the world's view of Californian 60's Modern.

    Yet going beyond further is often controversial with the architectural profession who, like any purveyors of anything, do prefer coverage to be positive - check out the reaction to the august UK publication Architectural Review's gritty late 60's experiment 'Manplan' which reduced their circulation month on month.

  6. Not THAT Ross CameronOctober 12, 2020 at 3:04 AM

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the additional clarification. I think the point is sinking in :~)
    OK - trying to swing back to the original point, so we’re essentially taking human social interactions, and inserting an image of some type in the middle. Apart from recording the light in that instant, because the light includes the recognisable image of a person, another person viewing that images implies that the image also recorded some aspect of how humans relate, even if indirectly. I can view an image of a great-great-grandparent who was born, and has passed away, long before I was even conceived. And yet, I recognise a person in the image and am therefore able to relate to that image.
    Getting warm, or am I still about 2 articles behind ;~)

    1. Indeed!

      I am still sorting through exactly what I think, here, and also what good language is for talking about it.

      My thesis is, essentially, that when you look at that photo of your great-great-grandparent you react, your body reacts, a little bit *as* *if* you were actually meeting that person.

      You feel, a little, the same way as you would if you were literally present with them.

      They, of course, feel nothing whatever!

    2. So you've never attended a seance.