News & Features » Miscellany

Norman McGrath, the dean of architectural photographers, offers tips on how to bring a building to life.

Building a Photograph

"Architectural Photography of Norman McGrath & Associates."
6 E. Broad St.
Through Oct. 28

"I don't think that I have ever given a lecture at this hour of the day," a dapper but understated Norman McGrath admits to some 20 fellow photographers who have arisen extra early to attend a lecture/workshop with the man who is arguably the dean of architectural photographers. On Saturday, Oct. 2, as a hazy morning light shines through the large back windows of Artspace, a gallery at 6 E. Broad St., attendees fill their clear plastic cups with orange juice, collect a final Krispy Kreme doughnut and settle into folding metal chairs. McGrath, casually dressed, lectures in a conversational style as a series of his images flash onto the screen, which titters on a spindly tripodal base.

"We share an interest in the documentation of architecture," he says, immediately creating a sense of camaraderie among those assembled. But, he points out, none of them would photograph the same building in the same way.

McGrath's work is formalistic. He appears to seek out the most powerful feature of a building and then hone in. by picking a powerful section rather than going for the entire facade or structure, he makes it appear as if the building has life of its own. A photograph from the 1960s, a from-above shot of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York, shows the intricate zigzags of the roof of the McKim, Meade & White landmark which was demolished amid great protests. In the photograph the building becomes not only a pleasing abstract, but also a kind of reptilian figure. In McGrath's photo of the interior of Boeutcher Hall in Denver, by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the photographer focuses on the webbed ceiling. The structure could be a wooden bushel basket as much as a place for enjoying classical music.

These photos and others are on display at Artspace through Oct. 28 along with photos by other architectural photographers including Claudia Goetzelmann, David Lamb, Barry Miller, Bruce Nagel, Ellen Small and Robert Valentine. Suffice it to say, these images expand the confines of the galleries considerably.

The works that McGrath is showing are all black and white. "It is one of the best media for the documentation of architecture," he tells the workshop group. But regrettably, he says he receives only a few assignments annually for black and white work.

As McGrath shows his pictures to the assembled, however, he speaks not of formal qualities, but (as is often the case when artists and craftspeople assemble) of materials and equipment and approaches. Alluding to a deal he struck with the manufacturer, he says he put away a Nikon camera and has been using Canon equipment. Yes, McGrath is to architectural photographers what Michael Jordan is to basketball.

"Keen observation is what the whole field is about; you have to decide for yourself how to approach it," McGrath says. "Today is not focused on my viewpoint, I want all participants to be involved."

With that, the slide presentation is cut short (the lighting isn't ideal). The participants hoist their gear into cars parked at nearby curbs, and head for Old City Hall where the photographers will spend a morning shooting. Later in the day, McGrath will critique their

Add a comment