An exploration of architectural photography William Klein and Julius Shulman 


Introduction: People can't digest visual food well.

"I see through my eyes, not with them." – William Blake

In the modern age, people can access information through digitalized, rendered images accompanied by well-written words. The knowledge of indirect reality seems to shape the world of design, or at least, it is supposed to reveal the truth of space. Previously, this was only possible through raw visual experiences from personal travel when the internet did not exist. This applies to the public and architects, experts in architecture. László Moholy-Nagy, who worked at the famous Bauhaus school in Dessau during the Weimar Republic, wrote in his work "Vision in Motion" about photography: "<…> the power to become one of the primary visual forces of our life… Many people may not realize it, but the present standard of visual expression in any field, painting, sculpture, architecture, and especially advertising arts, is nourished by the visual food which the new photography provides."

In the past, artists, writers, thinkers, and architects embarked on the Grand Tour, which refined their creativity and intertextual sensibilities. According to Adam Matthew Digital's new website, the phenomenon of the Grand Tour garnered public attention from English travelers to the continent between c.1550 and 1850, impacting cultural, social, political, architectural, gastronomic, sartorial, and artistic movements significantly.

From another viewpoint, fluid and informative information reduces the need for imagination, instead impinging on it. Osbert Lancaster argues, "Today, architecture is an activity about which the average man cares little and knows less. The views he may hold are founded not on any personal bias, which might be regrettable but certainly excusable, but on a variety of acquired misconceptions." Consequently, architecture has always coexisted in a frame with any nature of habitation. However, modern architectural imagery as a medium tends to distort things, making them superficially photogenic.

From the viewpoint of a designer and an architectural photographer, this author recognizes the broad implications of how people unconsciously receive superficial infra-knowledge as if it were the nature of life and how it influences decision-making processes and obvious inspirations. It is almost like an assembly line system, including the author himself. This paper aims to review the existing state of architectural photography and its role to locate an organic relationship between place, people, and photography.


The interior of the Pantheon in the 18th century , painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini was an architect and a painter. He drew this painting on his Grand Tour.

dezeen magazine, one of the most influential architecture magazines today. Showing unpeopled space

Blurred Line: The Birth of Architectural Imagery and Its Recognition

The first viable photographic process, named Daguerreotype, was introduced in Paris in January 1839 by Louis Jacques Daguerre Mande, a Parisian stage designer who also trained as an architect. The process involved a small (average size of 8 x 10 centimeters) silver-coated metal plate, "considered magical reflections of reality."

Daguerre's central intention with photography was to find a more realistic way of rendering his images, captured in his illusionistic spectacles and dioramas. William Henry Fox Talbot announced his Calotype process about four months later. The British scientist Sir John Robinson, in a letter to the Royal Society of Edinburgh &c. (Communicated by the Society of Arts), stated regarding the daguerreotype process that "the originals are faithfully copied in these wonderful pictures" and declared them "accurate views of architecture." He described the discovery as a new method of recording things with a power of capturing details beyond the skill of the naked eye. Due to its high accuracy, photography began to free architects from producing countless architectural drafts and the "blundering of the eye and hand." The recognition of photography was slowly but surely gaining popularity, hailed by Building News for its "veraciousness of representation… like Caesar's wife, it can never be suspected."

For instance, construction views of the Palm House (1849), the new Louvre in Paris (1855), and the Crystal Palace in London (1855) were good examples of contemporary buildings captured in the early decades of photography. However, at that time, photography was more for recording construction processes due to the rapid disappearance of building processes. Architects tended to refer to past drawings, so photos of the new age weren't commonly used. Since the foundation of photography was not yet well-established, it took time to be recognized as a specific genre of architecture photography. Moreover, the development of photography depended on various types of patronage and counterpointing notions of the medium's role, such as artistic, commercial, and utilitarian, "that helped to determine not only what was photographed but also how it was photographed."

Ever since architecture photography was introduced, in its early stage, photographers used examples from architectural drawings, particularly for elevation and perspective views.

In the late eighteenth century, a method of representing architectural images began focusing on rendering architecture more pictorially and easy-to-understand to earn public attention, which photographers were keen to find their own way of representing architecture. "This dependence on an existing visual syntax is hardly surprising," says Elwall, due to its unique background of photographers at the time being a mixture of painters or graphic artists, which today is even more diverse and anonymous. Both in France and in the U.K., the 1850s was a formative decade for photography, as stated by the Building News, which "advanced from recreation to trade" and officially started organizing as a foundation.

From this stage, photographers' attitudes toward architecture seemed to split into two major groups: one pursuing the picturesque and the other trying to achieve the architect's intention with their architecture. "In most of their productions, the English photographers appear to have aimed chiefly at the picturesque. To render architectural photographs valuable as studies to the architect, the picturesque must frequently give way to the exhibition of form and detail. It is necessary for the photographer to know what the architect requires in representation of edifices. It is but too evident that the majority of photographers whose works are exhibited are entirely ignorant of what the architect requires," whereas in France, architectural photography was forging a close relationship between architect and photograph by means of disseminating architectural information. In addition, there was a thriving photography market in Italy, driven by photographs taken by ground tourists. Their tourist customers were interested in photographs of eyewitness historical monuments where the ground tourist had been. One such ground tourist who worked in Rome, Robert Macpherson, won international recognition at an exhibition at the Architectural Union company’s premises in London in 1862. Macpherson's photograph was admired by some classical architects, Donaldson and Sir William Tite; however, from an architectural viewpoint, it was strongly disapproved for its commercial sense. "<…> a great want of that which we are always led to expect in architectural drawings – mathematical precision." Within about a decade of recognition of photography as a medium for architecture, the constant tension among different thoughts and purposes of photographs has always been controversial, oscillating between topographical record, architectural documentation, or a piece of art. The blurred line within architectural photography began to surface.

Early architectural style photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, c. 

Palm house, Kew, London,1847 by Antoine Claudet This image is thought to be the most powerful image from the beginning of rich tradition of photographs of Engineer architecture, such as the Crystal Palace and the Galerie des Machenes(1889). Claudet failed to sell a rchitecture views and shifted himself to portraiture photographer. Claudet was noted by the French Publisher of Excrusion daguerrienne as London’s “misty vapours” prevented “the formation of clear images.  

New Louvre Under Construction, Paris, c.1855 by Edouard Baldus While many others in new winds used a sculpture and ornament to help their recording, Baldus’s photograph of old Louvre ‘s decoration was served as an exemplar and widly distributed to schools.    

Albumen print from photographic views of the progress of the Crystal Palace showing the first attempt how a building of symmetrically from the levelling of the site to the opening of ceremony.  

Manipulations: A History of Being Photogenic Has Afflicted Architects' Imagination

"<...> the architectural photograph has come under increasingly intense attack for forcing architecture into a straitjacket, the straitjacket of being photogenic, or at least comprehensible through photographs." - Robert Elwall

A century and a half after photography was first regarded as a representational medium for architecture, a close relationship between architects and architectural photographs has arguably always existed. "The symbiotic relationship between photographers and architects at the time had a lot more meaning than just the photographers being used for marketing," said Redstone, the curator of the exhibition at the Barbican Centre, which focused on exploring how photographers have shaped public perceptions of architecture over the past century.

In a social norm, prominent architects' work has always been captured by personal photographers. For example, Le Corbusier had a strong relationship with Lucien Hervé, stating, "You really have the soul of an architect," and worked closely with him for over two decades. Other notable pairings include Luigi Ghirri and Aldo Rossi, and Frank Gehry and Pedro E. Guerrero. “<...> the work of Zaha Hadid is not in some way influenced by the photography of Hélène Binet.” The relationship has been a place to constantly challenge one another to inspire further creativity, “Architects who have grasped the value of photography owe it many an idea or inspiration,” says Giebelhausen.

On the other hand, the meaning of architects working with photography has evolved over the decades. Practically, “photography is everywhere,” making it nearly impossible not to see architectural photography, especially for those involved in the field of architecture. Thus, the architectural imagination of young architects or students seems to be influenced by the desire to achieve 'photogenic' designs. “A control of the lens (photography) surely influences architecture (architects). The defensive stance against ‘being photogenic’ makes architecture (architect) as if they were a fashion model.”

Regular architecture magazines with the latest features are one of the most influential media for architectural design today. There are mainly two kinds of media: professional architectural journals and general magazines. However, since the late 1990s, the number of general magazines has increased rapidly, while professional journals have been forced to adapt. Furthermore, the information distributed by issuers is intertwined with their cultural values (image), which is recognized as architectural imagery today.

Daniel J. Boorstin, author of "The Image or What Happened to the American Dream," argues that the definition of images is “an artificial imitation or representation of the external form of any object, especially of a person.” Boorstin describes cultural values as an image and states that it is artificial, looks realistic, is passive, specific, active, and simplified. Architectural magazines are mainly composed of photographs, architectural drawings, and texts. However, the role played by photographs is considered significant in delivering direct visual information. According to research conducted by Shoko Fukuya, "How Architecture is Delivered: Architectural Photograph as a System," in a Japanese architectural journal 建築文化 issue Oct 1997 (Architectural Culture), photographs are on 118 pages out of 168, taking up 32 percent of the whole magazine. Public interest in architecture increases with the growth of general architectural magazines in the market. Thus, clients often offer architects designs based on knowledge gained from the image figuration of magazines. From this point, public readers seem to receive architectural information as if they were consumers.

As a result of this continuous flow of information, for architects, understanding the role of photography as a medium and its importance has become a crucial part of the design process. This is hugely affected by the accelerated public opinion and the growth of digital media globalization. Due to the oversupply of architectural imagery, public opinion and the sense of being photogenic have flattened architects' aesthetics. The manipulation of aesthetics has led architects to lose their sense of reality towards architecture, which should "consider buildings from a human or functional perspective." This leads to a discussion of “This is Not Architecture, Media Constructions.“ Mass-produced modern architectural imagery is losing the essence of architecture, the inherent nature of human habitation. It is commonly known that most architectural photographs are commissioned or supervised by architects or contractors, although they can be more personal and detached from the architect's vision.

Searched images of contemporary modern house 

Modern house plans by leading architects and designers available at 

Ashiya house by Tado Ando (2014) 

Where Have All the People Gone? The Sterilizing of Human Existence in Architectural Photography

Flick through any architecture magazine or browse any online architectural reviews, and you will most likely see architecture standing there by itself, as if it were a fashion model, beautifully layered with nice tones and smooth surfaces. However, beyond the superficial aesthetics of its architecture, there seems to be no life expected to happen. To borrow a word from Barthes, they are, alas, inert and polite; they have no punctum.

In the history of architectural photography, the existence of humans has always been kept out, and it has been controversial whether or not people should be included. “The human figure may have a negative and positive effect on the scene,” Schulz argues. In most cases, the absence of human existence is either strictly prohibited or tactically set up. It is commonly believed that architectural photography works best without the presence of people, to eliminate the distraction of human figures and to direct attention straight onto the architecture. However, architecture is completed by the presence of people. Architecture is for people, for their habitation, and their coexistence is the main subject of architectural photography. “Architecture creates a link between people,” and without this, Elwall argues, architecture ends up being only photogenic, as if it were built for photography, not for people.

Architects imagine and design houses or public spaces in urban cityscapes, whether ordinary or extraordinary, expecting some sort of life event to happen. Therefore, architectural photography should not only embrace its depiction but also allow for the existence of people. However, when creating representational images of architecture, photographs are often taken without people. This is because human presence can interfere with the message of the architecture itself. People can distract the reader from focusing on the main subject, although they can also provide a sense of scale and atmosphere.

“Just as the photographer’s task does not end with the push of a button, the architect’s responsibility is not confined to the computer screen or drawing board. Architecture is a public art, and its depiction must embrace not only the unblemished innocence of the design but its social dimension as well. We need, and currently lack, an architectural photography that communicates the experience of the building not just as the architect hoped it might be but as it is perceived in reality by the user.” This statement by Robert Elwall, the late senior curator of the RIBA Photographs Collection, located at the start of the final paragraph of his greatly influential volume Building with Light: The International History of Architectural Photography, voices a warning about the contemporary theory of architectural photography not delivering enough of the real built environment.

Photography is effectively a technique to capture an existing moment of architecture and its aesthetic as a spatial quality, visual, and material value. Therefore, images of architecture should be the most realistic representation, providing readers a high level of realistic sensation. Most photographers tend not to see where it ends. Pressing a button on a camera does not define an architect’s thoughts and responsibilities. Architecture, as public art, sits in the environment and must reflect a life of events, not just the purely extracted shiny surface of its design. In the past, it was used for a specific purpose for advertising areas. However, the radical statement of architectural photography today has lost its essential part and has become commercial in nature. While the internet is key in making knowledge globally available, it accelerates the hypnotizing image of architectural photography. As Joan Fontcubeta states, “We are surrounded by the capitalism of images and excess that, more than just plunging us into a suffocating world of consumption, confronts us with the political capability of dismissing, reducing, or ensuring them.” This is not a new trend, as seen in the story of Lucien Hervé in collaboration with Le Corbusier for Marseille Unité d'Habitation. Hervé brought back 650 photographs depicting a harmonious coexistence of photography and architecture, but they were refused publication in France Illustration due to a lack of trendy controversy, while Corbusier enthusiastically appreciated Hervé’s work.

“We humans, thrust into a maelstrom of so-called progress, orchestrated by greedy, self-serving 'developers' and supported by irrational political emissaries, are swept into their shallow schemes.” – Julius Shulman

Lucien Herve, construction site of the Marseiile Unite d’Habitation, (1950) 

Essence of Reality: Introducing People's Habitation in Architectural Photography

American architectural photographer Julius Shulman is known for his work on The Stahl House, Case Study House #22. Shulman's architectural photography carved a new path, expressing the essence of places and people in his photographs. His work revealed a fundamental aspect of architecture: buildings are for people. His photographs sold a lifestyle to the world. Renowned 20th-century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van der Rohe commissioned Shulman to create representational images of their architecture.

Shulman was also known for his sensitive direction in setting up interiors, positioning lighting, and even directing what models should wear or where they should stand. Shulman described his lighting method as follows: "The subtle interplay of light and shadow on a building is the 'paint' an architectural photographer uses on his canvas of film." This approach suggests that a house is a stage for living, and thus, setting up a photograph like Shulman's represents a history of Western architecture, closely linked to the history of performing arts. Shulman often included models, friends, and inhabitants in his photographs to capture the drama of life rather than merely presenting a brutally photogenic object. "Empty buildings are not for Shulman," writes Bainbridge.

The reality conveyed through images like Shulman’s The Stahl House, Case Study House #22, might stir controversy over whether it represents realism or fiction. However, the reality of human existence is captured in photographs that document decisive moments, either as documentaries or snapshots. Including people in architectural photography blurs the line between realism, snapshots, and staged images; in other words, between documentary and fiction. The presence of people brings a new perspective to architectural space and atmosphere, with human motion, actions, and visual lines adding another dimension to the photograph. The mere appearance of people indicates the presence of intent, introducing additional narratives alongside the architecture's inherent story.

If architectural photography with human presence is considered to be a wind on the stage (architecture), it can be seen as man living within the picture. Shulman's classically posed models seem to link to the relief of mural paintings. “Photography is a form of non-verbal communication,” explains Brian Reynolds in COM 101: Principles of Communication. He emphasizes that non-verbal cues are extremely influential, constituting a large portion of perceived meaning in communication. Reynolds notes that nonverbal cues play a significant role in conveying emotions.

An empty architectural photograph may not communicate much. It does not qualify as a meaningful or successful photograph without the presence of real life. Indeed, photography alone cannot convey a complete set of ideas. A photographic image becomes a communicative language when it combines visual and verbal elements. Today, architectural photography is losing the aesthetic of its functionality as a non-verbal communicative medium. The challenge among architects, photographers, and their photography has lost its primitive role as architectural photography, unlike Shulman, who demonstrated the life of California through his photographs. More importantly, Shulman integrated images of landscapes and natural elements to accentuate the drama and purpose of the buildings.

Shulman commented in a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, responding to pictures from a recent award program: "I observed the current issue, and there was not one person in any of those photographs," and he added, "I thought architecture was for the people."

Stahl House (Case Study House #22) 

Exposed Life: Capturing a Raw Relationship between Architecture and Human Habitation

While Julius Shulman was establishing his approach to the relationship between people and architecture, William Klein pursued a different vision of the relationship between places and people through his lens.

“I used photography to see what I could do to shake up representational, realistic photography because there was no real experimentation in that area like what was happening in other arts.”

Klein is known for his no-taboos photographic technique, embracing grain, contrast, blur, decomposition, accidents, "whatever happens." Klein did not intentionally shoot architecture or people in New York City. However, his work on NEW YORK represents a real condition of the relationship between places and people. (236-237, A monster Third Avenue Elevated subway station). Klein comments, "The El, an achievement when built, had become a headache and eyesore. Within more or less liveable Manhattan, it was torn down. However, it's still up in Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens." William Klein portrays local inhabitants of the city and captures irrelevant moments that extract the city's mystery as a series of vibrant moments, "more like a slap in the face." Hamilton argues that Klein's NEW YORK is not an ordinary travel picture book showcasing the city in all its glory. In fact, NEW YORK was only published in France and wasn't published in the States until 1995.

John Szarkowski argues that Klein's photography, twenty years ago, was way beyond standards, making it challenging to understand. However, it expanded the language of photography in its representation of what the reality of life can look like. “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is a part of life.”

Klein captures moments of space in a fragmentary fashion. The gathered fragments of life's reality appear in Klein's photographs. Klein's anarchic style oscillates between reality and fictional narratives of blur, grain, and distortion. David Campany argues, "Klein has never made any pretense to objectivity, but there is a deeper psychological realism." He adds that Klein's photographs are like a set of galleries of characters, a collaborative theater in the pictures.

Also known as a fashion photographer commissioned by Vogue, Klein brought his knowledge of painting and architecture to fashion photography in Paris. He took models out of studios and shot them on the street, under natural light. Klein's models, in the latest fashion, were asked to pose still as monuments in front of real architectural monuments like The Palais Garnier. "It almost seems like the models were dummies attached to a wing of a theatre stage," writes Imahashi. Klein's expression towards fashion was more about pursuing monumentality and its coexistence with the cityscape. "Klein has never thought much of his fashion work. He was interested in photography," notably featuring women from Vogue.

The cityscape became a stage, and the models represented the mode. Klein explains his method: "Shooting the girls in traffic and cityscape seemed to give them the impression that I could invent and be a fashion photographer." Klein exposed a raw statement of architecture and people, building various associations between places and people through his “Urban Architectural Mode Photography,” under the strict eye of Vogue's editorial team.

Third Avenue Elevated Station 

Faceless onlookers, Opera. 1963 

Palazzo Party, Galizine, Rome, 1962.   

Gare de Kiev, 1959 


Role of the Photographer: Forming a Raw Sensitivity Without a Standard

Today, architectural criticism is never complete without an architectural photograph. Therefore, what promotes architecture is surely the photography, and it is the most influential medium.

"Exposure to the public is a sensitive matter, and frequently the dividends are significant."

To simplify the role of architectural photography, it should provide readers with condensed information. This means having striking imagery is most influential. Brad Yendle, an art director of Architect's Journal, writes in his response to the article 'Where Have All the People Gone?' that there are many reasons why architectural photographs end up being empty. However, most of the time, the main reason could be because it looks less messy or to avoid making the space seem small. Another reason is that photographers may want to sell their work to other publishers.

Architect Herman Hertzberger criticizes the flattened standard of conventional architectural photography for being “cut off from life and unpeopled.” Elwall, discussing Dutch photographer Johan Van Der Keuken's work in his book “Building with Light,” states that photography should concentrate on the ‘habitable space between things…where ordinary day-to-day lives are led…’”. Elwall comments on Keuken’s work, noting this “new sensibility” is “well seen.”

Shulman argues that a photographer's responsibility is to "show it the way it is." Regardless of the weather and other conditions, the photographer should accept the situation and carry on, just taking photographs. He also argues that "the photograph would not necessarily be of value towards projecting the architect's design intention."

Simon Kaene Cowell responds to Shulman's photography, stating that Shulman's rendered image for Pierre Koenig’s Los Angeles Case Study House #22 is an idealized space of domestic living. What Shulman sold here was a fantasy of a contemporary space credited to the architect. Therefore, "in a word, it's propaganda."

A rendered photograph represents architecture as fiction. However, the presence of people clearly shows the nature of architecture, and a story comes along with it. On the other hand, architecture activates the functionality of fiction and inserts a moment into daily life. Architect Sir William Holford criticized architectural photography, saying, “Architecture becomes not a background to people, but a series of studio portraits.”

Slight’s comment in The Photographic Journal states, "Things cannot be true if they are not a fact. But truth in art is like truth in ethics. A thing may be perfectly true to nature, without existing as a fact in nature; whilst on the other hand, it might have an existence as a fact, being without truth to nature."

Daniel A. Novak, author of Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, writes regarding representing "absent things" that photography functions as a form of realism to produce and record a form of non-existence as ideal fiction imagery through abstraction, objectivity, and imagination. He states that photography acknowledges and creates a technology of narrative.

Dune House by Steven Harris Architects, winner of Residence: Beach House. 

One of finalists who captured a moments of people occupying a space rather than capturing building occupying a space.

1st Place (Night Photography) – Peng Li, China 

Architects Journal, front covers 


In simple terms, for many photographers who aim to capture scenes of architecture, the focus spontaneously shifts to the architecture itself, making the existence of people seem like a mere distraction. Yet, the presence of people is just like the colors of our life. Regardless of the purposes of media production, architectural photography remains the medium that has consistently conveyed images of architecture to the world.

Since architectural photography serves as a non-verbal source of knowledge for architects, historians, critics, and those studying architecture, the narrative of architectural photography should be considered carefully. In general architecture magazines, photographs are expected to show the public the vivid surface of the latest trends, changing with the times. However, these images, having passed through a filter of culture—selected, evaluated, approved, and collected—do not convey the dynamic changes in the fabric of society surrounding the architecture, though they fluidly deliver images of the latest superficially photogenic architecture.

"If, therefore, we look at the development of architectural photography less from the perspective of art appreciation and more from a viewpoint that seeks to explain how and why particular photographs were made, what audience they were intended to serve, and, crucially but often forgotten, how they reached that audience, then a different story emerges." Shulman argues the importance of photography and its responsibility, which is poorly recognized by architects: "I learned that it was not unusual for architects to be incapable of placing their own design statements on film." In our modern society of consumption, much like the concept of minimalism, architectural photography is now fitting into a straitjacket, and the spreading imagery is leading conventional architectural design. On the other hand, Mies Van der Rohe's famous quote "Less is more" resonates. By contrast, amidst such a situation, an approach towards the production of architectural photography needs to reaffirm the significance and principles of human value and its essential part in the relationship between places and people. Adopting an attitude of permissiveness to capturing raw moments can play a vital role in resolving the increasingly serious common challenges that architectural photography faces.

Allowing real-life and randomness to enter and exit the frame would not bother readers and is probably what architects need to face to incorporate ideas into their own designs. Otherwise, the city will become a collective of unpeopled architecture.

William Klein observed people and said, "What is amazing is that all these people buy a camera and start using it and what they do are the most avant-garde things that no professional cameraman would dare to do."



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