Libby O’Loghlin talks to Liz Eve, an award-winning, Berlin-based visual artist with a passion for documenting architecture, construction and sustainable design.
How did architectural photography become such a focus in your professional work?
I was interested in architecture from a young age, spending large amounts of time out on the street with a sketchpad. I really enjoyed the way that a space, a street or a city transforms the more and more you look at it. Instead of being drawn to travel to see new things, my starting point for making artwork was a quote from Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
As I began studying (Philosophy and Psychology at Bristol University) and did not have so much time to sketch, the camera was an ideal way to take different and individual impressions from my environment. It was also an excuse to explore the city. At photographic college I loved to make images in the style of the Russian Constructivists. This proved to be a good training ground for architectural photography as I spent long hours exploring different viewpoints and the way in which light transforms structures.
I searched out architectural photographers to assist and learn from and was lucky to find Craig and Diane Auckland at architectural photography agency fotohaus in need of a retoucher as they transitioned from shooting 5 x 4 film to digital images. I accompanied Craig on so many shoots that he was able to eventually pass the camera to me and I could shoot in his style.
Your home base for many years was Bristol in the UK. What initially drew you to Berlin?
My main topic for personal work was the ‘non places’ within the city, areas that groups such as collectives of artists, skateboarders, street runners, organisers of parties and raves, musicians and graffiti writers used to create different experiences. These in-between spaces, whether temporally or spatially defined, act as a magnet for those operating outside of social norms and rules.
I first visited Berlin in 2002, when famously it still held a large number of re-appropriated empty spaces including the recently closed Tacheles art centre. I loved the way that having these spaces gave people free rein to imagine alternative realities.
Berlin is not only a great place for exploring the built environment there’s also plenty of house and techno music, and through connections made between Bristol and Berlin’s music producers, I found a really interesting network of people and places to visit, trips became more and more frequent and I began to pick up commissions in the city such as creating artwork for Emika’s debut album released by UK label Ninjatune.
“while people tend to attribute people’s behaviour to internal factors within those people, the reality is that external factors such as environment are much more likely to be the dominant forces …”
You’ve also photographed many cultural events in large and celebrated public spaces. What, if anything, can be learned from observing the interaction of people and buildings? And how do you go about translating that into a photographic representation?
What strikes me about people within spaces is that those spaces really define how people feel and behave, perhaps more than we give them credit for. I remember studying a concept in psychology called the ‘fundamental attribution error’. This concept was developed through experiments that showed that while people tend to attribute people’s behaviour to internal factors within those people, the reality is that external factors such as environment are much more likely to be the dominant forces. The architect Jan Gehl also works on these questions on a city and global scale, he started his research in Italy with the question, “Why is public life so pleasant within certain italian cities?”.
Showing the relationship between architecture and people is an interesting part of my work. Some of the most informative images of a project may be those that show the interaction of people with a space. I think taking these images requires observation over time, a great deal of patience, plus often the use of pre-visualisation methods.
What are the practical challenges you face when photographing new buildings and large spaces?
My most constant challenge and inspiration is light. Some photographs are years in planning, because they can only be taken at certain times of year, at a certain time of day, with certain weather conditions. In England of course the weather often calls the shots and you end up making many trips to finish an assignment. You also have to deal with the topography of the city and demands of clients. For example, the client wants an image showing the top of a skyscraper, with no converging verticals, from a chosen corner where there is a neighbouring building affording you only 10 metres space. You always need to think about all possible options, can I climb the stairs, can I get into a neighbouring building, hire a cherry picker, lie on the ground, talk the client into something else, etcetera!
When you want to shoot people interacting with a space, unless you are choreographing (which has to be done fairly often) you need plenty of time and patience. Generally I construct an image in my head based on what I can see, set the scene, and wait for people to arrive as I predict or hope that they will do.
What aspect of being a photographer do you enjoy most?
I love documenting construction and destruction, the chance to record a part of history, spaces and moments that would be gone forever if the camera did not see them. You could apply that to all photos taken, as Susan Sontag eloquently does when she points out that, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
I really appreciate the chance to spend time just observing, it’s usually very peaceful, calming but also engaging. Even when I have a stressful or difficult shoot, I’m happy that it uses all of my brain and I generally feel most satisfied when I can overcome difficulties or solve problems creatively. I think most of what I am doing is not pure creativity, but more creative problem solving.
In 1906, Hugh Chisholm wrote (in the Encyclopaedia Britannica) that Berlin represented ‘the most complete application of science, order and method of public life’, adding ‘it is a marvel of civic administration, the most modern and most perfectly organized city that there is’. (Wikipedia) And yet the city has an eclectic history, layered with unrest, occupations and its virtual destruction in the 2nd World War.
What are your impressions of the city as it stands in 2014?
Berlin is still a fast transforming place, of course you can see rows of cranes still cavorting within the architectural playground that opening up since reunification. Potsdamer Platz looks to me more aged than the classical structures that survived the war. I feel like since that boom of the ’90s, the more modern a design, the more quickly it seems to fade and look jaded.
The city continues to attract controversial design proposals such as the Green8 skyscraper for Alexanderplatz and the Tempelhoferfeld redevelopment. I don’t know what the pressure was like on developers in the ’90s, but certainly now people are aware of the quality of public life in the city and are willing to campaign for and demand good public spaces.
On a more alternative note, there are many inspiring urban gardening projects such as the Prinzessinnengarten and opening of a bar and urban garden on top of the Neukölln Arcaden. The type of people attracted to the city are changing as the cityscape does, with so many international startup and tech companies drawn by inexpensive space, plus the creative classes of places like London and New York being squeezed out of their homelands and migrating here for affordable (but rising) rents.
I think what stands out is that Berlin is an accepting city. Berlin is very aware of its past, from the golden remembrance paving slabs signifying the former homes of those killed by the Nazis, to the completely different street lighting on either side of the line of two bricks that shows the former path of the wall snaking through the city. Perhaps as a by product of this I feel that despite many irritations directed towards newcomers, there is great tolerance between different social, ethnic and economic groups. People are also politically aware and active, with regular marches and demonstrations, usually peaceful. For every opinion, you will certainly hear an opposing one pretty quickly, and I think that has to be healthy.
Liz Eve is an award winning photographer and writer. As part of the Fotohaus and Arcaid architectural photography agencies her clients include Arup, Bristol University, Capita Architecture, Federation Square architects LAB Architecture plus RIBA and American Institute of Architects award winner Stephen Marshall.
She currently photographs and writes for Inhabitat and Ecouterre and has contributed to publications such as Construction News, The Financial Times, The Sunday Times and PV Magazine. The past two years have seen her building up a shopping guide to Berlin for Shopikon.
She works in Berlin, London and beyond, and in her free time attempts to learn German.