Architecture Through the Lens of Photography

  • Photo by Nina Clemente.
    Photo by Nina Clemente.
  • Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
    Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
  • Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
    Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
  • Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
    Architecture Through the Lens of Photography: Exhibit.
  • Photo by Emily Mueller.
    Photo by Emily Mueller.
  • Photo by Marshall Karchunas.
    Photo by Marshall Karchunas.

In senior lecturer Jennifer Colten’s course Architecture Through the Lens of Photography, students from across campus and around the Sam Fox School learned the skills and techniques to explore architecture through photography. The basics of DSLR cameras, Photoshop, and digital printing techniques are essential for any photography work, but in this class, students went beyond the basics to understand more specific techniques related to architecture. This included learning how to use studio lighting when documenting architectural models, as well as topics like understanding a building as a site, the landscape as context, and an architectural model as representation. 

To address these topics, students explored the area surrounding the Granite City Art and Design District (G-CADD), a consortium of creative project spaces located in downtown Granite City, Illinois. These spaces are run by artists, and make use of formerly vacant areas to execute and exhibit projects in an alternative environment, while simultaneously serving the local community and impacting the region.

Students broadly explored the definitions within the field of architecture—including site, communities, and histories—through a range of topics, developing projects based on their interests. For example, one student looked at indications of access, barriers, and boundaries. Another looked at buildings as they related ideas of welcoming and gathering, and how that appeared in formal features like mass and color. The topics and questions that students explored were inspired in part by their encounters in Granite City, as well as assigned readings, discussion, and class critique. 

The class also explored ethical exchange, particularly as students traveled through the community and talked to residents. They spent time talking about what it meant to engage sensitively with communities and people, as outsiders looking to learn rather than imposing a perspective. A consistent topic throughout the course was understanding photography as a medium for exchange, where the community serves as both a collaborator with the artist and a teacher. Students participated in five site visits to Granite City as a group, and also traveled back to the town on their own to explore various sites. Being in Granite City—an area where industrial production is predominant—gave students exposure to an environment that some had not previously seen. 

The students were asked to consider questions as they made a photograph every day in the class. They reflected on what it is like to see, observe, and record their surroundings with a camera, and how the camera changes their relationship to the environment. They also explored presence and absence, and how a photograph shows the physical experience of an object. At the conclusion of the semester, students worked together to stage an exhibition for their final review in a space in Granite City. This experience challenged the students to put together a cohesive show in a small space, and to consider how they wanted to showcase Granite City back to residents of the city.