Who said you can’t teach on old dog new tricks?

When I signed up for an elective with a visiting US academic on ‘Architecture After Dark-Night Photography & Architecture’, I had no idea it would take me somewhere completely unexpected.

Erieta Attali is an Adjunct Professor of Architectural Photography in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at New York’s Columbia University ,and she presented what was billed as an ‘intensive’ elective as a Visiting Research Fellow at RMIT. A highly respected photographer, her website is well worth a visit.


To call Erieta’s elective ‘intensive’ was an understatement. I don’t think we students who attended had been pushed quite so hard in our studies to date, and we benefited greatly as a result.

The briefs for the photography required were actually quite broad. Erieta was, above all, very keen for us to find our own ‘voices’ but did set strict criteria for how we went about it. Wide-angle lenses only, but strictly no low angles looking up! We were told that this seemed to be common practice with architectural photographers but was not, we were told, how architects themselves actually want their buildings represented. They also prefer to see their work in context and not as isolated objects.

Of course, I have been guilty of this many times myself . . . !

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If I had to identify in one word my most important learning from this course it would be ‘context’. I had been mildly aware, and had it mentioned to me by others, that I often frame my photographs a little too tightly. On reflection, I think that comes from trying too hard to draw the viewer’s attention to what I see as interesting.

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I know which of these I prefer.

As I already had an ongoing project photographing my neighbourhood of Richmond by night, it was interesting to go out and take images with the critiques, feedback and encouragement I received from Erieta in mind. I now approach landscape and architectural photography in a markedly different way. To find myself learning something new and profound, at this stage of my life and career as a photographer, is energising and very exciting.

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5 thoughts on “Who said you can’t teach on old dog new tricks?”

  1. Hi Eric, what a great experience. I recently took myself out of my professional comfort zone with a highly intensive, interactive (and at times v uncomfortable) training course but felt reinvigorated as well as enlightened at the end of it. I love the photos of the ‘hood’! Geeta

  2. Interesting about cropping. For personal work I have always satisfied myself (hey, I’m the client!) but for client commissions I have long shot loose and supplied H and V compositions where possible. But the thing is that I began creating artwork for clients in the early ’90s—nothing worse than needing a vertical shot to suit a design and also help with copyfitting. Have had that problem when commissioning a fellow photographer to shoot the job!

  3. Image Two is a shag on a rock. Image Three gives the building and the viewer a more existential sense of living in the city, or, in a photographic sense, being inside the image for a second or two.

    Here, there is no argument that context wins.

    But context also equals purpose. Dr Goss says about Image One:

    “The splayed looking-up wideangle is a slapdash cliché”

    but if you want to photograph the city as a inwardly collapsing threatening thing, whether it’s a cliche or not is beside the point. There’s a limit to the camera and to every other mode of expression. [Except, strangely, language.] Sometimes there are reasons why clichés are clichés.

    I like Image Four the most.

    It has five horizontal layers.

    1. Sky. Not totally pure. Is that smog or weather?

    2. City form. The looming shape with the apex slightly off centre. This is the policeman in the picture.

    3. The gate. This utilitarian building contains the city form above it and shuts off everything below it. It’s a building that looks as if it was designed to be a barrier. It has few windows, probably because it has nothing to look at, except, maybe a searing western sun. And it says that the underclass occupy the western parts of Australian cities.

    4. The abandoned wall. Its graffiti says that that wall has no use that needs to be protected. No council wants to keep it clean. They’ve let it be captured by the artistic ferrals. The nightriders.

    5. The paddock. The paddock takes up a third of the foreground. It has well-developed weed patterns which says that it’s an abandoned site that no-one has wanted to develop for some time.

    SO! What is the subject of this photograph? Good question, Dr Goss.

    There’s no cliché here because the intention of the photographer is not immediately obvious. Is he making a statement about class warfare through architectural landscape photography or is he merely framing urban complexity as if he is writing a poem with a deliberately understated subtext?

    Remember, Dr Goss, if something has been done before, it’s always be going to seem to be a cliché. We need better analytical tools than that.

    Image Five has three horizontal layers – sky, industrial building, patterned carpark. It’s too simple, in a sense, to make me think that it has anything to tell all by itself. This image needs a context of its own or a place in a collection of other early morning shots of the suburb…

    Yes, I see the spire, and the golden door, and the arrow but these things aren’t enough to construct a narrative. Or, in my terms, a poem.

    This image begs a corpse lying on the flat concrete on the left hand side.

    Or some other indication that some form of live exists here.

    Image Six. Pass.
    I see the careful composition but, I admit, nothing else.


    Oh, Eric, old buddy. One day soon, I’ll send you my working poems and I’ll be disappointed if, as a photographer, you don’t rip them apart.

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