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Meet the photographer who’s bringing architecture to the masses

Alan Karchmer has done for architecture what Bill Cunningham did for fashion.

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After a temporary, three-month closure for renovations, Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum is set to reopen to the public on March 13. The main renovations are focused on the building’s Great Hall, which is known for its 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns and gilded archways. In addition, the 19th-century concrete floor will be shored up with a modern foundation, and the space will be reorganized, so that the bulk of the exhibits now live on the second floor.

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Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, Santiago Calatrava Architect [Photo: © Alan Karchmer/courtesy National Building Museum]
To christen the museum’s reopening, an exhibit fittingly focused on the beauty of architecture is opening on the same day. Alan Karchmer: The Architects’ Photographer traces the photographer’s illustrious career, featuring images of buildings designed by notable architects like Santiago Calatrava and the Gensler firm. Karchmer’s gift is in translating complex buildings into accessible narratives that citizens outside of the architecture world can appreciate and understand. Known for his longstanding personal relationships with some of the architects whose buildings he photographs, along with a keen sense of their design concepts, Karchmer is able to synthesize his subject’s visions for 3D structures into a vivid, two-dimensional format. “My objectives overall are to communicate form and space . . .” he says. “Architects use my photos to communicate design among themselves and also to the public at large. One of my roles is to bridge the difference between how architects tend to see and present their work and show it in a way that reads clearly to nonarchitects.” In this sense, he’s like the Bill Cunningham of architecture: treating buildings as anthropological research subjects to be interpreted and shared with the masses.

Karchmer’s interest in photographing architecture started when he was a student of architecture (he has a master’s degree in the field), but realized that his natural talent lies in interpreting design rather than creating it. “Light and shadow are incredibly important elements within architecture, and they are useful devices in expressing architecture photographically,” Karchmer says.

Jubilee Church, Richard Meier & Partners [Photo: © Alan Karchmer/courtesy National Building Museum]
Both the architecture and photography industries have changed considerably since he got his start in 1978. More than half of Karchmer’s career has been framed by his use of a more traditional view camera, which he says “was film based and used a large format, four-inch film and had the capability of perspective control.” About 15 years ago, he switched to digital photography, unafraid (and excited, even) to familiarize himself with new instruments. Various artifacts, his cameras included, will be a part of the exhibit, along with printed matter like magazines and books his work has been published in.

One of Karchmer’s talents is his ability to bring a building’s personality to life. One image featured in the show, of the Auditorio de Tenerife (an auditorium in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava), uses the surrounding marine environment to frame the building—an expressionist symphony hall that looks like a shell rising from the water. His choice to examine the auditorium with a wide shot allows the viewer to see how it exists in the landscape, its beauty usurped only by the beauty of Spain’s sunlight on the sea. Another photograph shows a home teetering above a grassy clearing. Under Karchmer’s lens, the glass-paneled building seems to defy physics, appearing as light as it does domineering. Most of us will never get to see these buildings in person. But Karchmer’s photographs are a pretty good substitute.