Capturing Beauty in Buildings

Celebrity photographer Jeff Hutchens’ non-classical approach to architectural photography

Issue: Sep 2010

Winners of the photography contest
Winners of the photography contest learnt valuable photography tips from award-winning photographer, Jeff Hutchens during the exclusive photography trail at CapitaLand properties in Singapore

To award-winning photographer Jeff Hutchens, there is no differentiation whether he is capturing nature, buildings or people as the challenge of accurately reflecting reality and bringing out their beauty through a camera exists no matter what the photo subject is. However, the photographer who “grew up” with the National Geographic Channel concedes that architectural photography does have its unique set of challenges. “A lot of times, you are stuck to standing on the ground, looking up, and that makes it tricky to really depict all the great facets of the buildings or structure.” Hutchens is thus very impressed by the quality of the over 600 entries submitted for the CapitaLand-National Geographic Channel “Building People” Photography Contest, which he was involved as a judge. The contest was part of a year-long series of activities to commemorate CapitaLand’s 10th anniversary.

Winners receiving their certificates from Mr Olivier Lim, Group Chief Financial Officer of CapitaLand Limited (far left) and Jeff Hutchens at the opening ceremony of the photography exhibition that displayed over 100 contest entries. The winners are (from second left): Jiratha Narapittayanart, William Lai Wee Leong and David Hong.

Indeed, participants of the contest went through great lengths to capture the most ideal photograph for submission. Harry SK Tan, an academic who won a special mention in the contest, borrowed stools from nearby shopkeepers to climb onto a lamppost to capture a shot depicting both the Sri Mariamman Temple and Capital Tower in Singapore. Third prize winner David Hong, instead of aiming his camera upwards to shoot Capital Tower, waited for two hours to capture a reflection of the building in a koi pond with two fish interestingly juxtaposed.

Capturing reality beyond face value

Although architectural photography brings about a specific set of limitations, Hutchens contends that as long as a certain switch in one’s brain is flipped, one is able to find endless examples of beauty, even in the most mundane circumstances. To Hutchens, this switch allows one to see the world “as light, shadow, shape and colour.” His approach to capturing buildings is to take the way light moves through the space, play with light and shadow, use a higher level of contrast and a higher level of abstraction, which is a departure from classic architectural photography often characterized by well lit, straightforward and technical photographs.

William Lai Wee Leong (Singapore)
1st Prize: Clarke Quay by William Lai Wee Leong (Singapore)
Jiratha Narapittayanart
2nd Prize: Somerset Park Suanplu, Bangkok by Jiratha Narapittayanart (Thailand)
David Hong
3rd Prize: Capital Tower by David Hong (Singapore)
Harry SK Tan
Special Mention: Capital Tower by Harry SK Tan (Singapore)

Hutchens illustrated his form of abstraction during the interview with INSIDE with a plant in the room. Pointing to the plant, he said that he is mesmerised by the alternating circular bands of light and darkness created by the shadows of the leaves of the plant on the wall. These shapes and patterns bring the idea of “infinity” to his mind, something that he would hope to conjure in the minds of his audience if he were to capture the image.

Hutchens’ photographic style is based around subjective interpretation and in capturing moods and emotions, rather than a literal translation of a time and place. As a result, his imagery tends to be abstract and layered, to the point of being detached and removed from reality. Hutchens shares that this sense of detachment might have been a result of his experience of being a Caucasian living in China. “We rarely get a pure glimpse of reality, and that it might even be more truthful to show reality as partially obscured than to portray reality as completely straightforward.”

Hutchens sees the world as light, shadow, shape and colour, allowing him to achieve a higher level of abstraction and depth in his works

Although photographers attempt to elicit emotions through their works, Hutchens has strong views on the use of shock value. “If a horrific photograph is so perfectly shocking that the audience feel pain just holding their gaze, then it would be impossible for the audience to develop any connection with the photograph.” Instead, Hutchens contends that the crux of a good photograph lies in its subtle emotional content, to engage the audience and capture their gaze; no good photograph can just be grounded in shock value and still function effectively.

Thus the photographer’s ultimate calling is to seek and present beauty to the audience. Hutchens shares that the one sight that particularly captivated him, while he was leading the contest winners on an exclusive photography trail at CapitaLand’s properties, is the koi pond in front of Capital Tower. He was particularly fascinated by the curves in the water made by the fish tail as they swam and can sit for hours just admiring the beauty of this scene.

Deconstructing the elements

Sharing his observation along the photography trail, Hutchens remarks that CapitaLand’s buildings have been “built with some real attention to how the light moves through them.”

“The buildings give you a fresh feeling because of how they were lit,” adds Hutchens. He also commends CapitaLand’s efforts to incorporate green space into the building design so that people can interact with nature even within the buildings.

Indeed, professional photographer Jiratha Narapittayanart from Thailand also made that observation, thus her entry, which won the second prize, aptly depicted this interaction of nature and buildings. She captured the Somerset Park Suanplu serviced residence in Bangkok framed by neighbouring natural elements.

Winners sharing pictures
Winners sharing their pictures with Hutchens after the photography trail

On creating buildings that are not merely functional, Tan praises the efforts put into the design of Capital Tower to make it aesthetically pleasing. While the building could have been left plain and rectangular, Tan appreciates the trapezoid added at the top to enhance Capital Tower’s appearance. Tan’s entry piqued the curiosity of judges with his witty juxtaposition of similar geometric lines of the Sri Mariamman Temple and Capital Tower in Singapore, one a place of worship while the other a temple of commerce.

First prize winner William Lai, a career photographer who submitted a geometrically-symmetrical image of Clarke Quay for the competition, similarly welcomes the attention to aesthetics. He mentions that RiverGate, a condominium that the prize winners visited on the trail, attracted visitors like himself to have the desire to live in them, a point to which Hong agreed.

Building People

More than just the valuable “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to learn from award winning photographer Jeff Hutchens, the contest was a platform for photography buffs to expand their portfolio. Narapittayanart, the second prize winner from Thailand who also won the viewers’ choice award, shares that her usual photographic subjects are not buildings. But this photography contest gave her the opportunity to learn about the genre of architectural photography. Much different from the assignments for royal events in Thailand that she has undertaken, the contest taught her how to imply stories into pictures of buildings.

Learning Photography
Learning photography in a fun way along the trail

Hong also shares how taking part in photo contests makes him think deeper into his photos while enjoying the fun of it. “The competition has opened up my mind in taking cityscape shots. I will remember to look up for the light, people and placement of subjects in future photo shoots.”

And when photography buffs get together on a photography trail, comraderie is built. The exclusive trail for the three prize winners ended with Lai and Hong showing Narapittayanart around strategic shooting spots for the fireworks display at the Singapore’s National Day Parade on August 9. Truly, CapitaLand builds people as it builds buildings.

Photography Tips Picked Up from Jeff Hutchens by the Contest Winners

1) The eye for beauty and detail, not his equipment, makes a photographer.
2) Capture the mood of a situation to conjure an emotion.
3) Keep the focus tight and exclude unnecessary text.
4) Consider incorporating abstraction and mystery to captivate the audience.
5) Underexpose to obtain richer colours, even for digital shots.

Click here to view the over 100 entries that were on exhibition at ION Art, ION Orchard from August 5-9

Jeff Hutchens’ Photography Tip for the upcoming Singapore Grand Prix:

“I would look for a strip where the light was coming in very intensely between two shadowed spots so that I could have most of the frame run into black or just turn into geometric strips of light, colour and shape. Then I will just sit there and wait for the car to move into the spot in the frame.”

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