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The Poetics of Space



For my bosses at idea/forma
Malen, Nina and Lisa





My cousin Nina informed me last week that our interior design company just finished a project and that it was time for me to do my thing. I take pictures of all our projects before we turn them over to the eager owners. We've been constantly expanding our portfolio so that we have something to show to prospective clients who are curious as to our company's design inclinations. After a few months without having anything to shoot, I gladly went to Makati to take shots of this one bedroom luxury condominium unit.

Let me tell you ahead of time that it is no easy art, this architecture photography. I don't come in and just shoot away in the manner that tourists take pictures of the Grand Canyon, The Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China. The first thing I do when I get to a shoot is to feel the area, to absorb its mood, and to interpret its emotions. As much as I read people and their auras, I also decipher places and their "energy," if you wish, and its atmosphere. If others have a third eye and see ghosts, I have what you may call a second skin (and instead of seeing ghosts I feel where they are, e.g., in staircases, basement storage rooms, etc.). I guess I am a hypersensitive, that is, someone with an increased awareness of people, places and events. So I use this gift (or curse) in measuring a room or a place; I first feel through it before shooting away.

The next thing I do is to check the lights. Because we usually shoot at night, I can only rely on halogen, incandescent, or mood lights that my cousin or boss superbly designs and installs. She says the secret in designing is really the lighting. And I couldn't agree more as a photographer. Because the lighting will either highlight or play down certain areas of a room; and it is this contrast or play of lights--chiarascurro--that makes the difference between a good or a bum shot. Never mind first the subject of the photograph; the lighting or absence of it will dictate the overall mood and feel of a shot.

The difficulty though that shooting at night poses for me is that since I do not use a flash (because it kills the subject by drowning it with artificial light) I have to choose a lower shutter speed, and if you do not know what that means--don't worry I also don't--it simply means having to hold a camera completely still for a few seconds. Hence the need for a tripod--which I doubt other architecture photographers use. But the reward for that cumbersome task is breathtaking: not only do you do away with the shadows that using a flash creates, but you absorb all the natural lighting that a room has. Take this example below:




The halogen lights in the kitchen suddenly become like suns that the naked eye really do not notice. The contrast between the dark foreground and the bright background makes the eyes wonder where to focus at first, but because of the light behind, the table setting at the foreground are transgressed--much like what you experience if you are actually seated and eating by the table. So the light attracts the eyes and from there they move into the other places. The secret of a good picture is how you lead the eyes from one place to another--and not necessarily how it looks together or as a whole. This is because our natural tendency is to focus on something and that then becomes the reference point from which the the surrounding places take their place and measure.

After the lighting, it is a matter of constantly searching for the right angles. And what you are basically looking for is a particular perspective--a point between a vertical and horizontal plane--which offers the best point of view for a subject and that which offers the most depth. In other words, what you are really trying to avoid is making the subject look flat on the picture. The paradox of a photograph is that while what you are actually shooting at is three dimensional, the paper or screen on which you print the picture only has two dimensions--length and height but without depth. Take this one for example:



The edge of the table is in line with the corner of the kitchen in the background: they seem like a straight line. But because the surface of the table shown creates depth and perspective, the corner of the kitchen really looks far from the table. Had I shot the table squarely, that is, from the chair on the right, I would lead the eyes to the kitchen and not on the table which is really my subject. The two chairs on either side frame the the table, funneling the gaze much like a trap. And because of that trap, even if my eyes shift focus from foreground (table) to background (kitchen), I will still have to deal with the table and notice it. And I also but cannot look at the table because of the brightly colored fruits on top of it, providing once again a contrast of light in an otherwise homogeneous color palette which my cousin used.

Then comes the subject (or what Kant might call the thing-in-itself). A photographer's task is cut in half if the subject is beautiful, eye-catching and harmonious in itself. This is why not all of us are fashion or commercial models; beautiful subjects, e.g., places, people, objects, have the potential for always looking good on print or on the screen. Thanks to my brilliant boss, I no longer have to make adjustments to what I shoot. Since she obviously has an eye for what looks good, my mere task is to present it in a way that does honor or, more so, in a way that brings out what already looks good to the eyes. I rarely touch them or reposition them; my task is to find the best possible angle, best possible composition and best possible contrast to present what is already beautiful by itself. I can only frame the subject much like what Kant says that the knower can only give forms of intuition unto the matter of phenomena. (I'm sorry, I couldn't help it.) The camera can never reach the nouemenon; but it can try to make the aisthesis or perception of it aesthetically understandable, that is, beautiful. Take the example below:

Nothing at first can seem to be as boring as a couch. But by trying to make it appear elevated than usual (our natural point of view which looks down on couches), the sofa above seems to be more level with they eye, and hence, nearer. Because of the angle (instead of shooting it up front and making it look flat), the sofa seems to be larger than what it actually is, and thus making it more comfortable that you might want to sleep on it rather than just sitting on it. The low and small coffee table also makes the couch seem bigger. Then the touch of greens from the vase and the white pillow on the sofa break the mutes of brown and the empty wall behind it. The couch already seems cozy by itself (you can take my word for it), but the challenge is to depict that for the looker who did not have a chance to sit on it as I did.

Can I then say that what I do is a translation of an experience? Perhaps. But as a writer or a poet knows, it is in the retelling and the words that they use that the crux of the story falls. And is this not what we otherwise call art?

But for art to look like art, it takes a lot of science and discipline. For example, I took two hours to cover just three areas: the kitchen, the dining and living area. This is not only because of my poor equipment (I do not have a DSLR camera or slave flashes and the like) but also due to unknown fact that I take hundreds of pictures for one location. In this shoot alone, I took two hundred and fifty shots. Because for someone who never took formal photography lessons much less read the manual, it is all trial and error. Thus I have to repeat taking shots over and over again. This is the discipline of photography, and this is its experimentation. But the trick is, as they say, to never let another know how much work you put in producing art and thus make it seem you are a natural.

Last Monday, I asked my friend the poet why he bought a whole ream of bond paper which he lugged around as we went book shopping. He said it's because he planned on writing a few poems on the weekend.


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