23rd September 2016

I'm not a typical architectural photographer. I break a few of the rules

Janie Airey had been working as a corporate and lifestyle photographer since 1998, but a chance commission to shoot the Olympic Park before the 2012 London Games sent her career spinning off in a new direction. She tells Art of Building why she loves shooting architecture.

The Jockey Club Innovation Tower, Hong Kong, designed by Zaha Hadid The Jockey Club Innovation Tower, Hong Kong, designed by Zaha Hadid

Tell us about your background?

I trained as a graphic designer. Photography didn’t seem a viable career at first. However, I got a lucky break when I was 24. I won a competition in the Independent on Sunday and started working on fashion shoots. 

This was fun, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I soon realised I preferred down to earth subjects, so started doing corporate work, lifestyle and portraits. You end up shooting subjects that suit your nature, I think.

How did you get to shoot the Olympic Park?

That was chance. I had done a shoot of women working on the Olympic site. Then the Olympic Delivery Authority called me up and asked if I fancied photographing spaces without the people. It was a really exciting commission. I’m used to working with art directors. Here I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted.

Insides London's Olympic Velodrome, designed by Hopkins Architects Inside London's Olympic Velodrome, designed by Hopkins Architects

Was it a bit scary?

Working in this way is every photographer’s dream, but it’s very easy to start doubting yourself. I had to remind myself that I was picked because I wasn’t a typical architectural photographer. They wanted someone who didn’t have pre-set ideas about how to show off buildings.

What was the shoot like?

I had only two days on site. Access to individual buildings was sometimes restricted to a couple of hours because they were doing lots of testing. Apart from minders, I was working on my own without an assistant. I had to work quickly.

Inside the Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid Inside the Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid

This picture is from inside the Aquatic Centre in London, designed by Zaha Hadid. I took the picture because they were the signature colours. I didn’t move anything. I shot it just as I found it!

How do you work?

I don’t use a tripod or shift lenses. I hand hold the camera and move around. I climb up things and lie on the floor. I make visual decisions instinctively. 

Architectural photography tutors would probably be horrified to hear me talk like this, because the way I work is quite different to the more traditional teachings.

Do you do a lot of work in the studio afterwards when processing the pictures?

I don’t crop my pictures. I always try to get the shot perfectly in the frame when shooting. If you have to work on it afterwards, you’re trying to make something of it that isn’t there. But when processing, I might pull out certain colours.

I take lots of pictures, but I’m ruthless when selecting the best ones. There isn’t time to agonise.

Diving platforms at the Aquatic Centre Diving platforms at the Aquatic Centre

Tell us about shooting Zaha Hadid’s architecture?

The way Zaha used shapes was so bold and inventive. You can’t go into those spaces and not get excited by them.

This picture is looking up through the concrete diving platforms in the Aquatic Centre. Those big slabs of concrete were amazing. And that tiny patch of blue – that’s the water reflected in the chrome steps.

You use very interesting angles when you shoot, why is that?

Someone once said that architectural photography is a cheat, because you’re basically photographing someone else’s art. I think that’s true up to a point. Architects create the art, but we interpret it.

When doing architectural shoots, I’ll do the “hero” shot - the wide angled scene that the client wants. But then I’ll wander off on my own. I like showing little slices of a building.

St Thomas Hospital, London St Thomas Hospital, London

This picture was from a shoot on the East Wing of St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It was an atrium project by Hopkins Architects. This was a very narrow space – you couldn’t get away from the building to show it off properly. To get this picture I was lying flat on the floor and shooting up the wall.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Be spontaneous. People usually shoot from head height, but lie down, get up high. Look around you every which way. Make sure you get the right shot in the frame from the very beginning.

Is there any building that you’d really like to photograph?

I like buildings that are modern and clean with good light and space to breathe. I’d love to shoot the World Trade Centre’s new transportation hub in New York – designed by Santiago Calatrava.  It’s like the inside of a whale, it’s incredible.

See more of Janie’s work at www.aireyspaces.com

Art of Building opens for entries on 17 October 2016


Share this page