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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Building Pictures of Buildings

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Years ago, when he was a struggling architecture student at Tulane, Alan Karchmer had a revelation.

He had started dabbling in 35 mm photography at about the same time he started studying building design, but, as he recalled recently, "designing buildings was kind of like pulling teeth."

"Then it all suddenly dawned on me that I was having more fun photographing buildings than designing them."

Karchmer, a gregarious 47-year-old Washingtonian, is thankful that this important bit of self-knowledge came to him early, not late, in his career, because if nothing else it has helped him become one of the best known architectural shooters in town. [I tested this recently at a dinner party hosted by a prominent Washington garden designer. Among the guests was a husband-and-wife architectural team whose commissions have included some fairly big-ticket designs and renovations. I casually asked who did their architectural photography. They mentioned two names and, sure enough, Alan's was one of them.]

Architectural photography is not one of those pursuits one just falls into, in the manner of, say, a news photographer switching over every now and then to do event or PR work. It is a whole separate discipline, with its own special equipment and aesthetic. Its closest cousin might be large-format landscape photography

In each case, the equipment is big and the wait can be long for just the right light.

Unless, of course, you are an architectural shooter doing interiors, in which case you follow the old dictum about available light-and use any light that is available. (Alan's lighting kit, as you will see, is varied and large.)

Karchmer's current favorite camera is a Linhof Technikarden with a telescoping monorail that allows him to collapse the 4x5 camera into a more portable size for transport. His current fave in the tripod department is one of the bigger carbon fiber numbers made by the French firm Gitzo. This tripod easily can support a view camera but weighs about a third less than its all-metal counterpart. [Note: anyone thinking of going this route for a tripod should seriously "weigh" whether this decrease in weight is worth something like a 50% premium on an already high price.]

Gitzos, for my money, are the Rolls-Royce of tripods. I have two, both all-metal. My big one-which is a close cousin to Alan's-does weigh a ton [8 pounds, actually] and if I were working primarily in 4x5 I'm sure I would trade it in for a carbon fiber version. But, since I work primarily in 35m and medium format, and in 4x5 only on occasion, I prefer to have spent my tripod money on a smaller, traveling, Gitzo that easily can support my Leicas, Nikons and Hasselblads, but which weighs less than four pounds. I'd never think of putting a view camera on it, however.

One thing view camera shooters never have to worry about is zoom lenses. View camera glass is single focal length, bulky, pricey-and sharp as hell. Alan's kit contains eight lenses, ranging from a 58mm ultra-wide-angle to a 300mm that corresponds to roughly a 135mm medium telephoto lens in 35mm.

Depending on the assignment and existing lighting conditions, Alan will use some or all of the following lighting gear (which, of course, means he tends to lug all of this stuff with him to every job, just to be safe):

Two 1000-watt-second Elinchrom mononlight strobes; two 500-watt-second strobes; several Omni tungsten floodlights of between 500-600 watts each; and four or five "pea lights" (150 watts apiece) to accent small areas in an interior.

Whether it be the dramatic new expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum or the new chancery building in the US embassy compound in Moscow, Alan not only must watch and wait for the perfect light (especially when shooting exteriors) he also must meter his exposures precisely, since he shoots most of his work in color and on transparency film. For this reason he carries both a Minolta color temperature meter as well as a Pentax spotmeter, but notes that "my principal 'meter' is Polaroid."

There is nothing like a good-looking Polaroid test shot to make a photographer confident that he or she is going to nail the picture when the camera is loaded with "real" film.

But that doesn't mean the shoot itself can't be an adventure.

In making these glorious shots of the new Milwaukee Art Museum last October, for an upcoming magazine piece with a tight deadline, Alan noted that the building's signature fins, which help open up the roof, were in transit on September 11th. "They were delayed over a week," Alan noted, "meaning that they were installed with only the primer (paint) on." Alan managed to shoot around this little problem.

But for sheer agita, the Moscow shoot had to take the cake. Here, Alan had to contend, not only with the secret police, but with paranoid diplomats and incompetent bureaucrats.

Hired to record the new chancery building in the fall of 2000, Alan had been told by the US embassy that it had cleared the way for him to send all of his equipment over under diplomatic seal, meaning no customs or other hassles at the airport.

However, right before departure, he was told that in fact he was going over on a tourist visa, which meant having to hire a "customs expediter" in Moscow to shower money on whomever had his hand out.

Happily, Karchmer was able to spring his gear for only about $300 in "fees," and was even more lucky when the normally dismal fall weather in Moscow changed long enough for him to make the gorgeous exterior shot shown here. Still, for one long shot of the embassy compound, made from a distant bridge and which included the Russian parliament building, a couple of Russian security types nearly collared him for an imagined security breach.

Finally, a long-planned interior shot of the US ambassador's office was nearly scotched by hyper-nervous US security types who hated the idea of a photographer being in this diplomatic sanctum. "They won't even let anyone in there who's wearing a hearing aid," one Marine guard told Alan, who did manage to get the shot despite the homegrown hassle.

He didn't say so, but I'll bet he had more than a couple of stiff drinks on the flight home.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Alan Karchmer
Dramatic panorama of architect Santiago Calatravia's extension of the Milwaukee Art Museum shows the huge "fins" that help open and close the roof.

© Alan Karchmer
Interior shot of Milwaukee Art Museum gives viewer a wonderful sense of space and proportion. Note how Alan has managed to show detail in the shadow areas.

© Alan Karchmer
New US embassy chancery in Moscow by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Alan thanked the weather gods for this spectacular-decidedly non-Moscow-sky.

Great Book; Great Buy; Great Cause.

Copies of the late Oi Veerasarn's gorgeous book of black and white nude photography, Eye to I , originally published at $29.95, now are available for only $5 a piece from Black and White Photography Lab in Arlington. All proceeds from sale of this beautiful coffee table book will go to the photography scholarship fund that was set up in Oi's name at Gallaudet University.

Said Black and White manager Kit Putnam: "Anyone who would like to buy the book can purchase it from us here at Black & White, 1916 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 201, Arlington, VA 22201. We are open from 9 to 6 Monday through Friday. Or for an extra $5.00 to cover the postage and shipping materials we will mail the book out. We will accept cash, checks or money orders so that every last cent can go to the scholarship fund rather than to credit card fees. Checks and money orders should be made out to Kit Putnam with the notation 'scholarship fund' on the memo line. Our phone number is 703-525-1922."

Kudos, too, to Roger Chavez of Virginia Lithograph for donating 3,000 copies of Oi's book to this worthy effort.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

A Magnificent Platinum Obsession

Capturing Motion/Creating Motion

Dancing with Seniors – Shooting Cheek to Cheek

Paranoid, or Just Careful?

Strength (and Skill) in Numbers

Night Moves/ Light Moves