Digital Deception

Welcome to the world of architectural photography without architecture.

Filip Dujardin, Untitled, 2009. [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; © Filip Dujardin]

When I entered the photography galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the exhibition After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, I was immediately drawn to a large picture of a strange-looking building — a modernist concrete and glass tower of modest size with an improbably cantilevered superstructure, in a park-like setting at the edge of a forest. The structure is banal yet vaguely sinister, with the aspect of a laboratory or security facility, a clandestine purpose suggested by the surveillance window at the apex. A woman sits nearby on a bench, reading, seemingly unconcerned about what might be going on inside the facility. The blank-eyed building looks like it might be abandoned — or perhaps it’s just Sunday, and nobody is at work inside. My guess was that this was some cold-war era installation, like the bizarre 1970s Soviet structures that Frederic Chauban photographed so evocatively for the book Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. I read the wall label: Untitled, 2009; Filip Dujardin, Belgian, born 1971; inkjet print … Google SketchUp, Photoshop … 1

Slowly it dawned on me that this was not a photograph of a real building but a total digital fabrication. I was shocked, not in a moralistic way but, rather, with amazement at the masterful deception and amused pique at being fooled. I wasn’t prepared to find a digital image of this type included in a photography show and, after some reflection, I was disturbed by the implications. In the architectural profession this sort of rendering or 3D modeling is, of course, used routinely to show how a structure might look if and when it is built; but to represent a totally fanciful architectural design as if it actually existed is an activity of a radically different kind. With a jolt I came to see that the crafts of architectural rendering and photography have now merged into a common activity of digital image-making — so completely that, as demonstrated on the gallery wall, one can conceive a work of architecture and produce a “photograph” of it without having to go through the expensive, tedious and corrupting intermediate step of actually building the building. Welcome to the world of architectural photography without architecture. 2

The power of today’s digital imaging tools is dramatized by comparing Dujardin’s fantasy with a 1999 work, in the same exhibition, by Craig Kalpakjian (American, born 1961). Corridor II depicts an eerily lit hallway with monochromatic, utilitarian finishes and boxy ductwork exposed on the ceiling, transporting the viewer to the featureless bowels of an office building or hospital. A pure digital construction, the piece is totally convincing as a “photograph.” The image clearly reflects Kapakjian’s minimalist aesthetic and intent, and the airless vacancy of the space is what creates the disquieting mood; but at the same time, the level of abstraction in the work is consistent with the fledgling media (Form Z, Lightscape) available at the time. In contrast, Dujardin’s work is populated with totally realistic materials, building components and equipment, rendered in meticulous detail and brought to life with naturalistic light, shadows and reflections. It is an image that could not have been produced in 1999.

Craig Kalpakjian, Corridor II, 1999. [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; © Craig Kalpakjian]

The idealized representation of un-built buildings is stock trade in the architectural profession, and architects and their hired hands are expected to produce seductive images of their projects to sell the designs to clients or to persuade the public. Such renderings — whether hand drawings, watercolor washes or digital images — are accepted as necessary intermediary steps in the real work of the architect, which is to get the project built. Likewise we have the parallel tradition of paper architecture: the graphic representation of architecture that is unlikely to be built, either as a speculation on a hypothetical ideal, as a polemical exercise or simply as a creative outlet for the designer who lacks clients. Many an exceptional talent has come to public attention, and brilliant career launched, via a portfolio of drawings. In the best of the genre, architectural rendering can be a potent art form that critiques the urban condition, advances a theoretical position, and pushes beyond the limits of conventional architecture.

The exhibition 9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showcases the influential graphic polemics of such masters as Cedric Price, Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and Lebbeus Woods, who impel us to consider alternative urban forms and visions of society. Today our “paper” is a screen connected to a computer with computational powers that far surpass those of the human brain, and a skilled technician can create images of architecture that look not only like they could be built, but like they already have been built. While we accept the conventions of traditional architectural drawing and the stylizations of the first generation of digital rendering as artistic devices that invite us to participate in imagining an architectural product, buildable or not, our eyes are trained to believe that a photograph is a true representation of an existing condition. Thus in the digital age the graphic representation of architecture has moved beyond an exercise in persuasion; it has become an exercise in deception.

Ever since the invention of the medium, of course, photographers have manipulated images of architecture — and all other subject matter — to improve upon reality, to reinforce the designer’s intentions, or to create a specific artistic effect. Some of the pictures in Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop — a major exhibition to which the After Photoshop show is an addendum — reminded me of the handiwork of the photo retouchers that we used to employ to get rid of a pesky exit sign, obscure a construction flaw or to add some blue to a dull sky. Their tools were masking fluids, sharp knives and air-brushed dyes. In the early days of photography, it was impossible to shoot both the earth and the sky without over- or under-exposing one or the other. Painting in the sky by hand was a common remedy, while more advanced practitioners spliced together two negatives of different exposure to produce a coherent print. Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1844) made a specialty of this in his dramatic seascapes.

Top: Gustave Le Gray, Cloud Study, Light-Dark, 1856-57. [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the estate of Maurice Sendak] Bottom: Édouard Baldus, Cloister of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, 1851. [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

I was particularly fascinated by the work of Édouard Baldus (French, 1813-1889), who in 1851 photographed the cloister of the Romanesque church of Saint-Trophime at Arles. By cutting and pasting negatives made at many different exposures, he was able to print a single image that had all parts of the structure in focus and appropriately lit. Baldus was compensating for the technical inadequacy of photography to create an image akin to what the human eye — which is capable of constant adjustment of focus and adaptation to different light levels — could see but which the camera could not record. With digital photography this sort of splicing and adjustment of tone and color is now quite easy to do, and this is a wonderful thing. As a tool used to elucidate the architecture and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the print, digital editing can greatly improve our appreciation of the built environment. The power of today’s digital manipulation techniques and the ease with which they are deployed, however, can test the contemporary photographer’s allegiance to reality.

Compared to the number of visitors to our office websites, readers of publications that feature our work or viewers of Powerpoint presentations at lectures and job interviews, very few people will ever see the actual buildings and interiors that an architect designs. With the prominent exception of the Pritzker Prize, juries for architectural awards almost never see the built projects they are judging. Instead they look at photographs: formerly prints or slides and now digital images. The architect, therefore, has every incentive to indulge in digital dissimulation and little risk in doing so. Photoshop and similar software have become the architectural profession’s pharmacy of performance-enhancers; impossible to detect and absolutely ubiquitous. I am disturbed by the casual promiscuity with which we might acknowledge a flaw in a project and say “oh, don’t worry; we’ll Photoshop that out,” knowing with confidence that it’s not the building but the photographic image that will enjoy the long and public life.

I confess guilt myself. Such a ruse is fresh in my mind, as I recently spent a day with an excellent photographer who has documented much of my work over the years, always making it look much better than it does in real life. In the days of film, the magic of Christopher’s photography was accomplished with artful camera angles, careful lighting, clever staging and the occasional severed tree branch strategically positioned to mask an objectionable element. This was a laborious and time-consuming process but necessary, as we knew that there was only so much correction that could be done in the darkroom or on the scanned transparency. Today the on-site photography is comparatively quick, while the labor-intensive component of the “shoot” takes place afterwards, in front of a computer screen.

Belmont Freeman Architects, Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, New York, 2013. [Photo by Christopher Wesnofske]

The project that we recently photographed is a public building of which I am proud, but which is compromised by sloppy construction by the low-bid contractor and unplanned and uncoordinated installation of equipment and signage by the client agency. As we set up the shots and listed the things that would have to be “fixed” in Photoshop, I had to question if I hadn’t fallen short on the execution of the project. If I were a more conscientious architect, would I not have maintained more constant site presence (for which our fee was woefully insufficient) to ensure that the contractor built things properly? Should I not have anticipated that the client’s security people would have wanted a monitor right there in the middle of the lobby wall? I don’t know — but why worry? There’s nothing that I can do about it now and, anyway, we’ll Photoshop it out. Does Photoshop make architects lazy? In the profession our mantra when wrapping up a project is to send the final invoice, get the pictures and move on, hoping that this new addition to the portfolio will lead to more work. This has always been the case, but now it is entirely feasible to “get the pictures” of a flawed or unfinished project or even one that never got built.

I feel that there are serious ethical questions at play here, beyond the basic question of how much digital “correction” is permissible before the image becomes fraudulent. One might argue that the production of hyper-idealized images of architecture is itself a form of art and that nobody is harmed by it; but that is not the case. I fear that the proliferation of such photographs leads clients and the public at large to expect from architecture and architects a degree of quality — perfection — that is impossible to deliver in the real world. In the fashion industry there has been sustained controversy over the manipulation of images. Fashion photographers and publications were way ahead of architects in wielding the airbrush to eliminate blemishes, but with new digital tools it became much easier and more common to shave millimeters off a model’s thighs, augment her breasts or refine facial features. Feminists and women’s health advocates claim that such falsification promotes an unattainable ideal of beauty and body type, to deleterious psychological effect among, particularly, adolescent girls. 3

Do we face a similar phenomenon in architecture? Be it the digitally scrubbed photograph or the meticulously constructed rendering, these fantastic — in all senses of the word — images can enable a designer to pass off an unresolved design proposal as real, in the process deceiving the consumer. I worry likewise about the young, striving architect who looks at a ravishing magazine spread and wonders why, in her own projects, the exit signs and smoke detectors end up in the most conspicuous locations and light switches and thermostats clutter the walls and the client’s furniture is the wrong color. Well, I guarantee that the published architect’s project didn’t look so pristine before Photoshop took over. The architectural profession may be Photoshopping itself into an artful corner.

Easily sidelined in this discussion is the fact that architecture is an art of material, three-dimensional space making, intended for human occupancy and charged with the purpose of providing shelter and serving programmatic functions. Its success or failure depends on multiple factors beyond visual appeal, including scale, transmission of light, environmental comfort, acoustics. The two-dimensional graphic representation of architecture has, traditionally, been the precursor or subsequent by-product of architecture — but never a substitute. A digital image may be a powerful artistic or theoretical conception, but it is not architecture. Yet one would hardly know that these days, sitting on school juries at which students spend more time talking about the algorithms by which they created the forms on the screen than whether or not these designs could actually be built and of what materials, or if they would be satisfying spaces to occupy. Too many of our schools (including the university at which I teach) abet this obsession with digital image-making; this reality-avoidance is indulged by deans and senior faculty who have never actually practiced architecture or built anything, and by teachers who are themselves more at home on a printed page or in front of a computer monitor than in a client meeting or at a construction site.

Paul Rudolph, Yale Art and Architecture Building, New Haven, Connecticut, 1963. [Photo by Ezra Stoller © Esto / Yossi Milo Gallery]

It is tonic, then, to revisit a time when architecture and its documentary image-making were in thrilling equipoise — an opportunity made possible by the publication of Ezra Stoller, Photographer, edited by Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller. In Ezra Stoller we have an artist who was a full collaborator with his client architects and magazine editors in the modernist project in postwar America. In his introduction to the book, Andy Grundberg states that Stoller’s work “abjured any claim to being aesthetically autonomous,” but this is not to say that it was aesthetically neutral. On the contrary, Stoller’s clean, boldly graphic compositions were in perfect synchrony with the aesthetic of his architectural subjects. As John Morris Dixon points out in his contributing essay, to an extent that is profound to contemplate we know most of the icons of American modern architecture foremost from Stoller’s images. Dixon writes that “[i]t is our good fortune that Ezra Stoller practiced in the heyday of Modern architecture” and suggests that Stoller did not take well to Post-Modernism, with its messy ambiguities and provisional relationship to truth and authenticity.

I would add that it is fortunate that Stoller’s career wound down before the advent of digital photography and editing. Heroic as they may be, Stoller’s photographs seem somehow more “real” than the highly processed images to which we are accustomed today. I was amused to see in Stoller’s defining image of Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture building a couple of distinctly un-glamorous cars parked in front of the building, and a telephone pole interrupting the line of one of the corner piers. Today these “blemishes” would be eliminated with a few clicks of a mouse. Nina Rappaport, who in the course of producing the book became intimate with the Stoller archive, told me that while Stoller went to extraordinary lengths to set up his shots and to capture them at the right moment, he also could accept a certain amount of happenstance in his photographs. This is one reason that Stoller images feel so firmly situated in place and time.

The intellectually charged drawings in the exhibition at MoMA and the gorgeous new Stoller volume (and, more somberly, the recent deaths of Lebbeus Woods and the photographer Balthazar Korab) make me nostalgic for the time when drawing, architecture and photography were interrelated art forms that nourished and depended upon each other yet served different purposes, employed different means and retained distinct integrity. Today the digital technology that drives both disciplines has effectively merged architectural rendering and photography into a common and extraordinarily powerful image-making enterprise, and I worry about the consequences for architecture.

Exhibitions and Publications Discussed

After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 25, 2012–May 27, 2013, Mia Fineman, Curator.

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 11, 2012 – January 27, 2013. Mia Fineman, curator and catalogue editor.

9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 12, 2012 – June 9, 2013. Pedro Gadanho, Curator, and Margot Weller, Curatorial Assistant.

Cosmic Communist Constructions PhotographedFrédéric Chauban. Taschen, 2011.

Ezra Stoller, Photographer, Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller, Editors. Yale University Press, 2012

  1. Filip Dujardin is an architectural photographer based in Ghent with a significant portfolio of commercial work. Since 2008 he has been producing artistic works that he calls “Fictions,” of which the image under discussion is one.
  2. I do not pretend to understand in any depth the technical aspects of digital image-making or manipulation, and I cannot use these programs myself. Mia Fineman includes a very informative synopsis of the evolution of computer graphics and photo-editing technology in her excellent introduction to the catalog of the exhibition Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, which she curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  3. Reporter Jessica Bennett, then with Newsweek, surveyed “the decade’s most egregious retouching scandals” in The Daily Beast, May 21, 2010. See Unattainable Beauty.
Belmont Freeman, “Digital Deception,” Places Journal, May 2013. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 05.13.2013 at 18:18

    An interesting and thoughtful -- and necessary -- piece. From my point of view, there have always been two objectives: to show the idea of the project, and to reproduce what my eyes can see. Both aspects have been made easier by digital photography. I've never had the sense from any of my clients that they are sloppy because defects can be fixed in Photoshop. Poor construction is always distressing.

    On the other hand, one of the interesting things happening in photography is that it's presence in fine art has exploded. One can now "paint" in photography, and almost anything is possible. It was interesting how moved you were by the first example before you realized that it was created in Photoshop. In art, what is fake, anyway?

  • 05.14.2013 at 19:36

    I find the Filip Dujardin photographs troubling and borderline unethical. When we see a Woods drawing, we are getting an artistic representation. There is nothing purposefully deceiving about a photograph--it does what it can and we understand its abstractions--but imagery like Dujardin's that I see floating around on blogs have become a spectacle and virus that undermines the truth and subtleties of reality. In a greater critique of architectural photography, one could argue that a false image like the one above is like a story with errors or lies in it--that is if it has no context or explanation with it (context rarely occurs online). When we see a billboard or art we know the difference, but a fake digital culture, whether it romanticizes or lies, must be appropriately given context and explanation.

  • 05.14.2013 at 19:38

    Great essay though, by the way.

  • 05.14.2013 at 19:41

    As for the consequences of the merging of digital and photography, we can see how the process of rendering has changed the very shape of architecture--from hand models, drawings and sections to the more image based graphic forms--CCTV for one is a logo of a building, much like the Dujardin image. I'm surprised that the form of 3D animation has not developed more online.

  • 06.10.2013 at 06:36

    I enjoyed the article, however the provocations fall short of framing the discipline of architecture within a larger debate of the value of digital production, ultimately falling back on nostalgia and some notion of 'the authentic.' A quick study of the nascent 'new aesthetic' art movement reveals our growing desire to understand the proliferation of digital imagery which is the impetus for the whole 'rendering' debate. If the Internet is the lifeblood of a single digital quantas proliferation the discipline has to confront this new reality-look at how journalism has morphed for example.

    For Lebbeus Woods, studying how light reacts to form vis-a-vis orthographic and perspective drawings put his understanding of form ahead of his contemporaries. Now that it's so easy for us to proliferate the same simulations in an age of fast calculations and free marketing, where do we go from here? Ever more complex and ever more emotive imagery? And furthermore, Woods' drawing are certainly acts of architecture; is virtual architectural still some how architecture?

    I think the debate needs to move past the idea that there is some ethics of imagination; that we shouldn't allow ourselves to exercise our abilities to imagine (and ultimately market or sell) those simulations as reality. If you're not responsible for the construction, the phototouched proxy allows you to imagine (and sell) a better building. You deserve that as does your client.