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Andrew Lee

Putting you in the picture

I’ve been photographing architecture and design in Scotland for the last 20 years. Documenting new buildings that change the way people live, learn, work and play is always interesting and challenging.

My clients have often been working on these projects for several years, so I feel an obligation to do justice to their achievements and help them share their ideas with a wider audience.

My approach is deliberately slow and I commit to one photograph rather than producing several variants. When I used to shoot on large-format film, it would cost me £3 every time I released the shutter. From that, I learned that there is always one best viewpoint and it just takes a view minutes of careful consideration to find it.

Digital technology can easily put pressure on the photographer to speed up. You receive instant feedback that you have a perfectly-exposed, sharp photograph and the small preview image looks ok so why not move on? The key to taking better photographs is often to find ways of slowing down the process. In my case, I have to build my camera from its component parts every time I arrive on location. Then, I always have my camera tethered to a laptop so I am evaluating the image at full resolution on a 15-inch screen, able to see the significant improvements that result from small changes in height, distance and angle.

While at The Glasgow School of Art, I was photographing urban landscapes and interiors. When I graduated, I realised that photographing architects’ work would allow me continue looking at transformations in the built environment. I have always enjoyed heading out on location with a clear mission but with enough flexibility to allow for the unexpected to happen. Architectural photography gives me this pleasure: planning, timing, observing and responding to a building that changes in appearance by the hour.

Photographs are highly subjective and selective documents. My aim is to remove myself from the photograph as much as possible so that the viewer feels like they are experiencing the building or interiors first-hand. Creating this illusion of objectivity requires perfect balance, a generous field of view and the elimination of distracting elements. If you look at the structure of most of my photographs you will see that there is rarely anything important cropped on the bottom edge. This invites the viewer to virtually “step into” the picture.

The equipment I use is unusual in that it owes almost nothing to late 20th century developments in photography. Instead it combines the best of early-20th-century and 21st-century approaches to camera design. My camera is simply a lens with a spring-loaded leaf shutter and a medium-format digital back. There is nothing in between: no mirrors, no prisms, no autofocus, no light metering. Victorian photographers would recognise this empty-box arrangement more readily than they would a modern SLR.

Digital technology has allowed me to take more risks and to create my photographs over what I like to term an “extended moment” in the life of my subject-matter. When I used to shoot a single exposure on film, everything had to come together in a split second, which in a busy urban environment was a rare occurrence. Now, I can gather the pieces of the jigsaw that will form the finished picture over the period of an hour or two, layering up to twenty exposures from the same vantage point. The resulting image is arguably more representative of the way the building is perceived and describes the way it functions more clearly.