Author Q&A with Judith Turner: Seeing Ambiguity

By Steve Kroeter August 30, 2012

Judith Turner


Photographer Judith Turner (New York)


Acclaimed photographer of architecture Judith Turner discusses Seeing Ambiguity, her new book published in April 2012 by Edition Axel Menges.

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Designers & Books: You began taking photographs of buildings in 1972 and this is the eighth book of your photographs to be published. Yet you were trained as a graphic designer. How did it happen that you made the transition to architectural photography—and do you feel that your graphic design training has influenced your approach to photography?

Judith Turner: Early in my career as a graphic designer I worked at Doubleday designing book jackets. Often I worked with photographs and developed a curiosity about photography. On weekends I began photographing at the periphery of construction sites where I was intrigued by the form, texture, and geometry I saw in construction materials. In the mid-1970s I met Peter Eisenman. When he saw my photos he said, “You should photograph architecture.” It was the next obvious step; however, had Peter not suggested it, I’ll never know whether I would have done it.

Seeing Ambiguity, 2012 (Edition Axel Menges)

I do not consider myself an architectural photographer; I am not documenting buildings. Rather, I am a photographer who uses architecture as subject matter.

In art school, my color and design teacher had studied with Josef Albers at Yale. He taught us a great deal of Albers’s color and design course. I loved it and was—and still am—greatly influenced by it in my photography.

D&B: You’re fond of quoting Thoreau’s maxim, “The question is not what you look at but what you see.” What do you actually mean when you say that? What, for you, is the defining characteristic that distinguishes looking from seeing?

JT: For me, “looking” implies documenting and recording whole facades and wide views of buildings in a straightforward and literal manner. “Seeing” relates to the ambiguity in our perceptions of things. The ambiguity in my work comes from the way I see architecture. In my photos, often foreground becomes background and background takes the position of foreground; positive and negative rotate. Curved forms appear to flatten out. Scale is distorted and perspective exaggerated. Gravity itself is defied in some images.

I am fascinated by light, specifically what light does to architecture. Architecture is transformed by light. Different materials absorb, reflect, or transmit light in different ways, affecting our reading of form. I am attracted to shadows, pursue them, and attempt to give them material substance equal in weight to planes and solids in architecture.

Seeing, for me, involves concentrated investigation, discovery, and creativity.

Untitled, 1976. Peter Eisenman, House VI, Frank Residence, Cornwall, Connecticut

D&B: The preface to your book (by Robert Elwall) talks about the idea that “the essence of architecture can be conveyed through a fragment or detail from which the viewer may glean an idea of the whole.” Can you explain how that idea relates to your work?

JT: It is not possible to see, understand, or appreciate architecture in its full complexity all at once. As one walks through or around a building, one realizes that architecture is an unfolding experience. I produce series of fragments of buildings. When these fragments are viewed they can also be seen as an unfolding experience, conveying some of the ideas and intentions of a building as a whole.

D&B: Your photographs are described in the book’s introduction (by Joseph Rosa) as revealing “visual relationships not readily apparent.” Is that something that you consciously have in mind for your work? Or is it something that just happens as you explore a building?

JT: Visual relationships, in photography, are created by the way one sees and then composes and frames subject matter. The relationships I produce may not be apparent to other people, but they are to me. They are not forced or preconceived in any way. I look at each building individually as I attempt to reveal some of the structure, essence, and poetry intended by each architect. In addition, as I am a photographer who uses architecture as subject matter, I am at the same time creating my own dream worlds of architecture.

Untitled, 1981. James Ingo Freed. Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. The Jacob Javits Center, New York, under construction

D&B: The photographs in Seeing Ambiguity span 35 years and highlight the work of 17 architects. Is there a common thread in these 17 architects that attracts you, and if so, what is it?

JT: The abstract form of modernism is the common thread that attracts me to this group of architects.

Untitled, 1999. Le Corbusier, Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, Ronchamp, France

D&B: As you are preparing to shoot a building, what is your preparation process? And how long does the actual shoot take—start to finish?

JT: When I began to photograph buildings I liked to walk through them with architects pointing out their favorite places. After a short period I realized I no longer needed their input.

Before I begin photographing I first walk around buildings noting special areas. I, also, determine east and west to learn how sunlight will travel through spaces. Generally I begin to photograph where there is strong sunlight, following it, going back and forth to particular places. When I begin to repeat myself, then I know I am finished. Depending on the size of a building, it generally takes me from two to five days to complete a photographic study.

D&B: At the start of your career, you obviously used a film camera. What camera do you use now—and what’s behind that particular choice?

JT: I use a Pentax 645, medium-format, film camera. I like my camera and the way I work with it and will continue to use it until I can no longer purchase film. Then I will work digitally.

Left: Untitled, 1999. Tadao Ando Architect & Associates (Tadao Ando, principal), Vitra Conference Pavilion, Weil am Rhein, Germany. RIght: Untitled, 1999. Henry Smith-Miller (Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects), private residence, Los Angeles
Untitled, 2006. Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses, Imatra, Finland

D&B: What sort of feedback do you get from the architects when they see your work? Is there any one reaction from an architect that you particularly prize?

JT: I have received wonderful compliments from architects. The most touching reaction is when they tell me my photographs expose elements of their work that they never imagined existed.

D&B: What are your thoughts about the design of the book? Did you have input there? What about the dimensions? Whose idea was the square 12" x 12" format? Is a square format dictated by your image specifications?

JT: I chose the architects, supplied the photographs, and suggested juxtapositions for layouts. My publisher, Axel Menges, designed the book and chose the 12" x 12" format. When using both vertical and horizontal images, a square format is helpful.

Untitled, 2000. Zaha Hadid Architects (Zaha Hadid, principal), Millennium Dome, Greeenwich, United Kingdom

D&B: Other than your own, what books on architectural photography do you find to be particularly inspiring?

JT: Through the years I have amassed a collection of art books and among my favorites are those on the Russian Constructivist movement. In them I saw only a few samples of Alexander Rodchenko’s photographic works. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I found a book containing only his photographs. It was a revelation for me! As I looked through the photos I felt as if I had been his pupil.

The artist Paul Cézanne wrote, “In my thought one doesn’t replace the past, one only adds a new link to it.” I feel that I am a link from Rodchenko.

Untitled, 2009. Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Renzo Piano, principal), The Modern Wing,The Art Institute of Chicago

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

JT: Yes, I am working on a series of color images of Times Square, where I have been photographing since 1998. I believe they are unlike any other photos ever taken of Times Square.

All images taken from Seeing Ambiguity, courtesy of Edition Axel Menges; photographs © Judith Turner

Note: An exhibition of photographs by Judith Turner, featuring work included in this book and entitled Judith Turner: The Flatness of Ambiguity, is on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, June 9–September 2, 2012.

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