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© irrational angle

Interview #16: Documenting the process towards Resource Efficiency

Posted on: 18.09.2019
by EREK News

The EREK Final conference is drawing near. The conference is held in the BEL building, the administrative headquarters of Brussels Environment and the largest passive building in Europe. During the conference, a photo series by Gordon Sutherland (Irrational Angle Photographs) will be exhibited. The series, called Feeling Space, offers a reflection on constructed space that offers protection from the natural environment, the barrier that it creates to this environment, and the way we respond to the space. EREK spoke to the photographer Gordon Sutherland, who first displayed the photographs in the BEL building during the European Union Sustainable Energy Week 2017, about how he chooses his subjects and how he approached photographing the BEL building. 

How did you get started in photographing the boundaries of architecture and environment? 

I have loved photography since I was a kid. My father was in the navy, so when I was young, he travelled the world and photography was a way he captured and shared the experience. One of the reasons I use photography now, is because I don’t see images in my mind. I can’t visualise things. I feel this has informed my photography as I need the photo to record and capture a memory. The funny thing is that I used to avoid photographing buildings. I studied environmental construction and wanted to keep photography as my escape. It was only after I started studying for a bachelors’ in photography in the evenings that I started to become interested in architectural photography. And I have always really believed in environmental issues, so I think that shows in my work. On top of that, I try to focus on the social aspect: how are people interacting with each other, nature and the building.

A building was designed by an architect for people to respond in certain ways to the building. We spend 90% of our time in buildings, but we don’t actually notice the buildings anymore. The way we move through the building, where we go, where we don’t go. I try to show this in my photography, through longer shutter speeds and combining multiple exposures into one image. This almost creates a static movie. I like this idea, because we are constantly bombarded with moving images through advertising, tv and the internet. A still image asks people to stop and reflect. Especially printed photos. There is something decidedly different in standing in front of a photo than when you see something on your device. It is almost like you can step into the printed photo.

What would you like to transmit to the audience?

I don’t want to tell the audience what to think. But I do want my work to pose a question. As soon as somebody looks at one of my photos, it becomes their picture. The audience is interacting with the image, responding to it and through that create their own idea of the photo. 

That said, I have a background in environmental issues and energy policy, which often informs what I am interested in. So often the questions I want to ask through the work centre on people’s relationship with the environment. For me ecology is an expression of the time we live in. When people will look back on the architecture that is created currently, they will know that it was built during a time when environmental concerns came to the foreground. I see my architectural photography as a documentation of that process. If you look back through images of the city centre of Brussels for instance, much of the architectural heritage has been destroyed by offices. Layers of history have been removed to make room for commercial development. There is more money in offices than homes. This is an expression of our capitalist society. In this way architecture, buildings and cities are all fundamentally representative of the society we live in. Both the positive and the negative aspects.

I said that I see my architectural photography as a documentation of an ongoing process, this does not mean that photography tells the definitive truth. There is always a bit of an opinion in the way the image is framed and what is left outside the frame. On top of this, I also combine multiple frames into one image, which means that you can sometimes see one person in different places within an image. Recently I have also been experimenting with infrared photography: I combine multiple visible light exposures with an infrared exposure: something we can and something we can’t see. It creates a surreal photograph. 

How do you choose what you want to photograph?

I don’t start with the aesthetics; I start with a theme. The themes are often autobiographical, they are the things that concern me or the topics that I can’t stop thinking about. Topics like the use of artificial intelligence and what impact smart cities will have. 

For example, I am currently working on a series on digital space: how do we respond to smart space. So, I started from that theme and was thinking about how and where you could see this interaction. I ended up going the European Parliament building, which is a very futuristic building almost reminiscent of Blade Runner. If you look to the images I took there closely, you start to notice the surveillance cameras. The photos therefore show in a subtle way how we are followed or tagged. In other images you can see other flows of information, like screens and smartphones. 

For another series I used a bus application to travel to all the different burghs of Brussels. Once I got off the bus, that was the location where I had to take the photo. In that series I wanted to reflect on whether we had a choice in where we are going or if that choice was made for us through the technology we use.

The series I created at the BEL-building was different, in that I explicitly choose to photograph that location and that I made agreements in order to get access to the building. 

Could you elaborate on what the conference attendees can expect of the exposition?

The series is called Feeling Space and the subject is the BEL building. You might think of it as a portrait of the building. It is a reflection on a space that is an intelligent, feeling space. The building is a response to the environment and to people, but the people and the environment also respond to the building.

I tried to get in the head of the architect, because once upon a time this building was only a dream that the architects had. What were they thinking? What were they imagining? They wanted to create an environmentally friendly building, but also a social space. A space for people to meet and talk. Which is probably why they created open space and an auditorium for meetings and dialogue. I have tried to show that in my photography.

I have taken a classical approach to architectural photography in the series, as I try to lead you through the building. So, in the first photo shows the outside of the building, as if you are approaching the building. The further you get into the series, the less accessible the areas are to the public. The photos start out in the areas that are accessible to the public and slowly transition towards the less accessible areas, such as the offices, where most visitors will never go. To close out the series, I have included a night-time photo from the atrium, as if you are leaving the building at the end of the day. It is a kind of punctuation mark, stating ‘this is the end’. A photograph standing alone or as part of a series then takes on a different meaning, much like a word in a poem, where meaning depends on context, placement and the person reading it. I hope the conference participants will enjoy reading my images.