21 Jan Faces of British architecture
Britain has some of the world’s best architects and engineers – To celebrate this wealth of talent, Icopal have commissioned a series of portraits of some of the UK’s leading experts, innovators and visionaries in architecture and engineering, responsible for many iconic buildings and landmark developments. The portraits will be shown in a special exhibition at The Building Centre, London, in January 2012 – we look forward to seeing you there !
All images ©Timothy Soar, all rights reserved. No use may be made of these images without the express written permission of the author.
Words Hugh Pearman
If there’s one thing Tim Soar didn’t ask his sitters to do, it was say ‘cheese’ when he was taking these architectural portraits. His uncompromising treatment gives a startling and surprisingly revealing display of the profession
It is an unrepentantly savage series of photographic portraits, lit and shot in such a way as to accentuate and adjust every feature. All are of prominent architects and engineers. Architectural photographer Tim Soar has used today’s digital technology in such a way as to provide forensic levels of intensity on, and consequent unease in, his sitters. Conceived as a highly original advertising campaign for Icopal, the roofing/waterproofing company, the series will soon be seen in its entirety in an exhibition, Faces of British Architecture at the Building Centre in London.
The portraits have succeeded in creating huge amounts of comment. Why does Simon Allford – an old friend and client of Soar’s – look like Nosferatu? Why does Eric Parry resemble ageing rocker Lou Reed? How come John McAslan is almost completely unrecognisable while Alex de Rijke looks just as he always does? Why are the women, from Eva Jiricna to Alison Brooks, treated more gently than the men?
I went to see Soar at his Hackney Wick studio, in a fast-gentrifying industrial area close to the 2012 Olympics site, to try and find some answers. I’ve known Tim a long time: he’s always been one for fruitful experimentation, and alongside his digital expertise is an equal love of the old craft of large-plate film. He practises and teaches these skills at his other base, a former gunpowder mill turned studios in a Cumbrian village. But for this series, all 45 architects came to the Hackney studio, perched on a hard chair, and were shot with a long lens from a 15-foot distance with a direct searchlight-like flash, full in the face.
‘The idea I embedded in it was – how do we think about architects, and their relationship with us? Part of the way I wanted to construct that was to use a very direct light. It’s harsh, it’s a cruel light, more of an interrogation than a photographic exercise. They’re not glamorous or attractive portraits, that was never part of the ambition. It’s not a way you’d normally expect to see people photographed.’
These photos are telling us that architects have a tough time of it, are often regarded with suspicion, are battle-hardened. The images are taken on a large-format digital camera of the kind Soar normally uses for buildings. From that distance, perspective is compressed. Ears are as prominent as noses. He’s trying to create presence without any intimacy at all.
None of the pictures has been retouched – except Allford’s who had a split lip from kick-boxing which was removed. Eva Jiricna is the only one not looking directly at the camera, Ted Cullinan the only one openly smiling – rare moments of permitted empathy between photographer and subject. And although the women were shot in the same way as the men, their images were converted to monochrome using different colour wavelengths (blue for boys, red for girls). This gives them, Soar thinks, more of a 1940s quality while the men are more Victorian. Why? ‘Because the other technique WAS so unkind,’ he says, slightly sheepishly. ‘Hollywood studios in the 1940s would use a red filter to lighten skintones.’ Also, he avers, women have a tough enough time of it in architecture without the help of his deliberately ‘less than flattering’ portraiture.
Nobody who sat has rejected their portrait, he says, and these are images which seem to be blasting through the face to reveal the skull beneath the skin. This exercise is to be applauded: for once, nobody can accuse architects of choosing to fancy-dress reality. In Soar’s portraits, there is absolutely nowhere to hide.