INTERVIEW WITH ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHER KIRK GITTINGS

by Murat on September 29th, 2011
Kirk Gittings - Architectural Photographer

Our guest today is Kirk Gittings. His commercial architectural photography regularly appears in national periodicals and books, while his art work is represented in many museum, corporate and private collections in the S.W.

In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor at UNM, and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, teaching architectural photography. He has received many awards including a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to photograph New Mexico’s historic churches. In 1992 he was nominated for the AIA’s GOLD MEDAL in PHOTOGRAPHY.

His first book CHACO BODY, with poet V.B. Price about the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, has been critically acclaimed as a major contribution to regional art.

You can reach Kirk on his web-site: http://www.gittingsphoto.com.

Architectural Photo by Kirk Gittings | Flyway028
The Flyway residence by Jon Anderson Architects
Copying or reproduction of this image is prohibited

In 1978 you decided to go into commercial architectural photography (BTW I was born in 1978) What do you consider to be your most successful commercial project and how were you introduced to the client?

My most successful commercial architectural project was of a house owned by Brad Prince and designed by his famous son, architect Bart Prince. I knew Bart casually as we lived in the same town and socialized somewhat in the same circles, but I had never shot for him.

One of the top national architecture magazines, Architectural Record, hired me to photograph the house for their prestigious “Record Houses” issue. I had done a fair amount of assignment work for Architectural Record over the preceding few years, but nothing for the Record Houses issue. This was a huge opportunity as that issue was closely scrutinized by the whole industry in those days. I put a ton of uncompensated time into the project and it paid off. They gave my images 12 pages including the center double-page spread. That is a huge spread in any magazine.

In the following year the images were picked up for spreads in Ambiente from Germany, Nikkei Architecture from Japan, and a few years later by two more US publications making the cover of all with accompanying articles and large spreads. Many of those images have also appeared in numerous books including one about me, Shelter from the Storm: The Photographs of Kirk Gittings.

The Brad Prince House by Bart Prince in Albuquerque, NM, 1989 | Kirk Gittings
The Brad Prince House by Bart Prince in Albuquerque, NM, 1989
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In 2005 New Mexico Magazine issued “Shelter from the Storm: The Photographs of Kirk Gittings”. This was a beautiful collection of some of the best of your photos of New Mexico. What made you decide to issue this album, how long did the project take, and how did you feel once it had been released?

After years of doing assignment work for New Mexico Magazine, they thought it was time to do a book about me. I was very flattered of course and I struggled for about a year trying to select a portfolio and find some structure that would work in book form. The problem was that the book was to be both about my color commercial work and personal b&w art photography. I was too close to the work to make sense of these diverse images. Ultimately I dumped it back on them and they came up with the final selection and an effective structure.

The whole process took about 2.5 years. The book was a critical, PR and commercial success. One example=I gave a talk at the opening for the accompanying exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum to a standing room only crowd and we sold over a hundred books. I ended up spending the entire rest of the opening just signing books. As a result, that same year, the New Mexico state legislature honored me for my life’s work. I feel very blessed by the whole process.

Morada Abiqiuiu | Kirk Gittings
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You shoot for American, Japanese, and German architectural magazines. It must be very gratifying to know that so many people from different countries love your work without translation. How often do you fly off to these various countries on shoots?

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but all the work I have done for overseas magazines has been assignments on this continent. I’ve never pursued work overseas. I love to travel but not to travel for work especially if I have to fly. This attitude developed back in the days of shooting 4×5 film. Between the lighting, cameras and film we need sometimes a 8 cases of gear and on virtually every trip something broke.

Once while sitting on a plane in South Dakota waiting to take off, I watched luggage attendants literally throwing my gear into the bay. Every piece of gear was marked fragile. Two flash tubes were broken, compromising the shoot. So I really developed an attitude about flying to shoots.

I prefer to drive even if it is half way across the country. That way I can take my normal kit and feel confident about its safety. Since we need less lighting gear, I have lightened up on this attitude some since switching to digital, but I still prefer to drive if possible. I love driving and driving also gives me the possibility of side trips to places I might want to make personal photographs.

Architectural Photographer | Kirk Gittings
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How would you, as an architectural photographer, define success? Earning enough money? Becoming famous and having a stack of publications to your name? Being awarded an international commission? When did you first realize that you were successful?

IME Real success in photography is never measured by money. Look at Edward Weston who was very well known in his day but lived on the edge of poverty. I first started to feel successful as a commercial photographer when I saw my first cover of a national architecture magazine, Architecture Magazine. That was around 1986 I believe. But that seemed fragile and I worked my bub off for many years to cement that initial success.

I think real success is evidenced when knowledgeable people start to write about you and your work. When your work has made enough of an impact that you become the subject of articles or books, you have reached a summit. At 62 I have some perspective on this business. I know that all success is fragile and potentially fleeting.

The recession has been a painful lesson in that regard for all “established” architectural photographers. I have many architect and magazine clients that have been with me for 25 years or more. Some are very large national firms and some very well known and widely published. They are the backbone of my business. But they have been hammered by this economy and some have gone under. This of course has impacted my bottom line. I have faired better than most of my colleagues in this recession, but success, especially if measured simply by money is fragile and fleeting, but the recognition by your professional community, colleagues and friends cannot be take away. In 2006 I was honored by the New Mexico state legislature with a lifetime achievement award-that is real success.

Cuervo-School | Architectural Photographer - Kirk Gittings
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You not only do a lot of shooting but you’re also a prolific writer. Books, workshops, a blog, etc… What does Social Activity mean to you: do you consider it a duty or a pleasure?

Both. For me social activity like teaching workshops or university classes, writing articles and blogging etc. are ways of giving something back to a profession that has been very good to me. I frankly think I should try and do more.

Do you find there are times when commercial shooting becomes boring and routine? And, if so, what does it depend on?

Great architecture inspires me. Lesser architecture challenges me. There is much satisfaction in making crappy architecture look world class. If I am feeling bored or distracted it is usually because I am simply not focused on the task at hand. Every job deserves my best efforts.

Gehry-LV - Architectural Photographer | Kirk Gittings
The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute by Frank Gehry-photographed as stock photography and licensed to the window manufacturer
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Many amateur photographers would love to ask your advice. If you saw an aspiring photographer looking at your photographs in an exhibition, what advice would you give him or her? And, in general, when it comes to art, is it really possible to advise anyone? Or is it simply divine inspiration?

I actually think creativity is inate, commonplace and ideosincratic. As a teacher I can help encourage, focus, refine etc. someones vision, but I can’t make them see. That is in them or not.

If you want to be successful in this business you need to be incredibly hard working, have a thick skin, learn from the masters, be incredibly hard working, budget your finances, don’t be a prima donna (you are just a damn photographer!), be incredibly hard working and learn about architecture!

Learn the language of your clients. Learn what turns them on. Be knowledgeable about architectural trends and names. Get involved in historic preservation. Be a vital part of the architecture community.

Flyway018 - Architectural Photographer | Kirk Gittings
The Flyway Residence by Jon Anderson Architects
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A list of extra questions

Where were you born?

Anchorage, Alaska Territory

How many years have you been involved in photography – and in architecture photography in particular?

My father was a serious amateur photographer and setup darkrooms where ever we lived. I can remember making my first b&w prints when I was about ten-that was 52 years ago. My first camera was a hand-me-down Leica. I first started photographing buildings when I was an undergraduate in art school in 1970 (at the legendary University of New Mexico Photography Program) as part of a “built environment” b&w documentary project. At that school I was able to study with seminal photography figures like Van Deren Coke and Beaumont Newhall.

After graduation I showed my art photography regularly in galleries (currently 80 museum and gallery shows and counting) while doing other things to make a living. In 1978 I looked at my 4×5 view camera asked myself “what could you use this for to make a living?”.

N2 - Architectural Photo by Kirk Gittings

Chelwood Elementary School by Don May of RMKM Architects
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Who are your favorite photographers?

Strand, Wynn Bullock, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Julius Shulman, Hedrich-Blessing (the many generations of photographers-industry standard), Gabriele Basilico and most recently I am fascinated by the work of Iwan Baan who is having a profound influence on all of architectural photography. The things in my working career that have most impacted the creative aspects of the profession are, digital imaging, the image aesthetic of Dwell Magazine and the work of Iwan Baan.

What do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a photographer?

That is easy. I would be an archeologist. I actually studied archeology as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Though it was not my major, I found (find) ancient cultures and ruins fascinating and continue to study and photograph them. While in graduate school working on my MFA, I was fortunate to have studied archeology with Jane Kelley, a seminal Southwest archeologist. She and my other archeologist friends have enriched my life enormously and provided grist for my personal photographic projects.

Three-Doors | Architectural Photographer - Kirk Gittings
The Hollenback House by Jon Gaw Meem, shot originally for New Mexico Magazine
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What do you enjoy most about being a photographer?

Whether its my commercial work or my art, the real magic is in seeing a really heart stopping image appear in the developing tray or appearing on the screen. I can never get enough of that moment. Its an addicting experience and I am irredeemably addicted to it. In fact, IME the act of creation is the greatest drug there is.

Is there anything you dislike about being a photographer?

Talented but lazy students, beat up old cars parked in front of buildings, cheap coffee, over zealous security guards, clueless assistants (not you Jim!), clients who don’t know what they want, waiting months to get paid, electrical connections of any kind, standing on pavement in 110 degree heat in Vegas waiting for a cloud and last but not least…..bad or boring light.

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  • http://www.kirkgittings.com Kirk Gittings

    Well done. Thanks Murat.

  • http://www.anniehogan.com Annie Hogan

    Thanks Kirk! Some great advice and what a beautiful spread! I’m glad I had the opportunity to be your TA when I could! cheers, Annie

  • Murat

    Thank you Kirk for the interview, for your time and for your answers! During a day after publishing the interview I found numerous of positive feedback on the Internet about this interview.

  • http://www.kirkgittings.com Kirk Gittings

    I would like to credit my clients on the color images:

    Top- The Flyway residence by Jon Anderson Architects

    Next- The Brad Prince House by Bart Prince, originally photographed for Architectural Record

    Next- The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute by Frank Gehry-photographed as stock photography and licensed to the window manufacturer

    Next- The Flyway Residence by Jon Anderson Architects

    Chelwood Elementary School by Don May of RMKM Architects

    The Hollenback House by Jon Gaw Meem, shot originally for New Mexico Magazine

  • Murat

    I’ve added descriptions below the images.

  • http://www.kirkgittings.com Kirk Gittings

    Great. Thanks Murat.

  • Angus Martin

    This was an interesting interview. Thanks Murat and thank you Kirk. Good one!