After four decades of shooting, Tim Street-Porter is still one of our busiest architectural photographers. He travels the world on assignment for top design and architectural magazines in addition to working extensively on books — not to mention shooting for designers. He has a new book due out in April and is in talks about another to follow. Plus, at an age when many would consider retirement, Street- Porter is entering the digital realm.
Not one to follow convention, Street-Porter made an impulsive leap into photography. While studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture in London in the mid-’60s, he was awarded a student exchange scholarship in San Francisco. “America was thrillingly indigenous: transportation, graphics, street signage, refrigerators — everything was made in the USA.” He documented this yearlong visit on color slides and 8mm movie film to create a mixed-media show titled Captain America. Back in London, the exhibition debuted to a sold-out audience at the Royal College of Art.
That success led, in part, to his next big decision. “Suddenly in my final year of school, I had to choose: architecture or photography? Photography won.”
Guided by friend and fashion designer Emmanuelle Khanh, Street-Porter immediately immersed himself in his newfound passion. “I went to Paris with my Nikon F and photographed several new events in the design world, including a futuristic André Courrèges fashion show and a display of transparent inflatable furniture designed by Khanh’s husband, Quasar Khanh.”
Developed in the basement laundry room of his parents’ home, these pictures landed Street-Porter his first published work — four pages in British society magazine Queen (later Harper’s & Queen and now H_arper’s Bazaar U.K._) — and his first assignments, including shooting the Strand Palace Hotel in London and some studio work.
Beyond talent, Street-Porter credits his relationships for helping him break into magazine work. “Overnight I had become a photographer with a rapidly growing portfolio of tear sheets from a leading magazine thanks to a miraculous rapport with its art director,” he says. Though he considers fostering connections in the industry for consistent work a “crap shoot,” editors who have hired him cite his solid communication and ability to deliver on a shot list among reasons they keep going back to him.
In 1978, Street-Porter made Los Angeles his new home, attracted by “the desert light, the ’50s/’60s architecture, the enigmatic palm trees, the sense of freedom and space.”
While his work for magazines including Architectural Digest and The World of Interiors takes him all over the world, the City of Angels remains the primary subject of many of his photographs and therefore his books (published by Rizzoli). In fact, his take on Southern California is so iconic that when the Annenberg Space for Photography on Avenue of the Stars opened in 2009, its inaugural exhibit, Los Angeles, featured Street-Porter’s creative portrayals of the city’s architecture.
Approaching architectural shooting creatively is an ongoing challenge. “A building is like a huge sculpture, fixed in place, which limits opportunities to be really innovative.” An example of how he has addressed this challenge can be seen in his book Los Angeles (2006), in a shot of a tangled spaghetti junction where two freeways meet. “I rented a helicopter and used a Canon 35mm SLR with a 90mm tilt-shift lens. This gave me an abstraction and created a visual surprise: Was it real, or was it a model?”
Other stunning images result from a combination of Street-Porter’s technical mastery and architectural education. “I can read a space really well, which helps composition and in communicating a building’s spaces and structural forms to really show what the building is all about.”
In photographs such as an exterior of the Richard Neutra designed Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, which was shot for his book Los Angeles, Street-Porter uses perspective control, the shifting of the lens relative to the camera back to keep the lines of the structure from converging, a perennial problem in images of architecture. “I wanted to get a strong perspective view of this wonderful house. Modernism does not get any better than this!”
Because of the informal entry into his career, Street-Porter didn’t always have such technical savvy. At first he relied on assistants and even camera-shop employees to learn technique. One of his first assignments required the use of a 4x5 view camera. “I had never seen one of these intimidating machines. No problem — an assistant was on hand to operate it for me.”
Having since mastered the mechanics of medium and large format cameras, 2010 marks the year that Street-Porter takes another leap and goes digital. “Digital is altogether very sexy — it’s such a pleasure to see the image you just captured appear on the screen of the laptop, hovering like an attendant butler.”
The seduction of digital shooting has won him over. Though he still loves film, he plans to purchase an Alpa camera system with a Phase One digital back. “Alpas offer all the wide-angle coverage and perspective correction an architectural photographer needs and is a beautifully precise instrument to use, with a handmade feel.” He also plans to buy a Canon EOS 5D Mark II for “more-spontaneous shooting.”
Freelance magazine photography can be good business, but Street-Porter admits that “there are no rules” to creating relationships and landing consistent work with magazines. Even so, there are several ways to increase the odds of staying in favor with editors.
• Keep editors up to date. Street-Porter often informs the editors he works with about when and where he travels, in case they have additional work for him in the area.
• Deliver on the shot list, and then some. Give the magazine all the shots they ask for, and then give them additional, creative shots they didn’t realize they needed.
• Stay on location if it looks like conditions could improve to help capture the best images. Putting in extra time, especially with dynamic subjects, can yield unexpected photo ops. Ambient lighting (and other factors) can enhance a subject at different times of the day.
• Every magazine has its own workflow. Unless editors make unreasonable demands, it’s beneficial to keep them happy by adapting to their procedures.
• Knowledge is powerful. When discussing upcoming assignments, a photographer’s insights into a subject can lead to clearer visions of and expectations for shoots, making the photographer’s job a little easier.