Interview with Erieta Attali

Australian architect Martyn Hook talks with photographer Erieta Attali about her work, investigating the thoughts behind her visual narrative on landscape and architecture.

MH: In a post GFC, post 'war-on-terror', post Brexit, post Obama context we are watching the world lurch away from Western Europe and East Coast USA to reestablish its financial and moral core elsewhere. Your work photographing architecture and landscape in Chile, Norway and Australia predates this shift by decades...what has drawn you to these places that others regard as the 'end of the Earth'? 

EA: Faraway landscapes -regions which demand true effort and dedication to approach- have monopolized my imagination since early childhood. During those years, what fed those fantasies were science fiction settings in films and pulp magazines. Much later, as a young photography student, I re-discovered this imagery while exploring barren landscapes in the mountainous south of Greece and the desert Landscapes of Central Anatolia – an itinerary that would eventually lead me to a long lasting involvement with archaeology. The documentation of excavation sites and underground tombs in the remotest of territories, bereft of human presence, would solidify my attraction to this abstract image of the ‘Edges of the World’ and the human structures, or traces thereof, that persist there. It was historical and cultural reasons, therefore, that fueled my desire to reach these lands; not current political circumstances from which I have been largely removed, due to my professional and artistic choices.

And as a photographer what do you 'see' in these places that simply does not exist elsewhere? What are the qualities of these environments that you seek to capture? 

What I see is to a great degree related to the way I grew up and my own, itinerant life. Traveling in absence of a permanent residence has led me to a particular outlook, which in turn shaped my main photographic pursuit: capturing landscapes at the Periphery, or the ‘Edges of the World’.
An Edge is “the line or part where an object or area begins or ends”. By definition, it signifies a passage into a different set of circumstances, a new environment. The actual expression “Edges of the World” dates back to the time when Archaic Greeks believed the known world to be surrounded by the world river, Oceanus, where the human realm transitioned into uncertainty, a place for monsters and deities. The border, or periphery, is a subjective condition, shifting according to one’s frame of reference. For me, the reference has always been a body of water and specifically the Mediterranean. Continually pulled back by the ‘earth enclosed sea’, I have been attracted to the geographical periphery, the outer limits of my mental geography where human presence gives way to outlandish landscapes, over and beyond the expanse of water. What draws me there, in the end, is the pervasive sense of continuous change, not only through the harsh natural processes that shape those landscapes but also through my own movement within them, in search of the end of the realm of human populated geographies.
Arctic Region, NO, 2011 © Erieta Attali
Atacama Desert, CL, 2008 © Erieta Attali

The sheer remoteness of these locations suggests that each image conceals a journey to find it. Could you describe the physical process of making a photograph under these conditions? 

I am drawn to unfamiliar landscapes; that means unexpected and often violently changing weather conditions, which can be technically particularly challenging. You cannot trust light readings since sunlight behaves differently in extreme latitudes, a difficulty which is aggravated by the unforgiving format and the use of film in punishing temperatures. Rain, strong winds and desert dust offer the worst possible conditions for the operation of such sensitive equipment, even more so since I use a large format camera with a panoramic film holder: a heavy, bulky instrument that I have to carry by myself across the world. It is difficult to overstate the regularly overlooked tactile aspect of landscape photography.
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Patagonia, CL, 2008 © Erieta Attali 

The struggle of trekking on foot for miles while carrying a chest of equipment, patiently waiting for a change of light, a gust of wind or the descent of fog, is a fundamentally different experience to that of mingling with the crowd in constant vigilance for a decisive moment. The whole effort turns into a personal challenge that motivates me to keep pushing forward; it is a fight against one's personal limits. I have been a long-distance runner since a very young age. When running, you have to physically engage with the landscape; you are neither a spectator, not an intellectual commentator. This is not necessarily a comfortable process, but it offers a particular perspective, which I carry over into both my profession as a photographer and my academic research.
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Aurlandsfjord, NO, 2011 © Erieta Attali 

The realm of architectural photography often reduces the architecture to an object devoid of context. Your photography treats the built form as part of the landscape perhaps an artifact within the context. Could you elaborate on your position in this regard? 
Furthermore when you photograph the interior of the building we rarely see complete 'rooms' or spaces. Again the landscape appears to dominate. Are you resisting capturing the architecture in its totality?

From my very first attempts as an architecture photographer, I realized that the relation of the building to its context guides the photographic process. There are two key processes at work when I photograph architecture as a component of its surrounding landscape: one directed inwards and one directed outwards, and they take place simultaneously. During the first process, the landscape is interpreted through the building, which acts like a lens, reflecting and refracting, uniting and separating. At the same time - during the second process - the building is interpreted as part of the landscape and is given meaning via its context. In both cases, I am trying to communicate a continuous experience as opposed to a static visual statement. Transparent materials play a crucial role in this spatial negotiation. A major breakthrough in this respect happened when I visited Water/Glass House in Atami designed by Kengo Kuma in 2001. For the first time I felt that a work of architecture was not imposing framed views of the landscape, but quite the opposite: there was an overlap and a continuation between the building and the surroundings. If we use Kuma's terminology, we could say that the building stopped behaving as an isolated, autonomous 'object'. 
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Kengo Kuma & Associates, Water | Glass, Itami, JP, 2002 © Erieta Attali

Human-made structures are universally considered to be the subject, or content of architectural photography, while the landscape is usually treated as mere context or background. Content and context however, are equally important and oftentimes even interchangeable. Through my practice, I have tried to stay away from the content-context dichotomy and instead create idiosyncratic images that capture an identity of place; its particular atmospheric quality, lighting conditions, materiality and mood.
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White Architects A/S, Kastrup Seabath, Copenhagen, DK, 2009 
© Erieta Attali
Baracco + Wright Architects, Tenby Point House, VIC, AU, 2014 
© Erieta Attali
RCR Architects, Sea Bath Pavilion, Olot, ES, 2013 © Erieta Attali

Lets talk a little more about material. For me the images you capture are less about 'material' in an architectural sense and more about 'matter'; Do you consider this a pursuit of representation or do you think light is your 'material'? 

I think the difference between matter and material is an interesting one. The word material evokes an idea of surface finish, especially when used in the sense of architecture-material: something artificial that you pick off a catalog and apply on a certain geometry. Matter, on the other hand, evokes depth and a raw, tactile dimension. Matter exists both in natural and human-made contexts, it is the physical component of the world and as such is susceptible to environmental and temporal forces as it transforms and decays. By treating architecture as raw matter embedded in a landscape, I want to soften the separation between artifact and context; reinforced concrete is mineral matter susceptible to weathering, not unlike the rocks surrounding it. Then of course, when attempting to frame both architectural and natural matter in a narrative that merges the two, light is of utmost importance since it can accentuate or erase differences between similar mater(ials). Yet, more importantly, light is highly location specific and defines certain geographical regions.
Australian climatic conditions, for example, present continuous change within the same day, which in turn leads to accentuated contrasts. This atmospheric volatility, in combination with the abundance of harsh light and the vast openness of the landscape lies in contrast with the case of central and south Chile. Chilean mornings are dominated by a diffused foggy light, which begins to open in up in the early afternoon. There is a sense of softness in the transition between climatic modes throughout the day and a prevailing atmospheric perspective that while offering a sense of depth, at the same time produces a fuzzy horizon. A thin layer of grayness drapes everything under a porous texture, accentuated by the fine rain droplets covering plants and earth formations alike.  Likewise, during the winter months in Norway, sky and landscape work in tandem as one entity; particularly during heavy snowfalls, they act as a homogeneous whole. In Brazil, on the other hand, heavy precipitation saturates the air while leaden clouds seem anchored to the surface of the earth. Therefore, light and matter are intermeshed in a continuous interplay that I seek to capture and communicate.

From your perspective how do these buildings engage with the culture of each place? Does the narrative you describe extend into a 'macro discussion' that situates the architecture in a culture as well as a physical context? 

The degree to which a building engages with the culture or the landscape of a place is primarily controlled by the design intent i.e. the architectural concept and the success of its implementation. Photography reveals relations but it does not build them in the first place. Like we discussed before however, even in the extreme case where a structure is consciously designed to differentiate and separate itself from any sort of environment, cultural or natural, it is still inevitably situated into a context and perceived as part of it. That being said, through my photography, I cannot and do not aspire to disentangle the physical from the cultural context. The years I spent photographing excavation sites were formative both in the way I perceive and in the way I photograph artifacts in a landscape. At an excavation you encounter the entanglement of culture and place, in a very literal sense: the two effectively become one as succeeding layers of former landscapes sediment on top of each other and engulf walls, pillars, courtyards. The process of retrieving and reconstructing culture, archaeological research, demands an engagement with the landscape, a conscious and studied peeling back of these geological layers. Photography has to reveal this relation through its main two components: the physical or spatial and the temporal, or procedural. 
Even without considering archaeology, however, I believe it is not possible to separate culture - which is a deeply localized phenomenon - from landscape. The inverse is also true, or as historian Simon Schama has said, “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock”. Therefore, I would say that the narrative definitely extends into what you call a ‘macro discussion’ situating architecture into a cultural context because, frankly, it is impossible not to extend it. The ‘micro’ discussion of place and ‘macro’ discussion of culture are to me one and the same thing. 

Collectively the photographs you assemble of a building or a landscape form a kind of non linear sequence, they are both documentation and a narrative. Are you interested in providing a 'cinematic' experience through still images or are you looking to reveal a different quality of character? 

The intention of the sequence is to read a series of photographs as a whole and to communicate the sense of approaching a work of architecture from multiple standpoints as it unfolds into the landscape. Of course, the static image cannot –and should not- compete with filmography in communicating a smooth and continuous movement through space. It can, however, be employed as a tool for storytelling, where fragmented moments aggregate and reveal unseen relations. In that respect, the static, two-dimensional condition of photography enhances the narrative element. 
For example, when I set out in 2013 to photograph the work of RCR Architects in Olot, a Glass Pavilion-Hotel with a limited number of rooms all made out of glass, it was not in my initial plan to compose series spanning the course whole day, but the chameleonic nature of the setting demanded a more extended approach. Overlapping layers of glass reverberated with kaleidoscopic spaces during the day, blurring the spatial distinction between rooms, corridors, common spaces and the outside. The same floating membranes turned into a claustrophobic mirrored cage during the night, where all external references were absorbed and vanished. Yet again, the low, pale morning light penetrated deep into my room to wake me up in the midst of a glowing diaphanous space, further dematerializing under the effects of the steaming shower. Had I attempted to reduce the character of that place into a typically photogenic still under afternoon sunlight, set upon a deep blue sky, a lot of the transitory qualities that define it would have been lost.
This thought process eventually led me to re-examine the work of photographers who tried to express themselves through temporal series that unfold as narratives. In retrospect, Olot was one in a series of experiences that made me come up against my responsibility as a photographer of space, eventually rejecting the reductionist approach that tries to distil a couple of static images out of something so pliable and fleeting. Any claim of objective truth in photography is a dubious one. An honest attempt to communicate a temporal and subjective experience, on the other hand, feels like a far more appropriate way to connect with architecture. 

About the authors:

Erieta Attali is a landscape and architectural photographer with work expanding from Eurasia to Australia and the Americas. After studying Photography at Goldsmiths, University of London, she continued as a research fellow at GSAPP, Columbia University NYC and Waseda University in Tokyo and she has a PhD from RMIT University in Melbourne. For over ten years she extensively photographed excavation sites and archeological findings in working in museums throughout Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, and the UK, specializing in the documentation of ancient painting in underground tombs with the use of UV and IR radiation. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships by the Fulbright Foundation, The Japan Foundation and the Marie Curie Research Fellowship. Her work has toured globally, featured by major publishing houses and design periodicals. Since 2003 she has been an Adjunct Professor of Architectural Photography at GSAPP, NYC and she lectures at several universities around the world.

Martyn Hook is Professor of Architecture at RMIT and a Director of international award winning Iredale Pedersen Hook Architects, a studio practice based in Melbourne and Perth dedicated to the appropriate design of effective sustainable buildings with a responsible environmental and social agenda. Martyn is currently Dean at RMIT's School of Media and Communication, prior to this appointment he was Acting Head of the School of Art and Acting Head of the School of Architecture and Design.
Martyn was the Founding Director of the RMIT School of Architecture and Design Postgraduate Program in Europe, Practice Research Symposium PRS_EU, which gathers a collection of European-based practitioners to engage in research through design practice. He is also contributed to the development of the PRS_Asia which commenced at RMIT Vietnam in 2012.
He has lectured internationally on Australian architecture and has been Guest Professor at TU Wien, University of Innsbruck and Hochschule Wismar, and Visiting Critic at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL, the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow, Sheffield University, the University of Brighton and Westminster University London.