Dominik Gehl on Staircases in Architectural Photography

Dominik Gehl, Switzerland

Originally from Germany, studied in France & Canada where he settled down for several years, before moving to Switzerland in 2016. Dominik is a data engineer by day & a photographer every free minute. He spends every weekend exploring new places with his family.

Speaking about his camera gear, Diminik is currently using the FujiX system. It all started 4 years ago when he was looking for a relatively small & lightweight system camera that would also allow him to transfer the photos directly to a phone during travelling, he ended up choosing the Fuji XT10 & then gradually moved into the system, adding over time additional lenses & cameras.



He further adds, these days, he always travel with two cameras & two prime lenses: the XT20 with the XF16F1.4 & the XT3 with a Laowa 9mm. Dominik likes the fast prime lenses since they give him the ability to capture many indoor locations without having to carry a tripod or flash setup.


Dominik shares more about his favorite lens, currently most of his photos are shot with the Laowa 9mm lens, when he bought it at the beginning of the year, Dominik was really impressed by how small it was. The picture quality is excellent & well, the super wide angle point of view is something he really likes in order to bring indoors alive. It’s also wonderful for courtyard look-ups. The fact that it’s a completely manual lens isn’t a problem for him,

"since the subjects, i.e. buildings won’t run away ;-)".


Talking about photography genres Dominik expresses, he always likes to discover new places, so there’s a good mix of genres from travel to landscape over street to architecture, what he tries to keep is a strong graphic quality, for example leading lines or reflections. "Genres I’m currently not shooting at all" he would say are street portraits. Domonik is amazed at how some people can create these really wonderful pictures, but he is too uncomfortable trying to photograph someone he doesn't know.

"I have a strong affinity for indoor photographs and try to capture the essence and ambiance in a given space. Atria are always an interesting subject. As mentioned I’m also interested in geometry and patterns, so look-ups and of course spiral staircases are great playgrounds for that".


Exploring the importance of the staircases in architecture, Dominik shares further,

"An interesting staircase can completely change how we perceive a building & also how we use it".


Dominik gives us an interesting example,

"The P+R parking in Geneva for example has bright yellow spiral staircases & that completely changes the building for me. These staircases are much more art than utilitarian".

Dominik shares a fond memory while expressing the importance of staircases, once Dominik met an employee in an office building in Basel where he was taking some pictures of their basil green staircase & the employee said that he always takes the stairs there instead of the elevator, just because of the inspiring design.


"Staircases can also be used in order to create communication between people. The new IOC building in Lausanne has a wooden staircase in the shape of the Olympic Rings connecting all levels of the building., but instead of keeping the staircase closed, the architects decided that on every level, you actually had to walk on that floor of the building until you could again access the next ring, all with the idea of creating random meeting points between people".

Describing about his own photography style, Dominik describes it in one word, "I would say graphic". He likes strong lines, bold colors, symmetry & somewhat minimalistic look. He tries to keep everything focused on the main subject of the photograph.

A good photo according to Dominik, creates a reaction in the person looking at it. It draws the viewer in, makes him think & appreciate what he sees. In architecture photography, he likes it when someone gets an impression of the space so that when they get to the building, they feel as if they know it already.


"As with most architecture photography, I would say there’s a good amount of precision and minutiae going into it. You don’t want to cut off things or have any strange lines. Also, in particular with look-ups and look-downs, you have to be careful with regard to lighting. Skylights can create wonderful light and shadows, but at the same time can introduce huge contrasts. The previously mentioned P+R Etoile in Geneva actually has a mirror at the bottom of the staircase so that the look-down has much better lighting than what you would expect. I don’t know if anyone of the architects was a photographer, but they really did a great job in making it photogenic!"

Architectural story telling is something of very importance when you are designing a building or you are capturing through your lens to tell that specific story, Dominik tells us, It’s interesting how differently you can approach photographing a building depending on the usage of the photos, for example, pictures used in commercial real estate photography in order to sell homes have requirements & a certain look that can be very different from what would “work” on Instagram, and even on Instagram, whether it’s a post or a story it's very different.


"A story gives you the opportunity to explore different angles & to build up a story line, showing differences for example, a post on the other hand must be able to stand on its own, so it needs to contain everything the viewer needs in order to understand it"

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Another part of storytelling is how you can discover the same place over & over, which works best in the city you live in. There’s a building in Lausanne that Dominik has taken many photos of over the last years, & every time he sees something different, depending on the light, the clouds, whether it’s the day or the evening.


Dominik tells us how over the period of time his life experiences, thought process & his vision has developed his photography skills,


"I’ve been photographing since my high school days … back then still doing film processing & darkroom development. Things have changed a lot since then: with social media, it’s now a completely different way of showcasing photos but also to learn new skills. There are just so much more good photographs to look at & the possibility to take vast amounts of photos (without the film costs) speeds up the learning curve & then there’s the digital post processing. At the beginning I was using only my phone, & then moved to Aperture, Lightroom & more recently added some Photoshop skills. I also noticed that over time, I come back to older photos & then discover them, re-post process them in a completely different way".

"Life experiences definitely affect how you approach photography starting from the most basic, i.e. the range of subjects you see every day. Switzerland fortunately is a great playground for architectural photography since it has a great mix of styles of renowned contemporary architects, such as Herzog & de Meuron, Mario Botta or Peter Zumthor & well-preserved historic buildings, from castles to early 20th century buildings by Le Corbusier".


Dominik believes staircases are the most prominent & strong elements in the architectural story telling, they always have some kind mysteries surrounding them, It’s indeed rare that you see both the beginning & the ending of a given staircase in a photograph. If you take the photo parallel to the floors, then at the most 2 levels can generally be shown, & when it’s a look-up or look-down, then the perspective can be so diminishing as to make the end imperceptible, so there’s frequently a question as to where does this staircase leads, how high it is, what does the rest of the building look like etc. He likes that part of unknown.


"I like how they collapse from 3 dimensions into 2 & can create completely abstract pieces of art that we wouldn’t even recognize any more as a staircase. Then there’s also something related to how we as humans perceive a person moving up towards the light that can create very powerful photographs that really go beyond showing a given place".

Dominik does the maximum research possible before going to a place so that he is prepared & don’t miss anything. First he always do some research on different websites, & more recently also communicate with photographers in different cities that can give him suggestions, as he does when they plan trips to cities he know.

"I still remember the first staircase I took a picture of & that sparked the passion in Toronto three & a half years ago. It was the wooden staircase of the Art Gallery of Ontario which was added during its redevelopment in the early 2000s by Frank Gehry. It has such an incredible shape ! The most difficult part in shooting staircases is in my opinion finding them and getting access to them … but over time you start to learn to recognize potentially interesting buildings even while walking through an unknown city".

His favorite staircase photo is the one of the P+R Etoile in Geneva. He likes the bold yellow color & in this case, Dominik has incorporated a person into the composition, as he believes that creates an interesting contrast between abstract & reality.


Discussing about positive & negatives or highlight & contrasts, while shooting stairs, Dominik shares, he generally tries to find some sort of balance, as with the geometry of the staircase where he tries to find symmetries & showcase them, it’s the same for color & contrast.

Art is a very powerful tool! With such enigmatic artistic personality, Dominik thinks there are several levels of responsibilities. For example, if he gets a permission to take some photos of a staircase in a private building, he won’t publish the exact location. If he is taking photos in a hotel, he will make sure that the guests don’t notice him & that they aren’t recognizable in any shots. More from the artistic point of view, Dominik tries to never simply re-do a photograph of someone else, but always to create his own version of a given location.


Talking about future of architectural photography, Dominik shares that according to him in particular with regard to office buildings, drone photography will be more & more present. Many modern buildings now have solar panels on their roofs and sometimes even in specific shapes and there aren’t a lot of other options to capture these than through drones. He also believes it’s still a domain that will evolve rather quickly. Many new buildings, in particular museums & libraries are built in a very expressive way & photography will evolve with them.

There’s a lot to like about being an architectural photographer, Dominik expresses, he likes to joke that he is the lazy one compared to the landscape photographers who need to camp out & get on locations around sunset and sunrise ;-). This being said, well, there’s sometimes some preparation in order to get the photography authorizations, so you spend some time in advance trying to plan your travels, emailing, finding the right person allowing you to get into the building etc. & sometimes, well, it just doesn’t work out. Some buildings are off limits or photography is strictly forbidden.


"One recent good adventure was during the Swiss Castle days. I had been visiting Castles all day long & was on the way back to the train station when I noticed an interesting looking building. A quick check indicated that it was the Thun Art Museum, so I decided to have a look. Inside I found the most amazing atrium & staircase. I almost missed my train back, but it was definitely worth it".


"Be patient & observe. It’s not always easy to get access to the staircases you would like to photograph, so patience is definitely a must".


Dominik Gehl insta: dominikgehl

https://dominikgehl.com/

All the images in the article are clicked & are intellectual property of Dominik Gehl.


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