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best of 2015
Barbara Karant

In her "820 Ebony/Jet" series, Architectural photographer Barbara Karant set out to capture the Johnson Publishing Company's historic building in Chicago. The building was occupied by the African American publishing brand from 1972 — 2012, and is scheduled to become a new library for Columbia College Chicago. In the series, Karant captures not only the unique design elements of the building, but also the remnants of human inhabitance. In doing so, she rescues the spirit of the place before it vanishes.


© Barbara Karant

On architecture, Karant says: “The resulting image is the only form through which most viewers will have the opportunity to experience [a location].”

ASMP: You are a commercial architecture and interiors photographer, but you shoot personal work, too. What type of concepts do you like to explore in your personal work?

Barbara Karant: My oeuvre is interiors. I have documented everything from locations to miniature rooms to staged full-scale environments. I am not a photographer who randomly takes pictures. My personal work is always project-driven, and I generally find the way to utilize interiors and occasionally architecture to facilitate my creative endeavors. My personal work informs my commercial work and vice versa.

There has been the one exception, which is my dog imagery, a long-term project. It was begun initially to assist Greyhounds Only, a 501c3 greyhound adoption group, and subsequently to promote the adoption effort globally. Though these images are of animate creatures, I still address my subjects in a manner consistent with my vision.

ASMP: Why did you choose to photograph the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago? What is the history behind the building and how is it transforming?

BK: I have been intrigued with the JPC environment for a long time. It is a time capsule of our past with many important backstories.

My "820 Ebony/Jet" project documents the core essence of the Johnson Publishing Company's historic building in its semi-skeletal state before the final remnants of John Moutoussamy's architectural design, Arthur Elrod's interiors and the last vestiges of the original JPC communal workspace vanish.

The textures, colors, residual structures and remnants from the Johnson workplace all combine to create a unique, altered environment supplying the inspiration for the imagery. Outside of the influence of human intervention, time has been mark-making within The Johnson Building for over 40 years. The absence of furniture and personal artifacts does not negate the reminder of its previous intensely vital occupancy, transcending both time and memory and providing a collective narrative of the past.

ASMP: How did you light the interiors?

BK: I used a combination of available light and tungsten hot lights. I wanted to keep the process as streamlined as possible by setting a limit on the number of lights I had available. This forced me to look at things differently than I do when photographing for clients.

I changed the color temperature of the light sources using color-correction gels to best complement the main ambient light source. My lighting is never formulaic and I address each image individually.

ASMP: In general, what sets your work apart from other photographers? What do you want to convey in the buildings and spaces you photograph?

BK: The challenge of the depiction of architecture and interiors is to be descriptive and illuminating without necessarily being conceptual or abstract. Architectural photography, with its ability to record subtle qualities of space, light and materials, provides an objective experience, but one that alters dimensionality.

Photographing interiors and architecture relies on the photographer's ability to describe a three-dimensional environment in a consummate two-dimensional form. The resulting image is the only form through which most viewers will have the opportunity to experience that location. I have a graphic vision, with a strong sense of color and light that is very suitable to shooting buildings and interior spaces.

ASMP: What do you think are the key ingredients to a good architectural photo?

BK: The key ingredients to a good architectural photograph are similar to the key ingredients required to create a good photograph in any genre of photography.

Architecture and interiors photography concerns itself with scale, spatial interplay, structure, color, light, transparency and solidity. It is about dimension and depth. These are all very formal elements that factor into picture making in many different specialty areas.

Despite what some may think, there is often a "decisive moment" when all the elements coalesce in an interior or architectural photograph. This happens when the light is perfect on the building or streaming into a room or the dusk sky is the consummate shade of blue. And, you even have to be spontaneous sometimes to capture that serendipitous opportunity.

ASMP: What is your favorite tool or piece of equipment?

BK: My eyes and my brain are my favorite tools. I am not a photographer who is interested in equipment. I have the cameras, lenses and lights that I need and if I require something additional to solve a particular problem, I research what is necessary and then add the piece of equipment.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member? What has made you stay?

BK: I have been an ASMP member for many years. I routinely promote the organization to my students. I think it is extremely important for younger photographers to have a sense of community and to learn and understand proper business practices. This is often not a topic stressed in academic curriculums.

ASMP: What is one of your best memories with ASMP?

BK: My best memory of ASMP is collaborating with other architectural photographers on the Working with an Architectural Photographer handbook. It was awesome to join forces with my colleagues to better our relationships with our clients.