It's a Different World

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It's a Different World

Dusk shines just the right light on one of the world’s most exclusive showrooms.

Dusk shines just the right light on one of the world’s most exclusive showrooms.

The first time I had more than an inkling that there existed an entire world outside of my own experience was during my freshman year in college. My friend’s roommate, to put it politely, “came from money,” and where I had plastered the walls of my dorm room with posters for movies and rock bands, he plastered his with framed blow-ups of Ferraris. Not just any Ferraris, mind you, but the Ferraris owned by his family. “It’s a different world,” I remember thinking to myself.  But, wow, those cars were cool.

It’s the car as star from all vantage points.

It’s the car as star from all vantage points.

I still get that feeling when I’m assigned to photograph a building, home, retail space, showroom—anyplace really—that unabashedly proclaims “luxury.” Such was the case when I first stepped inside Wide World Ferrari-Maserati in Spring Valley, New York. Everything about Wide World reflects world class performance, design and service—exactly what someone in the market for a Ferrari would expect.

Customization and personalization start here.

Customization and personalization start here.

Wheel cool.

Wheel cool.

New Country Motor Car Group, the dealership’s owner, and Penney Design Group, the architects, hired me to photograph the building as well as document the physical spaces through which a buyer is escorted along the “path to purchase.” Every step of the way—from selecting seats, steering wheel and rim designs to choosing interior colors and fabrics—is a ritual in itself. All of which builds to the creation of a customized high performance car crafted in Italy to the exacting standards of the driver. 

Lighting is always a critical factor in environments like this and being able to provide our own fill lighting allows us to counter the relative flatness given off by overhead fluorescents. Here, however, we were required to shoot during business hours. So our nimble battery-powered lighting units really came in handy, making it easier to maneuver and light with precision without drawing undue attention or having the potential trip hazard of power cords on the floor.

But does it come in red?

But does it come in red?

Because personalization is such an integral part of the buying experience and the cars themselves are so expensive, few are actually kept in inventory. So the ones that are here are true showpieces. Which is why every photo we made—from reception area and private consultation rooms to an upstairs promenade and owner’s lounge—features one or more models.

In this world, it’s more than just about the cars. But, wow, those cars were cool.

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Raising Expectations

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Raising Expectations

Taking wing.  Hercules Plaza, 1313 North Market Street, Wilmington, DE.

Taking wing.  Hercules Plaza, 1313 North Market Street, Wilmington, DE.

Closing in on 2:00pm.  Detail of clock at Hercules Plaza from vantage point afforded by a drone.

Closing in on 2:00pm.  Detail of clock at Hercules Plaza from vantage point afforded by a drone.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve fantasized about being a pilot. As a photographer of buildings, I’ve staged dozens of shoots from helicopters—but somebody else was always doing the flying.  Now, with drones, I finally get to fly solo.

City views. Philadelphia seen from above University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Park; new FMC building on the left.

City views. Philadelphia seen from above University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Park; new FMC building on the left.

I’ve been shooting with drones for a few years and I still marvel at the angles and perspectives I’m able to achieve for my clients—without sacrificing clarity or quality. Now that broad expanse of multi-dimensional space between me shooting from the ground and me shooting from a helicopter is part of my canvas—and under my complete control.

In the heights. Façade of Bentley Homes’ model house shot from 15 feet above the ground

In the heights. Façade of Bentley Homes’ model house shot from 15 feet above the ground

It does take a lot of practice and experimentation to get the hang of it—and just like anything else related to flying, safety is priority one. I went through a lot of studying and training before I was granted an FAA 107 license allowing me to operate a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) for commercial purposes. 

And as I got better, drone technology got better, too. Better cameras. Better stability. More flexibility and greater agility.

Second story job. E.A. Delle Donne Corporate Center I, Wilmington, DE

Second story job. E.A. Delle Donne Corporate Center I, Wilmington, DE

I’m a big fan of drone maker DJI. They’ve developed some amazing technology for the control and flight of their UAV’s and their Phantom 4 Pro is an incredible flying camera, capable of producing a raw still image using a 1-inch 20 megapixel Sony chip. It also features a lens with minimal distortion (meaning straight lines stay straight) and has a wide angle lens that’s great for photographing buildings, close up and far away. For capturing video, its automated flying modes assist in achieving consistently smooth and steady flights.

Of course, I could drone on and on…but I think I’ll let these pictures tell the rest of the story.

Going wide. The Royal Athena apartment building next to the Schuylkill River, as seen from a drone operated next to the building.

Going wide. The Royal Athena apartment building next to the Schuylkill River, as seen from a drone operated next to the building.

The Royal Athena shot from the ground without a drone. Due to limited space and maneuverability, it’s very difficult to get a camera angle that shows the whole structure.

The Royal Athena shot from the ground without a drone. Due to limited space and maneuverability, it’s very difficult to get a camera angle that shows the whole structure.

Looks like it could be shot from a helicopter, but it’s a drone’s-eye view of Polo Run, an apartment complex .

Looks like it could be shot from a helicopter, but it’s a drone’s-eye view of Polo Run, an apartment complex .

DJI Phantom 4 Pro with integral camera. (photo source: DJI)

DJI Phantom 4 Pro with integral camera. (photo source: DJI)

Me, piloting, and Fernando Gaglianese, waving, captured by the drone itself.

Me, piloting, and Fernando Gaglianese, waving, captured by the drone itself.

Drone vs. Helicopter

  • Drone flights limited to 400 feet above ground, high enough for many site views.
  • Drone can also be thought of as a “tall tripod,” 15-30 feet above ground.
  • Drone flights can operate at lower costs.
  • Helicopter can fly higher—a good way to show how a site sits relative to surroundings like highways and landmark buildings.
  • Helicopters can fly in some areas that are restricted or difficult for drones, such as dense urban areas and near airports, and for a multi-site assignment, helicopters can travel quickly to multiple places.
  • From a helicopter, I can shoot with a very high quality camera and a larger variety of lenses.

 

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Self-Cleaning House

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Self-Cleaning House

Imagine a house that would clean itself. Who wouldn't want that? Frances Gabe, an inventive woman tired of housework set out to design and build such a house. 

From left to right: Paul Benson, Bev Benson, Frances Gabe (91 at the time), Lily Benson, Greg Benson. August 2007.

From left to right: Paul Benson, Bev Benson, Frances Gabe (91 at the time), Lily Benson, Greg Benson. August 2007.

In 2007, our family visited her self-cleaning house in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. The concept of a self-cleaning house is great. The actual house was anything but sparkling clean. Still Gabe deserves credit for seeking a way to free women from the drudgery of cleaning.

Years after our visit, my daughter Lily Benson, created an animated video inspired by Gabe's self-cleaning house.

Today's NY Times has an article telling Gabe's story. One of my photos is part of the article and my daughter Lily Benson is quoted in the story.  

The exterior of Frances Gabe's self-cleaning house.

The exterior of Frances Gabe's self-cleaning house.

Ms. Benson, the artist, recalled her surprise on seeing it a decade ago.“It was really cluttered: newspapers, books, clothes — just general household clutter,” she said. “It was kind of shocking, because I expected to be in the cleanest house of my life.”

Sprinkler head in the ceiling of the living room. A drain is located below and all of the furnishings are plastic covered and waterproof.

Sprinkler head in the ceiling of the living room. A drain is located below and all of the furnishings are plastic covered and waterproof.

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Going Places

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Going Places

At Gate B10 is Mezzogiorno, an Italian eatery created by Nomad Pizza founder Stalin Bedon.

At Gate B10 is Mezzogiorno, an Italian eatery created by Nomad Pizza founder Stalin Bedon.

Some of you may remember a movie from a few years ago called “The Terminal.” It starred Tom Hanks and told the story of a traveler’s worst nightmare – getting stranded at an airport through no fault of one’s own and then having to find a way to literally live at the terminal. The film’s tagline was “Life is Waiting” and, having experienced quite a few delays at airports myself, I could definitely relate.

I thought about that movie and of seemingly endless cycles of waiting as I made my way to Philadelphia International Airport for one of the more unusual assignments of my career.

Late night travelers passing Mezzogiorno.

Late night travelers passing Mezzogiorno.

As part of a massive redevelopment effort, good old Terminal B – dependable but uninspiring – was scheduled for a major facelift.  The Philadelphia Business Journal described it as “a $30 million game changer” – a big, bold blast of the future while you’re waiting to catch a flight to Chicago. And the folks behind the first phase of the project, EP Guidi Construction, wanted me to document the results. 

Three new restaurants had ushered in this new era. My challenge was to show the quality and details of each in the context of a place in which people are always going somewhere else.

The aptly named Germantown Biergarten at Gate B9 – a true taste of Philly.

The aptly named Germantown Biergarten at Gate B9 – a true taste of Philly.

No time for a beer, but the selection was tempting.

No time for a beer, but the selection was tempting.

Oh, did I mention that this all had to be done in the middle of the night? Oh, yes. No restaurant employees or consumers – only a handful of travelers passing through. Plus, I was assigned my own personal security guard. 

Yet the airport is a vibrant community of its own at night – a secret world populated by maintenance workers, construction workers and “third watch” airline personnel. Some we had to work around, some we had to wait for, and some had to wait for us. But it all seemed to work. 

Each seat has an iPad for ordering, paying and tracking when your flight is scheduled to depart.

Each seat has an iPad for ordering, paying and tracking when your flight is scheduled to depart.

Boule Café, la cuisine française in Philadelphia at Gate B-14.

Boule Café, la cuisine française in Philadelphia at Gate B-14.

No cheesesteaks at this bistro. 

No cheesesteaks at this bistro. 

But the thrill of the night? Getting to drive my Honda minivan across the tarmac, right beside the planes. Terminal velocity, to be sure.

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Urban or Suburban

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Urban or Suburban

This Philadelphia twilight view shows the proximity of Public Ledger Building’s (12 story building on right) to world famous Independence Hall with the steeple.

This Philadelphia twilight view shows the proximity of Public Ledger Building’s (12 story building on right) to world famous Independence Hall with the steeple.

While I list my occupation on my tax return as “architectural photographer,” I prefer to answer people who ask what it is that I do for a living with a simple “I shoot buildings.” It usually leads to a much more interesting conversation, as I first have to reassure them that I am indeed a photographer and not in the demolition business. 

“How did you get into that?” is often the next question, or “I didn’t know you could specialize in that.” And it goes from there. But, on occasion, I get asked something unexpected, like if there’s a difference between photographing a building in the city and photographing one in a more suburban setting. 

That’s a good one.  And since I love cities, but live in the suburbs, one worth considering here.

Triad, a revitalized suburban office building in a park-like setting.

Triad, a revitalized suburban office building in a park-like setting.

Many of the projects that I photograph are office buildings. It’s my job to make a building, regardless of where it is, look its best and make the viewer want to be there, to either work there, live there, or both. Creating desire is the centerpiece of marketing.

In a city, square footage is priced at a premium. Space is restricted and tight. Streets can be narrow. So the vantage points from which to shoot a specific building can be limited. In some ways, that makes my job a little easier. Less choice in these situations isn’t always a bad thing.

There’s also more activity in a city – more people, more traffic – so finding just the right time of day (or night) can be an additional challenge. Bottom line? More pre-planning.

Sure, there can be busy suburbs, but the variables are usually easier to manage.

5 Tower Bridge, Conshohocken, PA (All the cars are underneath in a parking garage.)

5 Tower Bridge, Conshohocken, PA (All the cars are underneath in a parking garage.)

2 West Liberty Blvd., Malvern, PA (Look Mom, no cars!)

2 West Liberty Blvd., Malvern, PA (Look Mom, no cars!)

123 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Imagine no cars on the street—eerie.

123 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Imagine no cars on the street—eerie.

Traditionally, these locations have green spaces and lots of parking. Navigating cars and parking lots is a common challenge here. In a city setting, we accept that cars fill the streets. In fact, it would look weird – unintentionally eerie – if there were no cars in the shot. Yet in the suburbs, we imagine a park-like utopia where cars are somehow invisible, even though they’re the primary way people travel to and from suburban locations.

Suburban offices are also shorter and more spread out. Many of these campuses have been designed to maximize flexibility for tenants and their employees. So my assignments will also call for capturing amenities like eateries, fitness centers and places to just hang out.

Mellon Bank Center: view up from the street, view from a neighboring skyscraper.

Mellon Bank Center: view up from the street, view from a neighboring skyscraper.

For city shoots, the emphasis is usually on height and grandeur. After all, the modern skyscraper got started in Chicago because land was limited and expensive. Building higher meant a landowner could get more rent from a single parcel of land. Yet, building amenities are becoming more a part of my recent work in urban settings.

Offices: City vs Suburbs

       City

  • More dense
  • More restricted camera angles
  • Land is pricier
  • Pricey land led to skyscrapers
  • Buildings are higher
  • More activity – people, vehicles
  • Landscape often not as important
  • Nighttime traffic can add drama

   

    Suburb

    • Park-like
    • More green
    • More space
    • Camera angles less restrictive
    • Parking lots
    • Do you show cars or not?
    • Lower scale buildings
    • Easier to fly a drone safely

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    Playing All the Angles

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    Playing All the Angles

    The original house (on the left) inspired the new structure’s composition (everywhere else). 1100 Architect

    The original house (on the left) inspired the new structure’s composition (everywhere else). 1100 Architect

    I love being able to see the same thing in new ways – especially when the geometry of a structure like the Perry World House lends itself so well to this passion. 

    For three different clients and on three different occasions I was chosen to photograph this uniquely designed global policy research center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

    For the Architecture Firm: The building’s architects, 1100 Architect, elected to keep portions of an original 1851 brick-and-stucco cottage and fuse them into a thoroughly modern limestone building. In what’s been described as a “blunt collision” of old and new, its singular mission is to bring the entire University – all 12 schools – together to debate and explore global issues.

    1100 Architect commissioned me to photograph a multitude of exterior and interior views, looking at the building from all sides, at a range of distances, and in both daylight and at twilight.

     Perry World House, Philadelphia, PA.

    One of the challenges was to show the street-facing façade of the building without the clutter of cars and food truck normally parked there. While I arranged with the Philadelphia Film Board to get the block designated a “No Parking” zone for the shoot, I knew that signs alone would not deter Philadelphia drivers from parking. So my assistant set up more than a dozen orange traffic cones to keep any and all vehicles out of my shots – and my resident photo editor later zapped out the cones and signs.

    Research shot of 38th Street façade; the food truck really annoyed the architects.

    Research shot of 38th Street façade; the food truck really annoyed the architects.

    38th Street façade, with and without signs and traffic cones. Here’s where great lighting and the perfect time of day change everything!

    38th Street façade, with and without signs and traffic cones. Here’s where great lighting and the perfect time of day change everything!

    Thank heaven for connections at City Hall and Photoshop.

    Ultimately, Perry World House was selected as one of “The 9 Best New University Buildings Around The World” by Architectural Digest – and I’ve been told that my photography had something to do with that!

    For the Development Office: Penn’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations asked me to shoot images of the house that would be used as mural-sized displays for “Our Penn,” a traveling presentation hosted by the University’s President that highlights new developments on campus. For this assignment, I focused on the building in use by a variety of students and organizations.

    Perry World House with people (for “Our Penn”).

    Perry World House with people (for “Our Penn”).

    Global conference center or space age sun room?

    Global conference center or space age sun room?

    The gateway to Perry World House's World Forum, the artfully designed lobby is often the scene of catered receptions.

    The gateway to Perry World House's World Forum, the artfully designed lobby is often the scene of catered receptions.

    The multi-level Global Policy Lab is a model of versatility, accommodating workshops, conferences, seminars and other events.

    The multi-level Global Policy Lab is a model of versatility, accommodating workshops, conferences, seminars and other events.

    For the Alumni Magazine: Then Pennsylvania Gazette, the university’s alumni magazine, asked me to capture the essence of the house, as well as photograph its director, William Burke-White.  For this outing, I sought out more heroic images of the building, focusing on light and space, and less on the people using it.

    Perry World House without people (for Pennsylvania Gazette).

    Perry World House without people (for Pennsylvania Gazette).

    Natural light and artwork are everywhere.

    Natural light and artwork are everywhere.

    Being the photographer of choice is a great feeling. Being the photographer of choice three times for the same gorgeous building is the best feeling.

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    Holding Court

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    Holding Court

    “The Cathedral of Basketball.”

    “The Cathedral of Basketball.”

    I have a confession to make. Growing up, the lure of basketball somehow escaped me. As a Pittsburgh kid, I played and watched football and baseball.  But it’s true. For all I cared, Dr. J might as well have been Dr. No. 

    But all that changed when my son began playing Little League basketball and, like any dutiful dad, I wanted to be supportive. I started attending his games and practices. At around the same time, Allen Iverson started playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. Watching Iverson (and my son) was undeniably exciting – and it turned me into a fan.

    If the Medicis had built a basketball arena during the Italian Renaissance, it might have looked like this.

    If the Medicis had built a basketball arena during the Italian Renaissance, it might have looked like this.

    Which brings me to the Palestra.  Situated on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, it is, by all standards, the greatest venue on earth in which to experience basketball. Note that I said “experience” and not “watch.”  Basketball played anywhere else is just a game. At the Palestra, it’s a celebration.

    With a capacity of just under 9,000, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

    With a capacity of just under 9,000, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

    The Palestra has hosted more fans at more games over more seasons than any other college arena in history.  Which is all the more amazing when you consider that it was built to seat only 9,000 people, has undergone only minor renovations since it opened in 1927, and remains, for all intents and purposes, just a big gym. But what a beloved big gym. 

    It’s known the world over as “The Cathedral of Basketball.”

    So you can imagine my glee when I got the assignment to photograph the Palestra for a story to run in the Pennsylvania Gazette commemorating its 90th anniversary. 

    Fans have witnessed some of the greatest moments in men’s and women’s basketball from these seats.

    Fans have witnessed some of the greatest moments in men’s and women’s basketball from these seats.

    Part of capturing the vibe of any place is spending time walking and looking, sizing up the space and the light, figuring out where to put the camera and when. The editorial staff decided to have me shoot during the day with the arena empty, but set up for a full court game. I used timing and the illumination of the natural light to my advantage.

    For the widest views, I used a very wide angle architectural shift lens, the Canon 17mm. In post-production we stitched together two frames in order to create an even wider view.

    Sitting on the wooden bleachers is a key element of attending a game at the Palestra, so I chose to feature the simple seating in some of my detail shots.

    The people’s palace.  No skyboxes, but plenty of flat wooden bleachers.

    The people’s palace.  No skyboxes, but plenty of flat wooden bleachers.

    The venue’s history is celebrated along its concourse.  As a high schooler, Wilt Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia city championship at the Palestra.  He was 6’ 8” by the 8th grade.

    The venue’s history is celebrated along its concourse.  As a high schooler, Wilt Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia city championship at the Palestra.  He was 6’ 8” by the 8th grade.

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    Adventures in Arch-itecture

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    Adventures in Arch-itecture

    Dick McDonald in New Hampshire. © Greg Benson

    Dick McDonald in New Hampshire. © Greg Benson

    Recently, I went to see the movie “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who turned a California roadside burger joint into the worldwide fast food franchise known as McDonald’s. Kroc expanded the Speedee Service System started by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald beyond their wildest dreams.

    I had the opportunity to meet and photograph Dick McDonald on an assignment for the McDonald’s Corporation’s in-house magazine. Dick was the person who had dreamed up the Golden Arches, so photographing him in front of that iconic logo was the only choice!

    Bright lights, big city.  57th Street, Midtown Manhattan.

    Bright lights, big city.  57th Street, Midtown Manhattan.

    On assignments with Mickey D’s, I traveled to more than 30 states capturing the architecture of the company in the country, the suburbs and in cities. And always—there were always those golden arches attesting to Dick McDonald’s original vision.

    A McDonald’s in rural New England or Virginia Beach?  Exactly!

    A McDonald’s in rural New England or Virginia Beach?  Exactly!

    I learned a lot from my work photographing fast food restaurants. During one shoot I had to climb onto the roof to replace burnt out light bulbs. (We didn’t have the luxury of Photoshop retouching then.) And wow, that’s when I learned to appreciate pre-planning, calling ahead and asking managers to check a list of things that could derail a shoot.

    Being an advocate for my client’s needs while on location made my crew, the workers in individual locations and my clients happy with our results. And ensured that we “got the shot.”

    I learned to make the plain and ordinary look exciting. Not every building is the Taj Mahal, so knowing how to bring drama into any architectural image is an important part of my craft. Great lighting, smart angles and the talent in finding the perfect p.o.v. were my tools.

    I understood trusting my instincts. I was secure knowing that I had nailed the shot before flying a thousand miles back home—something absolutely critical in those non-digital days.

    During this work, my portraiture skills increased as I worked with lots and lots of people—both in planning and scheduling, as well as having them in front of my camera.

    And, let’s face it, I learned to appreciate the occasional Big Mac with fries and a Coke.

    More dining destinations:

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    No Door Necessary

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    No Door Necessary

    Those little white specks are birds 1,000 feet below me.

    Those little white specks are birds 1,000 feet below me.

    As someone who specializes in architectural photography, most of my subjects stay in one place.  With my camera and feet planted firmly on the ground, I’m able to control the environment and set up a shot just the way I want it – and from a variety of angles and perspectives.  

    It’s a little different when I’m 1,000 feet up.  In most cases, I have to wait for the shot to come to me – and be ready to take it when it does.  I’m literally shooting on the fly.

    Whether it’s a structure or a landscape, it’s all about form, shape and composition.

    Whether it’s a structure or a landscape, it’s all about form, shape and composition.

    But whether on the ground or in the air, I always look to create a strong design and composition, organizing visual info as it comes into frame.  As the helicopter hovers over a site, the geometry of what I see continually shifts. I zoom in and then out.  I aim my camera left, then right. Up, then down. I’m free to improvise. And when the elements of a location form a solid design, I take my shot.

    Snow acts as a white seamless background for the landscape.

    Snow acts as a white seamless background for the landscape.

    Now, it might sound a little crazy, but when I photograph from a helicopter, the door is always off, so that I can have a clear unobstructed view to as many angles as possible. But I’m no daredevil – I’m strapped in with a seat belt and safety harness.

    Flying without a door is particularly challenging when it’s really cold. One of my commercial real estate clients needed aerials of buildings and they couldn’t wait for better weather. When my son Paul (who assists me) and I climbed into the Robinson R44, the temperature on the ground was 0°F. Imagine the wind chill factor when flying at speeds of up to 100 mph – with no door. 

    A pattern on a window?  No, it’s ice on a small lake.

    A pattern on a window?  No, it’s ice on a small lake.

    On that assignment I wore long underwear, insulated orange ski pants, wool socks, heavy boots, multiple layers on my torso with a windproof shell, a balaclava on my head to cover all but my eyes, and a hat over that. Add warm gloves with mittens over them to protect my hands when not shooting. At times during the two hour flight, I felt like a war correspondent about to be dropped into the Arctic Circle.

    And I loved it!

    Here are more skybound stories:
    Soar Like An Eagle
    From Up High
    Scene From Above
    Night Flight

     

     

     

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    All is Calm

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    All is Calm

    Philly scene of winter.  The Fischer Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Furness.

    Philly scene of winter.  The Fischer Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Furness.

    ‘Tis the season for taking time and taking stock. So many things I’ve learned – and relearned – over the past year.

    I’m continually reminded that the needs of clients change and evolve over time, as do clients themselves.  It’s good to take things off automatic every once in a while and make manual adjustments.

    People who know me, know I love to talk.  But the practice of listening is perhaps my most valuable life skill, one I’m perpetually perfecting.

    Keep an open mind and open heart. Differences of opinion are just that.  Best to seek ways to solve them in mutually beneficial ways.

    I’m wishing everyone a winter holiday of peace and calm, things I feel every time I look at the Fischer Fine Arts Library. It’s one of my favorite buildings in Philadelphia. Designed at the height of the Victorian era, it’s an elaborate structure of riveting red (I think it’s vermillion) and filled with intricate details just waiting to be discovered. 

    Not too long ago, when Victorian buildings were considered old and outdated, there was a proposal to knock it down. I’m glad they didn’t.

    What’s that they say about sticking your tongue to a flagpole?  How about a gargoyle?

    What’s that they say about sticking your tongue to a flagpole?  How about a gargoyle?

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    Much Obliged

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    Much Obliged

    Gratitude comes in many colors.

    Gratitude comes in many colors.

    I’ve been doing what I do professionally for quite some time now.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned (and, at times, have had to relearn) it’s that no man or woman is an island.  As a creative professional, the folks I’m honored to count as clients count on me to make the buildings they build and the spaces they design shine as boldly and brightly as possible.  And I count on them to keep food on my table and film in my camera. Digitally speaking, of course.

    So, as we move into the holiday season – and at a time of uncertainty – I’m determined to keep my attitude one of gratitude.

    I’m thankful for all the good work and projects I’ve been able to be part of throughout 2016.  The worlds of real estate and architecture in and around Philadelphia are active and vibrant.  When I travel through the city’s streets, I see new constructions that are enhancing Philadephia’s story, rather than detracting from it.

    Light Play weaves color into the fabric of the city.

    Light Play weaves color into the fabric of the city.

    The interactive Light Play installation at Southstar Lofts is a prime example.  Built as part of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s “Percent for Art” program, I was asked to photograph it by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder, the Boston-based artists who designed the project.

    Pools of color light the way to work or school.

    Pools of color light the way to work or school.

    Projecting color onto the building and street in synch with the motion of the sun, the effect is a literal representation of the connection between art and commerce – a flourishing rental market helps fund the art, while a vibrant art scene helps create a place where people want to live and businesses want to locate.

    I’m grateful to Harries/Heder for choosing me to shine a light on their work.  I’m also grateful for long-standing relationships with companies including CBRE, Jones Lang LaSalle, Newmark, HFF, University of Pennsylvania and EP Henry – as well as new clients like Greystar and Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson. If I’ve left you off the list, my apologies.

    Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express thanks for all of the people who support me in my business.  My editor and assistant, Paul (who also happens to be my son), deals with my quirks on a daily basis and makes me proud every day.  My office manager, Tanya, keeps all the behind the scenes financial and database tasks flowing seamlessly.  A shout out to all of the freelance photo assistants, Fernando, Matt, Dan, Mike and Jason, who raise the level of my game.  And shout outs to my marketing consultant, Janie Hewson, my writer, Steve Rotterdam, my designer, Aaron Vinton, and my accountant, Bill Irish.

    Finally, there’s the rest of my family.  My amazing wife, Bev. My daughter, Lily, whose spirit and ambition make me proud.  My loving mother, Eva, who at 80 sends more texts than I can keep up with. And my brother, Chan, who holds the record for my longest running friendship.

    Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

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    Show and Sell

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    Show and Sell

    The ultimate destination for the Ultimate Driving Machine.

    The ultimate destination for the Ultimate Driving Machine.

    Auto dealerships are funny things.  Buyers come in thinking this is going to be a one-time experience.  See the car, negotiate on the car, pick up the car, drive the car away.  Dealers, on the other hand, want that first visit to be the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship.  In other words, come back repeatedly for maintenance and service – because that’s where the real money’s made.

    Checking in to get checked out.

    Checking in to get checked out.

    Streamlined customer service center acts as a gateway to the owner’s lounge.

    Streamlined customer service center acts as a gateway to the owner’s lounge.

    So on a narrow strip of underutilized land on Bala Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, BMW of the Main Line commissioned Penney Design Group to create an inviting structure that would reflect the style and feel of the luxury performance brand in a way that emphasizes openness and accessibility – and that’s what Penny expected from my photography.

    Creation of a pocket park was part of the a deal with the township to reconfigure and revitalize the property.

    Creation of a pocket park was part of the a deal with the township to reconfigure and revitalize the property.

    On top of that, the location, situated near a commuter rail station and running parallel to train tracks, was ripe for revitalization.  As this new construction was to serve as the catalyst for this effort, my images had to serve the needs of the town as well as those of the designers and dealership. An intermittently cloudy day afforded me the opportunity to angle and shoot the exterior against dramatic skies.  Every corner of the interior was flooded with light to highlight the abundance of windows and the openness of design.

    Right this way, your "bimmer’s" waiting.

    Right this way, your "bimmer’s" waiting.

    Deal?  Deal!

    Deal?  Deal!

    Moving inside, I emphasized the accessibility of cars parked within easy reach of the sales associates and their desks, making sure to capture the warm touches of wood that brought texture and tone into the space.  

    Expanses of light, glass and height greet you at every turn.

    Expanses of light, glass and height greet you at every turn.

    After descending the glass-framed staircase, I took a similar approach to the streamlined efficiency of the service center’s reception area and work stations.

    As the Welsh Quakers who originally settled Bala Cynwyd might have said, it’s an anhygoel (awesome) new addition to the area’s landscape.

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    Penn’s New Urban Oasis

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    Penn’s New Urban Oasis

    Student life is already underway at the new gateway to Penn’s main campus.

    Student life is already underway at the new gateway to Penn’s main campus.

    Situated in one of America’s signature cities, the campus of the University of Pennsylvania is a vibrant, ever evolving center of learning, living and discovery that beats with a heart of its own. 

    At least that’s the way I’ve come to feel about it, having shot so many of its classic and contemporary facilities and facades over the years. 

    Façades of patterned brick seem to change with the shifting sun; tall glass enclosed areas indicate shared social spaces.

    Façades of patterned brick seem to change with the shifting sun; tall glass enclosed areas indicate shared social spaces.

    So it was with more than typical enthusiasm that I took on this assignment to capture the many facets of what Penn has dubbed “New College House.” This brand new residence (the first since the 1970s) houses over 300 students, faculty and house masters and includes dining facilities and wide-ranging social spaces.

    Timber and concrete lend a somewhat rustic, but sophisticated feel to the building’s main entrance, one that complements the meticulous landscaping.

    Timber and concrete lend a somewhat rustic, but sophisticated feel to the building’s main entrance, one that complements the meticulous landscaping.

    Designed by the architectural firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the project transforms one of the university’s last major open green spaces into a focal point of campus life while preserving and literally raising the profile of that green space (via a “lifted lawn”).

    The view along 34th Street is stately serenity.

    The view along 34th Street is stately serenity.

    On the morning of the shoot, as I made my way around the residence (to call it a “dorm” would be unfair), I discovered that each view offered a different perspective on the building and its surroundings – a bit like college itself. 

    A low profile stairway about midway along Chestnut Street provides public access to the lawn.

    A low profile stairway about midway along Chestnut Street provides public access to the lawn.

    As these images were to be used to accompany an article in Penn’s alumni magazine, Pennsylvania Gazette, heralding the opening of the facility, I was determined to capture this quality and further illustrate how the building’s design, with its redbrick exterior, limestone trim and tiered glass stairwells, serves as an inviting gateway to the greater campus just beyond.

    The publicly accessible “lifted lawn” rises up to offer an open invitation to all. 

    The publicly accessible “lifted lawn” rises up to offer an open invitation to all. 

    The inner courtyard lies at the crossroads of living, learning, social and dining spaces.

    The inner courtyard lies at the crossroads of living, learning, social and dining spaces.

    Concurrent with this assignment, Penn’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations planned to showcase the new construction as part of its 10-city “Our Penn” tour, highlighting new developments on campus.  This called for a range of additional shots (some aerial) depicting ways in which its first residents were already embracing the building and its environment.

    Green is emphasized above as well as below. 

    Green is emphasized above as well as below. 

    Just west of Center City Philadelphia, New College House stands out as a true urban oasis.

    Just west of Center City Philadelphia, New College House stands out as a true urban oasis.

    If it could ever be said that a space pulsates with a life of its own, let it be said about New College House.

     

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    My Trip to the Amazon

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    My Trip to the Amazon

    Welcome to Amazon@Penn!

    Welcome to Amazon@Penn!

    I’m often asked to capture the “specialness” of places that some people might consider “ordinary.”  This is usually the case with what I call “branded spaces,” locations like the interior of a Starbucks or a Target or an Apple Store that are pretty familiar to almost everyone. 

    Yet just as much planning goes into such a seemingly “routine” assignment as that required for shooting a one-of-a-kind environment or distinctive architectural landmark.  Sometimes more.

    It was going to be a regular day, so we got there early.

    It was going to be a regular day, so we got there early.

    Such was the case when Amazon asked me to document an Amazon Campus pickup point recently installed on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  This new delivery option is Amazon’s latest effort to get customers what they want faster and more securely than ever.  These photos would be used for public relations purposes as well as to help “sell-in” the idea to other locations.

    Yes, it’s as easy as it looks!

    Yes, it’s as easy as it looks!

    The twist here was in figuring out how to best capture a physical space for a brand best known for its online presence.  The images had to feel as if you’d seen them before when, in reality, few people actually ever did.

    Working with actual staffers simplified everything.

    Working with actual staffers simplified everything.

    In addition to finding the most compelling angles, lighting was crucial to the success of the shoot.  Note the pickups of the warm tones, simple lines and inviting textures. 

    Feels like Amazon, doesn’t it?  And that’s the point.

    These students came to play.  Perfect timing for us!

    These students came to play.  Perfect timing for us!

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    Fly Ball

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    Fly Ball

    A well manicured field in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.

    A well manicured field in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.

    It all began years ago while I was up in a rented helicopter capturing aerial shots for a client. From the air, you can see dozens of ball fields. While flying over cities, suburbs, or farmland, that familiar diamond shape jumps out.


    Baseball diamonds are a bit like snowflakes … the shape is immediately recognizable but no two are exactly alike. I admit that photographing ball fields from on high is a bit of an obsession. As a kid I was really into following baseball, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now I capture diamonds from the air. 

    A field in North Philadelphia.

    A field in North Philadelphia.

    The sizes, colors, conditions and surroundings varies greatly. Baseball fields can spring up on virtually any piece of land--from a gritty North Philadelphia vacant lot to a manicured university turf field.

    This field is faintly visible like a ghost. Notice how there is less wear as you go from home to third base.

    This field is faintly visible like a ghost. Notice how there is less wear as you go from home to third base.

    In contrast to photographing buildings from the air, ball fields are exceptionally flat. The character traits of a given field are etched in the terrain, whether it’s sand, grass, dirt or synthetic turf. Others are circular from base-rounding wear and tear that show a field’s age like tree rings in a stump.

    Baseball can be played anywhere there is an open field.

    Baseball can be played anywhere there is an open field.

    Two fields in Camden, NJ under construction, with new grass seed recently sprayed on the left.

    Two fields in Camden, NJ under construction, with new grass seed recently sprayed on the left.

    Softball fields lack the inner field grass of baseball fields.

    Softball fields lack the inner field grass of baseball fields.

    I love the rings of the grass mowing, like tree rings.

    I love the rings of the grass mowing, like tree rings.

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    Suburban Living

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    Suburban Living

    Since my blog on City Living last month, I ventured out to the Philadelphia western suburbs to photograph a Main Line makeover for architect Jeffrey Spoelker, AIA, of JMS Architecture. Jeff started his own practice in 2009 but is now pumping up the marketing volume with a new website and bigger, better photos. That’s where I come in.

    Old Is the New “New”
    Interior images make you think you’re looking at a brand new house. But the exterior’s Center Hall Colonial style gives away the home’s 100-year age. The couple who live here love their charming neighborhood and its historic architecture, but found themselves “making do” in a home designed for a century-old lifestyle. Jeff’s first step was to help this atypical family rethink interior spaces to enhance the way they really live.

    Top floor guest room for older children when they visit.

    Top floor guest room for older children when they visit.

    Empty Nest? Not Yet.
    This couple’s recent re-marriage spawned a hybrid style of Brady Bunch living. The husband’s grown children have flown the coop … but come back to visit. And the wife’s younger kids still live at home. So the nest is full again … fuller even. To accommodate the needs of all parties, under-used rooms were transformed into walk-in closets, computer rooms and private baths adjoining bedrooms. The attic was refashioned as a dynamic guest room with private bath. Most spaces were made sleeker, more spacious and tailored for optimum functionality with fun accents like sliding barn doors and pebble-look shower tiles.

    The unfinished attic before its transformation.

    The unfinished attic before its transformation.

    or interior shots, I blended multiple exposures to fully express the characteristics of reflective materials like countertops, tile, shower doors, mirrors, windows, wood grain. To highlight the interesting geometries of the attic bedroom, I shot from four different angles and digitally fused the shots to span all dimensions, from ceiling shapes to rug and side dormer windows.

    6-Sided Living
    In contrast with “City Living” in a rowhouse or apartment tower, most houses in the Burbs have FOUR SIDES! This house’s whopping six sides compounded the challenge of timing for optimum sunlight while factoring in patios, overhangs, porches, chimneys, dormer windows, foliage, garage and neighboring houses. Exterior images show improvements like the new gable created over the front door. The house was re-roofed and re-stuccoed with wood siding inserted here and there for a contemporary touch. A small outdoor porch was stripped off and another exposed and connected to the larger back patio.

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    City Living

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    City Living

    2116 Chestnut Street with the Philadelphia skyline.

    “Life is better here” is the simple, but bold, marketing slogan for the new 2116 Chestnut Street apartment tower in Philadelphia. Working for the building’s owner, CBRE Global Investors, my challenge was to fully express this glassy, 34-story tower as “The ideal address for an urban lifestyle,” as advertised. The images are being used to show off the property to investors through marketing materials and quarterly reports.

    2116 Chestnut Street lights up at night.

    2116 Chestnut Street lights up at night.

    Eager to tell the full story of the building’s context, I shot from several different locations and heights to capture the true, but changing, personality and spirit of this contemporary structure.

    Older lower scale neighborhood surrounds the building.

    Neighborhood! From the street, images demonstrate how the streamlined tower adjoins a charming, 100-year-old residence on the corner to physically and visually connect with the surrounding historic neighborhood. Stone churches, schools, trees, parks and shops accessorize the street-level appeal. At twilight, the tower shoots up over the older, low-lying buildings almost like a rocket being propelled into the future from a launching pad of the past. Dusk shots are animated by splashes of twinkling light from occupied apartments above colored streaks from passing cars on the otherwise tranquil, city streets.

    Seen from the roof top of a nearby building.

    Views! Images taken from a rooftop a few blocks away let you imagine how living in the tower would offer tremendous, unobstructed views in all directions. And no one is looking in (uh, except for me). So you are free to open the blinds or hang out on the balcony and savor the dynamic backdrop of skyscrapers on one side and the Schuylkill River on the other. A very close-up view activates sleek interiors and cutting-edge amenities as residents enjoy an easy, urban lifestyle.

    Trails along the Schuylkill River are filled with people running, walking and biking.

    Trails! I found a great shooting location on the University City side of the river in order to show how 2116 Chestnut is mere blocks from the new Schuylkill River Trail System. Being two blocks from the river also means you’re within walking distance to University City, if you take classes or work over there. You can see from here that the building is also just blocks from the city’s skyscrapers, Rittenhouse Square, shops and restaurants. This is truly an ideal location in a thriving but quieter part of Center City.

    This simple, state-of-the-art structure in a way represents the missing link between sparkling, sky-high downtown and a calmer, more down-to-earth community. It is all the best the city has to offer. How could you not want to be a part of that?

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    Skyscrapers: Above and Beyond

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    Skyscrapers: Above and Beyond

    Keystone Blue Cross, Philadelphia, PA

    Photographing skyscrapers is a tall order in many ways. These giant feats of architecture, engineering and construction first get conceived, then designed, then built, often over the course of years and to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. I appreciate, and am humbled by, the immensity of the challenge to show these herculean structures to their best advantage.

    For many of the skyscrapers I photograph, I am working for commercial realty companies that use my imagery to sell either a whole building or available space within a building. The goal is to obviously make the buildings look as formidable and desirable as possible: large, classy, sophisticated, modern, state of the art, and featuring the latest in contemporary amenities in an ideal location. Many businesses understand that having an office in a shiny, towering edifice will positively reflect the building’s sophistication, stability and permanence onto their own company’s brand of success.

    When photographing skyscrapers, I try to “read,” and then tease out, the unique qualities and individual contexts of each structure, from the ground level to the very top. Skyscrapers “read” one way from a distance and another way from closer up, gazing up at them from the street.

    Mellon Bank Center, 1735 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA

    BNY Mellon Center
    One of the most important aspects of the BNY Mellon Center is its famous pyramid structure at the top that houses the Pyramid Club and offers space with an amazing view for parties, business meetings and other events. I was able to get just slightly above the pyramid in a neighboring building to show not only the structural details of the sky-high atrium but also bring into view the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with the Schuylkill River beyond to demonstrate the building’s impressive location.

    For many of these projects, I am challenged to show a building or buildings in the context of their urban environment to let a buyer or new tenant know what a great location they’d be buying (or leasing) into. Showing the building’s surroundings, and even getting a view of the structure’s middle and top, requires “getting some height” on the building. This becomes a matter of locating a neighboring building high enough to offer up a perfect view from the middle or near the top of the subject building. The next hoop to jump through is getting permission to photograph FROM these other buildings, which in my experience is an endeavor that’s either really easy or nearly impossible.

    Once I identify an ideal building to shoot from, I often show up and ask the security staff if I can go up in their building to photograph a neighboring building. Some people agree readily to my plan and accompany me on my travels through their building. Others say I’ll need permission in writing from the building managers, which may take a month at which time I’m welcome to come back. So getting some height on these tall buildings requires a little ingenuity, persistence, people skills and luck, especially given today’s concerns about security.

    Penn Mutual Building, Philadelphia, PA

    Penn Mutual Building
    To shoot the Penn Mutual Building, I was challenged to show off the ideal urban neighborhood that the buildings are located in, just across from Independence Park and down the street from the iconic Society Hill Towers. With the Delaware River in the near distance, the Penn Mutual complex stands out as an impressive corporate structure that blends its significant architectural history with its more contemporary components that have evolved over time to represent stability and success for the long haul.

    Since so many skyscrapers are faced with glass curtainwalls, “reading” each building becomes a study in what is reflecting in the building at the time. Once I’m up in an adjacent building, it’s almost like a chemistry experiment: mixing just the right amount of height, light and shadows, with reflections of clouds and other buildings. For a different perspective, I also photograph skyscrapers from the ground to demonstrate the grandiosity of the entrance and present a more dramatic “towering” view as the top of the colossal structure fades into reflections of clouds and then meets up with the wild blue yonder.

    Comcast Tower, Philadelphia, PA

    Comcast Tower
    The Comcast Center is more than 1,000 feet tall and 59 stories high, so finding a nearby building tall enough to photograph from was a challenge. Once I found it, though, I had the perfect vantage point to capture the Liberty Place skyscrapers reflected in, and dwarfed by, the more massive Comcast Center. I managed to match up the reflected horizon and surrounding city view with the “real” horizon and clouds beyond the building. Having one consistent skyline lets the viewer focus on the building and not be distracted by too many disparate impressions of surrounding scenery.

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    Tis the Season to Be Shopping

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    Tis the Season to Be Shopping

    High-end urban retail spaces must feel as luxurious and unique as the merchandise sold within.

    Shopping is as American as apple pie. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that the United States has over 45 sq. ft. of retail space for every person — double that of our nearest shopaholic rivals, the UK.

    The “Super Bowl” of this national pastime is Black Friday, that annual stampede of savings that marks the start of the holiday shopping season. Beginning in early November, we hear the rumblings of fanfare. Stores will do everything they can to lure customers in for the biggest shopping day of the year.

    A clean-lined, tidy display of products entices customers to explore at Ulta Cosmetics in Philadelphia.

    With the rise of Cyber Monday and the prevalence of online shopping, it has become even more important for brick-and-mortar locations to “up” their game. Shopping has been transformed into a theatrical experience, laced with temptation and discovery.

    Many shopping centers have turned into nostalgic, village-like theme parks. These pedestrian-friendly designs are meant to encourage leisurely browsing and enhance the social experience of “going shopping.”

    This village-style shopping center invites consumers to make a day of it.

    When I photograph retail spaces and shopping centers, I always try to convey that sense of excitement. Often, I choose to shoot at twilight to capture the dramatic glowing lights and colors designed to entice shoppers.

    Lighting and color attracts shoppers.

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    Community Facelift

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    Community Facelift

    Fresh, modern interiors in the model units appeal to upscale tenants.
    Fresh, modern interiors in the model units appeal to upscale tenants.

    Buildings aren’t meant to last forever — ask any homeowner! Even well-built architectural treasures need renovations eventually.

    I’ve always been fascinated by how buildings change over time. Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn changed the way I look at buildings. It opened my eyes to the story and history of every building.

    The sparkling swimming pool and inviting common areas beg for a late-summer party!
    The sparkling swimming pool and inviting common areas beg for a late-summer party!
    BEFORE: The old tennis court was poorly maintained and under-utilized.
    BEFORE: The old tennis court was poorly maintained and under-utilized.

    In the real estate business, “value-add” refers to an investment in an aging property to make upgrades and repairs, bringing the place back to life and make it viable again. It’s an inevitable part of the construction life-cycle — and can be a very profitable investment for those who know what they’re doing.

    One particularly dramatic transformation of a “value-add” property is Yardley Crossing in suburban Philadelphia. Built in 1979, the 196-unit, 24-acre apartment complex was purchased by Relative Properties, in 2014.

    I’ve had the unique opportunity to photograph Yardley Crossing twice — once in 2011 for a commercial real estate firm listing the property for sale, and again in 2015 for Paul Aschkenasy at Relative Properties, after its comprehensive makeover.

    The clubhouse at Yardley Crossing was transformed into a stylish Craftsman-style multi-purpose space.
    The clubhouse at Yardley Crossing was transformed into a stylish Craftsman-style multi-purpose space.
    BEFORE: The old clubhouse, clad in “blah” white vinyl, was attracting no one with its outdated styling.
    BEFORE: The old clubhouse, clad in “blah” white vinyl, was attracting no one with its outdated styling.

    The property is nearly unrecognizable now. When I photographed it back in 2011, it was definitely showing its age — the finishes were outdated, the amenities unappealing, and structures were in need of repairs.

    With a complete renovation and upgrades to the clubhouse, pool and surrounding common areas, as well as elegant and modern remodels of the unit interiors, Yardley Crossing is now able to market itself as a luxury apartment and townhome community.

    Modern, upscale finishes in the newly renovated units appeal to more upscale tenants.
    Modern, upscale finishes in the newly renovated units appeal to more upscale tenants.
    BEFORE: Outdated “builder-grade” finishes had no personality or warmth.
    BEFORE: Outdated “builder-grade” finishes had no personality or warmth.

    When photographing interiors, it makes all the difference to have a talented designer styling the spaces. For our shoot at Yardley Crossing, we collaborated with the fun and talented Lisa Furie . She brings great energy, stylish flair and a thoughtful eye to every project.

    What a transformation!
    What a transformation!

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