Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky

Looking straight down, a living replica of the architects’ plans.

Looking straight down, a living replica of the architects’ plans.

I’m not really sure how one’s spirit animal gets assigned, but if I had my choice, I’d pick a bird. An eagle, to be exact. I love to see the world from on high and imagine I’m soaring above it all. Looking down, the landscape becomes my personal model world. Perfectly lovely – both miniature and vast at the same time.

Drones help make this happen for me – letting me reach new heights, both literally and creatively.

Photograph as an architect’s plan, looking straight down via a drone-enabled camera.

Photograph as an architect’s plan, looking straight down via a drone-enabled camera.

Drone technology continues to advance at a rapid pace. Drone-enabled cameras can get to the higher vantage points from which I’m able to gain a better, deeper understanding of and appreciation for the intentions of architects and planners – and to capture that perspective in my photography.

While I’ve long relied on helicopters to allow me to shoot from the air, there are certain places they can’t get to and altitudes at which they cannot realistically fly. Plus, they can be expensive.

Drone as very tall tripod – The Point at Glen Mills Apartments.

Drone as very tall tripod – The Point at Glen Mills Apartments.

Drones, however, are incredibly affordable. They can fly from 20 feet to up to 400 feet above the ground – serving as a very tall tripod or low flying helicopter.

With a modern drone, it’s relatively simple to hover and shoot straight down. It’s also possible to navigate in relatively tight spaces. And shooting high-quality aerial video is just as easy as shooting still images.

I could never jump high enough to get this angle. No one could.

I could never jump high enough to get this angle. No one could.

The images featured here are from an assignment to document The Point at Glen Mills Apartments in Concordville, Pennsylvania in support of real estate advisory firm ARA Newmark’s efforts to sell the entire complex.

As humans, our field of vision is usually anchored to the earth. But a drone-enabled camera becomes my eye in the sky.

Drone as helicopter – entire apartment complex, with townhouses and retail in the distance.

Drone as helicopter – entire apartment complex, with townhouses and retail in the distance.

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Shooting Color

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Shooting Color

Color, light – even shadow – are the photographer’s palette.

Color, light – even shadow – are the photographer’s palette.

It’s fair to assume that everything is, by default, shot in color. But that doesn’t mean that I’m “shooting color.” When I’m shooting color, as opposed to just shooting in color, I’m going for the vibrancy, the excitement, the living energy that color carries with it.

No workplace boredom here.

No workplace boredom here.

Color excites the eye and draws attention. It conveys emotion and feeling. I feel “blue”. He was “green” with envy. She was so angry, all she could see was “red.” These same emotions can be applied to physical spaces through similar shades of color.

Corporate yet casual color compliments a great view.

Corporate yet casual color compliments a great view.

In photographing an otherwise utilitarian environment, I seek out splashes or notes of color in the scene that will help tell the story that my client wants told.  Whether it’s an item of furniture, a piece of art or simply a surface, color can liven up a space; make it less dreary and humdrum. Light brings in color as well, be it the cool colors of twilight or the warmth of light at the end of the day.

The right shade of lipstick puckers up even the most pedestrian waiting room.

The right shade of lipstick puckers up even the most pedestrian waiting room.

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Clean to the Extreme

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Clean to the Extreme

Cleanroom for pharma. Lots of equipment, zero dust.

Cleanroom for pharma. Lots of equipment, zero dust.

In the deep recesses of my mind is a memory of a science fiction thriller from the early ‘70s called The Andromeda Strain in which a team of scientists have to isolate a destructive alien virus in a stark white “containment room” deep within a high tech underground lab.

So, as you might imagine, when a company called AES Clean Technology hired me to photograph their advanced design “cleanrooms,” my initial thought was that I was going to be subjected to a decontamination shower, have to don one of those white hazmat suits and then travel miles below the surface of the earth in order to take pictures of an environment that defines the term “white space.”

Well, not exactly.

Tanks… a lot.

Tanks… a lot.

Cleanrooms, as I learned, are spaces designed, built and constructed almost anywhere to manufacture items where the tiniest particles of dust can easily ruin the final product. Producing microelectronics, tubing for medical devices, biotech and pharmaceutical products can all require a hyper degree of dust-free cleanliness.

Even in antiseptic white, a human touch adds both warmth and scale.

Even in antiseptic white, a human touch adds both warmth and scale.

The investment companies make in cleanroom facilities are meant to reduce risk and should maximize performance. AES wanted photos that would both capture the tech and represent this value in brochures, on their website and in other marketing materials.

This image of a room within a room is one of three gracing the AES homepage.

This image of a room within a room is one of three gracing the AES homepage.

As you can see from the photos here, cleanroom facilities are often loaded with stuff. It’s just that all this stuff is really, really clean.

Above the ceiling sits an entire universe of mechanical systems and ducts.

Above the ceiling sits an entire universe of mechanical systems and ducts.

How clean? Well, entering a clean room is, in fact, a major procedure and it does require wearing specific shirts and pants. Booties, gloves, hairnets and beard nets are all part of the required get up. Some areas of a cleanroom can require double layers – and wearing two layers of gloves can lead to sweaty hands that make it challenging to manipulate the camera controls.

There’s also a procedure for cleaning and bringing photo equipment into a cleanroom. I brought in minimal gear and wiped down much of it with alcohol wipes.

Me with one layer of cleanroom clothing, including a beard net. Why a beard net? – I know I shaved that day!

Me with one layer of cleanroom clothing, including a beard net. Why a beard net? – I know I shaved that day!

I mean, I pride myself on working clean, but this was above and beyond.

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Skin Deep

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Skin Deep

Every now and then I run into an avocado colored refrigerator. Not literally, of course. But sometimes I’ll look at a building and my mind will conjure up an image of an old Hotpoint or Amana or Kelvinator straight out of an early ’70s Brady Bunch kitchen. Perfectly workable, but having seen better days.

Stucco and strip windows with a ‘80s vibe.

Stucco and strip windows with a ‘80s vibe.

One Franklin Plaza had morphed into just such an avocado colored refrigerator. Completed in the early 1980s, the building at 16th and Race Streets in Philadelphia was built as the headquarters of Smith Kline French Pharmaceuticals, one of the predecessors to GlaxoSmithKline. [Glaxo vacated the aging building for a new headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. ] As a building, it was perfectly workable, but had seen better days.

Facelift complete. Conversion to a residential tower has given One Franklin a new lease on life.

Facelift complete. Conversion to a residential tower has given One Franklin a new lease on life.

The new owners, PMC were determined to change that. As part of their plan to convert the 24-story building into rental apartments (with about 200,000 square feet of office space on the lower floors), a literal re-skinning was called for. That’s when my client, Apogee Enterprises, came into the picture.

New windows from Apogee bring the building into the current century.

New windows from Apogee bring the building into the current century.

One of the interesting aspects of my work is the occasional insight it gives me into the breadth of U.S. industry and how different companies with different areas of expertise tend to rely on each other. Apogee specializes in architectural glass, framing and renovation of commercial buildings. While One Franklin Plaza’s distinctive shape would be maintained, brick would be replaced by glass—lots and lots of state-of-the-art, highly tempered glass.

Documenting the “before and after” of this architectural facelift necessitated careful planning and positioning. Coincidentally, I had already photographed the original building years before, so it became a fun challenge to match the angle of the shot I needed to take now to the one in the photo I took back then—a rare opportunity for a photographer’s lens to come full circle.Documenting the “before and after” of this architectural facelift necessitated careful planning and positioning. Coincidentally, I had already photographed the original building years before, so it became a fun challenge to match the angle of the shot I needed to take now to the one in the photo I took back then—a rare opportunity for a photographer’s lens to come full circle.

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My Diners Club

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My Diners Club

An appetite for design. Independence Prime, the steakhouse and bar at the Philadelphia airport, designed by  Daroff Design .

An appetite for design. Independence Prime, the steakhouse and bar at the Philadelphia airport, designed by Daroff Design.

Food, glorious food. I love it—and I love to eat out. That’s why I get particularly excited whenever I’m asked to photograph a place where people meet to eat. A five-star restaurant, a neighborhood eatery, even a branch of a casual fast food chain—it doesn’t really matter. The environments created by people who cook for people who eat have always fascinated me.

Talula’s Daily: lunch time grab and go.

Talula’s Daily: lunch time grab and go.

I’ve photographed an endless number of eateries. As far as actually working in one, I did spend a summer before college cooking up fries and roast beef sandwiches at Arby’s. That’s where I learned that you don’t always want to know how or where your food is made.

Love Grille with the iconic Love statue logo, features Philly cheesesteaks.

Love Grille with the iconic Love statue logo, features Philly cheesesteaks.

I much prefer shooting “in the front of the house.” As a photographer of architecture, I like to be able to control the situation—and, as we all know from watching countless cooking shows, that’s not always possible back in the kitchen.

So many choices, so many lines. Lunch at Houston Hall at Penn.

So many choices, so many lines. Lunch at Houston Hall at Penn.

But whether or not I include people in my shots is usually decided by the nature of my audience.

 

The curvy undulating ceiling of Independence Prime draws you into the bar and restaurant.

The curvy undulating ceiling of Independence Prime draws you into the bar and restaurant.

All of the pictures of restaurants, cafes and casual dining spots you see here were taken from the client’s POV—and each tells a unique story or part of one. My architecture and construction clients prefer the emphasis to be placed on the look, design and physicality of the space.

Real people require real food. I’m not above treating students to a meal to get the right shot.

Real people require real food. I’m not above treating students to a meal to get the right shot.

Neighborhood places should reflect the neighborhood.

Neighborhood places should reflect the neighborhood.

My editorial and academic clients want to see people enjoying good food, drink and the company of other people, promoting a sense of community within neighborhoods and on university campuses.

   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
  
  
  
  
  
  
     I see fed people. Students eat and socialize at Penn’s New College House.

I see fed people. Students eat and socialize at Penn’s New College House.

Dine and dash. Baba Bar, an on-the-go bar and noshery at Philadelphia airport.

Dine and dash. Baba Bar, an on-the-go bar and noshery at Philadelphia airport.

Me? I’m just here for the food—and drink.

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Face Time

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Face Time

Keeping the background recognizable but just slightly out of focus makes the subject pop.    Amy Cha of Bohlin Cywinski Powell

Keeping the background recognizable but just slightly out of focus makes the subject pop.  Amy Cha of Bohlin Cywinski Powell

As an architectural photographer, I’m always looking for ways to bring out the human qualities of everything I’m assigned to shoot, be it an office tower, sports arena, campus center, residential space, commercial concern or what have you.

This is particularly true when it comes to photographing actual humans, which happens more often in my area of focus than one might assume. As I do love to take portraits, I consider the chance to photograph architects–many of whom design the buildings I shoot–to be an extra special assignment and opportunity.

A workplace portrait should say, “this is where you’ll find me.” Brandon Collins of Bohlin Cywinski Powell.

A workplace portrait should say, “this is where you’ll find me.” Brandon Collins of Bohlin Cywinski Powell.

In an age of selfies and otherwise disposable snapshots, I’m thankful for clients who recognize and appreciate the context, texture and import a professional portrait can convey.

Over the past year, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Cicada Architects, and landscape architects Ground Reconsidered have all had me photograph their architects. I prefer to take these portraits in their subjects’ natural habitats – their workspace environments. In that regard, I have a lot in common with nature photographers.

Reviewing test shots with subjects gives them feedback on how they’re expressing themselves. Karen Skafte of Cicada Architects.

Reviewing test shots with subjects gives them feedback on how they’re expressing themselves. Karen Skafte of Cicada Architects.

Lighting at architecture firms is better than most, but may still need to be filled in. Ryan Simpson of Bohlin Cywinski Powell

Lighting at architecture firms is better than most, but may still need to be filled in. Ryan Simpson of Bohlin Cywinski Powell

Like any good nature photographer, I try to spend time where my subjects spend time. I walk around to get the lay of the land, examining it from all angles. Without being too obtrusive, I watch my subjects at work, aiming to find backgrounds that connect with them and quickly telegraph these relationships.

Scouting elements that reflect subject and occupation is time well spent. Landscape architect, Brittany Adams of Ground Reconsidered.

Scouting elements that reflect subject and occupation is time well spent. Landscape architect, Brittany Adams of Ground Reconsidered.

These portraits rely on a combination of natural and supplemental lighting. In summary, my portrait process goes beyond face value.

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Urban Oasis

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Urban Oasis

This ergonomic, yet cozy lounge opens onto an expansive roof deck.

This ergonomic, yet cozy lounge opens onto an expansive roof deck.

Sometimes a photograph will be called upon to serve many masters. In the case of 3601 Market Street, a modern luxury residential complex in the heart of University City, one of Philadelphia’s hottest communities, that could mean investors, developers, managing agents, city planners, and, of course, prospective tenants. 

Nighttime is the right time for showing 3601’s sleek urban silhouette.

Nighttime is the right time for showing 3601’s sleek urban silhouette.

These young, up and coming professionals are often referred to in real estate circles as “Meds and Eds” – healthcare professionals, students and educators whose lives and lifestyles infuse this urban oasis in West Philly with a rhythm and vibrancy all its own.

Though commercial realtors ARA Newmark brought me on board to showcase aspects of the building that would be used to help sell the property to new investors, I knew that my photographs would also be used online and in printed materials aimed at securing both commercial and residential tenants.

Kitchens at 3601 are big enough to satisfy anyone’s inner Julia Child.

Kitchens at 3601 are big enough to satisfy anyone’s inner Julia Child.

The building itself is a millennial’s paradise. Spacious apartments and penthouses with spectacular city views, controlled access with doorman service, on-site parking for vehicles and bikes, a modern 24-hour fitness center, game room and lounge, and a rooftop heated saltwater pool.

Ben Franklin (Philadelphia and Penn’s mainstay mascot) surveys a model apartment.

Ben Franklin (Philadelphia and Penn’s mainstay mascot) surveys a model apartment.

The client wanted an open, warm, summertime feel to the imagery, something to help convey the energy of the building and the surrounding community. As we were shooting on a cold, dreary day in February, this would be our primary challenge.

Panoramic views fill each apartment with light.

Panoramic views fill each apartment with light.

We shot the interiors early in the morning, taking advantage of the cool natural light and city vistas.  The exterior was shot much later in the day in the warm glow of twilight.

Seeking summer in the midst of February.

Seeking summer in the midst of February.

Capturing the lively street life of University City would be tougher.  Remember, this was February. It was cold and the days were still not long enough. This is why it pays to work with a photographer who knows the neighborhood and has a deep archive.  A street scene shot in late summer of the previous year did the trick.  One picture, but now with a different story to tell.

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Big STAR on Campus

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Big STAR on Campus

We used a very wide architectural tilt-shift lens to fully show the two-and-a-half-story glass atrium entrance with climbing wall.

We used a very wide architectural tilt-shift lens to fully show the two-and-a-half-story glass atrium entrance with climbing wall.

There’s big and then there’s really big. Temple University’s new Aramark Student Training and Recreation (STAR) complex is really big. Massive, in fact. A sprawling 110,000 square foot multifaceted facility serving the needs of the College of Public Health, Athletics and Campus Recreation Departments.

The Indoor Pavilion houses a 70-yard turf field. Capturing the detail in the stained glass logo window was of critical importance to the client.

The Indoor Pavilion houses a 70-yard turf field. Capturing the detail in the stained glass logo window was of critical importance to the client.

Shortly after the complex was dedicated in the fall of 2017, construction management firm E.P. Guidi brought me on to document the building and its interiors, as well as the considerable physical impact this new addition had on the campus.

Greg pays a visit to one of the physical therapy classrooms.

Greg pays a visit to one of the physical therapy classrooms.

The STAR complex was designed to centralize a host of initiatives, with athletic facilities, clinical education space for various therapies and physical training, and state-of-the-art lecture and lab space. One of my key challenges then was how best to showcase these relatively intimate spaces while at the same time capture the considerable enormity of the place.

No waiting for weights in the weight room.

No waiting for weights in the weight room.

We started with the inside, showing up early on a Saturday morning and setting up our shots before even the most devoted of athletes showed up.

A new 400-meter, 2-lane track encircles the facility.

A new 400-meter, 2-lane track encircles the facility.

Drone-assisted photography closes in on the mammoth size of the STAR complex, with Center City Philadelphia in the distance.

Drone-assisted photography closes in on the mammoth size of the STAR complex, with Center City Philadelphia in the distance.

Tackling the exterior on a separate day, we took advantage of a beautiful blue sky and shot with multiple cameras at twilight. My Phantom 4 Pro drone was the perfect tool to capture the scale and setting of the building.

The STAR at twilight.

The STAR at twilight.

Temple misses no opportunity to highlight their brand.

Temple misses no opportunity to highlight their brand.

While each photo is a story in itself, only when taken together does the complete picture of this big star on campus come into focus.

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Come for the Workspace. Stay for the Wet Bar.

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Come for the Workspace. Stay for the Wet Bar.

You call this working? Yes. Yes, we do.

You call this working? Yes. Yes, we do.

Gone are the days when commercial real estate was primarily about location, location, location—and maybe a break room. Today’s office buildings are in the business of creating cultures. Because in today’s economy, where technology and opportunity have made it easy to work remotely and at one’s own convenience, “heading into the office” is no longer a given. But not if places like 1735 Market Street have anything to say about it.

Creature comforts. Employees who play together stay together.

Creature comforts. Employees who play together stay together.

Equity Commonwealth, the owners of the building in Philadelphia’s central business district, commissioned me to shoot what are known as “amenities”—the on-site extras that properties invest in to attract and retain businesses that, in turn, use them to recruit and retain employees. 

Take it outside. At 1735 Market in Philadelphia, it’s highly recommended.

Take it outside. At 1735 Market in Philadelphia, it’s highly recommended.

 The Lounge at 1735 Market Street Philadelphia PA

At 1735 Market, this includes a lounge and rooftop deck with panoramic views of Philadelphia landmarks. The lounge has large meeting rooms, a smaller 12-person conference room, hangout spaces that feature a pool table, shuffleboard, kitchen—even a wine bar with a wine locker.

Grabbing success by the bottles.

Grabbing success by the bottles.

Shooting during the workweek would be problematic, so I scheduled a Saturday for the photography. My assistant and I had the space to ourselves, allowing us to set up lighting and tweak furniture and props. Though we were the only ones there, we did not have direct access to the wine lockers. Sigh.

At Endo Pharmaceuticals, wellness extends to the on-site fitness center.

At Endo Pharmaceuticals, wellness extends to the on-site fitness center.

At 1650 Arch Street in Philadelphia, communal conference space has been redefined.  

At 1650 Arch Street in Philadelphia, communal conference space has been redefined.
 

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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.  T he 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

    2 Comments

    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

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    “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. 

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     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.

    1 Comment

    Adventures in Arch-itecture

    1 Comment

    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:

    1 Comment

    No Door Necessary

    2 Comments

    No Door Necessary

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   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.

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   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.

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   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. 

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   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

     

     

     

    2 Comments

    All is Calm

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    All is Calm

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     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.

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     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?

    Comment

    Much Obliged

    1 Comment

    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.

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     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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