In the words of Edith Wharton, "a house should be an event," and when we consider the array of architectural designs and interior styles where humans reside, from shelter to palace—it's hard not to include in this conversation the work of Chicago based photographer Barbara Karant. In this contemporary era of image-saturation and the mainstream photographer, the photographic image has become as central to our everyday communication as the spoken word. Surprisingly then, in this climate, Barbara Karant has found a professional and artistic niche, making photographs of architectural and interior style.
What is a house, after all, but a sanctuary, a home port, a reflection of the aspirations of the owner, or those who inhabit the space? As a photographer myself, I was interested in Karant's views on how the art of photographing architecture and interiors differs from other forms of photography.
"Architecture and interiors photography concerns itself with scale, spatial interplay, structure, color, light, transparency, and solidity," says Karant. "It's about dimension and depth, and in many ways doesn't differ from other disciplines at all."
When photographing interiors, Karant first determines what is most important about that room, the architecture, the furnishings, a collection of objects, the geometry of the space. Then she decides the best angle to use in order to capture the "intent of that room," and depending on whether she is shooting for a client or self-assignment, "this has much to do with the amount of personal vision I will impose on the space," says Karant.
"The biggest compliment I can get from a client is when they tell me that I have found an image they never saw before. My goal is to always try to show people something new, in a new way. It's a hard task to accomplish."
In the summer between high school and college, Karant's mother sent her to the The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, to take classes in ceramics and photography. "I couldn't throw a pot to save my life," says Karant, "but I fell absolutely in love with photography." At SAIC she met her future mentor Harold Allen, who would have great influence on her understanding of the camera and of photography as an art form. Later, at the Rhode Island School of Design, Karant learned the basics of photography, working primarily in black and white and alternative processes.
When it came time to choose a graduate school, she went back to the SAIC in order to pursue studies with Harold Allan and Joyce Niemanas, Bonny Donahue and Barbara Crane, a group of esteemed Chicago artists. The guidance of these teachers and her study of the color photography of Karen Savage, inspired Karant to find a true calling and gravitate towards her flamboyant use of color.
"Since the beginning of my engagement with photography, I have always had an intense affinity for the interior," says Karant. "I used to shoot a variety of subjects, but kept coming back to architecture and interior imagery. I enjoy seeing different environments and how people adapt to these living or office spaces. I also enjoy the documentary aspect, when there is a time limitation on the existence of the space, then the photo can be the only thing that remains of that environment."
The list of photographers Karant admires is long and includes Henri Cartier Bresson, (known as the father of photojournalism and creator of the theory of the decisive moment).
"With architectural or interiors photography, there is absolutely a decisive moment when all the elements coalesce—this happens when the light is perfect on the building or streaming into a room, or when the dusk is the consummate shade of blue." That being said, Karant jokes, "Buildings and interiors don’t move, they aren’t self-conscious and cannot talk back."
For many years, Karant used 4x5 and 8x10 large format cameras exclusively, finding it difficult to make the transition to digital equipment as she always thought of a camera as something weighing at least twenty pounds.
"It certainly is easier getting up a ladder to a roof or running to catch the light on a perfect exterior shot with a small format camera," she says. These days, in order to ensure the best results, she shoots tethered to a computer, checking each image capture and making changes the same way she did in the past when using Polaroid. Her lighting approach is not formulaic, and uses tungsten “hot lights” or strobe lights, or combination of these, depending on the main ambient light source in the interior.
Interior style can express many things about the people living in the space, whether they are formal, uptight or relaxed, playful or eclectic, concerned about comfort or design, or both, cluttered or a minimalist, vintage or modern, loner or communal, monochromatic or colorful, feminine, masculine or androgynous.
Karant believes there are basic ways that an individual can bring their own style to any space. "Keep it simple and start with a few key pieces of furniture and objects you love and then build off of that aesthetic. Don’t try to furnish a whole space at once, but live in the space and see how the light moves—use color either sparingly or aggressively, but whatever you do, sample it on the walls first, and see what the light in your environment does to the color."
Interior style often exists as a result of the relationship between the objects, and the architecture, and the environment they create. An interior can also be a place for the development of a private or a public identity.
So what would be the "ultimate" interior photographic assignment? Karant hesitates at first, and then smiles and says, "something over the top, someone else's creation of an environment, like the ICE-HOTEL," (a tourist hotel in Jukkasjärvi, northern Sweden), with interior rooms made from ice, snow, and water from the Thorne River. "A chance to do photographic justice to the creation of another artist, now that would be fun."