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Architectural Photographer of the Year on Climbing Cranes, Certain-Death Falls, and Other Risks for the Perfect Shot

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Architectural photography, so often static, becomes dramatic when handled by the award-winning London photography studio Hufton + Crow. Partners Allan Crow and Nick Hufton have photographed some of the world's most ambitious new buildings, but how people use those spaces is what really interests them. Their goal is to "capture things happening with the architecture as the backdrop." In order to do this, the Englishmen have perched on bridges, climbed rickety buildings, and begged construction crews let them shoot from cranes.

The duo recently took home Arcaid Images' prestigious "Architectural Photographer of Year 2014" award. The winning image was a striking vertical shot of a pure white staircase in the Heydar Aliyev Center (above), a concert hall in Azerbaijan designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Curbed spoke with partner Allan Crow about the challenges of photographing giant buildings, obscure parts of the architectural photography world, and, of course, risking his life for Zaha Hadid.

CURBED: Congratulations on the award.

Allan Crow: We're really pleased. It's quite unexpected. We've entered the competition for the last three years, and were runners-up a couple of years ago. There are so many good images and photographers out there that we were just hoping to be shortlisted. To actually win it is fantastic.

Which techniques do you use when shooting buildings? Some of the images on your website look like they could have been taken from helicopters.

We don't tend to use helicopters, no. It's mainly just on foot. You're forever climbing up to vantage points and other buildings, anything to get an elevated view. In the real world people don't tend to pay for photographers to go up on helicopters for every job. Architects generally haven't got loads of money to throw at these things.

How far have you gone to get the perfect shot?

I was photographing Zaha Hadid's Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, and while photographing it I decided that it looked feasible to climb part of it. I thought the vantage point from the top of one of the concrete structures would be a good view, and it was, but it was a certain-death fall. It was a little bit silly, but once I got it in my head that it was going to be a great shot I sort of had to do it. I took my shoes off and very gingerly climbed up this huge concrete ramp and perched the camera at the top. I got the shot right as the sun was going down. It's a great image, but I sort of wish I hadn't done it, as I've got a wife and kids. I was alone. Nobody knew I was there, and I didn't have a harness or anything like that. But I lived to tell the tale.

Could you tell me about an interesting place where you've worked?

We were commissioned to photograph the Iron Market in Haiti. It was the first major building in Haiti to be reconstructed after the earthquake. It's a traditional colonial building, really just an open market. I flew to Florida and shot Herzog & de Meuron's "1111 Lincoln Road," the car park project. So on one hand, I'm shooting Miami, South Beach, and then I got on the plane and an hour and a half later I'm in what looks like a war zone. It was an intense experience. You're meant to go around with an armed guard, and everyone had guns. Somehow it didn't feel dangerous to me, once I'd gotten used to it. Everyone was very friendly. It was quite an adrenaline rush.

How did you go about shooting the building in Haiti?

It's a big red iron building, and it's in the middle of Port-Au-Prince. The market was very busy, and a lot of it was street level. I did a lot of climbing on derelict buildings, which isn't advisable. I also got aerial shots of the market, as there happened to be a broken-down crane there. It only had three wheels, so it wasn't going anywhere, and obviously it wasn't level, since it only had three wheels. But it still worked, and the guys on site there got it started and then took me up in that. That was really lucky.

Do architects commission you? What is the typical turnaround time?

The majority of it is commissioned work, but some buildings you've just got to go and photograph them and not wait to be asked. Most people want their images within a week or two. No one phones up and gives you a month's notice. With jobs like Baku [the Heydar Aliyev Center], you know they're coming up. They're on the radar. Architects often have very small windows where they can get photographs done. They want it photographed before it's finished, so it's still news if the press is interested. Ideally we like to photograph things once they are open. Sometimes it takes a couple of visits. We always try to photograph a project once it's operational so you get the true feel of it.

What's your favorite architectural style?

It's not so much a style, but I like architecture that's iconic, and grand in its ambition. I like jaw-dropping architecture. These big architects get a lot of bad press, undeservedly I think. You hear people constantly complaining that some of these buildings don't fit into their context, and I just think: So what? They're amazing in their own right. They put places on the map. They draw people to them. They improve economies. Who wants them to be the same as other buildings? Most buildings are absolute rubbish. I'd say the ones that stand out and really try to be different, they're the ones that I like.

What was the first building you ever photographed professionally? How about unprofessionally?

Unprofessionally was when I was in university and we photographed a part of Manchester called Ancoats, which is actually the oldest industrial suburb in the world. At the time it was just derelict. That's where I first got the feeling that I really enjoyed photographing buildings, and the drama you could get from a photograph of old run-down historic mills and industrial buildings. The first commission Hufton + Crow ever got was of the Falkirk Wheel, which is in Scotland. It's an aqueduct that connects two canals, and there's a lift mechanism for canal barges. It spins around in one revolution and lifts the boats up. It's a really cool project.

More Hufton + Crow photos:

· Hufton + Crow [Official site]
· Arcaid Images Architectural Photography Awards 2014 [Official site]
· Hufton + Crow Named Architectural Photographer of the Year 2014 [Arch Daily]
· All Curbed Interviews [Curbed National]
· All Photography posts [Curbed National]
· All Zaha Hadid posts [Curbed National]