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Looking at the City with a Film-Lover's Eye: Scott Frances’s Architecture Photography

The New York-based lensman on how film studies informed his wide-angle approach

Modern architecture made a deep impression on architecture and interiors photographer Scott Frances’s youth. Growing up in the Stuyvesant Town area of Manhattan, a large, post-war residential development, he was attracted to the cityscape and urban landscape, a theme he would explore in personal projects such as NYC Noir, a contemporary look at the city's romantic past. And, as a film theory major, an appreciation for wide-angle imagery gave him a model for the panoramic images that would become one of his signatures, sweeping images that show the interplay of the environment and architecture.

"I’m interested in the relationship between the environment and the building," says Frances. "It's built to be in a specific context, so I think it’s that context that really gives it scale."

Curbed spoke to the photographer about his style, tips for budding photographers, and why interiors can be ideal showcases of design history.

How did you get started in photography? What made you want to photograph buildings?

"I was a fine arts and film theory major, and started doing photography as an assistant. Working with camera technology was easy for me, since I had worked as a bicycle mechanic. Modern architects like Breuer were heroes in my home growing up, so architecture made a lot of sense to me."

How would you explain your style?

"I pretty much exclusively use natural light. I love the play of light across surfaces. I’m also interested in trying to express the volume of a room. I also like the shape of panoramas. Being a film theory major, I'm drawn to the proportions of CinemaScope, or even wider shots, with a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio. They read like a film set, and your eyes just automatically move across the image."

What are some of your favorite buildings and places to shoot?

"I grew up as a modernist, and cut my teeth shooting the work of architects Richard Meier and Thomas Phifer. As my career began to take off, and become more interior-driven, I became more interested in the decorative arts. You can really see the history of culture with interiors. I can look at a chair now and tell you what country it came from and what period it was made. I think they’re great distillations of culture. So, now I love both architecture and the decorative arts."

What types of cameras and gear do you use?

"I use digital cameras, which allows me to combine different images. I can shoot one exposure for highlights, one for midtones, and one for shadows, and then in post-production, paint them together. Coming from a painting and drawing background, the technology allowed me to get back to what I was best at; it’s painting with pixels, instead of with paint."

"I use a Canon 5DSR Mark III with tilt-shift lenses, in both 17mm and 24mm sizes. About 90 percent of my work is done with those lenses."

Any advice or tricks for improving architectural photographs?

"For buildings and exteriors, get as far away as you can to eliminate distortion; you can crop later if needed. For interiors, keep the camera about waist high. If it’s at eye level, objects underneath the camera start to become distorted; you don’t want round plates becoming ovals. You also want light coming in from behind the camera, from the sides or background, not directly in front. Those simple things can make a huge difference."

Favorite time of day to shoot outside?

"The most beautiful light is the first two or three hours of daylight, and the last two or three hours of daylight, going into twilight. The magic hour, when there’s a balance between exterior and interior light, gives you that glow."

Any tips for shooting buildings on Instagram?

"I’m a huge believer in running photos through Snapseed. It’s a free mobile retouching app by Google you can use on a phone or tablet. It’s a lot of fun and gives you an incredible amount of creative control. It’s a miracle."

What advice do you have about getting ahead in the industry for people who want to become professional photographers?

"It’s a terrible business, I don’t recommend it. I’m 57 and have been in business since I was 24. I came up at a time when interiors and architecture photography was a bit of a backwater, and there wasn’t a lot of competition, so I could build up a portfolio and a reputation. Now, it’s a lot more popular—there’s a lot more interest at nesting at home, and architecture and cityscapes have become sexy—and art schools are pumping out thousands of photo majors every year, and the industry can’t possibly sustain it. I get a knock on my door every week from somebody coming out of art school. I think the odds of them building a career are slim. I tell them, if you really want to do it, you should follow your heart. But in five years, realistically evaluate where you’re at."

Tell me the story behind one of your favorite photographs you've taken.

"I do a series called NYC Noir, contemporary photos with a romantic angle, where I focus on old New York. I like it when it feels like the ‘20s. For this one, "6th Avenue and Waverly Place," I clearly shot from a cab—there’s a little frame with the cab windowsince it's such a popular viewpoint for New Yorkers. This was my stomping ground growing up, and I love Waverly Diner. It sort of captures this primeval, dream-like experience we all have when we’re riding in a taxi at night. We’re all in our own zone, looking out the window."


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