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How better photos can help you document, and shape, your neighborhood

Urbanist and photographer Chuck Wolfe offers a guide on using your camera to change your city

The Seattle Library, an excerpt from one of Chuck Wolfe’s urban diaries. It shows the persona interplay with Rem Koolhaas’s structure.
All images by Chuck Wolfe

Behind the Lens looks at architectural photographers both professional and amateur, examining how they got their start, stories from their portfolios, and tricks to capturing great design. Have a lensman in mind? Send links to portfolios (no photo files) to national@curbed.com.

In an era where we’re taking more photos of our cities than ever, populating ever more social media feeds, Chuck Wolfe believes we can use them for a greater purpose. There’s nothing wrong with a great Instagram post, but the lawyer, writer, urbanist, and photographer believes that with the right focus, citizens can help shape their cities by the simple acts of documentation and observation.

In his new book Seeing the Better City, Wolfe outlines different techniques and philosophies, such as urban diaries, that can be used to create portraits and records of shifting urban neighborhoods, which can then be used for constructive dialogue and engagement. Touching on historical examples, from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series from the ‘30s, to neighborhood debates of today’s changing modern metropolis, Wolfe outlines a philosophy that reflects his multihyphenate nature, blending the artistic approach of a photographer with the rigor of a lawyer. Curbed spoke with Wolfe about his new book and the expressive and practical sides of urban photography.

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

“My interest in photography began when I was quite young. I’m the son of the founder of the Department of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was an early urban design theorist in the spirit of Kevin Lynch and others referred to in the book. All of my writing and blogging is osmosis from my dad, over and above my practical experience in the field as a lawyer. In monkey see, monkey do fashion, was able to follow him around when he was on sabbatical, or working on a Fulbright opportunity abroad, or even here in the Seattle area, watching the predictable and inevitable expansion of our region, which he was fascinated in observing in the 50s and 60s. The bottom line is, I started probably when I was really young, and was influenced by my father.”

A park in London
Chuck Wolfe

How would you explain your style?

“Part of my style, which I discuss in the book, is encouraging people to see, to use photography as an important communication tool in today’s changing urban environment. My style is based on a tool in the book which I call the urban diary, which I’ve been writing about it for years. It’s a very flexible approach, designed for people who want to document and use the LENS method: look, explore, narrate, and summarize. It’s about how to do your own urban diary and define your own personal city. It’s premised on the notion summarized by a quote from Jonathan Raban, that, “the city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city we can locate on maps.” I tell people to look for overlaps and juxtapositions, such as old versus new, dense versus non-dense, to tell a story.”

“Use the camera as a reflexive tool. The whole premise of the book is to help people deal with urban change, to avoid the ‘not in my backyard’ or ‘yes in my backyard’ perspective and help people visualize the spaces between those two polarities.”

Chuck Wolfe

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

“Seattle is a bit of a foil for the book, since it’s going through so many changes. I like places that are going through change. Not too long ago, I was in Shoreditch in London, which showcases a lot of the types of juxtapositions that I was talking about earlier. You can really see the overlap between old and new, and different cultures being brought together. Anywhere that’s ripe for an interpretation of this type of change is awesome. There’s a lot to see in France and London, and particularly in Paris.

“I riff off Paris not because it’s easy or nostalgic. Paris is the most observed city in the world, and arguably in history. But documenting the change there make it clear change is always happening. We’re not the first places in the world that have gone through this type of evolution.”

A picture of Spinola Bay in Malta. Wolfe uses this photo in presentation to showcase tolerable density and how transportation modes interact.
Chuck Wolfe

What camera and gear do you use?

“Part of the beauty of this book is that it was written at a time when smartphone photography is getting better and more common and relevant. It really works well with the book’s focus on crowdsourced and elicited photography. I think that’s great, but on the other hand, I am a camera nerd. I use anything from my iPhone to a Leica. The book is full of photos from many, many different cameras. I push people away from the idea that they need a complicated camera. But, something like a full-frame Leica is going to do better with night shots.”

Any advice or tricks for improving architectural photographs?

“Don’t sugarcoat a view. I’ve been part of both pro and con cases as a lawyer, where citizens show the impact of a project. I try very carefully in the book not to tell people what to think, but to help them to understand their environment. Don’t try to manipulate viewer’s responses to your photos. I want to keep people aware of the objective versus subjective.”

“Also, it’s never a photo without people. Always look at the interplay between people and the built environment.”

A photo from Seattle meant to show the juxtaposition of older buildings, construction, and movement.
Chuck Wolfe

Any tips for shooting buildings on Instagram?

“My Instagram photos are provocative attempts at helping people see juxtaposition. I don’t really have a theme going. I do use filters, but I try not to be too HDR-ish on Instagram and Facebook. I do a lot of research on what people respond to, and they really respond to realistic photos.”

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

“You want to tell stories through your photos, and be clear if you want to be an artistic provocateur, or if you want to objectified. Secondly, you don’t need the best equipment, you don’t need the Leica. Finally, I would say, unfortunately in this day and age, you may have to do something else to free yourself up to do this kind of work. I’ve been a lawyer. For many who are pure photographers, they’re wedding and portrait photographers and so forth.”

A photo from Paris in 1997 showing crowds in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Chuck Wolfe

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

“France is the most amazing place to look at people, and see the evolution of where they come from. This photo may look like artwork, but there are a lot of different ways to look at it. It’s an exercise in what you see: do you see the reflection, the color, the people? There are lots of different ways to describe it.”