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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anybody can take a photo of graffiti and street art. That’s been made abundantly clear on Instagram and other social media channels. But to capture artwork and truly provide context, a sense of place, and—when everything aligns—a sense of awe, takes not only skills but a deep understanding of place.
Conrad Benner, the Philadelphia native behind the six-year-old Streets Dept blog and a popular Instagram account, has turned a continued fascination with his city, deep connections to the street art community, and a great eye into a long-running document of a fertile street art scene.
While New York often gets credit as the birthplace of graffiti and street art, Philadelphia, a city with a large population of students and a world-renowned city mural program, has both a huge contemporary art scene and a deep history of street art. Darryl McCray, or Cornbread, who is considered one of the progenitors of street art, made his name tagging around the city in the late ‘60s, and even made the papers for writing “Cornbread Lives” on an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo.
“I think more and more about how influential our public space is around us and how it makes us feel,” Benner says. “Advertisers wouldn’t spend so much money on outdoor advertising every year if it didn’t get results. The art and architecture that we have in our public spaces has a really profound impact on our mood and feelings. That’s what I like to explore with my photography.”
Photos of architecture, another subject that appears repeatedly in Benner’s work, have been accepted as art in and of themselves, beyond the work they seek to capture and contextualize. Benner hopes to see this same respect given to photos of street art.
“It’s not just about the photography,” he says. “I’ve lived in this city my entire life, and I don’t want to get bored.”
Curbed spoke to Benner about the importance of community to good photography, how to build an audience, and why it’s important to always be exploring new streets.
How did you get started in photography? What made you want to photograph buildings?
“I’ve always been interested in architecture and street art. I remember getting books when I was a kid, I still have them stacked up in my living room. I used to read skyscraper blogs everyday, learning the skylines of every city on Earth and getting obsessed with buildings. I didn’t actually start photographing until I broke my leg; I was hit by a van when I was riding my bike when I was 24. I was on a couch for a few months, and after that, I decided to walk more and bike less.”
“When I really started walking more and taking SEPTA (Philadelphia mass transit), I realized how great it would make me feel. I would show up to work so much more relaxed. I started taking photos with my flip phone camera, so that was about eight years ago. At the time, a guy I was dating bought me a cheap, hundred-dollar point-and-shoot camera. Within three months, I knew I should be a photographer. Come April and tax season, I used my refund to buy a Canon Rebel and went from there.”
How would you explain your style?
“I didn’t go to school for photography, I trained myself, so I always get a little caught up in how to describe what I do. The photos are a bit colder, definitely more cool than warm. When I walk around with my camera, I walk around with a wide eye, and I like that to come through. It’s a lot of wide-angle lens stuff. I’m interested in everything that’s around me, so I think of it as having a wide eye, so to speak.”
What are some of your favorite buildings and places to shoot?
“I like places that put you in awe, architecture and places that are quite literally awe inspiring. I was in Portland recently, and asked a few people what I should shoot, and they recommended taking photos of St. John’s Bridge. It was perfect, just gigantic and inspiring.”
“I like things that are inspiring and new, and there is a lot of new work in the street art world that’s inspiring and new today, things that are political in nature. For instance, in Philadelphia, there is a ton of great feminist street art using art as a platform to talk about issues of equality, women’s rights, and their experiences in the world right now.”
“I think now, certainly more than a few years ago, people want to have their voices be heard. Everyone is sharing their political beliefs on social media, and the same is happening on the streets. Artists who have made street art for years, and haven’t created political work, have been inspired by Trump to create new street art. I think the election of Trump has awakened people in a lot of different ways. Street art is an easy way to have your voice heard. Unlike gallery shows that are curated, you can just create. You can see a tweet from Donald Trump one day, create something that night, print it in the morning, and have it up on a wall the next day.”
What camera and gear do you use?
“I often use my iPhone, a 6S. My real camera is a Canon 6D with the kit lens. I was renting wider-angle lens for a while, but now I’m back to the kit lens. Remember, I started with a flip phone, and I thought I took a lot of good photos.”
“There’s one thing I never get about serious photographers, how caught up they can be about the tools. Because the tool, the camera is sort of the last thing you need to have for photography. You need to be inspired. You need to want to document something. You need to have the angles and lines figured out, the best way to shoot a tall building, or instance. You need to walk around and get a sense of the place. There are so many things that are important about photography that don’t involve the camera. I rarely print my photos. Most of my work is experienced in the digital space, and an iPhone can now take a photo that’s comparable to one from a $5,000 camera. You don’t need to spend all this money on a very expensive camera.”
Any advice or tricks for improving architectural photographs?
“If you want to shoot street art or street portrait photography, forget the tools. The most important thing is to not just document communities, but become a part of them. My blog started doing much better when I began to get to know everybody. When I started, I didn’t know the names of many of the artists, and didn’t know as much about the work and the techniques. The, a bunch of artists reached out to me and showed me and taught me about their work and processes, and how they install their work. It was invaluable. Now, I get text-messaged every night with artists telling me they’re going to install something. I feel like I’ve become part of the community.”
“You also need to figure out what you’re going to shoot. Especially today, if you have an Instagram account or run a blog, it has to be about something. Nobody is going to care about your random photos unless you happen to be a super famous photographer. Find things that people haven’t already seen. Everybody has cameras and Instagram has millions of daily active users.”
Favorite time of day to shoot outside?
There’s obvious answers, such as the early morning, or the golden hour. But I say it’s less the time of day, and more about climactic events. It doesn’t snow that often in Philly, so when there’s four inches of snow on the ground, you can show the city anew. One of the focuses of my photography is exploring the public space and seeing it in a different light. Don’t miss the opportunity to show things in a new way, like when the sky is jewel-colored, or there’s interesting cloud cover.”
Any tips for shooting buildings on Instagram?
“Don’t shoot the same intersections that everyone else is shooting. Shoot something different. That’s part of becoming part of the community, it helps you find things that others aren’t shooting. The engagement rate for your posts comes when people are excited about something, and they get excited about finding new things.”
“Don’t post 20 times a day; The algorithm favors a post a day, so find a time that’s good for you. Also, use one of those apps that sorts out the grid on your profile page, ones that allow you to pre-upload photos. When people explore your page for the first time, that impression can get a follow or make them think you’re just an amateur. Having that page look really crisp is important. Once they follow, they won’t go back to that very often, but that first impression is key. Think of it like a magazine.”
“If you shoot graffiti, it’s probably pretty tough to find who did that graffiti, so maybe just use hashtags. Street artists have big followings on Instagram, gallery shows, stores on Big Cartel; if you’re photographing art in a public space you should do your best to credit the artist. You can find their tags and tell them you love their work. Get people’s names on there.”
What advice do you have about getting ahead in the industry for people who want to become professional photographers?
“You have to network. If you’re photographing street art or if you’re photographing models, you need to meet other photographers, get a beer or coffee, figure out what they’re doing.”
“Also, remember that social media is a two-way street. If you set yourself up to be a broadcaster, and all you do is post stuff and expect people to like it, you’re going to be disappointed. You need to find the hashtags you like, find the content you like, and engage with the photographers you like. Don’t be phony, be real, but follow other people doing similar things for you. When I started on Instagram, I deleted all the games on my phone, and took the 20 minutes I’d spend with them and engaged with people on Instagram. I went from 0 to 11,0000 followers in three years. Then Instagram made me a suggested account, and then it shot to 100,000. It’s just putting in the work at the beginning, and it really is work. If you like what you’re doing, you’ll like it, but always remember it’s work.”
Tell me the story behind one of your favorite photographs you've taken.
“There’s a photo of me exploring an abandoned subway station with my friends Meredith and Austin. I’d explored a bunch of abandoned buildings at this point, but had never gone underground. I like it because it’s an abandoned staircase and my friend Meredith was literally standing there in awe.”
“It’s one of my favorites because it literally captures something that I want to capture, that sense of awe. It was also one of the photos that led to The Guardian naming me a best blog for travelers, which made me very proud.”