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Architecture Meets Sculpture in Black and White: the interplay of light and form


In the first article of this series, I discussed the design continuum running from architecture to sculpture, highlighting the transitional phase where these creative fields merge and architectural forms become large-scale sculptures.

I also considered how structure, shape, and shadows intrinsic to sculptural and architectural designs lend themselves to black and white photography. In the interest of focus and brevity, I employed a self-imposed geographical constraint — a 10-mile radius from my home in San Diego — to limit the scope of my survey. In this follow-on article, released from this constraint, I have included examples from as far afield as Palm Springs and Hawaii, paying more attention to the manipulation of light as a design element.

I invite you to join me in admiring the skill and ingenuity of the designers of these objects and spaces, whose creations shine even in images stripped of colour.

Heavenly spheres

I used to think of skylights as effective, albeit pedestrian, architectural devices bringing natural daylight to otherwise dimly lit rooms or stairways. The architect who designed the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort in Hawaii had a much grander vision. The light streaming through this spectacular circular aperture illuminates not only a massive circular bench — the centrepiece of a grand semi-circular veranda — but also a suspended cloud of glass spheres, sparkling like giant raindrops. The circular leitmotif, coupled with ingenious use of light, glass and steel yields a harmonious but striking visual impact.

Cloistered environment

Balboa Park, San Diego, built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-18, is a showcase of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The park features numerous colonnades and cloisters typical of that style, whose illumination by sunlight penetrating arched openings yields an ever-changing parade of shadows as the sun moves through the sky. Visitors to the park find welcome shade and glorious vistas as they stroll through or along these covered walkways.

Underneath the Arches

The Cabrillo Bridge, constructed in advance of the Panama-California Exposition, provides pedestrian and light traffic access to Balboa Park from downtown San Diego along a stretch of road called ‘El Prado’. The bridge, spanning a canyon humming with the sound of traffic racing along the California-163 freeway, is regarded as a historic civil engineering landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In these photographs, taken from a vantage point near the bottom of the canyon having scrambled down a steep dirt path, its pillars are illuminated by late afternoon sunshine streaming through its elegant arches. The shots required a wide-angle zoom (14mm, f/18) and perspective adjustment using the geometry controls in Lightroom.

I featured the Coronado Bridge in the first article of this series, but its sweeping form and flowing sequence of arched concrete pillars is worthy of further illustration. It continues to provide inspiration for black and white photography: a superb example of architecture-meets-sculpture and the interplay of structure and light. This shot brings to mind a multi-legged, dinosaur-like creature clambering across Coronado Bay.

White Stripes

On a visit to the San Diego district court, motivated purely by architectural interests you understand, I stumbled across this dazzling array of diagonal stripes, created by razor-sharp shafts of sunlight striking a receding row of pillars. Was this spectacular ‘shadow show’ the product of clever design by an imaginative architect, or the fortuitous confluence of mundane structural features and bright sunlight? I vote for the latter explanation. Whichever is correct, here we have the interplay of light and form writ bold.

Fast Track

Taking my life in my hands, I hopped across the tracks to photograph this curvaceous downtown San Diego trolley station. Its arched, corrugated steel panel roof protects passengers from the almost non-existent rain storms that plague San Diego, ensuring those flip-flop-clad feet and Hawaiian shirts remain perfectly dry.

Readers with a subscription to ‘The Economist’ might recall a wonderful article from December 2021 describing the origins of corrugated iron, described as a ‘child of the industrial revolution’, at the Phoenix ironworks near Birmingham, England. The first patent for a means of creating these ubiquitous panels — the first wide-scale building material not derived from stone, clay or timber — was filed in 1829. Here it is, thousands of miles away almost two centuries later, enabling this high-tech roof, recognisable by the reflection of light from its linear ridges and furrows.

Lo and behold, another train station sporting a curved roof fabricated with corrugated panels. What’s with the fascination architects appear to have with corrugation and transportation? This building, in Solana Beach, North County San Diego, is an example of the half-barrel roof usually seen in Nissen huts, Quonset huts, and the granddaddy of the family, the Turpentine Shed created by the holder of that 1829 patent, Henry Palmer.

Corrugated sheets, curved lengthways then lapped and riveted, can form an arched roof capable of enclosing a wide space with no recourse to the usual supports needed to hold up roofs clad in heavier materials. The Turpentine Shed’s roof was deemed “the lightest and strongest roof (for its weight) that has been constructed by man since the days of Adam”. Enough said.

A slice of life

Moving into the realm of sculpture and creative exploitation of light, here are two examples of a remarkable technique for fabricating large-scale human figures in steel. The first, a contemplative male figure in the lotus position, is to be found sitting outside a biotech company in the Torrey Pines area of North County San Diego. Comprising precision-cut steel slices fastened together to create a three-dimensional object, the technique creates a perspective-dependent form, varying between a recognisably human figure when viewed at an oblique angle, and an otherworldly, semi-transparent outline when viewed face-on.

Astonished as I was to encounter the first example, I was even more amazed to come across a second such sculpture, several hundred miles away in Palm Springs, California. In the first photograph, light reflected from the edges of the plates helps define the sculpture’s female form: the human brain is good at imputing the entire picture, even when supplied with a partial set of pixels. In the second photograph, the female figure, seen in repose, gives the distinct impression she could stand up at any moment and stroll off into the distance.

The Babies

As if the ghostly apparition of a semi-transparent female were not enough for one day, around the corner, outside the Palm Springs Art Museum, visitors are confronted with this unsettling installation entitled, The Babies.

In the work of a Czech sculptor, David Cerny, the crawling figures possess barcodes rather than faces — apparently a statement on the dehumanising effect of tech and big data on society at large. The chubby bodies supporting oversized heads are eerily realistic, the sunshine reflecting off their shiny surfaces resembling a child slathered in baby oil. W.e.i.r.d.

Head first

This automotive installation, entitled History of Suspended Time: Monument for the Impossible, can also be seen at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Although considered a sculpture, it is more an engineering feat — successfully suspending a 1968 Chevy Malibu vertically over a jet black reflecting pool. The bodywork gleams in the bright desert sun against the backdrop of palm trees and dry-roasted hillside — what a stereotypical Southern Californian scene.

Desert serpent

This fearsome serpent dominates a splendid collection of sculptures found on the outskirts of Borrego Springs, a small town in the Anza Borrego desert, to the east of San Diego. The sunlight on this parched desert plateau is also fearsome, resulting in deep shadows that bring out sculptural scales and horns in dramatic relief. Its undulating body approaches ominously as it swims across the desert, sliding silently under the nearby road before surfacing abruptly to scare the pants off its hapless prey.

Norma Jean

What could be a more fitting climax to this article than a photograph of the world’s most famous sex symbol, represented here as a gigantic figure, skirt lifted by a non-existent breeze, inviting visitors to enter the museum behind her, visible through her glamorous legs?

This sculpture of Marilyn Monroe reenacts the scene in the Billy Wilder movie, The Seven Year Itch, in which a breeze from the subway below lifts her skirt whilst she stands above an air vent on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets. You might think it is a stretch to include it here, but it too exploits the interplay of light and form, sitting as it does in brilliant sunshine. The pleats in her dress cast shadows that would make a renaissance painter swoon.

Although the sculpture adorns the walkway to the Palm Springs Museum of Art, it would fit just as well in my adopted hometown, where she starred in the movie Some Like it Hot, filmed on location at Hotel Del Coronado.

Any colour as long as it’s black (and white)

As anachronistic as black and white photography might seem in this day and age, I believe both architecture and sculpture, where shape and shadow create visual impact, benefit from rendition in this medium. The photographs in this article were taken with cameras possessing a colour sensor and then converted to black and white in Lightroom. Since all were taken in daylight at low ISO, it is not clear to me what advantage a dedicated black and white sensor would have in this situation. I am also not aware of an L-mount body with a monochrome sensor, which would be required to deploy the wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses I use regularly when photographing these subjects. So, I am resigned to this slightly odd process of capturing images in colour and then relentlessly stripping them of that colour!

Nevertheless, I intend to press on and add further to my collection of monochrome images of architecture and sculpture as I explore new facets of these human-designed and constructed objects which add so much to our built environment.

Go to the first article in this series

Read more from Keith James

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  1. Thank you! Absolutely wonderful! These are the kind of images that seem simple on the surface but take a lot of time and effort to capture just the right light you need to make them feel graphic/geometric and 3-dimensional.

    • Hi Le Chef, thanks so much for your kind comments. Yes – each of these images required careful consideration at the composition stage, as well as during the post-processing stage. There is no doubt that I have the glorious sunny San Diego climate on my side though! All the best, Keith

  2. Images for us to study and enjoy, thank you Keith for compiling them.
    Architecture is a classic genre for B&W, and your images show the strength from an interplay of light and shadow.
    Enjoyed the journey through the article.

    • Hi Wayne, thank you for taking the time to read through the article and evaluate the photos. I enjoy writing about them almost as much as taking them! I couldn’t agree more that architecture is one of those photographic domains where BW photography excels. All the best! Keith

  3. I took a picture of the Marilyn Monroe status in 2012 when I was in Palm Spings, then again a few years later in Grounds for Sculpture (Trenton NJ), they had a Seward Johnson exhibition going on, I assume the statue traveled for a while, or otherwise that there are multiple copies of the statue? Besides that, I passed through San Diego twice but I did not have the chance to spend much time, I hope to get back one day, It looks like a great city from your pictures.

    • Hi SlowDriver – thank you! Both Palm Springs and San Diego are wonderful destinations for landscape, art and architectural photography. Please let me know if you ever pass this way. It would be great to meet another Macfilos regular in person! All the best, Keith

  4. Wonderful images Keith. I admire your discipline at shooting with a precise goal. My favorite image are the play of light and shadows of the San Diego district court and the steel sculptures of human beings. Thanks for sharing

    • Hi Jean – thank so much for the feedback. I agree, the ‘zebra stripes’ at the court house were quite something. Looking in the opposite direction, I could see nothing of particular interest, but when I turn around I was amazed by this scene. The steel sculptures are also remarkable – amazing examples of engineering and art! All the best, Keith

    • Thank you Hank. I appreciate the encouraging feedback. It was very enjoyable discovering these fantastic pieces of art and design and then trying to capture them photographically. All the best, Keith

  5. Sheer enjoyment and admiration here! I’m going to give it a try.
    Do you shoot in colour and then process to mono or do you use a mono camera?
    (Apologies if I missed something in the text.)

    • Hi John – thank you! Yes, I offered a few comments at the end of the article about how odd it felt shooting these images in color and then converting them to BW in Lightroom. I have been very satisfied with the end results, but Andrea’s comments have set me thinking about a camera with a dedicated monochrome sensor. All the best! Keith

  6. Nice images Keith! And I agree that BW gives them a special flavour. I too convert color to BW when needed, but I think that a true dedicated BW sensor has some real advantages. On a BW sensor you can use a color filter, and do true monochromatic photography: i.e. of you out on a red filter, your image will use Red light only, instead of simulating It in post.

    • Hi Anrdrea – many thanks! In light of your comments I will look further into the benefits of a dedicated BW sensor and the options for incorporating such a camera into my gear collection. In the previous article on this topic I joked about acquiring a Q2 Monochrom. Perhaps I should start looking for a pre-owned example! All the best, Keith

  7. Wonderful examples, Keith, beginning with the first and including the District Court black and white stripes (to recall the cartoonish depiction of an inmate’s uniform?). I love the steel human sculptures. I think you made the right decision by converting these images to black and white. Thank you. This was excellent all round.

    • Hi Farhiz – thanks so much! I enjoyed compiling this collection and am very pleased to hear that you enjoyed it too! All the best, Keith


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