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Building new vocabulary for architectural photos

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Courtesy of the artist

Michael Lipkin is so consumed by music — music, he says, is the backdrop to everything else in his life — that he has never seriously pursued playing music.

“I’d rather listen to a Miles Davis album than try to play the trumpet myself,” he said of his early, aborted flirtation with music lessons.

With architectural photography, that situation is essentially reversed. Lipkin has never thought much of most architectural photography.

“Architecture isn’t something you capture in a photograph,” he said. “A straight, still-life image of a building — it only captures just what that building looked like. You don’t get that sense of being there.”

Among the photographers who had failed to convey the essence of architecture was Lipkin himself. An architect himself, he had made periodic efforts to join those who made straightforward photos of magnificent buildings. But three years ago, Lipkin — perhaps best known for designing and developing the Willits neighborhood with his partner, David Warner — was short on projects thanks to the recession. He decided to use his newfound hours trying to capture what he loved about architecture — the way a building made him feel, how people used buildings and the relationships created over years or centuries between a structure and its inhabitants. He’d shoot relatively long exposures, as much as three seconds, and while the shutter was open, he’d change the focus and aperture, even the position of the camera, to make the buildings come to some sort of life.

“I’d adjust just about everything you can adjust to punch this vibration up,” Lipkin said. He had a music analogy for what he was doing with his digital camera: “If I were a musician, I’d be bending notes on the guitar.”

Lipkin, 62, believes his photographs have begun to communicate something essential about architecture. He has had two exhibitions at the 212 Gallery in Aspen as well as a show earlier this year at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Another exhibition, titled “Poetics of Space” and featuring 14 pieces made over the past 15 months, opens today at Paepcke Auditorium with a reception at 4 p.m. and runs through Sept. 5.

Part of Lipkin’s impulse to make art of architecture is the company he keeps. His wife, Jody Guralnick, is a successful artist who specializes in collage paintings, and his close circle of friends includes artists Dick Carter and Linda Girvin and gallerist David Floria.

“That’s my world. That’s my primary environment,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to people who made art.”

That attraction extends back at least as far as college. Lipkin recalls, as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, fascinated by the sight out his window of a new medical building under construction. He learned that the architect was Philadelphia-based Louis Kahn, noted for creating buildings that practically sang. Lipkin heard Kahn speak and was drawn to his view of architecture.

“He spoke of the experience; he spoke in poetry,” Lipkin wrote recently in a short piece about his background. “He transcended the expected and found a purity that was palpable.”

While studying sculpture and architecture at Penn, earning a master’s in architecture from Yale and building a career as an architect and developer in New York City, and since the early ’80s in the Roaring Fork Valley, Lipkin has adopted much of Kahn’s view about buildings being about more than the materials, the design and the space they occupy.

“Architecture engages every sense — an awareness of space and light and movement and how the people in it are reacting to it and using it and how it’s been used over time,” he said. “Buildings capture that stuff.”

The “Poetics of Space” show includes mostly images of churches in Italy. Though he is a skeptic on religion, making images of churches has given Lipkin an appreciation of what has been built in the name of religious faith.

“They’re so ornate, built lovingly and so well-cared-for,” he said. “And they have a really rich palette.”

Lipkin has found, though, that buildings of a less spiritual nature hold his interest just as well. In his memory, the photographs represent specific places he has visited. But for viewers who can’t tell a Sicilian church from an American subway or the Boston Public Library in Lipkin’s abstracted, kinetic images, the photographs aren’t so much about a particular building but the essence of architecture.

“For me, they’re about the place because I was there and did this,” he said. “For others, it’s probably a reminder of some other place. We all have a remembrance of these places, these kinds of places. So while a specific place might not be important to me, a specific kind of experience is.”

In his most recent pieces, Lipkin has become increasingly abstract, to the point that the photographs aren’t recognizable as buildings. Lipkin said this is partly the beginning of an investigation into quantum physics and subatomic structures. But it also reflects an insider’s view of architecture; Lipkin likens the abstract images to the cut-through building sections that an architect would be familiar with.

“Mies van der Rohe said God is in the details of architecture,” Lipkin said. “This is about the details, about dialing into these smaller parts.”

Lipkin is becoming as passionate about architectural photography as he is about architecture; he sees photography as occupying a big part of his years ahead. But neither moves him the way music does.

“If music were as easy as pushing a camera button, I’d probably be making music,” he said.


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