Become a Historian / Shooting Architecture with Paris Brummer

Posted by Orms CTSP
24 October 2018 | For the love of photography

PARIS BRUMMER, the lecturer of our upcoming Architectural Photography Weekend Workshop, spent her formative years in Johannesburg then later moved to Cape Town to study Photography and Fine Art further. She enjoys combining the differences each city offers into her work, whilst also finding new ways to understand what makes both cities work.

She aspires to use her love for photography to change the way we normally perceive our crazy, vibrant, confusing and intricate world. Paris tries not to take her photography too seriously, but rather to expose the fun behind the image creation process. Some of her favorite things include Japan, 35mm Black and White film, Lady Gaga and Pixar animation. Whilst her list of dislikes range from flat AA batteries, instant coffee to bad movie sequels and diagonal rain.

Lauren Theunissen, one of our team members, recently interviewed her, check it out below:

What is the first building you remember photographing? 

The first building I remember photographing that really inspired me to look at buildings differently is the Sports Centre on UCT’s Upper Campus. Designed by Roelof Uytenbogaardt, the center is seen as you first enter the upper campus grounds. I was living in Res on upper campus and decided one night to explore the grounds with my camera and tripod. The building was open as people were playing squash and attending karate classes. I was intrigued by its extensive use of concrete, glass, and steel. The building still fascinates me today every time I see it, even though most of my memories involve hundreds of desks lined up in its main hall as it was a popular venue to write art exams in.

What inspires your approach to Architectural Photography? 

My approach is driven by a deep interest in a building’s story or perhaps, the stories buildings tell. I often begin looking at the history of a structure – its intent, usage, socio-political history and then, of course, the context in which it was designed and built. Acknowledgment of whom the architect was/is also very important for me as it locates the structure within time.

Is there a specific style of architecture that you are drawn to and are there any specific architects whose work you admire? 

I have a deep closeted love for Brutalist architecture. Anything that encompasses large amounts of concrete and steel. So basically the stuff the critics hate because the buildings are impractical, cold and ‘ugly’. Le Corbusier will always have a place in my heart as well as Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Both are architects who understand the socio-political, anthropological and environmental impact a building can impose on an area or community. I love their understanding of light, nature and the human condition.

What has been the most enjoyable building that you have had the opportunity of photographing?

Sjoe. That’s a difficult one. There are three buildings I’ve photographed that I will always remember fondly. Namely because of their history, their abandonment and the fact that they all challenged me and helped me grow. The first is the KwaDukuza Egoli – also formally known as the old Johannesburg Sun. Any photograph of the Johannesburg skyline will show you the two towers, standing quietly together and forested by the surrounding city fabric. Little do people know that the hotel closed down some years back and has been standing ‘mothballed’ and empty. It was like walking into a museum. All the fittings and furnishes were still in place.

The second building was the former Standard Bank building on Adderley Street in Cape Town. Known as the Queen of Adderley, the head branch closed some years ago and whilst I was studying I was fortunate enough to enter the building under supervision. It was as if there had been a bomb scare, rapture or post-apocalyptic event. Everything was still in place as if the bank had closed just hours before. Bank teller desks were left undisturbed with files and papers neatly folded. There was a thick layer of dust on everything and the office plants were dead and dry.

The attraction to abandoned buildings doesn’t stop there. The last and my favorite is The Werdmuller building in Claremont. The white elephant, which can be seen from the main road has been standing empty but closed for years now. Once a lifestyle mall of sorts, the building became unpopular, was constantly haunted by its apartheid history and closed. It’s been the subject of heavy debate from both historians and scholars and is as a result, frozen in red tape. Being a huge fan of Roelof Uytenbogaardt I was fortunate enough to visit it twice and photograph it.

KwaDukuza Egoli / old Johannesburg Sun (1/3) By Paris Brummer.

KwaDukuza Egoli / old Johannesburg Sun (2/3) By Paris Brummer.

KwaDukuza Egoli / old Johannesburg Sun (3/3) By Paris Brummer.

Standard Bank, Adderley Street (1/3) By Paris Brummer.

Standard Bank, Adderley Street (2/3) By Paris Brummer.

Standard Bank, Adderley Street (3/3) By Paris Brummer.

Werdmuller, Claremont (1/2) By Paris Brummer.

Werdmuller, Claremont (2/2) By Paris Brummer.


What are some of the unexpected challenges of architectural photography? 

I’ve experienced 2 challenges which still haunt me. One involves shooting outside of commission and permission – in the event of an abandoned structure for example – safety was a huge concern. Although I wasn’t alone, being a woman with expensive photographic gear made me quite vulnerable and prey to disgruntled locals who felt I was trespassing. Let’s just say I was fortunate enough to get away with both my life and gear.

The second is a technical challenge which I’m often faced with but at the same time grateful of as it taught me to grow and try harder. I was commissioned to fly to Durban for the day and photograph all the buildings owned by this development company. One of the buildings was a tall skyscraper surrounded by other buildings. I had 2 lenses with me and the client wanted the building to seem grand like it was standing alone. The building was about 20 meters in front of me and I was on a rooftop shooting at midday (we were pressed with time and the light was its harshest) and the only lens that would give me some leeway was a wide angle. The result was a heavily distorted image and many post-production hours correcting perspective but the client was very happy in the end.

What is the most valuable mistake you have ever made in your Architectural Photography ventures?

Not preparing thoroughly enough for a shoot. It was partly due to a bad brief from a client, but also my fault as I hadn’t properly prepared for a shoot with the correct gear. There were reflections, I didn’t have a polariser. The client asked on the day for details, I didn’t have the correct prime lens.

Rookie errors but I’ve learned and grown from them. Now I ask 100 questions before a shoot and I pack everything in my bag just in case.

Name your top ‘go to’ items in your gear bag? 

Camera body – obviously. 14-24mm lens, 24-70mm lens, 35mm tilt lens and 105mm macro for details. Accessories include; Tripod, Shutter release cable. Polariser. Lens Pen. Lens Hoods.

You shoot in black and white and colour what informs your aesthetic considerations for this? 

It depends mostly on context and brief. A lot of my earlier abandoned building works were in black and white to accentuate and emphasise contrast and texture in a building. A lot of the buildings’ lights weren’t working so black and white accentuated their emptiness and helped isolate the focus on their history. Colour is important if you’re focusing on textures, paintwork, tiles or features. These say a lot about the era a building was built in. For example, I’ve noticed that buildings from the 1980s mostly incorporate the same colour palettes both in their interiors and exteriors; documenting this is important.

What advice or useful tips would you give to anyone wanting to polish their craft in this genre? 

Be interested in what you are shooting. It’s not just about aesthetics. Become a historian even if you don’t need to be, as it informs the way you look at a building. Then practice, fail, learn, try again and take note of your resultant growth. If an image does not work in either black and white or colour, move on.

If you could pick one building in South Africa that you would love to photograph which would it be and why does it rank at the top of your SA building bucket-list?

This is going to sound funny but, L Ron Hubbard’s house in Johannesburg. I mean, it’s on the bucket list right now but there are many more. When I was a kid, I had always seen the sign when driving through Cyrildene, but I never comprehended how interesting it was until I read ‘Hidden Johannesburg’ by Alain Proust and Paul Duncan. The house was designed by Frank L Jarrett in 1951 for a Greek timber merchant and is a heritage landmark exemplifying modernist architecture and design of the 1950s, having been painstakingly restored to resemble how it would have looked when L Ron Hubbard lived here. Besides its interiors and impeccable 1960’s ‘ugliness,’ I am drawn to understanding how it landed up with its infamous owner, L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.


Related Blogs

Posted by blck95 | 16 April 2019
These photographers are finding new ways…
Posted by blck95 | 09 April 2019
Before starting the programme, I was more excited to…
Posted by blck95 | 03 April 2019
We would like to invite…