Recently, I attended a photography workshop at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, in Spring Green, WI. The instructor was Andrew Pielage, an architectural and travel photographer who is on a mission to photograph all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s remaining designs.
As a lifelong Wright fan, I was curious and interested in Andrew’s project. I have been following his work for a few years so having the chance to learn from him and learn more about his story was something I wanted to share. There will be more about my personal experience in another article. Stay tuned.
How did you get started with the Frank Lloyd Wright project?
The start of the project was a complete surprise to me. That sounds funny saying now. I call the project the #500fllwproject in ode to Frank Lloyd Wright’s 532 designs.
In 2011, before the project, I photographed my first Wright design. It was Taliesin West about 30 minutes from my house. Like most people, it only takes one visit to get you hooked on Wright. Soon I was taking photos of other Wright designs in my area such as the David Wright house, Grady Gammage theater, and Jorgine Boomer house.
Soon after, my local NPR radio station reached out and asked if I would come on the air to talk about photographing local Wright architecture. The last question the host Lauren Gilger asked was, “So how many Wright designs do you want to photograph?” Now, you know there is only one answer to that question. I said, “Well, all of them.” Little did I know that my four word answer would change my life forever and really create a clear path forward in my very early photography career.
I have had my eye on the prize ever since.
How many of the 532 Wright properties have you photographed?
Well, before I answer that question, remember, it’s just as much about the journey as it is the destination.
I have currently photographed 114 Wright designs around the country. Including five in Wisconsin a few weeks ago. I want to mention that this is not a drive-by, peek over the fence, photo project. To be included in the #500fllwproject, both the interior and exterior of the design need to be photographed. With permission of course.
It’s not a project necessarily for myself. It’s so we all can have documented photos of Wright’s design in the 2000s. We look back at “historical” black and white images from greats like Pedro Guerrero, Ezra Stoller, Julius Schulman. Maybe these images that I am capturing will help us study Wright 50-100 years from now.
Typically how long does it take to thoroughly photograph a property?
Good question and that varies a lot with this project.
Wright’s portfolio is made up mostly of private homes. But, he also designed museums, gas stations, theaters, office buildings, synagogues, schools and the list goes on. In an ideal world, I want to photograph the design in the best light. I ask to be there as close to sunrise as I can for a few hours and then come back a few hours before sunset.
In larger designs like Marin County Civic Center or Taliesin, I go back the next day and do it all over again. The smaller private designs tend to take less time. I am only there for a few hours either in the morning or late afternoon depending on where the sun rises and sets in relation to the house. The only exception to this is Fallingwater, where I was an artist-in-residence for thirty days. That was a mind-blowing experience.
Can you tell us a little about the approval process to go ahead with the project and getting access to Wright properties?
Every image I have taken for this project is taken with permission. This is a passion project for me as an independent freelance photographer. I am fortunate to have the support of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, Taliesin Preservation and many others. Access, by far, has been the hardest part of the project, especially with his private homes.
Once I get or research who the owners are, I send out an email introducing myself and the project. Then, I ask if they would like to be part of the project and we go from there. Getting into one helps get me into the next and it just kind of snowballs from there. It is really all the owners that are making this project possible. I am so thankful for everyone in the Wright community that has supported me and the project.
Can you explain the importance of using tilt-shift lenses for this project (or any architectural photography)
I really believe in having the right tools for the job. Maybe that comes from working on home improvement projects with my dad as a kid, but it’s true in photography as well. You want to be a wildlife photographer, you need a big zoom. Sports photographer, you are going to need some fast glass. Portrait photographer, you need a super sharp lens in that 50-85mm range.
Every genre of photography has lenses that fit the subject or use and architectural photography is no different. I need my lines and walls to be straight and true. No architect wants to see their building falling backward, I would never get hired again. That’s where the perspective-controlling tilt shift lens comes into play. Instead of tilting my camera up and creating converging lines to get to the top of a building or ceiling, with a tilt-shift lens, I can just shift up the lens and my camera sensor stays parallel with my subject. In turn, my lines and walls are straight and true. You can make minor tweaks in your editing software but as soon as you do, your image starts to lose quality as the software twists the image to fix it.
Like everything in photography, you want to get it as close as possible in camera.
What have you learned about photography by doing this 500 Frank Lloyd Wright project?
Am I allowed to say everything?
I am constantly challenging myself with every new Wright design I photograph. Sometimes the experiments work and sometimes they don’t and that’s the point. But I think what I am learning the most has nothing to do with the photography aspect of it. It’s all the other details that go into pulling off a successful shoot and making it a positive experience for both the owners and myself. That means learning how to scout a location from 1,000 miles away so I can be more efficient with my shot list or “timeline of light’ as I like to say. It’s learning how to be a great and consistent communicator with the client before I arrive to make them as comfortable about the shoot as possible. Remember most of these projects are private homes, so privacy and trust play a huge part in this and they are something I take very seriously.
The farther along I get in my photography career the more I realize that it takes much more than just fancy images to be a successful long-term freelance photographer.
You also workshops host for kids, what do you find the most rewarding for those workshops?
Yes, actually the first workshops I taught were kids aged 12-18 up at Taliesin West. I still do them to this day. One of the most rewarding experiences in those workshops for me is when the students figure out how to transfer the art in their heads through a camera and onto an image. At that age, I’m really not pushing photography on them or their parents. I’m pushing them to continue to explore their creative path. Whether that’s painting, drawing, designing or photography. And when I see an idea they had or an inspiration to take a photograph and they are happy with how it turned out, that is the most rewarding for me.
Kids are the future of our arts, so I give them everything and try to teach in a way that they will be better than me.
What is one thing you want students of any age to get out of your workshops?
Do I have to choose just one? Well, I’ll go with having both the creative and technical tools to fix problems or challenges they come across in their photography.
Everyone is a great, manual photographer until they run into a problem with light or subject, then what happens? Photography is not easy and it’s difficult to teach photographers everything they need in the real world. I focus on the fundamentals of both the creative and technical sides of photography. The tried and true skills that allow you to not only create beautiful photos but also fix problems in-camera or in post-processing to achieve the desired results. To be a successful photographer you need to be able to solve problems you are having on location. I work through challenges on every shoot I go on.
Would you recommend other photographers find a passion project to work on?
Absolutely, for two reasons.
One, You need a subject that you can experiment with to learn, grow and create a consistent look and feel in your images. Personal projects, where you are not being judged or reviewed by a client are a great way to get that in.
Two, I would like to tell you that I am inspired every single day but that’s just not the case for me. It’s with me most days but definitely not all of them. Personal projects are a great way to kick start your creativity again because this is a subject you chose to be inspired by.
You don’t have to fly a million miles away to a mind-blowing location to get started, find something in your local area. That is exactly what I did with the #500fllwproject.
As most photographers want to know, what gear do you use? Do you have a go-to setting you use?
Yep, I always have the following tools in my GuraGear pack. My cameras are the Canon 5DS and backup Canon 5dmkIII. My lenses are both the Canon 17mm and 24mm Tilt Shifts, Canon 24-105mm walk around, Canon nifty-fifty and my Canon 70-200mm 2.8. I would say I use my 5ds with the 17mm or 24-105mm 90% of the time.
It’s not about having all the lenses, it’s about having the right lenses for the job.
Thank you to Andrew for his time and knowledge on both photography and Frank Lloyd Wright. Personally, I’m looking forward to attending another of his workshops. You can follow Andrew’s project on Instagram and see more of his work on his website.