Behind the Lens with Richard Payne, FAIA

An icon and indisputably the dean of architectural photographers in Texas, Richard Payne, FAIA, has been a registered architect since 1964 and a full-time architectural photographer for almost 45 years. Payne has been commissioned to photograph work by renowned architects such as Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Charles Gwathmey, and Ricardo Bofill and has worked all over the world — Spain, France, Germany, the Middle East, Australia, and across North America. But he has also kept himself deeply rooted in Texas with five beautiful portfolio books to his credit that focus solely on the architecture of his home state.

He is perhaps best known for his stunning photographs of the work of Philip Johnson, produced primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, that became the iconic images through which the world got to know the buildings of one of the most influential architects of his generation. Payne shot 140 projects for Johnson. The architect commissioned Payne to photograph every building completed after 1970, and then, through a grant from the Anchorage Foundation of Texas, Payne photographed Johnson’s earlier projects beginning with the Glass House in New Canaan. This work led to the publication of the largest of three monographs on the architect, published in 1979, 1985, and 2001.

Payne’s relationship with Johnson began when Payne shot a black-and-white picture of the Pennzoil Building in Houston when he was just beginning his photographic practice in 1970. He sent it to a marketing director for the building’s developer, Gerald Hines. And they sent the image to Johnson, who asked Payne to come to New York; the architects met and began a professional relationship and friendship that lasted until Johnson’s death in 2005.

The sleek, dramatic images of Johnson’s internationally renowned buildings are complemented in Payne’s work by poignant, often gritty, images of the places he loves and reveres closer to home. He has authored two books that document the architecture of the kind of small towns he knew as a young man growing up in Texas: “Guerrero Viejo” and “Texas Towns and the Art of Architecture,” published in 1997 and 2006, respectively.  In the latter, he notes, “I have always looked for opportunities to describe for the layman, in simple, human, and understandable terms, what the art of architecture is all about, and how its effects and influences stem not only from the practical need for buildings and civic development, but from the dedication, hopes, and dreams of architects, builders, and their customers.”

Payne captures the life of architecture in images. He is adamant that he is not “in the business of fixing architecture.” He just tries to capture an image of a building “when it looks good.” The process involves painstaking efforts to get to know the building itself well, and to study the conditions of weather, light, and activity around the building to find the perfect moment to portray it.

“The big issue is the weather — wonderfully unpredictable and uncontrollable,” Payne notes.

Whereas the human eye easily and naturally adjusts to variable light conditions, the camera is not so accommodating. “We see with the magical ability to compensate for the excessive contrast of bright, harsh light that has befuddled photographers for generations,” he says. “Excessive contrast, ever present during daylight hours in regions such as Texas, can defeat efforts to be clear about details in shaded areas and where there are major changes of plane.”

These days, contrast can be controlled to a certain extent with software in digital photography, but Payne prefers to deal with it on site by working with the weather. In summer in Texas, he does not take photos between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. He prefers the richer color of morning and afternoon light, but he also feels shadows are too deep at mid-day, making the details in them too hard to capture. At all times of the year, he watches clouds very carefully and will often select a particular cloud moving across the sun and use just its edge to soften the light. Clouds are also important as a means to “make glass be glass” through vivid and memorable reflections. He loves winter cirrus clouds in Texas and hates the summer “cotton balls.”

Just as Payne carefully monitors the sky and light, he also watches activities around and within the building that animate it and indicate its social and cultural role. He generally tries to visit a building without his camera before he actually shoots it just to get a sense of how it is inhabited and used.  

Then, through the gift of digital technology, says Payne, he can take a dozen frames and later select an image in which “the light, the position of the clouds, the location of the people, and other elements necessary for a sense of scale and animation come together to define the architecture and its function and context.”

Payne comments, “Digital photography has not changed what I and other photographers try to do, but it has dramatically improved how we do it.” He and his wife and partner, Amy Claire Ladner, are thrilled with the opportunities presented by digital technology, but they use it with great restraint. They are painfully aware of what they see as abuses of the new medium, creating scenographic images that lack authenticity. Payne knows he can place a sunset in any image, but he says, “I prefer to be there during the sunset and not miss the magic moments when luck is on my side and the light is exactly right.”

Payne is strikingly modest about his role as a photographer, in spite of his success and renowned work. His endearing lack of pretension springs from a strong belief about what the goal of photography should be: “Photography, at its best, has always been a matter of presentation. Personal interpretation and unrestrained image manipulation is better left to other art forms.” 

He explains: “If someone, after a review of my work, should detect some semblance of style — the way I look at buildings and work with the light, or how I might apply some digital trick — I would be surprised and disappointed. A personal style is the last thing I want because it would mean that I have failed to prioritize my client’s interests, and have tried to ‘affect’ architecture — alter the truth of it to make it fit my portfolio.”

This modesty is evident in the potency and authenticity of Payne’s images. While they carry powerful and poignant messages, they are not speculative or slick. When Richard Payne creates great photographs, he embodies many of the same traits that other excellent architects use when they make great buildings — the ability to see and perceive situations deeply, craft careful and elegant solutions, create responsive and original work, and check their own personal egos.

Larry Speck, FAIA, is principal at PageSoutherlandPage and teaches architecture at UT Austin. 

This article is was originally published in Texas Architect, July/August 2013