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Martine Hamilton Knight: ‘The rules of engagement have vastly changed’

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Nottingham-based photographer Martine Hamilton Knight started her career shooting covers for the AJ and looks back on 30 years in architectural photography

Producing the AJ involves a continuous schedule of commissioning photographers to go and shoot buildings, make short films, compile material boards and – in summary – furnish our art editor with great imagery to bring architects’ drawings and models and the text of the building studies vividly to life. 

Covid-19 has put a freeze on the regular rhythm of things, but we are still keen to feature and promote the work of photographers navigating this unusual time. From regular contributors to old hands to newcomers documenting the different facets of the built envornment.

Martine Hamilton Knight is an award-winning architectural photographer based in Nottingham. Her images have been published internationally and feature regularly in architectural books and journals. She photographed her first building study for the AJ 1991 and has since shot numerous covers for the magazine (featured throughout the text here). The end of June 2020 marks 30 years since she founded her business Builtvision.

She lectures on the MA and BA commercial photography course at Nottingham Trent University and has run a programme of CPD for the RIBA. She has been a regional assessor for RIBA awards in 2009 and 2018.

In 2019 she was asked by Yale University Press to shoot the revised Pevsner Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire.

What is the difference today between architectural photography in the 90s and noughties?
To any photographer whose career began prior to the mid 2000s, they will all give you the same answer: the change from film to digital. For architectural photographers, that change was more profound than for some areas of the industry. We worked almost exclusively on large format technical cameras. The 5x4” film sheets we used (think black cloth over the head, Victorian-style) were transparencies, and those transparencies were the most gorgeous thing to behold; prohibitively expensive to procure and required rigorous technical precision in the field to expose correctly, especially when it came to controlling the colour spectrum. I was fortunate enough to shoot my first building study for the AJ within a year of graduating, and was subsequently up and down the country for the architectural press with regularity.

The outcome of shooting digitally from 2005 onward was profound; the technical aspect of the job is so much easier to control today, and the workflow much speedier. Images look just as stunning and are swiftly acquired compared to shooting film. More people entered the market, and for clients and the AJ, there was a greater choice of practitioners in more locations who they could work with than previously. However, the rules of engagement have vastly changed, and that makes for some dissatisfaction; everything has to be risk assessed, spontaneity cannot be accommodated and whereas a large format camera in action stopped traffic, these days cameras are cameras and sometimes people have less time and enthusiasm to want to join in.

How has coronavirus changed the way you work and the work itself? What has been most akin to the current pandemic – in terms of professional impact – that you have experienced since you started in 1990?
Until this last week or two when there have been a couple of promising emails, coronavirus has meant an abrupt stop to things. Much of my work is in the commercial and education sector, shooting workplaces, schools and university buildings. With one foot in higher education (I lecture on an MA/BA programme), I can see that planning for face-to-face teaching is in flux. I can envisage how problematic it is likely to be capturing spaces, in use, for any building, in the manner for which they were designed.

The recent briefing about keeping school year groups apart in September will be achievable at an extraordinary project like BDP’s Hampden Gurney school (which I shot when it was nominated for the RIBA Stirling prize in 2002). Each class group has its own balcony or ‘space deck’ as I recall them being called. Who knew BDP worked a design solution which would take on so much more significance almost two decades after completion?

Prior to the current pandemic, the 2007/8 recession was tough. Luckily there was much public sector investment; the government’s BSF (Building Schools for the Future), healthcare provision and higher education expansion meant I quietly ticked over. Plus I had a working trip to China and book projects for two clients. So really, I cannot envisage what will be post Covid-19, other than I read and I watch and I listen, and I am nervous for all of us.

How has your thinking about photography and practice changed over the years?
Architecture has got far more exciting from a structural and decorative perspective since I started up. The buildings have more colour, they’re more varied in material, the forms and shapes possible are extraordinary. However, I have always worked in a modest marketplace being based in the midlands. If I had my time again, I would have annexed myself to a major hub, where ground rents were higher and a correspondingly higher level of patronage for scale and finish (less value engineering!).

That said, Nottingham is on the road to most places, and being in the middle of everywhere meant I could drive in any direction to find architecture. People say they can tell a ‘Martine’ picture, so I guess my way of seeing things doesn’t change. I would still stand in many of the same spots to take shots today that I took ten, 20, 30 years earlier. If people like my way of interpreting their buildings they’ll hire me, if they don’t they will seek a practitioner whose eye they do gravitate towards. I can’t bear wasting money though. If I think it’s not the right time to shoot a project, or money is best spent elsewhere, I will say. I would never just plough on regardless. That’s not fair.

Aj whitby abbey stanton williams

Aj whitby abbey stanton williams

What do you have in the pipeline as you begin your fourth decade in business?
This summer was to set to be really lovely, I’d just had the privilege of working for Yale University Press to shoot the latest Pevsner update, and in my home county as well. It’s a far bigger book than the previous edition, at 896 pages and working with Yale’s team and the writer Clare Hartwell was a joy. The publication was going to coincide with a ten week show at Lakeside Arts Centre at the University of Nottingham.

The book is still coming out (slightly later than planned in September) but the show has been postponed until next summer instead. As for other things, I shall keep on shooting commercially as much as the market allows, carry on engaging with next generation of photographers through my teaching work, and hope that the next decade is as interesting as the previous three have been.

All photographs by Martine Hamilton Knight.
Discover more of her work on her website builtvision.co.uk

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