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Guest Article: My 20 Years of Architectural Photography Career by James B. Norman

Lately, I have been asked often”what should I be doing with my photography?” and “what is really important about photography?”

To answer to that question I’d like to share a small tale of my own convoluted path of my photography career through the years, and my attempt to find meaning in what I was doing.

I’ve been a professional architectural photographer for over 20 years, and did fine art B/W work prior to that for a few years. I see so many photographers that have nice equipment, have a good eye for photography, and yet have no direction or focus to their work. I thought I would take a few minutes and share a bit of my experience with some of you.

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When I was first starting out, I shot everything – kitties, nudes, sunsets, still lifes, portraits, street scenes, macros, old falling down barns, landscapes – you name it, I shot it. after a couple years of piling up slides and prints, with plenty of comments from friends about this or that being interesting, I finally put my camera down for over a year because I just could not figure out what all this was good for. I couldn’t stop myself from picking the camera back up a year later and started all over, just because I enjoyed the process of seeing and making images, and I, of course, just loved cool cameras – Leicas, Nikon F’s, Rolleiflex TLRs – all were, and are, works of art in themselves and it was comforting just to hold them and use them.

After another year or two of shooting all manner of subjects, I put the camera down again, still at a loss to understand what I was doing except spending lots of time and money just to show a few friends my shots. Another year passed until I had to pick it up again, and this time I told myself I was going to get serious about it.

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I printed a group of about 20 of what I thought were my best efforts on some RC glossypaper, and matted them carefully. I made an appointment with a man in Portland Oregon who ran a small art photo gallery who was known for giving newcomers a chance at a one-man show. I was nervous, but I was sure he would love my work – a couple of really nice nude studies, a couple of tranquil landscapes, some interior studies, and a few street photography images. Well, the guy took my stack of matted photos and flipped through them in about 45 seconds. He sat back and said, “you have a pretty good eye, but you’ve got no direction to your work. Pick out one or two of these images that you like the best, think about why those images speak to you in particular, and build a portfolio around that idea or concept. Come back and see me in a year.”

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Well, I did just that. I picked out two images that appealed to me – one street shot and one of the interior studies. I worked very hard over the next year to build consistent groups of images around those two themes. In the meantime, i studied how professional artists printed, matted, and framed their works. I went back to the gallery owner a year later with two portfolios, now printed on DW Agfa Portriga and used 4-ply museum board floating mats.

The guy again flipped through the two portfolios in hardly more than a minute or two and sat back. I was devastated, knowing I was about to be humiliated, until he said, “i’ll give you a one-man show with either of those portfolios. Make an appointment with my admin person out front.” That show led to a couple other shows and a few items in a couple of local sales galleries, but I had higher goals than selling – I wanted to be an artist. I made contact with the curator at the Portland art museum, and had a more well known photographer send him three of my prints on my behalf. One of the shots was accepted into the permanent collection for the art museum, and I finally felt I had accomplished something of value.

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I played the art game for about 5 years, learning how to speak the language, and learning how to say what curators wanted to hear. oddly, they were often more interested in hearing me talk about juxtaposition of masses, and the use of dark space than they were in actually looking at the images. I finally got burned out on the art scene as it was turning me into someone that I was really not, and i did not want to build a career on being something I was not.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to do some documentary photography for a state agency, who sent me all over the state of Oregon to shoot historic bridges for inventory purposes. That turned into a 5 year effort and resulted in a book which I co-authored. During that period, I contacted the Oregon Historical Society and offered to shoot photos for their collections while I traveled around the state – they gave me a 5 page list of stuff they wanted me to shoot for them.

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Those experiences opened up the whole genre of recordation photography as a way to make money, travel, learn, and have my work included in collections at the Oregon Historical Society, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress, and also opened doors that led to me being able to write two more books about architectural history. I spent the last 20 years shooting architecture and engineering resources for HABS/HAER for the Library of Congress.

I guess what I am saying is, find a use for your work. Find a direction and a focus to what you are doing. You don’t necessarily have to make a living from it, or even make money from it to achieve satisfaction and make a contribution. Contact local agencies, newspapers, or organizations that might be able to use the kinds of images you shoot, and offer to shoot some images for them. Put together a portfolio and hang it somewhere and sit back anonymously and watch how people react to your work and listen to any remarks they might make. Figure out what you like and what you are good at and focus in on it and work on it steadily. Stop going for the shotgun effect. Make a plan and follow through with it. Study the history of photography and carefully examine the earliest photographers work – there is a lot to learn there. I have been very lucky, and with some consistent focused effort and a willingness to learn, you can be too…

James B. Norman


James B. Norman is an architectural photographer. He has documented more than 200 of Oregon’s historic architectural and engineering resources for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and was the Project Photographer for the 1999 HAER Willamette River Bridges Recordation Project sponsored by the National Park Service, and for the National Historic Landmark nomination for the Oregon Coast Bridges of Conde B. McCullough.Mr. Norman’s documentary photography has been widely published, and is included in the permanent collections of the Oregon Historical Society, the Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress. His fine art photography is included in the permanent collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum.

iLHP thanks you for sharing your experience with us!