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Symbols speak: using abstraction to make effective photos of buildings. (Photo Critique).

Organizations and institutions are often defined by the Structures in which they are housed. Business, health and government buildings are created not only as work places. They are often designed as symbols, expressing the history, wealth, power and virtues of the institutions that occupy them. They can give organizations an identity that can shape public opinion for the better, and in some cases, for the worse.

Symbolic structures easily lend themselves to photographic interpretation. Photographers can isolate powerful symbols within their frames--most often in abstract, rather than literal terms--to tell a story, make a point and express an idea.

Our first example (left) was an opening picture in an article about natural gas consumer legislation, appearing in Scana Insights (SCANA Corp., Columbia, S.C.). Freelancer Chris Little narrows his vision to the classic pediment of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, the building in which this legislation was passed. This abstract approach emphasizes the allegorical figures and architectural detail that convey the timeless values of a democracy. He does not show us the entire building. Instead he symbolizes the ideals of those who serve within it. He made this photograph during the "golden hour," when the low angle of the sun makes the pediment details stand out in bold relief, bathing them in rich, warm color.

Little also created our second example (lower left), appearing as a follow-up picture in the same SCANA story. He photographs a reflection--the stately dome of the Capitol floats within the facade of a neighboring contemporary office building. This picture symbolizes the government's relationship to the rest of us--at times perhaps elusive, yet ultimately all-encompassing. Little used warm light once again, this time to capture the reflection glinting off the Capitol dome under a deep blue sky.

Not every photographer has access to such perfect light. But there are many other ways to use abstraction and symbolism to interpret the meaning of a building in a picture. On a recent tour of Cape Town, South Africa, I photographed our third example (lower right), a governmental structure similar in design to the one shot by Little. Because I was part of a tour, I was not able to choose my light or vantage point. I had to make the best of what I had to work with. I chose to symbolize an aspect of South Africa's history by emphasizing a statue of a long-departed colonial governor. I reduced the abstracted building behind it to context, including only three of its stately columns and a small part of its pediment, framed in dark tropical foliage. I intended this image to symbolize a vanished era, a colonial prelude to a century of strife and struggle--the calm before the storm.

I photographed our final example (above) in the vast lobby of Uruguay's Parliament building in Montevideo. Yet another governmental structure, it symbolizes the hopes and dreams of all who live in that country. Its great halls and lobbies are richly embellished with marble. I didn't try to literally describe the appearance of the building itself. Instead I chose a more abstract approach by arranging differing varieties of marble within my frame as symbols of skilled workmanship and considerable wealth. For me, this geometric relationship of marble on marble symbolizes the accomplishments of the people of Uruguay and those who represent them.

Though all of these examples involve governmental structures, the same photographic principles can be applied to buildings housing business, health and other organizations. In each of these examples, less becomes more. Instead of literal description, abstraction and symbolism combine to tell the story.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC is director of The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 32nd year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations.

He offers a comprehensive six-person Communicating with Pictures workshop every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Ariz.

For current openings and registration information, call Douglis at +1 602.493.6709, or e-mail him at He also welcomes tear sheets for possible use in this column.

Send to: The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85028, USA. View his portfolios of travel photojournalism on the web at
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Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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