Elemental: exploring architecture in sub-zero temperatures

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Published:  January 28, 2016
Jamuna Raj

Australian photographer Rohan Hutchinson braves the elements in his latest project and clues us in on what to expect.

It’s a two-year project in the making and now, Rohan Hutchinson is in the final laps of Elemental – a photographic study of how a variance in extreme weather conditions affect architecture put together in a book which will be published in April this year.


Elemental_1The photographs, all taken in Canada while Hutchinson was an artist in residency at Gushul Studio Blairmore, Canada, during the winter of 2014. The weather then varied between +4 to -35 (degree Celsius).

The collection of work is split into two categories: the first is the study of windows (an objective viewpoint) which documents how extreme weather conditions and a slight shift in geographical position influences architecture and second, the external environment.

Hutchinson, who will also hold an exhibition to display his work at Strange Neighbour Gallery from 27 May to 8 June, shares more about Elemental and the creative processes behind this project. 

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Give us a quick backstory for those who are not too familiar with your work. How did your interest in architecture and photography come about?

I guess it started in the mid 2000’s when I was a skateboarder. In some ways this makes you look at architecture of the ordinary very differently than the standard pedestrian. During that time I started shooting [and] then architecture eventuated from there.

When was that pivotal moment you decided to blend these two interests together?

I think it was when I started to look at the large format photographic works of Edward Burtynsky and Sze Tsung Leong. Just seeing what they had been doing to document a changing world was a real eye opener.

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What was the inspiration behind Elemental?

Over the last five years or so, I have been doing a lot of reading into the theories behind Japanese architecture and design. This series was influenced by architect Go Hasegawa and his writings on the basic principles of a house.

Hasegawa produced an experiment, where he would select different children from diverse geographic and economic backgrounds and ask them to draw a house. What he found was all these illustrations held key identical markings; that the there was a pitched rood, a door and a series of windows. Hasegawa then talks about these basic principles. A house will consist of four walls and a roof to shelter us from the elements — the sun, rain, ice and snow; a door to enter and exit and windows to let light in and to observe the natural environment.

This was a part that really intrigued me; something so simple, yet I never thought about how we can observe the natural environment from an internal viewpoint. I then started thinking about my work and how I’m always trying to gain an understanding of a community from an external viewpoint, and with this series maybe I should take a different approach.

What was it like shooting in -35 degree weather? 

All the photographs were created in a little town in the Canadian Rockies called Blairmore. I chose this location as I had been in the area before and knew that during certain months of the year there is quite a diverse range of extreme weather conditions. During my stay, temperatures ranged between +4 to -35 (degree Celsius). For my research this was great, for shooting the externals this caused its own problems. I found that within a certain amount of time in these sub-zero temperatures the bellows on my camera would start to freeze. This was about the same time my hands would stop working and the time to call it quits for the day. The internal images, which coincided with these externals, were quite straight forward

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Take us through the creative and logistic process involved. What equipment did you use to shoot? 

The creative process involved a really long time period of narrowing down ideas — what I want to do and why I wanted to do it. This involves looking at as many artists who have worked with similar concepts and what they have produced.

Once working out what I wanted to create, I did some pre shots in Melbourne in relation to the windows images. This included using techniques most commonly used in artwork copying to remove reflection.

After this I wrote to the local newspaper in the town where I would be residing and explained that the Lethbridge University had arranged for me to come to Blairmore to work on this project. Luckily the newspaper got behind the project and ran a story on it. This was quite crucial to the work, being that a big part of the project was gaining access to people’s houses to photograph their windows.

Upon arriving, I simply walked around and found what I wanted to shoot externally and internally and then started knocking on people’s doors.

With shooting, I used (as with all my work) a large format film camera both 4×5 and 8×10 and a series of linear polarising filters.

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Besides the weather conditions and the logistics of it all, what other challenges did you face over the two years in putting this together? How did you overcome them?

As this work was being created for both a gallery exhibition and a book this enabled me to choose different visual scenarios for each presentation.

With exhibiting the work, I decided at a very early stage that I wanted a 3D experience. This would be achieved by creating both framed photographs on the gallery walls and clear dura-trans, which were to be suspended from the roof. This created 3D a realm within the gallery representing a house plan.

The book design was the most complicated. The main hurdle was choosing the right book format and paper to match the work. After finally discovering Takeo fine art papers, I settled on their Araveal range.

I wanted to make a product, which was tangible yet, humble; something that one could look at over time and gain a greater appreciation. After about 12 months of looking at different photo books and how the work translated in them, I narrowed it down to a 32-page soft cover, bound saddle-stitch style, using hand tied Japanese cotton.

I think the main concern was having a publication, which matched the work and vice versa.

The book is being printed and bound in Japan by the iconic Yamada Photo process, and although there is quite a massive language barrier, it’s fortunate that I have good friends who can help if needed in Japan.

Your previous projects, “A brief stroll whilst inspecting architecture” and “Kanazawa Study” were based in Japan. Elemental was inspired from a Japanese architect. Does the country hold any special meaning to you?

I have spent a lot of time in Japan over the last eight years. Many of my closest friends, both foreign and Japanese, are based there. I guess all I can say is that it really is a second home to me and I love every minute I’m there.

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How do you capture the nuances of specific architecture in your photographs for the layman? What do you consider when you capture an image?

Meruro Washida (curator of the 21st century museum of contemporary art Kanazawa) once wrote on my work that what was important about it is that it captured architecture of the ordinary, something that is very rarely done. Most of the time architecture is photographed to show advances in technology, design and hierarchy.

With my work I feel that the images represent the local community. I strongly believe architecture can tell us a lot about the make up of the community, in regards to the geography, economics and historical ties. It is because of this I try and capture the everyday space and its surroundings.

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What’s that one project you have always want to work on?
A series that looks at climate change, an idea that I have been thinking for years. I will start the practical process of it later this year.

Let’s go back to Elemental. What are your final takeaways from this project?

This body of work has been a long process, what I really did enjoy about it, is the narrowing down of ideas, and the processes of its presentation.

Over the last two years, I have photographed the work, written about, and narrowed down to what I believe to be the most accurate way of presenting it. Both in a gallery setting and within a publication. I think if this all happened over a shorter period, I would look back and want to change things. I have to always remember to be patient.

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You can pre-order a copy of Elemental with limited edition prints here (limited availability).
To learn more about Elemental and other projects by Rohan Hutchinson, visit his website.

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