Lies + Photos + Architecture

Ad agencies and publicists frequently ask architectural photographers to retouch images to remove "inconvenient" items and details that don't match an idealized image of a building. Some architectural photographers even do so automatically without offering it as an option to their clients. These images are then submitted to editors without disclosing the retouching.

This practice has a pernicious effect on architectural practice and building safety: When the details that contribute to safety are not shown in the professional journals, architects lose the opportunity to learn how their peers integrate safety into their designs.

Two Examples:

Fire Safety:  Sprinklers poke through the ceiling in a recently remodeled gallery of the Chicago Art Institute. Yet the sprinklers have been removed from a technical article in Architectural SSL Magazine, October 2015. When readers study the published photo, they are deprived of the chance to learn how sprinklers appear when they poke through luminous ceilings. (Image

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  1. Lightning Protection: Air terminals (lightning rods) stand proudly on the roof of the Wood Innovation Centre at University of Northern British Columbia building.  Yet they are taken out of the published photos of many other buildings. The failure to show lightning protection components contributes to an attitude among building designers that lightning protection does not need to be considered. (Image: Ema Peter, Photographer)

There are legitimate reasons to retouch a photo in promotional materials. Retouching can make a manufacturer's product look its best and no one expects an advertisements to be documentary.

In editorial use, however, retouching must be used with restraint. I recently retouched an image to "clean-up" a construction photo to look like the project was complete. In another instance, I removed a wall-mounted painted for which my client did not have copyright permission. Digital photos almost always need some amount of retouching to correct color and parallax and to crop. 

There is no reason however, to remove the safety features from an article about the architectural qualities of a space.

The ethical guidelines that apply to news media should be embraced by construction media. The Associated Press states: must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.

I suppose an architect can quibble about the "truth" of an architectural work. But AP doesn't:

"In the cases of.. home design illustrations, any intervention should be revealed in the caption and special instructions box so it can¹t be mistaken as an attempt to deceive."

It is reasonable to assume the stricture on "home design" also applies to other types of buildings.  (In keeping with the guideline, please note that I darkened the air terminals on the UNBC building so they would be more visible.)

Bottom Line: Exit signs, hand rails, smoke detectors, security cameras, alarms and alarm stations, and other items exposed in or on a building are part of the building. Before removing them from an image, ask yourself is it really necessary to do so? Then act with restraint.