Formal Analysis of the Flatiron Building Photos
Architecture has always been one of the most important subjects in modern photography. Two cityscapes that are analyzed in this paper depict one of the most famous New York skyscrapers – the Flatiron Building. It was constructed in 1902 and acquired its iconic status due to its unusual triangular form that has always been attracting the attention of the public. The paper is devoted to the formal comparative analysis of these two photos: The Flatiron Building – Evening by Edward Steichen (1906, platinum print) and The Flatiron Building made by Berenice Abbott (1934, gelatin silver print). In both cases everything seems to be caught without any specific changes. The images are to a certain extent similar in composition but show significant differences in terms of the vantage point, focus, lighting, and contrast.
The composition plays a crucial role in both photographs. In Steichen’s work, as well as in the photo by Abbott, the Flatiron Building catches the eye of the viewer at the very first moment. In both illustrations this building occupies the central place and covers quite a large area of the image. Moreover, the composition is symmetrical in both cases. However, there are significant differences in the way the photographers depicted activity and dynamics. Steichen’s image is done on a foggy evening, so the street looks sleepy and inactive. Although there are some dark silhouettes of men near the building, the whole atmosphere is very different in contrast to the active and busy street that is captured at the photo of Abbott. The image is full of rushing cars and people, so this photo is much more dynamic.
The photographs differ in terms of the vantage point. First of all, it is necessary to say that in case of Abbott’s image the photographer is located higher than at the other photo. It gives the illustration an unusual perspective that highlights the triangular form of the building. Abbott also has used very slight lens distortion that helped to focus the viewer’s attention on the Flatiron building. The differences from the “normal” vision can be seen on the surface of the pavements and the lines of the building that is closest to the viewer. In 1906 photo, the photographer stands on the ground and, as a result, the building seems to dominate the image. In addition, this impression is intensified by the fact that the photographer stands closer to the building than in Abbott’s photo.
Both authors emphasized a crucial element in communicating the artistic message to the audience. In Steichen’s photo, there are very few objects that are in complete focus. Even the branch of the tree that can be seen in the foreground is slightly blurred because of the fog. The Flatiron building itself is also surprisingly out of focus as it is impossible to see any significant details of the building – only vague contours of the windows. This approach allowed the photographer to create a very mysterious atmosphere of a night in a large city. Abbott’s photo is much more centralized. It is possible to observe many architectural details of buildings, the models of the cars in the street, etc. However, the background of this photo is also blurred. The houses at the end of two streets that flank the Flatiron building are faint. However, despite the difference in treating the focus of the photos, both images look very deep and realistic.
Both photographs as they are cityscapes are taken outdoors. Abbott’s illustration is completely taken in the natural light as it is daytime, whereas Steichen’s image combines the light from the natural sources and the artificial ones . Therefore, the main source of light in Steichen’s image is the lanterns and in case of Abbott’s photo it is the sun. It makes the lighting in The Flatiron Building – Evening quite magical, while lighting at the other photo can be called harsh. As it has already been mentioned, the images are taken during different times of the day and probably even season, as The Flatiron Building – Evening looks like being made in the fall as it shows fog, rain, and the braches without leaves. It is quite difficult to define the season in Abbott’s photo, but judging by the clothes of the people in the street, it is likely to be summer. These differences also explain the distinctions in terms of lighting.
Comparing contrast and the tonal range, these photographs also show diversity rather than similarities. Due to the night lighting and the fog at Steichen’s photo, it depicts much less contrast (with many shades of grey) than the photo made by Abbott. The lightest area at The Flatiron Building – Evening is probably the bottom of the building as they are lightened by some unseen lanterns on the left. The rest of the illustration is almost black with the foreground being the darkest area. The lightest part of Abbott’s photo is the streets to the left and the right of the Flatiron building, and the darkest part is the shadow beneath the right house. Therefore, it has rather high contrast due to the presence of sunlit streets and the dark shadows.
To conclude, although the photographers made images of the same building, they have created rather different photos in terms of atmosphere and the elements employed. It is possible to see certain similarities in the composition of these images, but all other aspects, such as the vantage point, focus, lighting and contrast, are totally different. Using these features, the photographers managed to communicate their messages to the audience – Steichen about the mysterious nature of New York nights and Abbott about the great dynamics and energy of the city. Although they “talk” about different aspects, the attitude of these photographers to the building in particular and architecture of the city in general is quite positive.