I’ve been lucky enough in the last eighteen months to have been involved in a long running project with IBM’s Academy of Technology which has taken me to various IBM sites around the world. My favourite so far has been Somers, designed by the architect I.M. Pei, but La Gaude, in the hills above Nice runs it a close second.
Needless to say, my personal experience of local accommodation came a distant second to the splendour of the architecture. This has been a recurring theme in my travels. Usually determined by the same logic. I elected to stay in a hotel close by, which turned out to possess all of the charm and indeed some of the architectural features of the Bates Motel. The identity of said hotel shall remain a secret, but for those, like me, expecting to work at La Gaude, I can in good faith recommend alternative accommodation on the medieval town of Vence, about five miles distant.
Back to the lab. this extraordinary example of 1960’s brutalism was designed by the Hungarian modernist Marcel Breuer and built between 1960 and 1962. It’s worth repeating a story here that plays on the fact that the IBM building was supposed to have been one of his favourites.
Breuer’s Architecture went through five recognisable phases and this example using modular prefabricated concrete facades was the first in a phase that went on to dominate an entire town at Flaine.
Accused by critics of being perhaps a little repetitive, Breuer responded somewhat peevishly: “I can’t design a whole new system every Monday morning.”
I’m not sure that even IBM can design a new system every Monday morning, but I like the retort, especially in the context of La Gaude.
One of the things about these buildings is that they embody the kind of bold statement that one might expect from one of the world’s largest and most successful corporations of a certain time in history. I doubt we’ll see this type of statement again, indeed many of the IBM sites are being returned to the wild, a reflection of changing times and changing workplaces. Most of our work is done these days from home or from customer sites, the offices being required only for research and development, customer demonstrations and administration. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back and we’ll see another phase of these grand designs.
Finally, a detail from the front of the building, shot in the early morning sunshine, accentuating the shadows and bringing out the best I think of this type of architecture. I used a wide angle lens to get this shot, accentuating the curves and really maximising the geometry. These buildings really are breathtaking, the scale and scope of the project being quite vast.
So, on to Dublin next week. Not sure what I will find by way of architecture, but it’s a great city and I’m looking forward to the couple of days I’ll be spending there.
An amazing week, full of unexpected twists and turns. I’ve photographed Ginni Rometty, head of IBM, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world and at the other end of the spectrum shot a portrait of a man dressed as the Grand Poobah levitating six inches above a stone floor. In between times I photographed a deer in a forest…
The point of the trip was to attend and photograph the IBM Academy ALT Conference where the senior members of the Academy discuss the future and what is to be done with it. I prepared meticulously for the trip, only forgetting to pack my reflectors and lens cleaning fluid! The flight was delayed and immigration helpfully delayed me further. The evening light as I approached Manhattan was absolutely stunning, so inevitably the cab became mired in traffic and a further delay of an hour ensured that I reached the hotel after dark with no photographs taken. A bit of a blow given that my cunning plan was to shoot both evening and dawn over Manhattan.
To make matters worse, I was expected at the conference at 1pm on Monday, so between taking some shots of Manhattan, visiting Calumet to pick up some supplies and retrieving my car from JFK, I thought my work would be cut out. Getting up at 6am, on my way out of the hotel, I wondered if it would be worth checking out the view from the upper floors. Into the elevator and up to the 23rd. My room had a view to the skyscraper across the street. Worse than useless, but the 23rd floor was another story. Hoboken can wait, this was good enough.
After breakfast, a visit to Calumet, something of a mecca for photographers in both the US and London, the shop is amazing, the staff friendly and knowledgeable and I count myself fortunate to escape without breaking the bank – I was very tempted by that Carl Zeiss 50mm though…
At the conference, I quickly realised that light levels would be chronically and abysmally low, and my brief, to provide shots supporting a theme of celebration without the use of flash looked optimistic at best. I’m not usually found on the celebratory aesthetic in any case, but this was a job and my customer a very reasonable and likeable man. I don’t know how many of you spend time with hard core geeks, they are lovely people but they tend to do “intense” rather better than “levity”. Additionally, some of them evidently preferred not to have their photographs taken. The solution to the first problem I had anticipated, so selecting prime lenses with f1.4 capability was the right way to go. Especially since that forced me to shoot from a distance to avoid a wafer thin depth of field… the pictures are not for publication sadly, but suffice to say that free alcohol warms even the geekiest of hearts…
The next day I had to shoot the conference speakers and then edit the whole thing into a three and a half minute video. Which was to be shown at 8am the next morning. No pressure.
Fortunately the conference went without hitch and the video was ready by 7pm. I was hugely relieved as even with the lenses I had, I needed to reduce noise, the light levels were so low. The video was played to a reception resembling rapture to these European ears and I was almost immediately asked to shoot some portraits for another IBM conference in the afternoon. That’s where the Grand Poobah was involved. In case you’re wondering, the levitation was achieved in photoshop, I shot the scene empty and with the subject, cut the subject out of one scene and into the other and burned some shadow onto the ground beneath the new position, to enhance the illusion. Finally I applied an old fashioned sepia tint to complete the effect.
What have I learned? Prime lenses are fantastic. I’m definitely a convert, colours seem richer, bokeh is out of this world and low light capability is stunning. In the trade off between noise and depth of field, I found I was right on the edge of unacceptable, but judicious noise reduction cleaned up the pictures perfectly. I also struggled with the artificial light – in the same room it varied between tungsten and fluorescent, so that was a constant thorn in my side. All sorted out in Lightroom later.
The most important thing I can impart is that if your subject is lively and energetic, as one of mine most certainly was, you have two essential things to do. Firstly take lots of pictures, secondly, learn to anticipate their behaviour. You could use burst mode and select the right frames. I used aperture priority and set the ISO to the minimum required to generate a shutter speed of 1/100 seconds. That way there was no motion blur at all.
Finally, a surprise. I took over 400 shots in two days and pruned that down to about 65 for the video. I had about five spare, the rest were unusable for any other reason than parody. People walking in front of the lens, eyes shut, excruciating and unfortunate expressions used up the remaining 335. I’m guessing wedding photographers will be only too familiar with this situation.
Anyway, the surprise. I left the venue, pretty much worn out, without resetting the camera to my normal settings. As I walked to my room, I heard noises in the woods to my left and as you do, decided to investigate. The culprits were a pair of deer, an adult and a fawn, feasting on low hanging leaves from the bushes. The gloom was deep but my camera was already set. To my astonishment, the adult scarpered but the fawn remained and I was able to get within twenty feet of it to take this portrait with a 135mm prime that just happened to be still attached to my camera.
I learned a lot about luck and synchronicity on this trip. The conference? Absolutely fascinating. A fantastic experience that I’ve really enjoyed. Flying back to blighty tomorrow evening.
A trip to New York a couple of weeks ago brought surprises on many different levels. Firstly a reunion with an old school friend I had not seen for forty years, secondly a night in a hotel that put Alan Partridge to shame and thirdly a close up look at the architecture of I.M. Pei in the shape(s) of the IBM site at Somers NY.
To begin at the beginning, as regular readers will have realised, I’m on something of a world tour, beginning last October I’ve visited China, India (twice), France, Spain (three times), and now America. Some of this has been work; I’m involved in Communications Skills training with IBM and have been delivering a course to members of the IBM Academy, the future technical leaders of the company. The trip to New York came hard on the heels of a trip to India and my rudimentary preparation involved using the IBM chosen travel agent to book my hotel, car and flights.
Arriving in New York, I headed straight for the Hertz desk to collect my car, only to discover there was no sat nav available. A couple of minutes of negotiation secured an upgrade to a premium class, 4 wheel drive, fully automatic Mercedes in glistening white, with Sat Nav installed. I’d never driven an automatic before and more to the point, never driven in NYC before. Unwitting, I set off to recreate my very own “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Leaving JFK, I quickly became lost and hurtled into the Bronx, a borough of legendary delinquency. Cruising the streets of this neighbourhood proved to be disappointingly normal – no angry mobs gathered to torch my vehicle, no gunfights were observed and there was not a siren to be heard. I used the opportunity merely to familiarise myself with the sat nav and the automatic transmission and very soon found my way back onto the highway.
Seventy miles north of New York City is a place called Somers, a tiny New England town, that hosts one of IBM’s many office complexes and research labs. The buildings appear from the highway to float amongst the trees, and it was not until the next day that I was able to get close to this self advertised “futuristic fortress”.
First I was to navigate to Dansbury, Connecticut where my hotel was situated. I’d chosen the hotel on the basis of being out in the woods and towns of New England which I was keen to photograph, yet close enough to commute to Somers where I was going to be working.
Inevitably, nothing went according to plan. I arrived at the Hotel to find a JCB digging up the car park and inside, a fine layer of plaster dust covering the dust sheets that were draped over every stick of furniture in reception. Something told me this was not going to be a long stay. I checked in and made my way to my room, which featured a microwave cooker, a coffee machine with no coffee to be seen and a view right onto the building site behind the hotel. Alan Partridge would have been ecstatic, I was exhausted and unimpressed. I decided to post a satirical rant on Facebook and turn in for the night. Five minutes after posting I got a message from my old school friend Dana Wiehl, who, it turned out, lived only ten miles from Dansbury in a house with a spare room! The power of social media knows no bounds. I moved to Bridgewater and stayed the rest of the week. Wonderful to find out about old friends and to catch up after so long.
The next morning, I set off for Somers and the IBM complex. I’d seen the buildings from the road, but close up they are astounding. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, this site is nothing less than inspirational. There are four buildings in a 730 acre estate, each building is triangular and topped with a glass pyramid. Arriving early in the morning, there was not a human being to be seen, and I was able to roam the estate photographing the buildings from a variety of angles. Extraordinary architecture, designed by I. M. Pei. To my untrained eye this is the finest example of modernist architecture I’ve seen. An absolute joy to be around. I was fortunate to get the most fantastic light, which really shows these buildings off to their best.
Inside, with the exception of the glass pyramid the buildings are disappointingly corporate, but I suppose reality has to impact at some point. I’ve never looked forward so much to going to work as I did at this location, and that is in large part down to the vision of the architect and the boldness of the commission. Hats off to all concerned. The course I should say was also a pleasure. A great bunch of people (as they have been all over the world) and an experience perhaps summarised best by the feedback from one of the attendees, delivered in that inimitable New York style: “A life changing experience, but hey..we’ve gotta get you a new hairdresser!”