Architecture defines the visual identity of a city.  It is the principal ingredient in the mix of things that gives us a sense of a place.  One way to communicate urban identity is through the challenging practice of architectural photography.  A stunning exhibition of this visual art form, focusing on Cincinnati and Munich, Germany, is open to the public at no charge in the Otto Budig grand lobby of the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Downtown Cincinnati.  It is well worth a visit.

June 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Munich Sister Cities Association of Greater Cincinnati. The arts and culture committees in both cities collaborated in an architectural photography exhibition, which featured significant buildings, streetscapes, and events in Munich and Cincinnati.

The exhibition, which was shown in Munich in August 2014, features the contemporary work of two architectural photographers—Peter Schmid of Munich and Thomas R. Schiff of Cincinnati.

Thomas R. Schiff is a Cincinnati businessman (chairman and CEO of John J. and Thomas R. Schiff & Co., Inc.) with a life-long interest in art photography.  He helped establish Images Gallery in Cincinnati in 1980 and he is the founder of FotoFocus, a lens-based art biennial held in Cincinnati. He studied photography under Clarence White, Jr. and Arnold Gassan while earning a BBA degree from Ohio University in 1970.  A photographer since childhood, he has long been interested in the built environment. His early photography, in black and white, focused on architectural detail, storefront facades, and windows. Schiff began working in color panoramic photography in 1994, making use of a Hulcherama 360 panoramic camera.  With this equipment, he expanded his range to capture entire buildings and their environments.

Peter Schmid lives and works in his native Munich, where he studied architecture. He now practices architecture and architectural photography. In this show, he mostly portrays individual historic structures. Most are stately, symmetrical compositions with Neo-Renaissance styling and details. Schmid takes a straight-forward approach to documenting the buildings.

Schiff’s technique requires a different approach.  He explains that, “As a panoramic photographer, my task is somewhat similar to a landscape painter in that I must first select a point of view.  For conventional shoots, a photographer will usually aim for a section that will make a good print.  With the panoramic camera, one must consider the full 360-degree view, the sides and back as well as the front.  I often elevate the camera on a tripod ten feet to twenty feet in the air, and allow it to rotate about me. (I am not shown in the printed picture.)  The process of making any image is a combined measure toward a balance—that is the height, width, and the camera’s distance from the key verticals.  What interests me is the proportional angle in the horizontal format.”

Tom Schiff’s artistic practice has led him to research and take panoramic photographs of special spaces, places, and structures in the United States and make books from the images.  He has published seven books:  Panoramic Cincinnati (1999), Panoramic Ohio (2002), Panoramic Parks (2005), Las Vegas (2009), Wright Panorama (2010), Prospect (2012), and Columbus, Indiana (2013).  He has two forthcoming books.  “Virginia 360 degrees” will debut this summer, and “Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic History” will be out in the fall 2015.

All of the books have been planned around a theme, such as a particular city, state, or building type. Schiff explains, “I am partial to buildings designed for assemblies, such as sacred spaces, theaters, courthouses, and libraries. I find those spaces that work well for people also make good places to photograph.”

Peter Schmid excludes people from his photographs; he keeps the picture plane empty, as though enticing the viewer to enter in.  But Schiff takes a positive approach, saying, “I consider it a plus to find people enjoying my chosen space.  They add vitality, color, and contrast to the hard-skinned structures and geometric shapes.”  This attitude is reflected is his delightful studies of the Great American Ballpark at game time and the Procter & Gamble Hall stage at the Aronoff during a Cincinnati Ballet performance.  In both works, the architecture takes on added meaning as the photographer shows the purpose-built facilities in use.

Both Schmid and Schiff seek out natural and artificial light, which establishes mood and helps define the shape and detail of buildings.  Schmid specializes in creating and teaching night photography, and his expertise shows in this collection.  His most memorable prints are of the electrified Munich skyline and Oktoberfest at night.  In the daytime scenes, he captures the mellow colors and textures of ancient walls.

Schiff observes, “I prefer working with buildings by architects skilled in designing exceptional spaces and lighting systems. Light is an important element in taking a satisfying photograph.”

This penchant for light holds true in his remarkable riverscapes, which are shot in the evocative light of dawn or dusk. Schiff uses film because he likes the color results it gives.  Schmid shoots in digital.

A.M.Kinney III, co-chair of the arts and culture committee, Munich Sister Cities Association and a member of the Weston Art Gallery support committee, arranged for this temporary exhibition at the Aronoff Center.  Kinney says this is one of a long line of successful art projects between the two cities.

The national Sister Cities program was established by President Dwight Eisenhower to foster understanding and ongoing relationships between individuals of the United States and other nations.  Subsequent administrations have supported the program, encouraging its volunteer corps of “citizen ambassadors.” Cincinnati’s Ute Papke, who organized the 25th anniversary celebration, reported from Munich that the exhibition was installed in a prominent government building and attendance was strong.

Tom Schiff’s artistic philosophy is perfectly aligned with the mission of the Sister Cities program.  He writes, “I find that the most critical factor in the success of any picture is often how it changes the photographer or viewer’s relationship to what is familiar and understood. I like to think that my photographs encourage people to look at common components of the physical world in new ways.”  These views of Cincinnati and Munich provide that opportunity.

This temporary exhibition of lens-based art by Schiff and Schmid at the Aronoff Center runs through June 30.  

–Sue Ann Painter

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