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Chasing the Light

How a TOP West Coast architectural photographer works his magic.


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A beam of midmorning sunlight shifts across the back of a Lafayette home, setting a vase of yellow tulips aglow. It’s a bright January day, and Russell Abraham, one of the West Coast’s leading architectural photographers, is documenting the house of notable architect Greg Faulkner.

The shoot is a study in calm and order, but one aspect not under Abraham’s control is the sunshine. When it falls in a particular way, he and his team hustle.

“Let’s run to get it,” Abraham says to his two assistants.


Photography by Russell Abraham

1. Behind the Shot
Kwan-Henmi Moab house / Denis Henmi / Utah
“Pools are always great foregrounds. When they are calm, they function as giant mirrors, and you get a mirror of the house and what’s surrounding the house. In this shot, you get a little bit of that sandstone mountain reflected in the water.”


 

Faulkner’s home has lean, sharp lines and cuts into a hillside, offering drop-dead views of rolling hills and Mount Diablo. Abraham, who has lived in Orinda for 24 years, calls it “one of the more interesting houses in Contra Costa County”—and that’s coming from someone who has spent three decades photographing some of the most beautiful dwellings in the world.

His many books, including California Cool and the recently published Rural Modern, have taken him from drool-worthy SoCal beach houses to contemporary classics set in lush Napa vineyards.

Abraham is the real deal: In addition to shooting the images that appear in his books, he also writes the text. His writing is fluid, accessible, and authoritative, which makes sense given that he studied architecture and design at UC Berkeley. He also has a strong background in painting, sculpting, and other fine arts.


2. Behind the shot
Will Bruder Jarson House / Will Bruder / Arizona
“This was for a commercial shoot for an LED lighting manufacturer, so we really wanted to light up the house. We added lights inside and out, and we put a light in the tree so you can see that pattern on the underside of the overhang. It was about working with both nature and our lighting to balance the blue sky against the warm LED lights inside.”


 

His work in the field of architecture has tipped over into his personal life. When it came time for the father of four to build his own home in Orinda, he turned to local and renowned architect Robert Swatt, for whom Abraham has photographed many homes over the years.

During today’s assignment—creating a portfolio of images of Faulkner’s East Bay home—Abraham works quickly and efficiently, using a camera and laptop to take and immediately review images.

Before arriving early this morning, Abraham had scouted the property and talked to the architect to understand the vision for the home. “I want my pictures to capture [the architect’s] ideas,” he says. “I am the messenger, so I am saying [beforehand], ‘Tell me what the message is.’ ”


3. Behind the Shot
Swatt Stein house / Swatt Miers Architects / Orinda
“Shooting indoor-outdoor spaces is more complicated than meets the eye. The key to making these shots work is using professional-level flash that brightens the interior to be almost as bright as the outside. Then, it’s a question of balancing indoor and outdoor light with a billion camera settings.”


 

The photography team sourced a few accessories to style Faulkner’s home, as they often do. Today, in the kitchen, they have placed a blue bowl filled with oranges, a mustard-hued ceramic jug, and a platter of pastel-colored cookies Abraham spotted at a Mexican market.

Abraham also fine-tunes his images in post production: A shot where Mount Diablo can be seen slightly through one of the home’s giant windows might be spliced into another shot to capture the mountain more clearly.

“We are striving for evocative rather than descriptive,” he says. “This is not real estate.”

Much of this home is clad in weathering steel that rusts as it ages. With its rich blend of metals and dark woods, the house has a “high level of materiality,” Abraham says. That means he is taking a lot of detailed close-ups—the turn of a stainless steel banister, the texture of a board-formed concrete wall—in addition to standard room shots.

Eric SahlinDespite the ease with which Abraham works, the detailed house does pose its challenges. The team must be careful to avoid capturing flashes of light from the home’s metallic surfaces, and the interiors are relatively dark. “It’s a ‘guy’ kind of house—nothing white—which means we can’t bounce light off the ceilings,” Abraham says. His assistants set up umbrella and soft box lights to brighten the rooms.

Throughout the shoot, Abraham takes only a handful of shots for each image he wants to capture. He is cool and exacting.

“I know when it’s right,” he says.

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