Documentation: It’s More Than Just a Pretty Picture

Posted on: June 27th, 2013 by Chris Morris 1 Comment
While this more artistic shot of the concrete tower from below is quite dramatic, it also highlights the intersecting concrete arches that are the key to Prentice’s groundbreaking structural system.| Credit: National Trust

While this more artistic shot of the concrete tower from below is quite dramatic, it also highlights the intersecting concrete arches that are the key to Prentice’s groundbreaking structural system.| Credit: National Trust

There are many reasons why you might want to document a building, structure, or site. Perhaps you need some high-quality photos for promotional purposes. Or you want to create a collection of representative images to share with the media as part of a press release. Or--worst case scenario--the building will be demolished and you must gather as much information as possible before it’s gone. Whatever your circumstances, thorough documentation of a site is always a good idea because the images and information can be put to many uses.

Documentation projects can take many forms depending on your needs, the level of access you have to the site, how much funding is available to do the work, and your schedule for completing the project. As project manager for the Prentice Hospital National Treasure in Chicago, I was faced with the impending demolition of a building that was vacant and inaccessible for many years. The only images we had of this unique building were a handful of historic photos and whatever exterior shots we could get from the sidewalk, which didn’t really capture the unusual forms and complex engineering of the building.

The owners of the building (Northwestern University) unexpectedly offered me the chance to document Prentice right before they started demolition. While it wasn’t an ideal scenario, I ended up with an amazing team (Scrappers Film Group) which produced beautiful images on very short notice. But no matter when, where, or how you’re doing the documentation, the basic principles are roughly the same:

Define the Scope of Work and Services

Accurately recording a building or site is much more complicated than merely snapping a handful of pictures with your camera phone. It’s in your best interest to work with a professional to get the best and highest quality images that you can afford. But before you start calling photographers, you need to have a sense of what services you’ll request of them.

The architect’s son advised us on the most important features of the building’s interior and exterior for documentation. A fairly straightforward shot of the hospital rooms is used to clearly show the groundbreaking radial floor plan. | Credit: National Trust

The architect’s son advised us on the most important features of the building’s interior and exterior for documentation. A fairly straightforward shot of the hospital rooms is used to clearly show the groundbreaking radial floor plan. | Credit: National Trust

What are you trying to accomplish?

Is this information for a landmark nomination? For the press? For HABS/HAER/HALS  documentation? For online use or a  print publication? Think about how you plan to use the information and then work backward to define what you need.

What kind of information do you want?

Are you trying to capture as much detail about the building/site as possible because it’s going to be demolished? Or are you just looking for a good overview? If it’s a building, are you documenting the exterior only or interior as well? Do you want images that are more artistic or purely documentary in nature? Talk to someone who knows the site well to make sure you’re recording the most important features. For the Prentice project, I sat down with the architect’s son to get his recommendations for the most informative shots.

What do you want your consultant to do for you?

Do you want to be with the consultant to guide the photo sessions? Do you want to preview the images? Do you need them to edit and correct the images?  Be very clear about your expectations up front so your consultant can give you an accurate estimate.

Establishing the Format

What is the right format for the final product?

Do you need photos only? Black/white or color? Do you want digital images or prints? At what resolution? Do you need negatives? Different end uses require different formats and each format requires its own equipment and expertise. It might be most helpful to discuss your intended end uses with a photographer to get his or her recommendations about the most appropriate and flexible formats, and to ensure that you are able to access, edit, and store the final image files.

Do you need video footage?

Is the video solely for documentary purposes? Or are you hoping to create a video with music, voiceover or interviews for the internet or television? Video can be a compelling way to communicate the experience of moving through or around a site. But if you decide on  video footage, be aware that this adds another layer of complexity and additional time and potentially considerable expense to your project. Talk with a videographer who has experience documenting buildings or sites to let them know what you’re looking for, and walk through the site together to identify the best shots.

A small amount of retouching helped “clean” the smudges on the exterior of the window in this gorgeous night photo. | Credit: National Trust

A small amount of retouching helped “clean” the smudges on the exterior of the window in this gorgeous night photo. | Credit: National Trust

Finding the Photographer

Referrals and word-of-mouth can be excellent sources for locating qualified professional consultants. Talk to other groups in the area that have hired local photographers or videographers for documentation projects. I located the photography team for the Prentice project thanks to a recommendation from our statewide Partner, Landmarks Illinois. Consultants and developers who work on historic tax projects regularly need high-quality photos for the tax credit documentation, promotional materials, and awards. Ask them for recommendations and samples of the consultant’s work.

Navigating the Legal Issues

Make sure you have written permission from the owners to access the site for the purposes of documentation. They may want to limit your access to certain dates, times, or locations, and they may insist on having a representative on site. Work out all these details in consultation with your photographers in advance. It’s possible that the property owner will want you and your photographer/consultant to sign an agreement or waiver that limits their legal liability in case you are injured while you are on the property. This document should be reviewed and approved by your legal counsel.

We worked closely with Prentice’s owner on an agreement to define exactly when and how the Scrapper Film Group could access the building for the documentation project. | Credit: National Trust

We worked closely with Prentice’s owner on an agreement to define exactly when and how the Scrapper Film Group could access the building for the documentation project. | Credit: National Trust

Assigning the Copyright

If you want to maintain sole control of the rights to the documentation images and the video footage, spell this out in your contract with the consultant. Identify the materials produced during the project as “work made for hire” and name your organization as the “exclusive owner of all copyright and proprietary rights.”  If the photographer would like to use some of the photos or video footage for self-promotional purposes, you can grant  a non-exclusive, non-transferable license for that use in the contract.

Negotiating the Costs

Depending on the consultant and the nature of the project, you may be able to obtain a nonprofit discount for the photography or videography. If you have a fixed budget, ask your photographer what can be done for that price. He or she  may be able to lower the cost by reducing the number of days on site, taking fewer photos, shooting photos in fewer locations, or changing the format and/or equipment.

As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” We often can communicate more, and more directly, through images. But the documentation of our preservation advocacy projects tends to fall through the cracks due to lack of time or money. Try using these tips to help make photography and videography a more regular part of your advocacy efforts.

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the field director in the Los Angeles Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

One Response

  1. Amy Mino

    July 3, 2013

    These are beautiful photos, Chris. What a shame to lose such an innovative structure!