Architectural photography presents a number of challenges, but none is greater that that involved in revealing context. So what is context? Well, it can be summarized in a number of ways, but none is universally agreed. Suffice it to say that the context of a building or structure is ultimately defined by a somewhat diffuse and confused mixture of design, location, human usage, symbolism, tradition, politics, environment and even weather.
A first element of architectural context worth considering in photographic terms is environmental in nature, and concerns the way in which a building or structure was designed to fit in to its surroundings. A building which seems perfectly appropriate among the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan would certainly be regarded as an eyesore in Venice. Design and style must therefore be set in the light of the surroundings, local customs and culture, and even the prevailing climate. Images that concentrate too much attention on the subject structure and its site may fail to provide a viewer with any sense of its perceived meaning or purpose. They may also lack depth and fail to allow a viewer to feel as though he or she is there in person.
However these site and design related issues are nowadays regarded by some as part a somewhat blinkered view of architectural context. Modern views tend more heavily towards aspects of usage, meaning, purpose, symbolism, economy and even politics.
A second element of context in photographic terms is consequently related to that of purpose and meaning in the human world. What is the subject building, why was it constructed and how is it used - and by whom? The answers to all these questions, when encapsulated in an image, enable a viewer not only to witness the form and nature of the building but also understand its purpose and meaning, and how it might feel to use or be around the real structure.
Consider an example of an image showing the historic ruins at Stonehenge in the UK. The stones themselves are spectacular enough even before learning of their age and how they were placed or positioned. However, an image incorporating not only the stones themselves but also the sun rising at the summer solstice, and a group of Druids performing their age-old rituals, would surely convey a lot more meaning to a viewer.
Providing context in an image is another requirement that demands a good understanding of a subject on the part of a photographer. Someone who has studied an architectural site, and who has come to feel and love the place, has a far better chance of capturing images that are both aesthetically pleasing and meaningful.