Tall buildings in Chicago and New York were first called skyscrapers in the late 19th century. Skyscrapers became possible because of the recent development of three enabling technologies: steel frame construction, elevators, and telephones. The ten-story Home Insurance Building and the Monadnock Building, both in Chicago, are considered the first skyscrapers. Five hundred feet is now considered the minimum height for a building to be labeled a skyscraper, though today a 100-story building may not even make the list of top 10 tallest in the world.
In January 1988, the National Geographic Society assigned photographer Nathan Benn and staff writer Bill Ellis to produce an article on skyscrapers. The editors limited the coverage to the United States, excluding notable buildings in Asia. Susan Welchman, Nathan’s picture editor, brought a high level of inspiration and enthusiasm to the project, and Nathan gratefully acknowledges her contribution to the success of the photographs and article.
Nathan began shooting from the observation deck of the World Trade Center on February 18, 1988, photographing the shadows of the Twin Towers stretching over lower Manhattan toward the East River. Coverage continued through May 1988 and included buildings in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis.
Throughout the coverage, Nathan was eager to express the personality and scale inherent in the best skyscrapers. This concern led to two efforts. In the first, the goal was to photograph the iconic arches and windows at the crown of the Chrysler Building in a way that expressed its function as office space, the monumental scale, and the exuberant Art Deco design. To achieve this goal, Nathan posed one of the men who worked on that floor in one of the triangular windows of his office. Defining the windows as occupied office space and making the man visible required covering the interior window openings with diffusion filters and back-lighting the windows. Photographing from about a kilometer away with telephoto lenses, Nathan directed the office worker in the window with walkie-talkies (i.e., pre-cell phones). The resulting photographs are displayed in the post “Chrysler Building details”.
The goal of the second initiative was to recognize the architects who were active in 1988 for building the best skyscrapers. Gerald D. Hines, the Houston-based developer who commissioned some of the best major buildings, helped Nathan select a list of eight architects that deserved recognition. The list included Henry Cobb, Kevin Roche, William Pedersen, Helmut Jahn, David Childs, Richard Keating, Cesar Pelli, John Burgee and his business partner Philip Johnson, the dean of post-modern architecture. All the architects agreed to be photographed, except for Mr. Johnson.
Nathan made an early decision to avoid photographing architects in the field with their skyscrapers, since there are few “man + skyscraper” photographs he considers successful images. Rather, he chose to photograph the architects and their best buildings as separate formal portraits, and hoped the synergism of the man + building portraits could succeed. Picture editor Susan Welchman endorsed the concept, and Nathan set up a temporary studio in Manhattan to photograph the architects.
Getting the architects to come to the studio from Los Angeles, Chicago, New Haven, and elsewhere, Nathan lured them with two propositions. First, Nathan asked each architect to select his favorite chair for the portrait session. Second, Nathan would begin his request for a studio session with the phrase, “Gerald Hines suggested that I photograph you for the National Geographic.” It was a tactic that worked in almost every case (i.e., not with Mr. Johnson).
One final note on shooting the portraits. Nathan is a huge fan of the photographs of Irving Penn, and considers Mr. Penn’s portraits of artists and other creative notables in the late 1940’s in the 1950’s to be the finest studio portraiture in the history of photography. Nathan kept a book of Mr. Penn’s portraits in the studio, and referenced the master’s approach to lighting and sitting as homage and tutor.
Fortunately, and unpredictably, the senior editors at National Geographic responded positively to the architect portraits and published them elegantly and generously in the pages of the February 1989 issue of National Geographic.
Technical Notes: Nathan used Leica M6 and Nikon F cameras for the 35mm coverage. The studio portraits of architects were taken with a Hasselblad 500c camera. The building portraits were shot with the Haselblad and an Arca Swiss view camera that enabled architectural tilts and corrections.