Liz Carababas on the Documentation of Architecture
Liz Carababas is an Architectural Photographer based in Los Angeles. We spent some time catching up and hearing about how she’s been doing.
Spending time at home in isolation has forced some recollection. Liz walks us through her journey into her creative practice, how she manages her trials and tribulations, and some of her favorite structures she’s come in contact with.
MW: So Liz, what’s up? How’s it going?
EC: I’m great! Feeling good. Staying busy, as much as I can. I saw a photo of you in an airport. Were you coming or going?
MW: Yeah. I’m in Denver right now. My brother just moved here, so I’m helping him adjust and then I’ll be back in LA on Monday, so a brief getaway from the city. You’re also in LA. How have you been since all of us have been shoved inside our homes?
EC: It’s hard to know where to begin. Time in and of itself just seems so much slower. It’s hard to put a finger on it. My friend recently asked me what I was excited about, in my day to day living, and honestly it’s been almost any and every thing that doesn’t pertain to my career. I’ve been guilty of putting all of my eggs in the basket of my career, like so many of us. “Oh, I’m a photographer, I work in production, I work around architecture or interior design.” The list goes on. When you’re shoved inside you suddenly don’t have anything to show for those things. So what’s left? I’ve been thinking about all the other facets that make me a human and make my world go around, and am really trying to focus on those.
MW: What do those things look like? What are you focusing on?
EC: Very little things, honestly. Any chance I have to go outside I try not to take for granted. I went backpacking not too long ago. It kicked my ass and I couldn’t have been happier. But moments like those make me feel like I have something new to hold on to.
MW: Definitely. It can be tough. I feel like when this whole self-quarantine, work-from-home mentality picked up, I was promised a lot more quality alone time than I might actually have. Time to read and meditate and discover new music. But now that I’m home most of the day, every day, the only thing I have to do is work. And that can feel pretty toxic at times.
EC: Do you think that’s because you have a hard time defining boundaries?
MW: Maybe. And I’ve gotten better with it over time, just from working myself to exhaustion. But learning to have realistic expectations and continuing to make it a priority to take care of myself. Does any of that resonate with you?
EC: Oh yeah, absolutely. I left my job as a curator back in August of last year, and immediately felt an immense amount of burnout. Once that work stopped I felt shattered. Like I mentioned a minute ago, I put way too much emphasis on what I did for a living as who I was as a person, and what I was capable and worthy of. I felt robbed and was too tired to set any boundaries for myself. But it’s hard to understand that at the moment.
MW: Do you feel like your transition from a curatorial job to freelance was pretty smooth? Or were there growing pains in that?
EC: Oh, so many growing pains. The conversation of transitioning from full-time to freelance has been had before. It’s not hard to imagine how it’d be difficult to switch from having a solid and consistent schedule, knowing what you’re getting into each day and working with a team, into pretty much an isolated abyss. You’re thrown in this space that only you occupy, and the only way out is to really work through it. But going into an industry that is historically difficult for women to break into has been incredibly grueling. I tried getting into an architecture firm in the past and just found it incredibly challenging to even feel like I had enough agency to just be considered. Even having to justify my experience was really difficult. Here I was saying: “I can show up, I’m passionate about this. I’m good at it.” But having something missing on paper means so much more to some people. So as a woman, as someone who was coming from a completely different background than architecture, having to continue to make a case as to why I deserve to be in the room was really exhausting.
MW: And I’m sure, as much as we hate to admit it, plenty of women are having to make a case for themselves, are going to continue having to make a case for themselves. The glass ceiling is still very much in place in most of these industries.
EC: Yeah, 100%.
MW: So where does that leave us? It doesn’t feel right to just chalk it up as: “It is what it is.”
EC: I’ve always found it difficult to accept anything is just how it is. Time and time again I’m reminded that there just isn’t a microphone or camera being pointed towards women in the industry. The trailblazers exist. People are doing the work behind the scenes. They’re just not getting the airtime for it. There’s too many untold stories. And you find that most industries are built off those buried voices. For Instance, there’s this architect that I just came across: Her name is Amaza Lee Meredith. She sounded like an incredible woman. Recently I learned she wasn't even a licensed architect, but still built a number of her projects. Back when she was alive and working she wouldn’t have been allowed to be an architect because she was an African American woman. But she was the type that just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was designing and building these international-style avant-garde homes, but got absolutely no recognition for them. Imagine the things she could’ve accomplished if she was a recognized architect, if she had the voice to go along with her work while she was making it. Students don’t learn about stories like hers in the classroom. And that’s where we need to put our attention to. Moving forward, who’s going to amplify those voices? Voices of women, women of color, and people of color who are changing the industry just by being in it.
MW: Definitely. And I’m not sure where that starts or what that looks like, exactly. I think like you said, a huge part of the problem for women and minorities trying to break into these spheres, is that there’s no one looking out for them. No opportunities are being presented to them. There’s no camera, no microphone, to let others know that it can be done. So there’s gotta be some precedent coming from the inside, from people who have already broken through, I would think.
EC: Totally. But it’s not ever that simple, either. Even if you’re given an opportunity, walking into a firm and not seeing a single woman, or any person of color, would be intimidating. And you start to internalize that narrative: How can you visualize yourself in a space you don’t feel like you’re meant to belong in? It’s messed up. And within architectural photography, what I’m working towards, is its own boys club. So it’s something that I’m already bumping up against, you know?
MW: I’m glad you brought up architectural photography. From an outside perspective, it looks like you hold both those mediums in equal regards. But I’m wondering which came first for you?
EC: Photography, for sure. I first went to college for production design and theater. I worked in theater all throughout high school as a lighting designer, and absolutely loved it. And there’s a lot of overlap I notice showing up from that in what I do now, in regards to how I have to consider the relationship of light and space. Except then I was working in 3D space, a stage, and now not as much. But like many photographers now I think, it started as a hobby and a means to express myself. I went through the standard trajectory: Portraits, fashion, landscapes. And nothing clicked. I could never feel like I was in the right place, in front of the right subject. That was until I came across a John Portman Hotel in Atlanta, and was absolutely floored. It was the weirdest place I had ever been in my life. I started to photograph it, and somehow it all just clicked effortlessly. Something about that building and that experience. Anything I had ever learned about space and proportion, it was boiling down to singular moments. And it was incredibly exciting for me to go through that. Since then I’ve been chasing Portman’s work. I started to notice that Detroit’s most recognizable structure, the Renaissance Center, is also a Portman structure. And when I moved to LA I naturally gravitated towards downtown because the Westin looks exactly like that one building I grew up with my whole life. So it happened pretty quickly, but every little thing about John Portman for me clicked, and I became obsessed. It’s this perpetual love affair that I feel like I need to keep chasing.
MW: Do architecture and photography hold equal weights for you personally? Do you prefer one over the other, or is it something where they only work together for you?
EC: Hm. That’s a good question. I used to think that I could only experience architecture through photography. Mainly because it’s something I have no formal training in. But the more I’m immersed in it, the less I end up feeling that way. I would argue that architecture is a lot more emotional than people like to give it credit for. I think that’s coming around, you see people now paying attention to how a space makes them feel and we call that mindful living. But every space we’re in affects and influences us whether we acknowledge it or not. The amount of natural light, the materials used, how it opens up the space to be furnished. The list goes on. I’ve gotten better over time at being able to go to a new place and not have to photograph it. I can still have a connection to it and can still formally study its properties without having to take pictures of it. I think that’s just part of my growth as an architectural photographer. But I’m always thinking in photos, especially since it’s something I do as a living. I’m envisioning the photographs before I can even make them. So in that sense, they go hand in hand for me.
MW: It’s interesting you bring up this idea of emotional value behind architecture. I see the photos you’re taking, and the writing that you’re pairing with them: a really in-depth, experiential look at the space, and it all feels therapeutic to me. Do you feel a similar experience as you’re making it?
EC: Yes and no. It’s quite dependent on the space. Portman buildings for sure have this therapeutic essence wrapped around them for me. Really it boils down to how the space is experienced. Portman’s buildings feel like cities inside cities. They’re really interesting and easy to get lost in. There’s a lot of organic shapes and the use of circles and loops, so it feels like a maze, which can be therapeutic at times. But at the same time, if I step into a brutal structure, that feeling of uncomfort is present. It’s supposed to be there, you’re supposed to feel heavy. And I wouldn’t say that feeling is very therapeutic, but it’s still an experience I value.
MW: I think it’s interesting that you make writing an active part of the work you’re doing. Can you elaborate a little on the intention behind that?
EC: Writing is something that I’ve been wanting to take more seriously. There’s things that just can’t be said through a photo. Some things are meant to be left to literature, I think. But it comes from this place of me not wanting to be defined by a single profession. I see the value of being a polymath. I don’t want to think in terms of singular images, but more so in terms of projects, or bodies of work. And I think that comes from my fine art background, and being taught that something isn’t complete until you’ve come full circle. There’s a lot of context behind these structures that changes how we interact with them, so if I can bring that to the table, why not?
MW: So you’re documenting these buildings that have so far stood the test of time, and have aged well. Do you consider how you might also make a body of work that stands the test of time and accurately reflects what you’re documenting?
EC: I think that’s what I consider first and foremost. It’s really unsettling having such a fast-paced culture dictate the work I’m making. It feels like a very slippery slope. When I was first starting out as a freelancer, my focus was on cranking work out. Following trends and styles. I was succumbing to that pressure that stillness means death. But the work would fall to the wayside when it wasn’t relevant anymore. Like is that all there is to it? In college I took a digital printmaking class and my professor, Craig Stevens, emphasized this idea of permanence and how to aspire to make things that stand the test of time. And it really stuck with me. If everyone thought about their work in terms of permanence, I think we’d see a much more thoughtful and personal side to our practices.
MW: I think one of the best things I gleaned from my undergrad was the importance of critique. Mackenzie Freemire wrote a really excellent excerpt about some of her thoughts around it. But letting others in on what you’re doing feels like a step in the right direction if your goal is permanence. Do you feel similarly?
EC: Oh, absolutely. I mean sitting through two and a half hour long critiques was brutal, but you always leave with something. And there’s a lot of value in that, that I don’t think as working adults we can capitalize on enough. You can photograph an entire series, do the layout, and have the book printed and ready to distribute without a single other person seeing it. Certainly you can work in a vacuum, but I’m consistently reminded that working with others is much more rewarding. Collaborating with others, especially as an artist, but in general, feels like one of the most essential things we can do, and surely is the fastest way we can grow by leaps and bounds.
MW: One of my favorite professors was explaining the importance of critique a few years back. She was talking about the act of making work in and around others. She mentioned this idea that making work in a vacuum is irresponsible, since none of us actually live in one. We’re all connected by different strings, and being able to let go of your work and have others interact with it and give it back, is one of the most important things we can do as people who make and create.
EC: Certainly. And I think it’s important for anyone who’s young or just starting out to hear that early on.
MW: I want to take a second and segway into music. You’ve got some really interesting playlists going on over on your Spotify: Wine at Breakfast, Party on the East Side. I’d be curious to hear how important it is to you to be able to curate the right music for the right moment.
EC: First of all, thank you. I think being able to play the right song at the right time is such an underrated and undervalued skill to have. I can’t do anything without music. It’s such a crutch. I will not move my car from park unless I’m listening to something. But on a more serious note, I find that music really is another layer to the work I’m doing. When I’m documenting Portman’s work, it feels so special mainly because it’s just me and my headphones. The music really helps submerge myself into Portman’s world. And it impacts the images I’m making too. Having a playlist that fits into the exact headspace I’m in while working helps me remember. It feels like a trigger.
MW: Definitely. Music has a weird way of timestamping physical locations. Have you made different soundtracks for different buildings? Have you considered what music would be playing while you’re exploring a Portman building for the first time?
EC: What a fun question. I’m sure the music they would play would differ from what I would be listening to. They’d probably choose something resembling elevator music: very soft to hear and easy to forget. You don’t even have to listen to it, it just fills in the empty spaces. For me, I think of Portman’s massive atriums that have an abundance of light. But also his use of concrete can be pretty brutal. Tying it in with large, winding staircases, and it’s pretty easy to get lost. So I like to listen to more orchestral, or ambient music that really facilitates a feeling of exploration. But elevator music is good too.
MW: I’ve never been to the Bonaventure, but it’d be interesting to have you curate a playlist that facilitates what that first experience sounds and feels like. And then I could listen to it when I go there for myself.
EC: Now that’s interesting. I’d be down for the challenge.
MW: You’ve brought up Portman and the Bonaventure a few times now. I’d be interested in hearing what your draw is to him and what his buildings mean to you.
EC: I think the draw is more nostalgic. Especially with the Bonaventure, it just so clearly resembles Detroit’s Renaissance Center. But whether it’s the Hyatt in San Francisco, or the Bonaventure in LA, to the Renaissance Center in Detroit, or the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, he’s somehow connected all these American cities through something that isn’t quite American. And I’m still figuring that out. What I mean is; despite knowing what city you’re in when you’re visiting those structures, I don’t actually feel like I’m in one particular place when I’m experiencing them. And I’ve never felt that way about any other building before. I would love to see those concepts explored in new builds.
MW: Can new builds have the same draw as buildings that have been established over time? Or is that something that can only come after it’s proven that it’s aged well?
EC: I think new builds can certainly have that power. But there are a lot of other factors at play. The Renaissance Center for example, has this tactile experience of repetition for me. I’ve driven by it for years, and it occupies a certain corner in my brain. It’d be hard to recreate that feeling from a new structure. Time is a hard thing to pin down. But architecture is rapidly changing, which is what makes it so exciting. Personally, I’d love to see more female architects’ works so I can be afforded more opportunities to see their perspective of space, especially at a large scale. Also seeing more people of color designing and seeing how they would design cities. There’s a whole conversation we could have about how they’ve been robbed of that opportunity, how they’re living in cities that weren’t built for them. A few friends of mine started this list of BIPOC-owned studios that is a very strong resource for the industry. And once you see it, like we talked about before, you start to see the abundance of people who are working super hard towards their purpose, even if you have never heard of them before. I think uncovering more resources like those will be incredibly valuable.
MW: As we begin to wrap this up, I’m curious to hear what you understand the goal of architecture to be is. Is it for the sake of art? Is its purpose to be building better communities? How do you understand it?
EC: I think it should be pretty equal to both. About as balanced as it can be. We can’t forget that architecture is not exclusively art, because it’s utilitarian. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for artistic values. And to me, that’s a really important distinction. I think the Neutra VDL House is a perfect testament to that. A space that was designed by Richard Neutra to serve as his home and studio that was eventually donated to become a cultural site. And Cal State Pomona has done a fantastic job with restoring and preserving it. I’m reminded that architecture should be a space where everyone feels welcome. That is its ultimate goal. There should be something for everybody. But even cultural spaces and city centers can feel so dull. They’re devoid of the human impact that they otherwise could have. And that’s due to the fact that corporations are built around these entities and there is no regard for artistic expression. There’s got to be a better balance in there.
MW: I think about this idea I read a while ago that said: “Everything is architecture, everyone an architect.” It’s a really empowering perspective. Thinking in terms of people being community-builders and architects within their communities. And so I’m wondering how can someone who has no appreciation for architecture start to put things in perspective? Is there a way to be mindful and understand what it is we’re interacting with, and what purpose it serves?
EC: It’s a really good point to bring up. Surely I know I live in a bubble where architecture is a key interest of mine. But like I mentioned, architecture is utilitarian. That’s all it is for some people. And I don’t think that needs to change exactly. But utilitarian for who? I think people are waking up to the realization that their cities, on a local level, aren’t built for them. There are systemic issues built into our cities that impact the fabric of society. And you start to see that everything is connected. It’s all a very intricately woven system. But as someone who lives and is active in their community, you have power and you have the agency to act upon your beliefs. I wish more people realized their power. And you have to understand that if you feel like your community isn’t serving you, you’re probably not alone. Be proactive!
MW: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for taking some time to talk to me about it all.
EC: Yeah definitely! I’m feeling really inspired by this. I think I’m gonna run downtown to you know where.