“New York is a Haven for Architectural Photography”

One Photo Winner Xi Chen shot from the same perspective in different seasons and weather before arriving at the winning image.

Francesca Mercurio Francesca Mercurio
The winners of Architizer’s 3rd Annual One Photo Challenge have been revealed! Interested in next year's program? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates. 

The winners of Architizer’s 2022 One Photo Challenge have showcased the boundless possibilities of architectural photography. This year’s winning Student photograph is the gripping “Vertical Life” by Xi Chen, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Digital Photography at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. As a trained architect and architectural photographer, Xi Chen’s background has led to a deep appreciation of the multiplicity of avenues available to experience the built environment.

Set in New York City, Xi’s winning photograph explores the juxtaposition between the city’s concrete canvas and contrasting green spaces. The photograph frames NYC’s extravagant, glistening skyline soaring above Central Park. The image captures the vertical nature of the New Yorker lifestyle, where most residents live above ground in apartment buildings and high rises, highlighting the all-important haven represented by the city’s few green spaces. Meanwhile, the foreground frames a tender moment in a notoriously challenging and crowded city, revealing a couple walking through Central Park. They are surrounded by a sea of green which creates a sense of calm and intimacy. Meanwhile, the background’s skyscraper skyline also subtly reveals the skyscrapers of old New York that are dwarfed by ‘Billionaire’s Row‘.

Xi Chen’s winning entry, “Vertical Life.” Camera Used: Canon 

Public parks play a vital role in providing much-need refuge from New York’s dense living conditions and crammed spaces. Greenery, breathable air and space are sparse in the Big Apple, which makes its green spaces invaluable to the community. The park for many is an escape from the hectic city life, and as a result, this photo sparks ideas surrounding escapism. We spoke with Xi Chen to learn more about his artistic process and inspirations behind his photograph, “Vertical Life.”

Francesca Mercurio: Congratulations Xi Chen on winning the One Photo Challenge

Xi Chen: Thank you so much for this award! I was so thrilled to have made it into the finalists, but I never expected to win. Thank you Architizer for holding this competition. One Photo Challenge is a unique opportunity for architects and photographers to come together to share their love for architecture and the built environment. 

What first got you into photography and what does this medium mean to you?

After working as an architect for many years, I decided to switch my career to an architectural photographer in order to pursue my love of documenting the built environment. Following this, I moved to New York to pursue my Master’s in Digital Photography. I am grateful to my school and department for providing me with an excellent creative environment and support, which in turn has allowed me to devote myself to architectural photography. For me, working as an architect and a photographer are two ways of experiencing architecture at different stages. Both are artistic expressions that require an understanding and enthusiasm for architecture and the built environment.

Detail of “Vertical Life”

What sparked your interest in entering the competition, and what does winning mean to you?

It all started when I first saw the One Photo Challenge prompt on Instagram. In the first year, I submitted one image which did not make it to the finalist stage. In the second year, I entered three images and still nothing. This time around, I submitted three images — all of which became finalists, with one taking home a winning title. For me, this process is not just about winning a competition. Instead, I see it as an opportunity for continuous creation, growth and improvement. 

Which camera did you shoot with and can you speak to that choice? 

This photo was taken with Sony A7R3. I also use an A7S3 for video and a DJI Mavic 3 for bird’s eye view. I think all these devices can achieve a very good balance between performance and portability. Photography has always been an art closely related to the development of technology. In recent years, the transformation from DSLR to mirrorless, the development of smartphone cameras and the popularity of drone photography have all provided better support and more possibilities for photography creation. I actively update my equipment according to my creative needs.

View of Central Park by Xi Chen

What drew you to your subject matter that ultimately culminated in the winning photo? And/or what significance does this image have to you personally and your experience as a photographer?

Skyscrapers and Central Park are the calling card of New York. The extravagance of Billionaire’s Row and the inclusiveness of Central Park are in stark contrast. I wanted to highlight this contrast in how people live. Fortunately, I found this perfect angle on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I went back a few times to get the same perspective in different seasons and weather. I found the sunset colors tremendous but overpowering, and the artificial night lighting exciting but not great for the park’s greenery. I eventually ended up with what I thought was the most balanced shot. There is great detail in both sections while the focal point — the couple walking their dog in the foliage of Central Park — remains pronounced. 

New York is a haven for architectural photography. As an international student, everything here is new to me. But I must constantly remind myself that countless talented photographers throughout history have created exceptional work in this city. I need to work hard to find my unique perspective to show my own impression of the city. I’m feel honored that the jury recognized this photo.

What do you find to be the most significant challenges in compellingly photographing architecture?

In my opinion, it’s about balancing the weight of the people in the frame. Architectural photography must focus on the building as the main object of expression. Still, it always needs people as a supporting element to express scale and tell a story. If a person’s presence is too minuscule, it can make the image hard to approach and the atmosphere insufficient. Whereas if the person is too overpowering in the frame, it can take away from the focal point – the architecture. I pay special attention to this delicate balance during the shooting process as it is very important and equally challenging.

How big a role did post-production play in conveying the story of your photograph, and how do you approach that process?

Post-production is an integral part of a photographer’s workflow. For me, the most important thing is how to achieve the photographer’s creative ideas. Some ideas are executed during the shoot, while some ideas need to be executed through post-production. For “Vertical Life,” I was lucky that the light, buildings and people were in perfect condition. Therefore, most of my ideas were already realized during shooting, so the post-production work only required some color adjustments and corrections.

During this time, I was also creating my master’s thesis project, “Inside Out.” This project frames the interior and exterior of emblematic New York City buildings in a single image. The aim is to bring a humanistic perspective to the city’s landmarks. Based on this idea, a lot of post-production work was used, including tilt-shift panorama, HDR synthesis and digital collage. The post-production process took much longer than the shooting itself and was integral to getting the core ideas across. 

“Inside Out – Guggenheim Museum” by Xi Chen

What one tip would you give to someone looking to win next year’s One Photo Challenge?

Story, story, always story! With the support of today’s photographic equipment, it is not that difficult to take a beautiful architectural photo. However, using photography as an avenue to tell a story related to architecture and the built environment is not always easy. Investing your enthusiasm, energy and love for architecture will help you accomplish anything! 


The winners of Architizer’s 3rd Annual One Photo Challenge have been revealed! Interested in next year's program? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates. 

Francesca Mercurio Author: Francesca Mercurio
Part of the Architizer team, Francesca covers a broad scope of topics related to the built environment. Trained as an art historian at McGill University, Francesca is interested in architectural conservation and the ways designers are using historical spaces to better society today. Francesca is based in Toronto, Canada.
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