For years, Timothy Schenck applied himself to structural engineering. He earned degrees in physics and engineering and a masters in structures. Then he spent 13 years at two firms in New York City before setting the profession aside to earn his living as a construction photographer. In a way, the 20 years before that moment were training for his new profession.
When ENR selects judges for its annual construction photography contests, we include a professional photographer, a construction safety expert and ENR editors and art department designers. Schenck was this year’s construction photographer on the panel.
SCHENCK: A consulting firm, that’s kind of a big machine and you’re a cog in a design team that’s part of it. My creative side didn’t get a chance to stretch as much as my analytic side. I was always working inside the envelope the architect designed. The job is to make architecture do amazing things—and there are many creative things you can do to make a structure super efficient or do things that defy the eye—and that is fun—but still, you are working within that little envelope.
Also the duration of projects you work on could be years, and you might be limited to a handful of projects for a long while. I had a wanderlust to always have something new. That’s kind of where I’m going with my life philosophy—to work on projects that I enjoy so I don’t feel like I’m working, and to work on projects that are a part of history, that have a legacy at the end of the day.
I spent seven years in school learning how to build, and then 13 years in the field solving real problems to get things built. I have an understanding of the process. I can identify the different people on the jobsite, and what they are contributing to building the building.
I know that piece of steel is going to be a column and that piece is for a gusset plate, and that is a moment frame. I know what the welder is doing, and what’s being bolted up, so I understand what’s important—and when people talk about the decisive moment in photography, I know what that moment is going to be on a jobsite, because I understand the fundamentals.
I developed a photography habit while working as an engineer. I just started sticking the camera into my bag and taking it everywhere. I was shooting the normal existing-conditions and progress shots, but also I started to look at the artistic things, the patterns and the colors and the geometry.
Then, in 2007, a co-worker invited me to check out one of his projects. It was the High Line, and I was hooked. The place was magical. The project was just getting started, and I started going there every other week before work to capture the transformation.
At work I was dealing with meetings and bosses and that corporate side, but this let me expand my creativity and exercise that other side of my brain. I had a good contact list of architects and contractors, and when they heard what I was doing they thought, “Why don’t I take a chance with this guy?” I started my photography business in 2011.
I try to tell stories with the photos about the people and the process. I combine the analytical part of the way I think with the artistic part. I try to balance it out and show the scale of the project—the massive scale of a skyscraper, yet the people are essential. It wasn’t just made in a factory and plopped down. People welded every weld, bolted every bolt.
I try to keep my set-up as simple and lightweight as possible so I can navigate a jobsite safely and not be a distraction. I wear a backpack, my personal protective equipment, my camera is around my neck and two lenses in bags over my shoulders. I use a Nikon full-frame DSLR with a set of three f2.8 zoom lenses: 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. They are all the best lenses of that particular range you can get. I upgrade the bodies every few years, but I pay for the lenses once, and then I keep them on and on.