img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Interview with Nikola Olic: liberating architectural photography

Valeria Carullo

Serbian-American photographer, whose poetic and playful images of modern architecture recently launched the New York Times Architectural Quiz series, speaks to Valeria Carullo ahead of his appearance at the RIBA Photo Festival

Under Pressure San Francisco 2022.
Under Pressure San Francisco 2022. Credit: Nikola Olic

What is your background? Did you study architecture or photography – or neither?

I have no formal education in architecture or photography – my degree is in computer science and engineering.

How did you arrive at your very specific photographic language?

I felt that architectural photography could be expanded and perhaps further liberated through more ambiguous subjects – subjects that could be obstructed, surreal, transitive, morphed or partial. Architecture can thrive in unintended and unclaimed visual worlds with many different conclusions, truths and final states.

What process do you follow, and how do you find your locations?

My process involves cursory preparations with web searches and maps, and instincts and guesses developed through the years.

Your images are (contrary to appearance) unmanipulated – do people often ask you about manipulation?

Occasionally. I share exact co-ordinates to offer certainty. Although there might be uncertainty with what you see, the photographs are real and offered as a shared public experience.  

Zooming in to create images means losing context, but alongside co-ordinates you usually mention the location – why is this important?

My photographs are the result of a very public experience with the city. Sharing the name of the city and the camera co-ordinates is a demystifying act.

Your images often flirt with abstraction, but I think are rarely completely abstract – this subtle difference is deliberate, isn’t it?

As René Magritte would say, each thing we see hides something else we want to see. It’s a deliberate balance that provides a potent framework for architecture's infinite visual possibilities and diverse and complex intents.

You have defined your work as painting with architecture, using urban structure as colours and brushes – is colour essential to this process?

Yes; Colour is an integral part of how we absorb the world around us. Even when my photographs appear to be monochrome or grayscale, they are indeed in full colour.

As sources of inspiration, you have mentioned specific artists. In a few words, how has each influenced your work?

Gustave Caillebotte’s 'Paris Street, Rainy Day' helped liberate visual constraints and rules of photography. René Magritte’s surreal imagery demands a resolution. To paraphrase William Egginton, Oscar Niemeyer presents the rigour of angels in the world of architecture. Franco Fontana creates paintings with colours and shapes we find in nature. And finally,  the book 'Anonymous Sculptures' by Bernd and Hilla Becher helped me rethink portraiture in architecture, to be seen as sculptural studies of the modern everyday.

The RIBA Photo Festival, 8-11 November 2023 RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, celebrates the photography of the built environment in all its many forms, and offers an opportunity for discussion and debate on the significance of this medium and its future in the digital age

Valeria Carullo is photographs curator at the RIBA