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Architecture Photos Were Worth a Shot : His Parents Are Noted for Portraiture, but Erig Figge Branched Out Into Buildings


NEWPORT BEACH — When the building industry honored the best in the West earlier this year, the winners varied widely--from luxury office towers and palatial homes to affordable condominiums.

But with all the differences, many of the winners had one other thing in common--the photographs in their contest portfolios were done by the same person.

The shooter? Eric Figge, youngest son of famed portrait photographers Bill and Melba Figge. The score? He shot the portfolios for 31 of the 230 winning entries in the 1992 Gold Nugget awards, presented in May at the California Building Assn.'s annual conference in San Francisco.

Figge, 35, laughingly acknowledges that he is the black sheep of a family whose photography business was begun in 1945 in Glendale and moved to Orange County when the patriarch died in 1976.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 24, 1992 Orange County Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Architectural photos--A caption in Tuesday's Business section misidentified a home shown in photographs accompanying a story on architectural photographer Eric Figge. The home in the Belcrest housing development in Mission Viejo was built by Lake Forest-based Signature Homes.

For while the Figge name is renowned for fine portraiture, Eric branched out in 1980 to specialize in architectural photography.

While his mother, sister Leslie Figge Chatillon and brothers Greg and Stephan keep the family business going at the Figge Photography studio in Newport Beach's tony Fashion Island, Eric Figge and his two full-time employees work out of a nondescript 1960s office flat on Campus Drive across from Orange County's John Wayne Airport.

In a community and a business where sizzle sells, the plebeian surroundings are a shock to some of Figge's visitors. A dirt-encrusted, guano-spotted old Mercedes-Benz, for instance, does sentinel duty in the parking lot, stripped of tires and propped on concrete blocks.

The inexpensive blue-collar setting hasn't been a problem. Builders don't lug their model homes to Figge anyway; he loads his equipment into a specially equipped van and goes to them. And, despite the three-year slump in the region's building business, he goes to them a lot.

Eric Figge Photography has grown into one of the leading architectural photography firms in Southern California, one of a dozen companies that Orange County builders and their advertising agencies seek out for bids when they have a new project to shoot.

Although Figge acknowledges that business isn't as good as during the height of the Southland building boom in 1988 and 1989, it hasn't been all that bad, either. "We're actually busier this year than we were last year," he said.

While a number of smaller builders have folded and bigger companies have pared back their activities, many of those that remain active are spending more money than ever on advertising--and that means photographs. Because the images that they use to sell their products are so important, the builders, interior designers and architects are willing to pay top dollar for the kind of work that top-of-the-line photographers provide.

Figge would not provide a price list "because, in this economy, everything is negotiable," he said. He did give an example: His minimum half-day fee for a single architectural exterior photograph is $900.

Half-day work is rare in his business, however. For a recent exterior shot of a model at Bramalea of California's Newport Coast development--where homes range in price from $1.2 million to more than $2 million, Figge and two assistants spent eight hours, most of it in the small hours of the morning, installing and testing the lighting.

The resulting picture, shot just as the rising sun began backlighting a strip of thin cirrus clouds above the model, helped Bramalea to capture the 1992 Gold Nugget for detached home of the year and is featured in the company's print advertising and brochures.

"We set up more than 30 lights for that shot," Figge said.

A hallmark of his work is the lighting--and the shadows that lighting produces. One of his first clients, he said, requested that he "make it dramatic." Figge found that he could best achieve that by contrasting light with shadow, thus giving the illusion of depth to the two-dimensional medium in which he works

"That's what a lot of people, including some of the builders and architects I have worked with, don't understand. They see things in three dimensions, but the camera doesn't," he said.

His talent, shared by others at the top of the photographer's profession, is to translate what is seen in three dimensions to something that works in two.

A client, for example, might pause in the foyer of an elegantly decorated model home, point dramatically into the living room and announce that this is the only view that will sell his homes.

"Then I look around and might see that, while it looks great to the eye, it won't work through a lens," Figge said. "Maybe the staircase is in the way or the lighting will make everything look flat. So I have to find a place--maybe it's behind the couch--to shoot from that will provide a picture that tells the same story the builder sees when he walks through the front door."

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