keeping the ‘real’ in real estate photography

One of the summer perks of working along the French Riviera is the feasibility of a quick dip in the sea or a pool after finishing a job, and a bikini is a permanent fixture in my car. The day the New York Times needed a photographer to go to Monaco and take pictures of a property for sale for their ‘Great Homes and Destinations’ pages didn’t sound like it would be an exception. I prepared myself for an enjoyable day’s work in a plush, photogenic setting – and crossed my fingers for some quality swim time afterwards. However, as often happens, the experience wasn’t exactly what I expected.

A paltry €3.35 million

I didn’t get off to a great start when I was shown into the apartment, closed the front door and the door knob came off in my hand. That, combined with the agent’s tour of the property, which took all of 2 minutes, quickly made me realise that €3.35 million doesn’t actually buy you very much in Monaco at all. The principality’s status as a fiscal paradise keeps property prices high for those willing to pay for the privilege of a residential address (for info, €35 000 000 goes much further on nearby Cap d’Ail. But there you’d have to pay your tax…). In any case, making the place look plush and desirable wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as I had anticipated.

This ‘showcase’ apartment was 80 square metres in size and basically consisted of one bedroom (with just about enough room to move around the bed), a corridor-come-kitchen and a combined lounge / dining room laid out in a space-guzzling triangle shape. I can only think that the newspaper’s photo editor had been under the same illusion as myself, given that my photographer’s brief was to shoot a varied range of viewpoints of the largest main living spaces (severely limited in scope), with attractive exteriors (the faded yellow exterior of the giant apartment block seen from 11 floors down was not a selling point) and details of interesting features (?).

The view from the balcony, past the air conditioning outflow, was of Monaco’s famous rock and the Mediterranean – if you craned your head to the left. In a more relaxed cervical position, the view looked straight into all the other balconies of this monolithic apartment building. Vis-à-vis? Plenty.

Photograph showing view of Monaco seen from the 11th floor balcony of an apartment high above
A nerve-wracking lean was required to capture the apartment’s ‘best feature’, the view over Monaco

Shower in a cupboard

Anna, the beautiful, Russian estate agent, towered over me in skyscraper heels and waxed lyrical about the genius of the Belgian interior architect who was responsible for “such incredible, innovative design strategies to maximise space“. I personally didn’t find the wall of storage cupboards in the lounge, one of which hid the microscopic shower cubicle, or the swinging partition divider that closed the loo off from the rest of the room (according to Monaco law, any apartment with a separate bedroom must have a separate toilet room for guests) especially exciting. Not nearly as innovative and appealing as the less-than-4-metre-cube cabin a little further up the French Riviera that Le Corbusier designed and I photographed recently, but that’s another story… (blog post to come)

Interior photograph of furnished lounge / dining room of apartment
Just enough room to swing a chihuahua
As Anna proudly showed me pictures that the agency’s real estate photographer had shot for a brochure, I struggled to recognise the property. Their photographer had not been shy of using HDR to resolve the considerable light contrast between indoors and outdoors (all the windows were on the south side), and the pictures had been artificially brightened, heavily colour-saturated and ‘Photoshopped’ to transform wide angles and create space. The result was not at all in the real-world, no-artifice, editorial style of the New York Times and I rather envied the other photographer’s permitted artistic license. Finishing in time for a dip was looking less and less likely.

1970s time capsule

Reportage photograph of apartment building concierge reading at his desk
Concierge Jean Jacques, during a busier moment
However, what the apartment lacked in space and the building in modernity were somewhat compensated for by a general old world charm and character. The vast residence, with its different wings, 21 floors and maze of lifts and corridors, was built in 1978 and appears to have remained pretty much unchanged since. Careful residents and a 24-hour watch kept by the team of 5 concierges has maintained the original decor in time-capsule condition, from thick velvet wallpaper in corridors to ‘vintage’ hairdryers in the large, empty changing rooms of the swimming pool and clubhouse, once perhaps a hubbub of activity before iPads and home entertainment drew residents elsewhere.

I watched as a stream of regal, aged figures strolled through reception with baguettes or small dogs under their arm to collect their post and exchange elegant words with Jean-Jacques, the concierge on duty. Earlier that day, my own welcome hadn’t been nearly so smooth.

You can’t reason with a Monégasque doorman

Upon arrival, I had buzzed the intercom to ask for the main gate to be opened, so that I could bring in my car and unload equipment before going off to park. Anywhere else, this would generally have been seen as a reasonable request for a photographer with a considerable amount of gear to carry, but not in Monaco. Oh no.

Having explained, I had waited to be buzzed in, although thanks to the building’s stubborn fidelity to the 1970s, the gate was not electronic and it was a little while before someone ambled down the long drive to unlock it. Just inside, there was an additional padlocked chain across the drive, and I had waited patiently as the concierge made his way back to reception, presumably having forgotten the second key. However, after a good 10 minutes had passed, no-one stirred. I got out of the car, buzzed the intercom again and a rather strange, brief conversation ensued:

Sorry, could you open the chain too please? I still can’t get in
No. I won’t open the chain
Er… why not?
Non-residents aren’t permitted to drive up to the door
But then why did you come and open the gate for me then?
Because that’s what you asked me to do”

It took me several trips to lug all my bags up the hill to the door on foot and I had to swallow my exasperation – it doesn’t serve to take such things personally in Monaco (see an earlier post about the patience required to be a photographer in Monaco).

Anyhow, at the end of a long day, my composure was rewarded with permission to use the swimming pool; on one condition. Concierge Jean-Jacques leaned forward and whispered confidentially “Normally non-residents aren’t permitted in the pool. It would be better for my job security if you took a little piece of camera equipment with you“. As I headed off up the garden path in my bikini, hands empty apart from a tripod and flash case, I vaguely wondered how these props could possibly explain to the security camera my presence at the pool for a purpose other than swimming. But I figured that answer was probably beyond my guessing anyway and gave it up to jump into the expanse of cool, clear water and bask in the last rays of the day’s sunshine…

Photograph of a large outdoor swimming pool
Even at lunchtime, the swimming pool wasn’t exactly inundated

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