The big picture

A Seattle photographer documents great buildings and creates great art
Lawrence W. Cheek

White vans are Lara Swimmer's bête noire.

She will set up a stunning architectural photograph in which the sun is lighting up a building's geometry in a revealing moment, a perfect cloud has wafted into position, a person happens to be loitering in the ideal place to provide scale, and ... a white van oozes into the frame, right in front of the building. "It's always a white van," she groans. "Why does everybody in Seattle drive a white van? Why can't it be a red Beetle for once?"

Why, indeed? But still, Swimmer usually manages to part the sea of white vans and get her shot ― one that offers something well beyond routine architectural photography, capturing the spirit of a building and somehow folding it into two dimensions. Most architectural photography allows you to see a building. Swimmer's invites you to experience it.

Swimmer, now 35, began by shooting for the yearbook in high school, but she never suspected photography as a career. It wasn't until she spent the summer of 1992 in Berlin that she discovered architecture. "There was construction and deconstruction everywhere, tons of detritus," she says. "There was the sense of history in the air. It felt like a staging ground for something really big."

She returned to Seattle two years later, in a perfect coincidence with her hometown's arc into something big ― thanks to projects like the Paramount Theatre renovation, the Experience Music Project, Benaroya Hall, Safeco Field, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, and the Central Library. Swimmer landed contracts to shoot construction documentaries of all of these, and at the same time built a practice shooting finished buildings for magazines such as Architectural Record and Metropolis.

Celebrating messiness

Few architectural photographers revel in the down 'n' dirty enterprise of construction shots, but Swimmer loves it. "It's like freezing segments of time, an opportunity to document something that will never exist in that form again," she says. She discovers art in the exposed steel-and-concrete viscera of a building in progress. Last year, the Central Library devoted a gallery to her photos of the library's construction, and Documentary Media published a book of the images, which, in the words of architectural writer Bonnie Duncan, "personalizes the building's struggle to emerge." In one photo, the skinless contraption seems to be exploding from its site, like a breaching sea monster. An interior shot with translucent wrappings has a spooky, cryogenic feel, like an off-limits laboratory.

In photos of finished work, Swimmer constantly tests and shatters the rules of architectural photography. She craves human life in her shots, not only for scale but also to keep buildings from looking so pristine. She loves movement, implied or real, like a worker crawling, buglike, across the canted window walls of the Central Library. Her most successful photo of the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles prominently features a car (not a white van, happily) whizzing by in a foreground blur, a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles and a complement to Frank O. Gehry's hyperactive architecture.

The blurry car, however, was also an artful dodge. "The building was still six weeks away from being finished, and there was this huge hole where a restaurant would be," Swimmer confesses. "I love motion, but the car was actually there to hide the hole. You do what you can."

INFO:  Visit www.swimmerphoto.com to see Swimmer's online gallery. Her book, Process: Seattle Central Library (Documentary Media, 2004; $15), is available at bookstores and online.

How to photograph architecture

Great architectural photographs are more about developing your eye than buying equipment. Here are some tips from Lara Swimmer that apply even to vacation snapshots.

• Find your unique way of seeing the building and photograph what is most meaningful to you. Since it's impossible to literally reproduce a building in two dimensions, think of the photograph as documenting your instinctual response to it.
• Inside, "look for places where your eye isn't trapped," Swimmer says--where there isn't a solid wall that closes off the shot.
• Include people as they naturally fit into the life of the building. This requires patience more than planning; you have to sit back and wait.
• Look for the play of light and shadow. Remember that architecture is more than the tangible materials of glass, steel, and concrete.