No architectural photographer seems to have enjoyed his midday repast quite as much as Robert C. Lautman, Hon. AIA. The wiry, 85-year-old dean of the Washington, D.C., design community loved breaking bread with clients, friends, and colleagues, and even carried a business card that read "Photography and Lunch." Lautman died October 20 from pancreatic cancer, spurring an outpouring of appreciation from architects and other longtime luncheon companions who admired both the man and his formidable portfolio of work.
His brilliance as a photographer is undisputed. The American Institute of Architects awarded him its Gold Medal for Photography in 1973, and throughout his career top architects vied to have him shoot their projects. "I couldn't get over how he knew just what I was trying to do with the architecture," says Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, one of Lautman's closest friends and a client for over 50 years. "Even when he was working for other [architects], he knew what they were trying to do."
"He could look at a building and understand the essence of it," agrees Lee Becker, FAIA, of Hartman-Cox Architects. Washington-based architectural photographer Maxwell MacKenzie calls him "one of the giants, in the tradition of Hedrich Blessing, Ezra Stoller, and Julius Shulman."
The intrepid Lautman shot cathedrals and cottages, office buildings and architectural details, traveling all over the world in search of the perfect picture. His archive of 30,000 images (with an additional 20,000 more on the way) belongs to the National Building Museum, which curator Chrysanthe Broikos says was "thrilled" to receive it.
Broikos notes Lautman's extreme versatility when it came to shooting different architectural styles. He started out a committed modernist, working with Washington's mid-century master Charles Goodman, FAIA. While he never stopped documenting modernist work, he also eventually developed a deep respect for historical buildings. "Turning to preservation work seemed completely natural to him," she recalls. "He was equally at home with the modernist and the historical aesthetic." The old-fashioned platinum prints he made of Monticello for a Ken Burns PBS documentary are collected in a stunning 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
Along with his artistic skills, Lautman's self-effacing charm and infectious enthusiasm were well-known in D.C. design circles. "Lunch with him was always the most delightful, fun lunch you'd had for months," says Amy Weinstein, FAIA, of Esocoff & Associates/Weinstein Studio. Many friends and fans only learned of his two World War II Bronze Stars from his October 31 Washington Post obituary.
Jacobsen remembers a habit of his friend's from the hundreds of photo shoots they did together, when Lautman would spot a shot or detail he particularly liked. "From under the focusing cloth you would hear him say, just very quietly: 'Delicious.'"
Always interested in the doings of others, he had an intuitive handle on human nature that served him well in his work. "He had such an ease about him that comes through in the photographs," says Stephen Muse, FAIA, of Muse Architects. "It gave his photos a very warm feeling, an approachable feeling."
The National Building Museum plans to hold a memorial service for Lautman on Friday, December 4. Please check www.nbm.org for details.
For more about Robert Lautman:
"An Eye for Detail" (residential architect; september 2008)
"Photos Put Buildings in a Wonderful Light" (The Washington Post; Oct. 31, 2009)
"In Remembrance: Robert Lautman" (National Building Museum; October 2009)