Robert C. Lautman took this photo of Monticello's northwest portico as early photographers would have--with a large-format camera and platinum paper.
Robert C. Lautman Robert C. Lautman took this photo of Monticello's northwest portico as early photographers would have--with a large-format camera and platinum paper.

Robert C. Lautman's first photography job was as an Army shutterbug in World War II. After the war, he discovered architectural photography and over the subsequent decades became one of its top practitioners. The Washington, D.C.-based Lautman, Hon. AIA, spoke recently with residential architect about his career and his strategy for shooting details.

How do you capture the essence of an architectural detail in a photograph?

“The lighting is everything. Somebody (I'm not sure who; it wasn't me) once said, ‘Architectural photography consists of two things: knowing where to stand and knowing what time to stand there.' That, of course, has to do with light. The rest is just technology.”

What are the hardest details to photograph?

“Well, the easiest ones are the classical ones—Roman, Greek, Egyptian. The early classicists did wonderful details. In modern architecture, with the elimination of ornamentation, you have much simpler, less easily defined details. I like them both. When I've had it up to here with modernism, I can go shoot something classical. I was imbalanced toward modernism for a long time in my career. Then I visited places like Monticello, Mount Vernon, Greece, Italy, and Egypt, and I realized people all those years ago weren't so dumb after all.”

How has digital photography influenced your business?

“I've gotten to be more and more digital. Film still has a higher quality, but digital is catching up fast. It will equal the quality of film—if not this year, then next year. In five years there will be practically no film around, except in the fine arts. I give architects the choice of 4x5 film or digital. The only way digital affects the photo shoot is that it lets me move more quickly and take more pictures per day.”

Robert C. Lautman, Hon. AIA
Christy Schlesinger Robert C. Lautman, Hon. AIA

What is your favorite building?

“My favorite place in the United States is Monticello. It was Jefferson's workshop. He'd go to Europe and get ideas. Then he'd come back and tear something down and rebuild it. [A few years ago] I went down and tried to photograph Monticello the way he would have, had he lived a few years longer—with a big camera and contact prints and hand-coated platinum paper.”

Where do you keep your archived photos?

“The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., has almost all of my archived files. I'm still holding onto my active files. The Building Museum also has a collection of Richard Wurtz's photography. He taught me all the fundamentals of architectural photography, so I'm glad our files ended up in the same place.”

What kind of house do you live in?

“A 1911 house in D.C.'s Tenleytown [neighborhood] that looks like a farmhouse. It looks like a kid's drawing. I've lived there for 33 years. My studio is there also. I commute by walking downstairs.”

What is the key to architectural photography?

“It's all these little teeny things—ironing a tablecloth, smoothing the wrinkles out of the bedspread. When you do them, no one notices, but when you don't do them, everyone notices.”