How to Shoot a Hulk: Lara Swimmer

With the right eye, you can art-ify even the humblest of structures.

Writing about the Seattle real-estate biz is boring enough; there's also the perennial problem of photographing some building, whether iconic or derelict, toaccompany the story. The usual solution is to pose some smiling architect or developer, blueprints unfurled, in front of the façade. How else to make yet another glass curtain wall or brick veneer interesting?But Lara Swimmer doesn't need to resort to these tricks. She specializes in shooting buildings—most of them swanky, new, and expensive—and making them look startling and gorgeous. When the symphony wants to show off its new concert hall, Paul Allen his new music museum, or the city its ambitious new downtown library, Swimmer is the one they call to capture their babies on film.She says she likes the vintage sheds in South Park and Georgetown, but if you make them a photographic fetish—"it's a cliché." And with her busy portfolio of commercial clients, which takes her around the country, Swimmer doesn't often have to bother with the ugly ducklings of the trade. "I don't go out looking for [shots]," she says. "I don't have time to drive around and take arty pictures."Still, sitting over coffee at Victrola on Capitol Hill, she has a few tips to help art-ify the architecturally awful—i.e., those buildings of interest to newspapers, not aesthetes. We're talking about those endangered old gas stations, crumbling warehouses, and insta-townhouse clusters. They need documentation, too. (This also may apply to the FISBO you're hoping to unload without benefit of a broker.)So choose your time of day, says Swimmer: Know which direction the best aspect of a building is facing, and when it'll receive the best low-angled light. As for an aesthetically challenged structure, Swimmer adds, "You can't make it what it's not. Focus on its characteristics. Take it down to its details. Look for the language that the particular building speaks."For her latest project on public view, she had to learn an unfamiliar "rural vernacular" in our state's agricultural Palouse region—not the usual sophisticated Mies-speak of her customary clients. With her architect husband Robert Zimmer, Swimmer was recently commissioned by the University of Idaho's Prichard Art Gallery for a joint mapping-photographing installation, "Topographies in Built & Natural Landscapes." Works from that exhibit will also be shown next month at SAM's rental/sales gallery and at Suyama Peterson Deguchi's 3x10 storefront."I'd never been interested in landscape photography," Swimmer says. "I've always been very drawn to shape and a built environment." So for her, the four-season road-trip project, which she compares to a Wim Wenders movie, was a journey from "shooting what I know to what I don't know. This was hard for me. It taught me to look differently and see differently from this typical horizon. I really can't tilt [the camera tripod] too much."Apart from the grain elevators, not much in the Palouse is built on a vertical plane. Among single-story, one-stoplight small towns, where Main Street is the only street, she takes a direct approach to shop windows and signage—"just what fronts the road" as the eye would see it.Out in the unfamiliar fields, Swimmer found wheat, rolling hills, and agricultural patterns. These she generally framed without horizon lines to "emphasize pure form and pure graphic structure," as the marks and furrows left behind by John Deere tractors etch their seasonal tracks atop the ancient glacial silt dunes.The results are a bit like Andy Goldsworthy meets agribusiness, maybe not so different from the city. The farmer as architect. "It's really an artificial landscape," Swimmer concludes. "It's definitely a cultivated landscape, not all barns and Americana."

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