Lines of Sight: Designers, photographers and the dialogue they create between indoors and out
Using the art of photography to create a dialogue between the comfort and warmth of new residential spaces and the glorious Québec landscapes in which they are immersed.
If photography is the art of producing a realistic representation of an artfully arranged scenario manipulated through composition, lighting, editing or other magical arts, then the architectural photographer does exactly the reverse: taking an artist’s eye to the very real subject of built structures.
Québec-based architectural photographers Raphaël Thibodeau and Maxime Brouillet are considered among Canada’s most respected practitioners of the art. Both are clear that theirs is an applied rather than fine art (equal parts head and heart, as Raphaël explains); but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for poetry, and their best work is as arresting as anything you’d find in a gallery.
According to Jean-Francois St-Onge, co-founder and creative director of Montréal-based ADHOC Architectes, “Maxime Brouillet acts like a director…to generate emotion, to bring us into the intimacy of the daily life of the users of our projects.”
Brouillet credits his cinematic eye to his early training at Concordia University, where he earned a BFA majoring in film production, with a minor in photography. “At the end of my studies, I was mostly drawn to photography, (but) I was still helping friends in the cinema to locate spaces, helping with the decor and props. So all those interests were pointing to a form of design/architecture sensibility that I was not even aware of.”
Symmetry features in a lot of Brouillet’s work; it has a profound psychological effect that people universally respond to. But clearly, a picture like “Hallway at Lake Arthur” of a project designed by Montréal-based Ghoche Architecte presents much more than just a deeply satisfying composition of strong lines and rectangles. It’s brimming with life and movement: you want to climb the stairs or wander down the hallway to the back room and its bright, tree-filled window where the family dog is waiting for you to play. “Ideally you have an ‘event’ of some kind, like a sunbeam, or something going on that’s interesting,” says Brouillet. “You can’t plan it in advance. You have to have your eyes open for that.”
In another photo of the Lake Arthur house, he chose to shoot the living room from outside, peeking past a giant birch tree slantwise into the room, and onwards to a forested view out another window behind the sofa. Shadows of branches on the carbonized-wood siding seem to sway in the afternoon sun; you can almost smell the pine needles.
The Denison Mills project designed by ADHOC was even more rich with subject matter, says Brouillet, even though unlike many of the projects he photographs, the architects had only worked on a portion of the house. A historic flour mill built in the 19th century loyalist era in the Québec township of Shipton, it had been updated in the 20th century before the current homeowners had the new section added. What’s striking about the pictures from this day is their humanity. In one, three people lounge in Adirondack chairs outside the library, chatting amiably; another takes two opposing views of the library, each notable as much for the much-used and enjoyed books and the homeowners’ comfort in the room, as it is of the room itself.
But one of the most striking photos from the day tells little from an architectural perspective. It gives the entire history of the property in a single image: under a richly textured sky, three rustic buildings, representing each of the three centuries the mill has stood. “Obviously, the architecture has to look good, but that’s really only a part of the picture, so we have to look at other elements: the placement of the furniture, the people in it, or leaves that tell you that you are looking through trees, even if you don’t see the trees. These are things that make a good scene.”
Interestingly, Raphaël Thibodeau started his career in cinema studies as well. He also studied architecture and for the first six years of his professional career he worked for several different architecture studios while doing photography on the side. Eventually it struck him that architectural photography combined elements of all his favourite pursuits in one occupation, and by 2020 he decided to dedicate himself to it full time.
Many of Thibodeau’s photographs clearly show the advantages of a keen eye: for a great moment; an interesting angle; or a serendipitous combination of elements. For example, he describes being first struck by the interesting, zigzagged line of a vaulted ceiling and the adjacent wall in a cottage on the edge of a Laurentian lake. The resulting photo uses the crisscross to draw you into the shadowed coziness of the room, cloistered from the snowy scene outside. Details like a half-pulled-out chair at table add humanity. Despite its simple geometry, the picture gives you a lot of information about this room, the house and the landscape it’s set in.
“What’s really nice about working with Raphaël is that I’m talking to a fellow architect as well as a photographer,” says Eric-Joseph Tremblay of Atelier Boom-Town, who designed the cottage in the Laurentides. “He can communicate the architectural concepts we’re experimenting with through images. With simplicity and restraint, the photos express the very essence of this project. The focus is on space, natural light, textures, and the relationships between all these components.”
The first view of a property, Thibodeau explains, is always the most important. He’ll spend the first part of the shoot simply walking around the site, just open to everything he sees. “And then, unconsciously, this more poetic/contemplative way to shoot blends with the factual information that the architects told me before. And when it all works together, it gives a photo set with both factual and emotional information, sometimes in the same images.”
Thibodeau’s pictures often invite you to fill in a complete narrative through the placement of a few telling details: binoculars on a table near a seaside window, ready for you to pick up and look at the view (above); or a beach scene of the same project, featuring a wooden bench with a draped towel and a couple of paperbacks (below). It’s so beachy, you don’t notice there’s no actual beach in the picture.
Storytelling aside, part of being truthful is accepting, and then embracing, the conditions on the day of the shoot. Sometimes that can mean going with the gloomy light of a cloudy day, or a sun that’s too high in the sky, creating unfriendly glare; in a situation like this, he might choose to focus on the reflected sunlight through a window onto a rear wall, with a stray beam glinting off a carafe of water, as Thibodeau did in a forest chalet near the village of Morin-Heights, Québec.
But sometimes that openness to circumstances can provide a big payoff, as in a rare 24-hour shoot at a rustic mountain resort in the Laurentians called Farouche Tremblant. “This was a perfect photo shoot, because it’s a working farm but with cabins you can stay in. I was able to go and stay there for 24 hours and shoot in every kind of light.”
The objective, he says, was not so much to chronicle the architecture itself — although the steep peaks of the cabins were the perfect shape for a group of structures set amongst mountain peaks and sharp-pointed pines — as about communicating the feeling of the location. (“Also, there wasn’t a lot of room to shoot inside,” he quips.) The series of photographs he produced reads like chapters in a book, starting with the peaks of the cabins set in front of hump-backed Mont-Tremblant rising in the distance but shrouded in fog, and ending with the cabins sleeping peacefully as the moon rises behind them.
One of the most effective scenes in the grouping, though, was taken in the middle of the day. “I happened to be walking by a bit of a distance away,” he recalls, “when I noticed the architect was standing outside one of the buildings in the compound, by the window.” It was the perfect moment to showcase the sheer scale of the location: a tiny figure standing next to a not-much-bigger building, with the vast mountains looming high above them. “To document a project through 24 hours gave exceptional results, and the entire set produced by Raphaël is incredibly poetic. His photographs invite you into the wild,” says Nicolas Lapierre of Montréal-based Atelier L’Abri, who designed and built Farouche Tremblant.
“One of the best results of a photoshoot for an architect is to discover new aspects and angles of the project through the photographer’s work,” continues Lapierre, who’s firm was also responsible for the Morin-Heights chalet. “The photographer brings hers or his own vision and perception of the project, which shapes how others will discover it. As such, the photographer contributes greatly to the project’s story and how it lives, becoming a part of the project’s team.”