As part of the Capture Photo Fest Speaker Series, HCMA's Director of Tilt Curiosity Labs Mark Busse sat down with our friend and frequent collaborator Ema Peter. In the past decade Ema has photographed projects by some of the largest architectural, interior design and engineering firms in North America. She frequently photographs our projects, including the stunning Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre images featured in Architectural Record.
Watch the full conversation between Ema and Mark, hosted at Inform Interiors:
Or, read the transcript:
"Before we begin, 10 Rapidfire eye roller questions:
1. How did you get into photography?
A: My father. He was a filmmaker and he told me not to go into this business.
2. Who is your favourite architectural photographer?
A: Cartier Bresson! I believe in his decisive moment in photography and life. All of it is decisive moments.
3. Favourite architect?
A: Corbusier because he broke all rules and did only his own thing in complete disregard with the times. AA Robins too because he lives for his own art.
4. What gear do you use?
A: Depends, and doesn’t matter. Gear means nothing.
5. How do you get clients?
A: Do amazing work and hustle, hard.
6. What do you charge?
A: Sometimes a little, often a lot. How much does experience and creativity cost?
7. Do people treat you like a girl?
A: All the time. I use it to my advantage.
8. What inspires you?
A: Me. I inspire myself.
9. Favourite building or type of building to photograph?
A: A challenging one, one that no one can get the right angle of.
10. What is your secret?
A: I create magic. I believe in magic.
Q: Tonight was billed as a conversation about ‘digesting architecture’ and some of the philosophical aspects of photographing the built world. What does that mean to you? Is your work really guided by a distinct philosophy?
A: My philosophy - I want to see the world the way no one does, I want to observe and capture those moments, create decisive moments in architecture and make those projects shine, do them justice so that the architects says “yes, this is what I wanted to show, this is how I wanted the building to be used.”
Q: What is your process for finding that 'essence' of the space/building and capturing it in your photography?
A: I used to say if you look through the view finder and smile at the building the building will smile back. That is where you find the essence—it is in your connection with that building. Very philosophical, yes, but you would not think that if I was talking about a person. Why would we not view it this way?
Q: You and I have talked about the constructed nature of architectural photos, and how there exists a symbiotic relationship between buildings and photography, and how image capture can actually affect design. Can you talk about how you view your task as an architectural photographer?
A: I always feel I record history but with my own twist about it. Feels good to know I can showcase history through my eyes.
Q: Is architectural photography important? How? Why?
A: It is a lot more now than ever, people are seeing the new concepts of the future only in the architectural renderings of futuristic buildings, the only glimpse of the future is there and this makes them more interested in architecture and architectural photography.
Photorealistic 3D Imagery
Q: Speaking of renderings, I spoke with a couple local architects you work with, and one in particular wanted me to ask you about the impact of photorealistic 3D imagery on contemporary architectural photography. Are we are now in an era where contemporary architectural photography is merging with imagery so flawless that it diminishes its relevance? Do we need to change our values and embrace imperfections again?
A: I am going in the opposite direction. I really don’t like the perfect images. There are photographers that do them. I have told the architects I like to go as far in the alleyways as I can, see the ugly side. In my opinion 3D is interesting for a certain amount of time, what people are interested in is the raw behind the scenes.
Working with Architects
Q: You’ve told me that you take instructions from architects with a grain of salt and try to find your own narrative. What questions do you ask architects to get into their mind and discover the story they want to tell?
A: I want to know the thing that inspired them to actually build the way they do. You can see it in their eyes what they are excited about.
Q: Do you think you see space in a way that other photographers don't?
A: I totally see places the way no one does. This is why I do not believe in competition. We are what we are and we are shaped the way we are because of our experiences. No one sees the world the way others do.
Q: How do you approach a space for the first time as a photographer?
A: When I enter a space I know immediately which will be the shot or the shots. It is intuitive no matter what the light is. I work the whole building from there, I tie all shots to that one key shot and tell the story around it.
Beauty vs Reality
Q: Some buildings can look amazing in a photo and can feel horrendous in person. What role does a beautiful photo of a building have—especially if misaligned with reality? Are they projecting an idealized version of the architect's vision or do they distort the very notion of what buildings do by not truly showing them lived in or used as they are intended? How do you manage the tension between "the glam shot" versus being honest and telling the real story of a building and its intended uses/experience.
A: Every building has beauty, I really do not show up at a place that is not spectacular and think it is not spectacular, this is failure from the beginning. I used to photograph five star hotels in the Bahamas and then be sent to do a Super 8 outside of Indianapolis. I made them look both as good as I could, spend the same amount of time making them shine. If the general public goes to a building and does not see what they want it is not because the building is bad, it is because their expectations are different. If they are there with me in the early hours of the morning or when the light is amazing they will see it the same way.
Q: What do you do when you’re asked to heavily retouch a shot to make a building look better than it really is? Do you feel there is an ethical obligation to either the architect or the audience?
A: I think if the architect did not have the budget to do the building the way he or she wanted we have the right to retouch it. They are so restricted by budgets, but it happens very rarely to retouch so much.
Q: Some of your images seem almost impossible. To what lengths will you go to get a shot?
A: Any length, anything, there is no peace of the mind if I know I could have gotten something I did not. I am up at any time of the day or night, I have been on locations that I should not be legally, have been kicked out of the Vatican 2 times, Covent Garden once, have my camera confiscated as the building I was photographing was close to MI6 in London, have randomly asked strangers to let me in their apartments and have been on many rooftops without a harness. I have done it all. I get the perfect image there and then, I do not crop a shot ever.
Q: You’ve said publicly that you don’t identify as an art photographer, or even really as an architectural photographer as much as a photojournalist. Can you explain what you mean? Do you equate photographing a building like portraiture or street photography?
A: Buildings are so much better, they do not talk, do not fuss and are not scared of the camera. I feel buildings wait for us to tell their story. This is where the photojournalism comes.
Inventing vs Capturing
Q: Do you think you are inventing as much as capturing?
A: My role is observing and capturing, for me life is very black and white, I feel I am given the great opportunity to record what architects have invented.
Q: I love your origin story and how your background has shaped your practice. Can you tell us about your early experiences and who taught you the most?
A: Bulgaria, conflict, education, TV presenter, Magnum, VRX Studios, etc...
Q: So your education was long and you had mentors. Do you teach or mentor others now?
A: I did, I mentored an entire team for VRX studios. I tried to make them see the bigger picture, I am still in touch with all of them. Currently I have no time but I have responded to anyone who has asked me anything technically. I will do hopefully soon.
Q: I know how hard it is to keep up with you on a shoot. Can you tell me what makes a great assistant for you?
A: I expect from Tina and now Jon to know what I want all the time. I do not teach them I feel it has to be obvious. Good assistant for me is someone that can manage me mainly, manage the client, see all aspects of the situation we are in and follow what I do. When I gave birth I showed up on a shoot without the camera equipment or lighting. While I was talking to the client Tina opened the boot of the car, saw that there is nothing in it and said “ Sorry we have forgotten a cable, I will be back in 15 min.” No one even understood, including me until later what had happened. Now that is assisting.
Q: Tell us about any routines you keep and how they impact your work.
A: I am the person that has no routine, I actually don’t like rules and set lifestyle makes me feel trapped. Only routine every morning when I wake up I look at a card by my bedside of a beautiful desert through a window, the card says “It is your mind that creates the world” I look at it every day as I feel this is the most important thing to know.
Q: You now have two children, and were VERY pregnant on shoots we’ve done together. How do you manage your busy schedule and raising a family?
A: Yes I am one of these crazy women that think they can do it all. I have to say balance when your pregnant is a different story but I was 7 months pregnant on the roof in Oxford circus at night photographing for Janet Echelon and as you remember on the diving boards in Grandview Heights. I did go on a scout with Heather Howatt and Val from Battersby Howatt 10 days after giving birth and tried to hide it. In my case I have a village of people helping me, my amazing mum, nannies that have become like sisters, girlfriends that are there for everything.
Q: Speaking of being a “crazy woman”, you’ve said one of the secrets to your success is being fearless and taking risks, but I assume that hasn’t always worked out so well. 😉 Can you share any memorable risks or failures you’ve experienced in your career and what lessons you learned from it?
A: The truth, I have no failures in my work life, might be a terrible thing to say but I do not. I have given 100000% every time I have stepped on set. My failures is to balance personal life and work. There is no such thing really. I never learn lessons either. I believe I do my own rules and every time someone has tried to coach me I feel I have listened and still did what my gut tells me.
Q: You often get to hang out with the wealthy elite, be they homeowners or architects. What do you say to those who argue that you enjoy privilege and even propagate the fetishism of luxury through your work?
A: I love luxury, love it. I would love to have $10,000,000 in my bank account. I will still work as hard but will not be worried who takes care of my parents and everyone I help back in Bulgaria. Will also allow me to travel as much as possible. Being wealthy is security and options to explore the world.
Q: Tell us about how you approach the business side of your career? Do you actively do marketing or sales?
A: I do things very strategically, if I have any other career I would have wanted would have been related to strategy. The book that I have read a million times and never leaves my bedside table is Art of War. I know how to go from point A to point B very quickly and logically. This is why I am telling you I am not an artist, my brain is too logical.
Q: Would that be your best advice for this crowd then? I imagine a good portion of the audience are photographers themselves, keen to understand some of the technical issues involved in architectural photography. What are some other practical insights or tips you could share for folks keen to up their game when it comes to shooting the built world?
A: Apprentice, I have not become what I am overnight. Everyone thinks so but not the case. Architects do it, designers do it, I spent endless hours doing it. Why are we different? I worked for VRX and did architectural photography so worked 2 jobs for 10 years to build a career.
Q: Do you find Vancouver a challenging city to be based and work in?
A: Not at all. I always say all this excuses that we cannot make it here because it is too small and I am moving to Toronto or NY. If you cannot make it here how are you going to make it anywhere else? Vancouver is amazing, the architects are amazing, the work is groundbreaking, the world is starting to see that.
Q: You are vocal about Vancouver modernist architecture. Do you ever shoot old buildings?
A: Yes, I do, rarely but it happens. Versatile architects do it all so you have to take the modern with not so modern from time to time.
Q: You once told me about the greatest compliment you ever received from a client. Tell me about that.
A: An architect said I saw something he hadn’t ever noticed.
Q: Last question: Who haven’t you shot for, or what future plans or project are you dying to tackle?
A: Shooting with architects in Cabo, Portugal and Brazil, some incredible buildings."