Dami Lee on Architectural Photography

Dami Lee, Vancouver BC.

Dami is an architectural designer, working in Vancouver, BC. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Architecture, and is on her way to getting her architectural license. While she spends her days in the pragmatic world of construction, her passion for visual storytelling has led her to architectural photography. Her graduate thesis discussed slow reading and the aspect of serendipity in the experience of our environments, focusing on buildings that seem benign at first glance but only reveal their true beauty when we slow down and observe. She follows this methodology in her work, as she seeks subtle, fleeting moments in buildings, such as light, shadow, or the interaction of people.

She has received a number of architectural awards for her theoretical work, (such as the AIA Henry Adams Award, Toronto Society of Architects Award and the Frank Leva Scholarship) & she attributes her accomplishments largely to her ability to create a narrative through images.

Dami has been taking photos of architecture for about 10 years, but mostly for documentation purposes. She started taking photography more seriously just a few years ago, for that she largely 'thanks to Instagram'.

"When I was in architecture school, I realized that the most convincing way for me to present my projects is by creating a visual narrative that I could walk people through. ‘To create a story through the subject’. Buildings are beautiful on their own but when you set them in a specific context, scale & illustrate how people relate to them, that’s when architecture becomes meaningful & poetic”.

Dami currently uses a Sony A6500. She loves how small & portable it is, easy to carry as she doesn’t like carrying heavy things around so this one’s ‘perfect for me’ as she describes. She uses 18-105 F4 right now, as according to her, with zoom lenses it’s pretty adaptable to any situation & it allows her to focus on the composition.

Sharing her fond experiences further Dami expresses that she love walking around the forest & seeing the way they catch light at certain times of the day. She loves photographing trees. Especially in BC, there are trees that are hundreds of years old, with beautiful cracks & knots in them. It’s one of those subjects that are so much more beautiful in person than in photos… so Dami tend to keep those photos for herself.

As an Architect Dami knows how building surrounding behaves with respect to the built structure & has a keen eye to make that architecture stand out, because buildings don’t move, she likes to try to capture fleeting moments around buildings. It can be the way light & shadows move through the building at a specific time, or a snapshot of someone interacting with the building. When all those things align with the right proportion & scale, you know you have something special.

There is always that interest which develops over the period of time when you are an architect about the type of architecture, various architects & even spaces.

"I love photographing Brutalist or modernist buildings because they are usually made of pure, simple forms, clean lines & a fairly restrained material palette. They are very raw & devoid of ornamentation which makes them kind of timeless. I think they’re also the type of buildings that are most overlooked, (even despised) by most people, so I have fun trying to bring out the beauty in them".

When you have interest in particular thing, eventually you develop it with experiences & learning,

Dami used to take these ‘architectural pilgrimages’ to famous works of architecture - which, by the way, are often in very remote locations. 'The older I get (& the less time I have)' as she describes, she likes to couple her shoots with her vacations. Whenever she go on a trip, she searches for interesting buildings in the area & make a point of visiting them. This keeps the stress away & she actually tend to find a lot more architectural gems when she is just walking around the city with an ice cream.

When Dami is at home, she pretty much walks, bikes or transits everywhere. So whenever she sees a building or space she like to photograph, she just save it on her maps so that she can remember to come back later when the lighting is perfect.

It takes years to develop your own style, it all starts with the feeling you get when you see a space & try to click it in best possible way you can,

"I am still in the process of defining my personal style but I identify with essentialism & surrealism. I like using negative space with a few other elements in the shot, & reduce the composition down to a few geometric shapes. In reality, this kind of condition is pretty rare. There’s exit signs, railings, sprinklers, storefronts that really clutter a composition. I think the more you can refine the image to show less (whether through careful framing or post-production), the more it feels like the image could be from an other-worldly place".

Before travelling Dami says, she usually makes loose list of buildings she would like to see, but usually she only gets to see a few of them. When there’s a location that she is keen on photographing, she plans out the time of day because it will affect the lighting, the amount of people, etc.

'I visit Venice quite often'. It’s one of her favorite places & one of the few places where Dami says she just takes her camera, walk around without a destination, & find countless beautiful moments to capture. Unlike many big cities, where you have a sensory overload of seeing signs, buildings, & billboards right in front of you, Venice is made up of narrow alleys & it really focuses your senses on the few elements, like the textures of the old decaying walls & the reflections of the water. There are no cars so everything is slower & quieter.

In the future, she would like to visit Japan. Japanese architecture is so simple, elegant & Japanese architects make incredible use of void space & shadows. Dami would love to visit the works of Tadao Ando & Kenzo Tange because they use very simple elements like concrete, light & shadow to create poetic spaces.

Inspiration leads to do great things in life, there are works, people, artists who inspire you & eventually leading you to create a masterpiece. Dami explores further, first, there’s the kind of inane pleasure of creating beautiful compositions, then there’s that sensual experience of visiting the site she wants to photograph, then there’s the appreciation you get from understanding the meaning & thought that went behind the design of the space.

Dami really likes the work of the Arthur Erickson, although she is a little biased because she live in Vancouver, as she describes. Dami realized one day that his buildings are designed to observe movements in light. It’s a beautiful idea, to imagine that he sat in his studio, designing how the light would move throughout the space in a specific time of day, in a specific time of year. As she adds further, she probably would not have noticed these subtleties if she hadn’t made repeat visits to his buildings to photograph them. So there’s a real connection for her between the two disciplines, delving into architectural photography has made me a better designer & visa versa.

As for artists, she loves the work of Giorgio de Chirico. To her, it feels like his images are illustrating a place that uses the logic of our world but is not of this world. They’re mysterious, beautiful & evoke very strong emotions. She always try to create capture emotions so as his work is very inspiring.

"I like the series of photos that I took at the TWA terminal by architect Eero Saarinen. The building was built in the 60’s during what we call the jet age & the space embodies that language of Futurism. We got there around 6pm & the low sun was coming into the space, creating these long shadows. It was a really beautiful experience & I think the photos captured that ephemerality".

According to Dami the hardest part of being an architectural photographer is developing your own unique style & capturing an audience who may or may not be interested in architecture, because architectural photography usually doesn’t have an identifiable person as the subject, it needs to be unique in other ways, like the tone, perspective or the emotion it conveys. It takes time to develop a style, "I can’t say that I’ve nailed it down… but the journey’s the fun part right?" Dami expresses further.

There are always these experience, giving you goosebumps but memorable,

"The day I experienced aqua alta for the first time - it’s where the tide peaks cause the water levels to rise in Venice & causes partial flooding in the city. You have to walk on these temporary decks & the city becomes a bit chaotic. The water level wasn’t too bad that morning so we made our way out to explore. At a certain point in the day it just started pouring there was water halfway up our ankles & I had to walk around with these plastic bags around my feet. We made our best efforts to run back to our hotel while I was trying to protect my camera inside my jacket. Of course then we got lost, because Venice is basically a labyrinth. Thankfully we found at a local bar, got some directions & some wine. The next morning, the entire city was covered with fog & an air of silence. I will never forget that".

You learn tricks & hacks after so much of practice Dami shares some interesting composition trick that she learned when she was in grade school from a kind of crazy art teacher & still use it to this day. When you create a composition, try drawing an imaginary diagonal line running across the image & have elements line up with it. This helps to create a sense of balance. Other than that, try to make use of void spaces, rather than trying to get the full building in the image & always make sure the horizontals & verticals are perfectly straight.

Dami Lee insta: ofsilk&stone


All the images in the article are clicked & are intellectual property of Dami Lee.

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