Had Ben Rahn started architecture school as he planned, it’s entirely possible that he might have designed some of the spaces he now shoots as an architectural photographer.
But in discovering what seemed to be a large number of dissatisfied young architects and the fun of photographing architecture and interiors, he pictured an entirely new career—quite wisely, as it turns out.
Now with A-Frame, the studio he founded in 2003 with offices in Toronto and Brooklyn, and a book, The Modern A-Frame, under his belt, Rahn has achieved maximum exposure for his work—images of spectacular spaces from residences to retail and more.
That we see these spaces so spectacularly is not all his doing. “Some spaces just are what they are,” says Rahn, with the humility of a native Canadian, despite the fact that to his clients, who, along with architects like Santa Monica-based Hagy Belzberg, include developers and designers, he is the man with the camera.
Awarding not a moment of self-promotion to himself, Rahn only adds: “It’s pretty easy to make an amazing look amazing.” But something “a little less design-forward that still serves an important function? That’s harder.”
Between the technical and artistic is where Rahn does his best work. “A beautiful abstract photograph doesn’t tell you anything beyond the frame,” he notes. “If I can build a narrative, then I can make a space more compelling.” Even largely undeviating spaces, like a hospital.
“Part of what we do is informational,” Rahn continues. “With health care, maybe the architecture isn’t as spectacular as a museum or an art gallery, but it serves a really important function. We try to show how architecture actually engages with the user, which is invaluable to what you don’t see, like good medical outcomes. It’s easy to go down the design-fetish hole and find yourself somewhere where the end user doesn’t matter. I want it to matter.”
Clearly, Rahn is no vanity-project photographer; his first foray into architectural photography was shooting abandoned buildings. True, he is in glossier territory these days—Rahn’s work frequently appears in top shelter mags including Interior Design—but his is a process guy’s way of working.
He starts with lighting, considers conditions, and consults with collaborators. While a less thoughtful lensman’s first tendency might be to find a corner in order to fit everything possible into the frame, “the more effective photograph is one that is edited and looked at in a tighter way to find the essence of a space,” says Rahn, who thinks about how to distill a project to a series of smaller images as opposed to just “big wide shots that show everything and nothing.”
In bringing his abandoned-buildings appreciation for authenticity to higher-profile projects, Rahn has become a top draw in architectural photography, which offers “a slower way of working than other kinds of photography,” he notes. “I like that it’s more contemplative.
There’s a different energy.” As for leaving thoughts of architecture school behind, Rahn, with no regrets, takes this view: “It’s been an incredible design education. I see something new every day.” aframestudio.com
PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY OF BEN RAHN FROM THE MODERN A-FRAME, REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF GIBBS SMITH