Robert C. Lautman, 85

Robert C. Lautman, 85; architectural photographer

Photographer Robert C. Lautman's gorgeously lit work included Washington National Cathedral, Monticello, Mount Vernon and countless private residences. His photos were also featured in a Ken Burns documentary. (Robert C. Lautman)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009

Robert C. Lautman, 85, a renowned architectural photographer whose gorgeously lit work included Washington National Cathedral, Monticello, Mount Vernon and countless private residences, died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 20 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He lived in Washington.

"Lighting is everything," he told Residential Architect magazine last year. "Somebody once said, 'Architectural photography consists of two things: knowing where to stand and knowing what time to stand there.' That, of course, has to do with light. The rest is just technology."

Others might disagree. "The subtle play of light and shadow in his photographs captures and compliments the nuances of architectural design," the American Institute of Architects said in 1973 when the organization gave him its highest award. In February, Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum, called him the undisputed dean of Washington architectural photographers.

Mr. Lautman -- sought after by architects, documentary filmmakers and magazine editors -- created a series of 1850s-style platinum prints of Monticello that were used in Ken Burns's PBS documentary on Thomas Jefferson, and those photos became the subject of a book. A misty image of architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen's house in New England's Berkshires hangs in the offices of the Washington chapter of the AIA "and never fails to elicit sighs from visitors," the chapter's magazine reported in 2001.

His pro bono photos of the old Pension Building, before it became the National Building Museum, helped save that structure. Official National Park Service guidebooks to Washington use his images of the city. Over a 40-year span, he patiently documented the construction of the Washington National Cathedral.

"It is a pleasure to study such photographs at length," Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey wrote in 1996. "Many photographers have stood in more or less the same place [in the cathedral's nave] to capture a dramatic, long view of this interior. Yet so clear are the repeated piers, ribs, trefoils and triforium arches in this photograph that it makes the point better than any other picture I have seen -- the whole is greater than the parts, but the parts themselves are great."

Robert Clayton Lautman was born in Butte, Mont., on Nov. 8, 1923. With his first box camera, he shot photos for his junior high school yearbook. He attended Montana State University in Bozeman for a year before heading East. He worked briefly as a copyboy at The Post and then enlisted in the Army during World War II.

The Army made him a combat photographer in the Pacific. He volunteered to parachute onto Corregidor, although he had never before made a jump. He landed safely, shot combat scenes and ran under fire all the way to deliver his film to a PT boat.

He twice received the Bronze Star Medal for his work on Corregidor and for volunteering with a band of Army Rangers who conducted a daring raid of the Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines, liberating 513 prisoners of the Japanese. The raid has been the subject of movies and books.

After the war, he trained with several photo studios in New York, and in 1948, he set up his own Washington photo practice in a stable behind the Cosmos Club. By 1954, he was toting as standard equipment "a lineman's pole climbers and safety belt for shooting from telephone poles and trees," a Post story said. In 1996, he was still going out on a limb, dangling from the end of a construction crane at the cathedral to get the right angle on a scene.

In 1954, Mr. Lautman was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was one of 11 area residents who refused to answer the committee's questions that year on constitutional grounds.

The experience didn't seem to harm his career. He soon gained the respect of modernist architects, who became loyal clients. In the 1960s, developer James Rouse sent him across the country, and his national reputation began to grow. The appearance of his work in Home and Garden, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, Elle, Smithsonian and other magazines helped, too.

"Every new assignment is a crash course," he said in 1997.

His son Andrew, who worked with him as a photographer, died in 2001.

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Kay Partney Lautman of Washington; a son, Jonathan Lautman of Livingston, N.J.; a sister; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Robert Lautman donated his 30,000 prints, transparencies and negatives to the National Building Museum, which has displayed his work this year in a rotating exhibit.

Despite all the modernist houses he photographed, Mr. Lautman lived with his family in a 1911 farmhouse in the Tenleytown section of Washington. Visitors described it as full of quirky acquisitions from junk shops and antique stores. "It looks like a kid's drawing," he said.

Houses that make for great photography are "the ones where the warmth of the inhabitants comes through," Mr. Lautman told The Post in 1997. "I'm fascinated by the relationship between people and the spaces they make for themselves."

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