Strolling past Patkau Architects’ Polygon Gallery at North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ema Peter just can’t resist taking a few shots of the building with her iPhone.
Peter has already photographed the Polygon Gallery more than once, usually starting at the break of dawn and working until dusk, following the cast of lights and shadows with her lens as the sun circles the building. Here, she pauses to review the images she captured, with a smile.
Peter, a North Vancouver resident, is also an internationally acclaimed architectural photographer with more than 50 magazine covers to her credit. Her work has been published in Canadian Architect, Azure, Architectural Record, Dwell, the New York Times, and many others. Peter counts some of the most prestigious design firms among her clients, and Architizer ranked her one of the top five architectural photographers in the world in a recent whirlwind of accolades.
But as she settles in to the seating space surrounding the gallery, Peter goes back to the very beginning. “My first memories are of me with my Dad in the darkroom. He used to black out windows in the kitchen to make it a makeshift darkroom. This is how I learned photography,” she remembers.
Almost every night, the father-daughter team lit the green lights and printed photos. Peter’s task was dipping the papers in developer and hanging them up to dry. She remembers seeing the images materialize on the paper, and thinking that it was magic.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, in the early 1980s, Peter’s father’s profession was film, but he photographed out of a passion that he passed on to his young daughter. “Every night of my life was this, and at six years old he gave me my first camera, an old, Russian model,” Peter says.
The Peter family led a bohemian lifestyle, and always had the elite of the art community in their home: artists, actors, directors, and photographers. Peter travelled with her father as he worked, and remembers sleeping in the back of a car full of film equipment on movie sets, and flying in helicopters with film stars.
With the wonder of a child, Peter observed and absorbed what she saw on set – what was done with camera filters, and remembers having conversations about art and filmmaking as young as eight years old. “My childhood was really incredible because it taught me to be sensitive to lights and shadows – and this is how my photography started,” she says.
Her obsession with architecture would come later: as a youth, Peter roamed the streets of Sofia, watching people and photographing their faces.
The wonder of her childhood was soon shattered when communism fell in Bulgaria in 1989, and a 12 year-old Peter witnessed the burning of the Parliament building in Sofia when hundreds of rioters stormed the offices of the Socialist Party the following year.
“In Bulgaria, in Eastern Europe, after the communist regime fell, we were completely deprived, of anything. We realized that communist regime, that utopia, where everything was perfect, that they had actually generated billions in debt, so the country was in bankruptcy. There were huge protests. Everything collapsed.”
Peter remembers living on rations of one loaf of bread a week, and not having sugar, or fruit or vegetables. “We led a very challenging life. Everybody lost their jobs. The film system collapsed completely, so my Dad started painting apartments to support us,” Peter says.
Years later, Peter studied photography at the National Academy of Theatre in Sofia. It was a very competitive and prestigious program – only six people were accepted per year. Peter was the only female. But Bulgaria’s political turmoil wasn’t over, and student protests rocked the streets, with Peter actively participating. With jobs and food still scarce, Peter’s struggle was palpable – she slept on the streets for three months.
Even now, happy, with a family and successes beyond imagination for many, Peter constantly remembers that plight. “Because of all of this, I never think of myself as too much, because I always go back to those days,” she says. “Memories definitely keep you humble.”
When the city stabilized, Peter continued at the University, mentored by photojournalist Roumen Georgiev. She went on to earn masters and PhD degrees in photojournalism from the National Academy of Theatre in Sofia.
During her studies, Peter interned at the Magnum agency in Paris, and was surrounded by the world’s top photojournalists. The famed Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is known as the father of modern photojournalism, had a huge influence on Peter, and she was mentored directly by Cartier-Bresson’s wife.
Peter spent months in the archives reviewing thousands of images, as the biggest magazines in the world called in requests for photo spreads of the world’s worst famines and disasters. She remembers seeing images of some of the most historically significant events in photojournalism. After, she returned to Sofia, and worked as an anchor for two years on Bulgarian National Television.
Peter met her husband, who was a geologist from the U.K. mining for gold in the newly democratic Bulgaria. Peter left with him on a post to Turkey, where she travelled the country and photographed its landscapes before immigrating to Canada at age 24.
“I feel like in Canada, I’ve been given such an incredible chance to be who I am – my colleagues in Bulgaria went nowhere, because there was nowhere to go,” she says. “My whole life I thought, ‘well what if I try?’ I’ve never thought there were things that were impossible to achieve.”
Peter brought Cartier-Bresson’s philosophies with her to Canada, and his influence has been the cornerstone of her approach to photography. “He was a purist who believed in and taught the concept of the ‘decisive moment’. He believed that a moment in time can be captured – a perfect moment. My whole career is based on that decisive moment,” she says. “In that moment – everything is perfect. Your vision aligns with the shadows; aligns with the person passing.”
It took months for Peter to catch a break in Vancouver, and she remembers knocking on a lot of doors. But when the agency acting as the sole provider of imagery for Expedia hired her, Peter travelled the world photographing modern luxury hotels for brands like Hilton and Fairmont. Her love for modern architecture and minimalism grew, and back in Vancouver, she started noticing more projects that matched the aesthetic. “Our architecture is elevated here,” she says.
Peter admits that her love of beautiful, modern buildings stems from witnessing so much ugliness in her youth. She remembers the drab, grey concrete buildings that marked the architecture of the communist era in Eastern Europe.
Today, Peter is focused on photographing exactly the projects she believes are going to create the future of architecture. “I don’t like conventional. I don’t like old-fashioned. I’ve always aimed for the future, and I think it comes from the fact that I lived in a very past state, and maybe part of me wants to see the future,” she says.
Working with today’s top modernist architects like Bing Thom, Patkau and others, Peter feels like she is seeing the future now. “My whole approach is combining photojournalism with architecture. I like photographing the people in the buildings, I don’t like the buildings to be empty,” she says, describing her photographic signature: capturing the movement of bodies within spaces, adding a new layer to the simplicity of anachronistic space.
“You have to take an empty room and do something creative with it, furniture or not, and create something that will make people say, ‘wow, I never saw that.’ When we look at architecture, we need to feel something.”
What Peter loves most about her work is meeting the people involved in the projects, and talking about ideas, about life. She doesn’t think about the prestige, which she asserts is always transient.
Paramount to Peter’s creative process is, when looking through her lens at a building at the break of a new day, to smile. “No matter how I’m feeling, I have to smile, and the building smiles back,” she says.
On every shoot, on every set, Peter is there from dawn till dusk, in perpetual pursuit of the perfect shot – the decisive moment in the present – and always looking for the future.