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Architectural Photographer Knows Boston Like the Back of His Hand

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Peter Vanderwarker
Peter Vanderwarker Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker

Peter Vanderwarker started taking photos when he was a 15 year-old-old student at Phillips Andover Academy.

“I was a clueless teenager,’’ he said. “The school had cameras.’’

His mother was a successful commercial artist and travelled all over the country for work. He said she was the artist in the family and at the time he didn’t know he would later be one as well.

Although photography had become his true passion, Vanderwarker earned a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley – at his dad’s urging. He then practiced architecture for what he referred to as “two miserable years in New York City.’’

“My dad was smart,’’ Vanderwarker said. “I did like it, but didn’t like practicing.’’

While in New York, he also worked on films as a cameraman. But he said photography was in his blood – and so was Boston.

An image of Boston reflected in the Hancock building. —Peter Vanderwarker

When he was 30, he returned to Boston from New York and decided to become a freelance architectural photographer.

“I was very poor,’’ he said. “But very happy.’’

One day, Vanderwarker strolled into the Boston Public Library in search of historic prints of the city, not realizing he was going to meet a person that would help him publish his first book.

It started with a chance encounter with Sinclair Hitchings, the man who was in charge of the print collection there.

“Sinclair said I should consider re-photographing these things and see what they look like today,’’ Vanderwarker said. And that is exactly what he did for the book, Boston Then and Now.

Soon after the book was published in 1982, he began coauthoring Boston Globe Magazine Cityscape articles with Robert Campbell, which ran from 1983 to 2004. The pair created more than 200 images of Boston to go with the corresponding magazine pieces.

View of the Zakim Bridge in Boston. —Peter Vanderwarker

Boston continues to entice him.

“It’s a complicated and an old city,’’ he said. “So it has layers. I was born here. There is a lot of old money and old traditions that stick around in the city in its character.’’

Vanderwarker has photographed cities all over the world, but says Boston is unique.

“I know it inside out,’’ he said. “I love cities. Cities offer more choices in less area than other places. There is something for everyone and Boston is especially that way because the neighborhoods are small and you get to see a lot very quickly.’’

When he goes out on an assignment, he likes to look for shots that will show what cities mean and why they are good. To him “cities are man’s best invention.’’ But finding a unique shot of a city that is highly photographed is not easy.

John Hancock Tower, Boston, taken from a helicopter, 2014. —Peter Vanderwarker

“I work for architects,’’ Vanderwarker said. “So I have to find a way to show their building that is unique and beautiful. The best thing to do is walk around and look and keep your eyes open.’’

He wasn’t kidding when he says he has to “walk around’’ the building he is photographing. Vanderwarker told a story of when he was shooting a house that in his opinion was not that big of a house.

“It was very complicated set of pictures and we worked for 10 hours,’’ he said. “I turned on the fit bit and at the end of the shoot I had gone nine miles.’’

Vanderwarker doesn’t just show up to a home, snap a shot, and send it to the firm to put on their website. Taking the necessary photos takes time.

“You are just constantly looking for the time that light is showing off the place the best that you can,’’ he said. “There is a lot of moving around and testing of station points.’’

Vanderwarker in his studio in Newton. —Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker

He said that while some buildings are almost impossible to photograph well, others “are so good you can’t take a bad picture.’’

Vanderwarker’s work has been published in a variety of books and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard in the late 1990s. Gallery NAGA in Boston currently represents him and he had a solo gallery there last year. For the last 25 years he has had a studio in Newton.

But beyond his accomplishments Vanderwarker is happy to be doing what he loves.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an easy living, architecture is a great field and it sounds corny but do something you really love and do something you can do,’’ he said.