Book review: Observation is a Constant that Underlies all Approaches

Observation is a Constant that Underlies All Approaches 

By Phyllis Lambert (Lars Müller Publishers, 2023) 

REVIEW Elsa Lam 

Architect and philanthropist Phyllis Lambert has long been a collector and commissioner of photographs. Photographs undertaken with Richard Pare were a key tool in mapping out Montreal’s greystone neighbourhoods, which Lambert became instrumental in preserving. In 1974, long before architectural photography became a popular specialty, she purchased the first photograph for a collection and an institution she had not yet created—the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

In the background of this work, Lambert has continuously honed her own photography, which is presented for the first time in this book. In the fifties, she documented the Seagram Building and Plaza, for which she served as director of planning. In the mid-sixties, she photographed ancient theatres while designing the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal. Upon returning to Montreal in the early 70s, she created cinematographic slide shows (complete with recorded soundtracks) of threatened buildings for the preservation organization Save Montreal. 

Her photography continued in later travel and on architectural study tours around the world: alternating between black-and-white and colour, analogue and digital. She even reached for a Hasselblad or a Polaroid when the subject called for it, but since 1993, has stuck mainly to pocket-sized cameras: first a point-and-shoot Olympus, then a Canon PowerShot, and lately, a succession of iPhones. 

During the pandemic, like many of us, Lambert observed daily life repeatedly at close range. She took advantage of the time to photograph, over and over, the views from her windows, and vistas through the rooms and doorways of her home in Old Montreal. Why has this interest in photography persisted over the decades? “Surely,” she writes, “observation is the constant that underlies all approaches, all levels of interest, and all fascination with the medium.She adds, “Observation grows with what it feeds on, driven by focused inquiries that deepen exponentially over time.”