Some photographers specialize in wildlife imagery or family portraiture. Some can capture a sports highlight from the sidelines like they were in the middle of a huddle, while others specialize in events, documenting history as it happens. For Brian Zehowski, however, it’s all about buildings—or, as he calls them, architecture portraits.
It started, he figures, in church. Zehowski grew up Catholic, surrounded by churches that can range from simple in their architecture to over-the-top lavish and ornate. He’d sit in Mass and daydream, gazing at the architecture. In college, when he traveled to Rome, he took thousands upon thousands of photos, and in his twenties, got a job as a museum photographer.
Zehowski never considered grouping all those loves together until he and his husband began moving around the country for his husband’s job. Zehowski, who was born and raised in Minnesota, has lived in New Jersey and Colorado, and moved to the area four years ago.
“I knew I loved photography,” Zehowski says. “It dawned on me that architecture and photography should come together as my career.”
Even though he’s a Cincinnati transplant, he’s explored the area like a native. Or, perhaps more accurately, like a tourist. He seeks out everything from quaint towns with great architecture to bustling downtown neighborhoods with historic buildings. He found the St. Francis de Sales Church in Walnut Hills (“It’s reminiscent to me of streets in Paris or Rome, where the streets are designed to have an architectural focal point at their ends,” he says.) and the old buildings in Over-the-Rhine (“eclectic, colorful, breathing”). He discovered Madison (“a hidden treasure chest of historic buildings”) and Maysville (“unexpectedly grand”).
“I was just like, oh, my god. The historic architecture here is so beautiful,” Zehowski says. “There are so many beautiful towns. These buildings are 150 years old, some even older, especially in Over-the-Rhine. They’re being revitalized, and it’s really great to see people take pride in their history and try to preserve it.”
A bright hue might attract his eye, or unexpected American gothic details. He doesn’t use filters or any social media tricks to make these bricks and windows pop, but somehow, you’d swear the houses in his photos are smiling. You wouldn’t think a photo of a house could be cheerful—but it can.
Scroll through Zehowski’s Instagram feed and you’ll see that he tends to center his subject. Lines are parallel with the edges of the photograph, with lots of right angles. The skies are the blue of the crayon you picked as a kid when you scribbled a spring day, sometimes so cheery that they reflect back from a building’s windows. Shadows aren’t ominous in Zehowski’s work. Instead, they sort of underline a feature, like a peaked roof or covered porch.
Zehowski’s favorite part of the process is post-production. When he worked a job retouching real estate photos, he realized his passion lies in sitting behind a computer with his headphones, listening to Kasey Musgraves, Beyoncé, Pink, or maybe a true crime podcast.
This time—the editing—is when Zehowski feels most creative. When he imports photos to the computer, they’re raw files, he says.
“In a way, the imported photos are the sketch to which I apply my digital paint,” he says. “I am able to zoom in and get a personal, detailed look at each structure.”
Zehowski has been building his portfolio for two years. His clients include real estate developers, apartment owners who want to use his photos of their buildings for their website and social feeds, and families who want to commemorate a current or former home. When a new coffee shop opened on West 4th Street, the owner’s sister wanted a print of the café. One client in Madison loved her grandparents’ shotgun Victorian house so much, she told Zehowski she wanted to give a print to her grandparents for Christmas.
People enjoy his work because, Zehowski suspects, they can see the joy he puts into his photography.
“I often hear from people who live or work near the buildings I share,” Zehowski says. They tell him that it wasn’t until I posted my photo that they paused, noticed and appreciated its charm.”