Architectural photographer James Haefner seemed destined to be the creative mind behind the camera. “I started taking pics in high school and people liked them, so I kept doing it,” he said. “I had a dark room. I was really into it.”
What began with capturing images of rock concerts and friends would become a lifelong career for the Bloomfield Hills resident, who earned a degree in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. His impressive body of work has graced the pages of books and magazines for decades.
Haefner started his photography business in 1979, doing automotive advertising work for 40 years as he traveled the world and shot images around the country. About 20 years ago, he diversified with architecture at the request of Somerset Collection, that remains a client today. “It was quite a nice diversion,” he said.
That happens to be the same time he made the switch to digital photography. As Haefner explained, “My goal is to try to find my client’s intention through the use of light, composition and lensing.”
Residential architects and interior designer clients include Young & Young Architects, DesRosiers Architects and Stephen Knollenberg. He also works on educational, hospitality and corporate projects for companies such as SmithGroup, Rossetti, HED and Anderson/Miller, Ltd.
His iconic images have appeared in books, such as “Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America,” by Amy L. Arnold and Brian D. Conway, and “Where Today Meets Tomorrow: Eero Saarinen and the General Motors Technical Center,” by Susan Skarsgard.
His recent exhibition at Cranbrook: James Haefner: Michigan Modern – based on the book, “Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy,” by Brian D. Conway – featured 50 of his images from the title published in 2018, that is now in its third printing.
For the exhibition, Haefner handled the printing of the images and other logistics from the suppliers to the shipping crates. “The pandemic gave me the time to do all this,” said Haefner.
Other recent Michigan exhibitions include the Dennos Museum in Traverse City and the Marshall M. Fredericks Museum in Saginaw.
“It was a huge honor to have my work viewed by so many people,” said Haefner, who plans to do more exhibitions in the future. “I hope people can appreciate the images and learn from them to understand Michigan’s role in the modern design movement.”
For one of his current projects, he has been documenting the restoration of Michigan Central Station in Detroit for Ford Motor Company. “Every nine or 10 months, I spend a day or two there,” he said.
For another ongoing endeavor, Haefner collaborates with Library Street Collective, a contemporary art gallery in downtown Detroit. “It’s a virtual exhibit,” he explained. “I photograph significant structures and they have their artists select images of artwork to combine everything together so it looks like the art is in the space.”
Examples include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Turkel House and Michigan Central Station back when the building was partially renovated.
Another historic project he began in 2015 features the Douglas House in Harbor Springs designed by Richard Meier (douglashouse.org).
Family remains a big part of his life, too. Daughter Jessica will soon graduate from University of Michigan Medical School and son Grant is working on his MBA at Jacksonville University, where he plays Division 1 golf, as he is one of Michigan’s top amateur golfers. “I see them often,” Haefner said.
After all this time, he still feels grateful for his creative career. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Laurie Tennent