“Genius loci originates from classical Roman religion, which refers to the protective spirit of a place; these days we use it to describe the atmosphere of a place.”

Leica UK Emerging Ambassador, Alixe Lay’s latest visual essay explores the concept of ‘genius loci’ at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Alixe discusses her process and how she ensures the genius loci of a place is preserved in her imagery.

Sir John Soane’s Museum's carpeted staircase. A bust and paintings hang from a curved wall on the left side.

Could you tell us a bit about your photographic background?

I started as a travel photographer with a focus on architecture, specifically historically and culturally significant places. I’ve used a lot of different Leica digital cameras since 2018, but I now use the Leica SL2 as my main kit.

It’s been transformative since switching completely to Leica. It elevates the quality of my images allowing me to take a photo with the right settings faster, and provides strong colours and contrasts, which makes the post-production process much easier.

A museum worker cleaning a canvas painting on a wall.

What fascinates you about genius loci and what does it mean to you?

I’ve always been captivated by the elusive and mythical quality of the spirit in every place I’ve visited. Without realising it on a conscious level, I have created a body of work since I started photographing that’s dedicated to depicting this.

A museum worker inspecting a manufact.

How do you feel these images capture the spirit of Sir John Soane’s Museum?

Beyond the visually beautiful interior spaces and artworks, the thing that makes Sir John Soane’s Museum stand out from other museums in the world is that everything you see in the museum is presented the way the great architect left it when he passed. This is a very key part of the spirit, supported by the conservators who passionately look after the museum so that the atmospheric spirit of the place can continue to thrive.

A museum worker brushing a frame hanging from a wall.

Why was the Leica SL2 the right camera for this project?

The Leica SL2 is a camera that feels the most intuitive, this is important to me as I wanted to enter a flow state and relate to my subject matter as quickly as possible. I’ve always worked with mirrorless camera systems and the fact that I can change my settings, which will be reflected in the viewfinder, allows me to be more nimble and eliminate the risk of missing a shot.

What lens/es did you use and why?

I used only the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8 lens for this project. I wanted to photograph at different focal lengths and I needed the flexibility of a zoom lens to achieve this. As there were also a lot of interior spaces to photograph, I needed a lens that was wide enough to do this without the risk of distortion.

A collection of paintings hanging on a wall.

Do you use any post-production techniques to contribute to (or maintain) the genius loci of a place?

In post-production, I mainly look to retrieve and emphasise the lighting and colour palettes of each scene. It’s important that the images still feel natural to the eye, only bringing attention to the key elements that defined my experience of the place.

To do this, I usually refer to my memories of the place and then decide which way to take the colour palette and contrasts from the raw image. Most of the spaces exuded a sense of warmth, while others felt colder, and I wanted the photos to reflect that by working on colour grading and tone curves in Lightroom.

Do you have any other projects coming up where you hope to explore genius loci more?

While the idea of genius loci is always a common thread that runs through all my work, I’ve decided to make this an ongoing photo series. I am planning to expand this by looking into the different configurations of elements that can be considered a part of the genius loci in places built for different purposes, by different cultures, each with unique histories.

A Corinthian capital among other artefacts in a museum room.

What advice would you give to a photographer who hopes to capture the spirit of a place?

Stay intensely present and pay attention to the feelings that arise when you’re experiencing a place – it’s the spirit of the place trying to tell you its story, and it might tell you a slightly different one to someone else, but that makes your version special.


See more of Alixe’s work on her Instagram and see the full visual essay here.