‘For me it’s very important to look at a full spectrum, from working with people like Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas or Herzog & de Meuron, to how people build for themselves out of pure necessity’
Iwan Baan is the most sought after architectural photographer on earth. Living entirely from suitcases and hotel rooms, he is courted by architectural royalty the world over. As his new show 52 Weeks, 52 Cities opens in Herford, Germany, Baan speaks to the AR’s creative director Simon Esterson about his photography and fascination with ordinary people’s extraordinary use of space
Simon Esterson: It’s a fantastic range of pictures and locations: would you say that the year the book documents is an exception, or is this pretty standard for your travelling patterns?
Iwan Baan: No, it is rather standard for me. The last eight years I’ve done virtually nothing else but travel like this. You could say I’m more and more following my own interests, especially into vernacular architecture. Of course, a lot of people know my photography more from the commissioned architecture work, but I’m interested in the wide variety of ways people make a life for themselves.
SE: I get a sense that this book is almost suggesting this might be the end of your career as an architectural photographer, as you spin off into personal projects, following the things that you find interesting.
IB: No it’s definitely not the end, but I think for me it’s very important to look at a full spectrum, from working with people like Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas or Herzog & de Meuron, to how people build for themselves out of pure necessity. And I think all across that whole spectrum you see the same kind of needs, solutions, of course applied in totally different ways, but it’s fascinating to have this sort of ‘bird’s-eye view’ of what’s going on at the moment in the world.
SE: How do you find working with architects? Some architects are incredibly controlling about their photography, among other things.
IB: It’s a strange thing. I’m not an architect myself and I know, basically, little about architecture, but I’ve been always fascinated with space, what people do in spaces, how the spaces are used and sometimes taken over by their users. These architects give me complete free rein, they know my fascinations and interest in these kinds of things and I guess they are also looking for a fresh eye. So there is usually very little discussion about projects before I start working.
SE: So there’s no intensive briefing or request that you stand at this position at three o’clock in the afternoon when the sun is perfect?
IB: Absolutely not, no. I approach all these projects in the same way, whether I’m photographing in a rural village in the middle of China or if I’m photographing for Zaha Hadid. I’m always trying to tap into a sense of place with a fresh and open eye, looking at all of the things happening around built spaces.
SE: Do you worry that it’s becoming an idea among architects that they must have their building photographed by Iwan Baan because that proves it’s a great building? You’re being wheeled in as the man who will make a building look right in a 21st-century context’?
IB: Yeah … sometimes … but I’m selective with the projects I take on. I also think from a non-architect’s perspective. I need to be interested and fascinated with the place as well. With my kind of schedule I have to turn down lots. I’m in a fortunate position to really follow my own instincts and interests in the work of specific architects. Some I have a very close relationship with and document all their projects, and others they come and go.
SE: Do you sometimes wish you could spend more time in one place, with one building, rather than being on this amazing schedule of work?
IB: In a way it’s a kind of strange life I have, moving all the time, but it keeps you incredibly focused and fresh and ready to step into these new places, record things that are happening. In a way it’s fast, but it’s also a slow way of working. Once you are there in a place you really spend time there, you are there two, three or four days and you don’t do anything else other than just be at one with that environment and with the space.
SE: Supposing it’s raining all the time and the sun doesn’t come out in the three days?
IB: I think with a lot of architectural photography that it’s always about only the perfect image, the perfect sunshine, and I’m not so much about that. I think a great building can also look great when it’s pouring with rain.
SE: Do you think it’s true that a great building looks good in the rain, but actually a mediocre building doesn’t?
IB: Of course I think there are ways to make a nice picture with the perfect stream of light which makes a nice composition. But I try to create a story of the building and around its context. It’s not just about that perfect composition, there are a lot of other things that can work in different circumstances.
SE: I think one of the things you’ve done is reconnect architects with aerial photography. If we look back there are people who have done it at other periods, but certainly few people doing it in an architectural way recently (John Gollings being the notable other exponent). Tell me, you obviously use helicopters, do you use cameras mounted on drones too?
IB: Yes, you use any means to get up in the air. For me it’s important to get that sort of perspective and give the building a place in the city and the environment. So it was always natural to go up, sometimes it’s up another building, if that building isn’t there you use helicopters. The helicopter is a great tool to position yourself at a specific angle where you can give so much information on the place and the city. Sometimes it’s in a hot-air balloon, I also now have one of those remote-controlled helicopters but that’s more for places where you can’t rent normal helicopters, like the middle of Africa or China.
SE: The architectural photograph I remember most vividly from last year is your aerial shot of the little floating school in the Lagos lagoon: there’s something both romantic and terrifying about that picture. Tell me abit about that, actually taking that picture and covering that building.
IB: I’ve known Kunlé, the architect, for a long time. He worked at OMA, he’s a good friend of mine, so I knew he was working on this school project. I went there a few times last year, first during construction, and I saw that incredible self build neighbourhood; 150,000 people live there on the water in circumstances impossible for Westerners to contemplate. And what Kunlé did there, building this school, and also a kind of beacon which you could see from all thesurrounding roads in the neighbourhood, engendered such pride in the new building and the construction. It was really a project where the neighbourhood was involved, they helped to build it, source the materials, so it’s not just an amazing structure Kunlé built, but also the whole story of that neighbourhood and the people there.
SE: And the picture, was that a helicopter shot or a plane shot?
IB: I tried to rent helicopters there but it was impossible so this was actually a remote-controlled helicopter above the water, and things of course happen once in a while with these remote controlled helicopters. I actually lost mine there in the water, this was one of the last pictures it took. The $30,000 helicopter disappeared into the lagoon there.
SE: There were two fascinating things I read in the introduction to your book. One was that you do your digital photographic processing on the plane, which I presume means you sit there with your laptop selecting pictures and adjusting contrast and things.
IB: Basically yes, but I do very little to the pictures, it’s like bits that you did before in the darkroom, colour correction. It’s not much work. I try to get things as good as possible in the picture itself of course.
SE: So it’s not like Andreas Gursky re-imagining the photograph in digital post-production?
IB: Definitely not, no.
SE: The worrying thing I read in the text was that your flat burnt down in Amsterdam so now you don’t really have a home. What happened?
IB: It’s almost three years ago. My studio and apartment here in Amsterdam completely burnt out in a strange accident, a printer short-circuited and started a fire when no one was here. It is one of those events, in a way, that trigger a realisation. I’d had the house for a long time, but I had so little there that it had become a burden. So, in a strange way, the fire was liberating. Everything I really need fits in the one suitcase Itravel with, so I just continued the way I was doing.