Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.
-Susan Sontag, On Photography
Julius Shulman was best known for photography that envisioned architecture as art. His images distilled architecture as paeans to its central function in society. As such, Mr. Shulman created a photographic trope that either ignored people altogether or portrayed them as props that highlighted architecture’s mastery. It is thus fitting that the winner of last year’s inaugural Julius Shulman Photography Award went to a photographer whose focus some might arguably say is people.
Indeed, as Mr. Baan says, “Architecture for me is the frame for my subjects, and the background for interactions.” For him, the goal in photography is a narrative about people: “Foremost is to communicate how people use the space, and usually a story comes out of it.” What does that mean specifically? Well, in the case of his collection of photographs on Brasilia, it means just this: “people interact with their surroundings in ways fully out of control of the architect and city planner. I was interested most in how people inhabit the city, and adapt their surroundings to their needs. Much of life takes place in the corners, fringe and pockets of the city, as opposed to the grand, open plazas intended for interaction.”
To approach architecture photography as a frame for people’s narratives requires more than an interesting gaze. Fittingly, Mr. Baan situates his approach firmly in research, of not just the projects he will be photographing, but also the history of the city itself. That argues against the photographic approach of decontextualizing buildings as architecture extraordinaire that are removed from their environs. Again, referring to his project on Brasilia, he says, “I researched Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture, the elements of Lucio Costa’s urban plan, yet also the history of the construction of the city.” Perhaps it is this depth which allows him to see and also understand the context of other elements of the city, specifically, buildings originally intended for the construction workers. Says he, “ housing is still there, some fifty years later, and the neighborhood has a much more intimate scale for living.”
That said, however, Mr. Baan adds that there is no fixed approach or set of rules. Ultimately, what seems to make his photographs so successful is the combination of understanding his subject well rather than merely approaching them as strictly visual entities, but then giving voice to the unexpected realities that may arise: “There’s no general rule to what happens, and it’s the unexpected diversity in everyday life that makes the project interesting.”
Sherin Wing writes on the social, cultural, and political aspects of architecture and design for Metropolis Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School. She received her PhD in the Humanities from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter.
New book out soon! ‘The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School’, by Sherin Wing and Guy Horton.