The award honors the legacy of Shulman, the most famous architectural photographer of the 20th century, and it cements Baan’s place as one of the preeminent figures documenting the built environment today. He has snapped pictures for all the heavyweights: Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Steven Holl. And his work is a fixture on design blogs, propping up sites from ArchDaily.com to yours truly for free — whereas most professional photogs only release images if they’re handsomely compensated (which, online, they never are). Baan is, in many ways, the Julius Shulman of the Internet age: In 40 years, when the world looks back on the architectural masterpieces of our age, it’ll be looking through the eyes of Baan.
But Baan cuts an unlikely figure. He never finished art school. He takes pictures with a point-and-shoot. By his own admission, he doesn’t “know anything about architecture.” His sui generis style owes more to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalism than to Shulman’s sleek Modernist propaganda, which is to suggest that he wields his camera like a reporter’s notebook; all the messy stuff architects hate (powerlines, blurriness, people) Baan captures happily and indiscriminately. His work has a seductive resonance at a time when good architecture is increasingly defined not just by how it looks, but how it works.
Here, he talks to us about tolerating, if not exactly embracing, the business model of the Internet; his new book on Brasilia and Chandigarh; and getting a gun pulled on him in Venezuela.
Co.Design: Your work is everywhere online; in fact, it seems like you’re subsidizing the design-blog industry. Is that a conscious effort?
Iwan Baan: It’s a little bit tricky. I?m not really pushing to have my images online. When it’s online it gets copied everywhere. I don’t mind too much if they’re just low-resolution images from my Web site and the credits are there. But my work and the way I can survive is by magazines who use my images and can pay for it. My intention is making a good book or a magazine; having images nicely printed. That’s the end product. The Internet is not the end product.
There are other photographers who won’t even release their pictures online in the first place. But you do. Have you accepted that the Internet — and showing your work for free — is part of being a photographer nowadays? And can that actually be a good thing?
It’s a difficult medium. As a photographer it’s impossible to make money from Internet publications. On the other hand, it has a wide audience. I only put myself online after a number of important publications come out. And after things have been published a number of times, these images will end up online anyway, like the architects I work with will publish the work on their Web sites.
Were you always interested in architecture?
My background’s not in architecture. I don’t know anything about architecture. I never planned to be an architecture photographer. I started with photography when I was 12 years old; that’s when I got my first camera. And I fell in love with photography. And I went to art school for photography and had a little bit of an interest in architecture. After art school 12 years ago, I worked for a few architects in Holland. And I hated it. It was super clean, no people, bright sunlight. It was not really my cup of tea. I was much more interested in documentary photography.
So how did architectural photography become your career?
I was doing a lot of different things. I wasn’t really focused on any one thing. It was by accident five years ago that I met Rem Koolhaas and started working with him and got into the whole architecture world. A friend of mine was working with him on an exhibition about the history of Europe in Brussels. I was interested in what he was doing, and at the time I was doing this sort of interactive panoramic photography I developed with friends — a special technique. So, I made a small proposal to make an interactive version of the exhibition. Rem liked it. Three days later I was with him at the EU in Brussels to present it, and it never stopped.
How is your work different from the architectural photography that’s out there?
My work is documentation around the architecture, what people do in the space, where the space is, what the surroundings are. I try to document these types of things. I?m not interested in super clean shots of the building. So around the same time as the exhibit, Rem started building CCTV in Beijing. That’s a project I’ve been documenting the past five years. I was taking pictures of the workers there. I was interested in how a project gets built in a place like China. In one way, it’s almost medieval in how they build. On the other hand, it’s very high-tech design.
Usually, architects hate all that cultural stuff. They want to show how perfect their buildings are; they want the tightly cropped money shot.
Yeah, I?m surrounded by architects and I don’t really speak their language [laughs]. Architects are so obsessed with their buildings and I?m interested in the surroundings. But somehow it makes a good fit. We meet in the middle.
Is there something about how architecture is being built now that lends itself to a documentary approach?
There is a change. People try to show more how their buildings are used; it’s not just these images with perfect sunlight and no people — the complete dead object. I get inquiries from architecture offices now that want me to photograph their generic office buildings, which I?m totally not interested in. I say no to all of them.
You also work on projects that aren’t about contemporary architecture in the traditional sense.
I like projects which make sense in my opinion. I?m working on a documentation of African projects. It’s not shiny, high-end, LEED Platinum architecture. It’s things that I think really matter for that time and place, which make a big difference in a community there. You can see what kind of projects have an impact. Or in Colombia where I’ve been a number of times, there are these neighborhoods where Pablo Escobar used to live, which were completely no-go areas until six or seven years ago, when they opened up these places, first building cable car systems to make public transport. Now they’ve built new libraries, public squares, schools, and they’re transforming the places. It’s the same thing in Caracas. The cable cars are a little bit like what you see in Austria and Switzerland, but in a completely gritty neighborhood, where I had to walk around with two arm guards and still got a gun pulled on me. These are completely crazy places. But you see what kind of transformation can be made. In Medellín [Colombia] for example, you can completely walk around now.
How do you find clients? Do they come to you or vice versa?
At the moment half my projects are ones I initiate myself, and the other half which are sent to me. While I was photographing CCTV, other things in China were starting — the stadium, Steven Holl was working on a couple of big projects there — so those came naturally, one after another. When you’re sitting in a new airport every three days, you hear and see about a lot of projects.
How do you do a shoot? Do you scout out a spot beforehand?
No, it’s intuitive. I use only a hand-held small camera, 35-millimeter digital. I don’t have assistants; it’s a one-man show. That way people don’t really realize you’re a photographer. You just walk around and look at things. Whereas if you’re there in a traditional architecture way with your big camera and assistants and tripod the best moments are gone before you can capture them.
Where are you living?
In a suitcase. I have an apartment in Amsterdam and I?m there every one and a half or two months for a day or two. Every two or three days I?m somewhere new. I?m living everywhere and nowhere!
Is that taxing?
It was not planned to be this way [laughs].
Looking ahead at the business of photography, what do you see 10 or so years down the line in terms of where you get work and how your work gets published?
I never really looked at the business side. I am the worst business person [laughs]. Somehow it works for me.
But speaking generally, the photography business has changed drastically in the past 10 years alone and by some estimates, magazines will cease to exist in the next decade. Where does that leave you?
It’s an interesting question, but I haven’t thought much about it. For me, magazines are an important part of my work. Print publications and of course books are nice because then you can really spend some time and get into a project and work on them more extensive. The end product is still the print media.
Why is that?
When you show the picture, you have very much in mind how you want to use it — for a book what type of paper you want to use. Those material qualities you cannot reproduce online.
You have a new book out about Brasilia and Chandigarh. Tell us about it.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Brasilia. So Lars Müller, the publisher, wanted to do something about it, and we came up with an idea to do a book about these modernist utopias — Brasilia and Chandigarh — and how they’re occupied and used 50 to 60 years later. The architecture is really a backdrop in these images. That’s how I approach architecture photography all the time.