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Globetrotting Architecture Photographer Iwan Baan on Finding the Soul of a Building

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Iwan Baan completed two photo series for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a set of aerial photos focusing on the city's industrial landscape, and a second, street-level collection inspired by the work Alvin Boyarsky. All images by Iwan Baan courte
Iwan Baan completed two photo series for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a set of aerial photos focusing on the city's industrial landscape, and a second, street-level collection inspired by the work Alvin Boyarsky. All images by Iwan Baan courte

When clicking through coverage of architecture, the buildings and designers may change, but one thing, or name, often remains the same. Dutch photographer Iwan Baan has become today's pre-eminent architecture photographer, with an ability to "humanize" projects that keeps him constantly circling the globe shooting high-profile projects. He was still carting around his top-of-the-line Canon camera and living out of a suitcase when we spoke to him at the Chicago Architecture Biennial last week, where he has a new series of photos on display; he was returning from shooting in New Caanan, Connecticut, and on his way to Washington, D.C. to shoot the expansion of the Glenstone Museum. Curbed spoke to Baan about his process and philosophy, and why "it's so important to step back from the architecture and really show where a place is."

How do you scout out locations, and how do you tackle something as big as photographing a city, like you did with the Biennial project?
"It always takes a lot of time to get into it. I asked Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, the artistic directors of the Biennial, and one of the other organizers who does a lot of work with photography, for ideas. Alvin Boyarsky was also interested in the art, and using all the former industrial sites. He would ask, 'Why was the city here?' I wanted to see all these sites and see if they were still in use and how they were inhabited."

How long did you spend on the project?
"Actually, I know the city pretty well, so not very long. My first project here was the Rem Koolhaas train station at IIT. It was the first time I was paid to take architecture photos. Before that, I was doing more documentary work. I wasn't really thinking about architecture and it was pure coincidence. A couple of my friends introduced me to Rem, and I was just fascinated with the way he worked. He liked my photographs, gave me the job, and it just went from there. That was my first time here in the city, and I've been coming back for a decade."

A big part of your style seems to be about humanizing the buildings and places you're capturing.
"It's about taking a step away from the architecture. Try and explain why it could only be in that one place in the world. Show the specific circumstances and the history of the area."

What do you consider a good photograph?
"I try to get sort of to the soul of the place. I always start to ask myself these kind of questions: Why is the project here instead of somewhere else? What does it do for the people, the city, and the places around it? If you can come up with a photo that can answer those questions, it's much more interesting."

What advice would you give people photographing architecture or their homes?
"For me, it's amazing how many great photos you can take with a phone. The best camera is the one you have with you. It's less and less about the technology and more about capturing the moment. Now, everybody can do it, and do it more often. There aren't really rules anymore."

Do people ever ask you, "Hey, why are you sneaking around this building taking photos?" Do you ever get in trouble?
"Yes, especially in cities with security issues, where there's animosity between cops and photographers. People will ask me what I'm doing. But at the same time, the entire world is being photographed, and everything is online."


· 10 Things We Loved at the Chicago Architecture Biennial's Cultural Center Show
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· The Curbed Guide to the Chicago Architecture Biennial [Curbed]
· 26 Iconic Downtown Buildings That Every Chicagoan Must Know [Curbed]