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Since her days at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, Hélène Binet has become one of the world’s leading architectural photographers. Her work for architects such as Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and Luigi Moretti has resulted in images that crackle with light, shadow and texture, always forming an intimate investigation of the building in question.
Though often referred to as ‘photographer to the starchitects’ the term doesn’t begin to do justice to her work. The Swiss-born photographer looks at buildings with the eye of a true artist and her photographs not only bring inanimate materials to life but also somehow seem to invest them with a soul.
Daniel Libeskind, who encouraged her to start photographing architecture, has commented on Binet's extraordinary ability to capture the contours of a building without flattening them. “She exposes architecture’s achievements, strength, pathos and fragility,” he’s said. We've just published an extraordinary collection of her photographs. It's called Composing Space and we couldn't wait to sit her down and get an insight into her creative process.
Can you tell us the kind of emotions you get from the buildings you photograph? I think the ultimate emotion is linked to the building and the size of the building. If the building is in nature or incorporated in nature or if it’s relatively small it’s one type of emotion. In a way, I see if I can control it. I walk around the building making marks on the ground. Sometimes, if it’s small I feel I can almost embrace it. If I photograph a huge building I can’t have this relationship and the building seems like it is coming at me and I have a feeling that I am confronting this, this lion that’s there! So every building will communicate something different to me. I mean it's always about a feeling of control because I put all the lines into the frame and decide exactly where they’re going to be. That’s the very strange relation I have with the building, with reality. This is always a form of control – even if I want to do very little.
Is the photograph part of you - do you interpret what you feel, or reflect what the architect appears to be saying? I like connecting objects and having the possibility of having a dialogue between very simple things. I like harmony and beauty and things which are very sensual and reduced. I like classical music when the sounds are very pure or there are very few of them and harmony which is maybe a little dissonant or unusual. That’s part of me. I'm attracted to things that have some kind of beauty in the fact that they are together. This is me. I’m very keen to work with what I feel but also to work with the score of the architect. I'm like a musician. I can interpret it but I’m not going to ignore the score. I like to somehow know as much as possible about the way he or she works.
How do you capture Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals where the true power of the building lies not in what it looks like but what it does to the person in it? You have to reduce. Photography is a very, very simple experience. It really is. You have the palette up there so it’s about you saying yes or no. I’m not going to bring you everything because it’s not possible. Obviously, that is a special building. I always say it’s built from stone, water and light. The water and the light we are very sensitive to and they touch us deeply. It’s part of the palette of the building. The building would not exist if the water wasn’t there. And I don’t think we have experience of any buildings like this where we are there to experience the water and the water is part of the whole. We experience the building completely with our body and that’s also amazing. It’s not a place where you do business, it's a place where you hope to be connected with something bigger. It’s a very human building, the waters embrace you. Only after a few days in a place like that do you open up and really hear the different noises, see the different personalities and shades from one space to another and feel the different temperatures. And in photography it’s the same. When you photograph you prepare yourself and you have this view, but only after a few days do you start to notice things that in the beginning you didn’t notice - maybe a change in the ground or the way two materials come together. You need a few days to accommodate your eye and your attention to small things. I think a lot of architecture photography very often wants to compete – that’s why you have these very nervous images - right angles, colours - because photographers think, 'my god how can I convey all of that?' My reaction is to say you can’t.
Have you ever come across a building that you feel you can’t photograph? Yes, there’s a type of building, maybe a little bit more commercial glass and steel kind where I don’t know what to grasp, where to hang myself in the proportions and in the details. It’s all quite flat, and when you start to put the camera there’s no one part where there’s a high moment or a silent moment. It’s all perfect steel and glass and I don’t know how to structure my image anymore. I’m talking more about the commercial buildings you see in the city. But it can also be physically hard (doing what I do). You go to places and they’re not finished and they’re noisy, I work a lot on sites. It’s physically tiring and noisy so you can’t concentrate. But if the architecture is good it’s not so hard.
It's no exaggeration to say your evocation of light and shadow on surface can almost induce dreamlike states when one looks through your work. When did you realise you could work very well with that? Well, it’s interesting, because before I photographed architecture I was working in an opera house photographing stage performers in Geneva. And I think this experience of having let’s say the dancer or the character of the opera coming out of the dark was for me something always important. So there was always a strong desire to put some kind of theatricality into the piece This is where I fell in love with the world of world of shadows and light. It’s interesting because I come from a very strict school of photography - advertising - where everything had to be a surreal, perfect world where the light on the knife or the bottle had to be perfect. You couldn’t have too much shadow - then I discovered that actually what I liked was the opposite! Shadow is an amazing subject. Shadow is an absence. As an absence of energy you can compare it to silence or maybe cold air. It tells you the most. But it’s the one also that can trick you. Because you could have a feeling that it’s something else that you see. If you look at anthropology, different cultures, there has always been this interpretation of shadow. Shadow is always the lead in to something else. But then if you think about shadow as a sense of light you can go back in time and space and you can see that it connects you to the past. We talk about photography being simple and architecture being complex and how do you convey something that is more deep, that allows you to dream or think This is weird so you start to dream and think and you maybe go out purely from the picture but into yourself. The light and the shadow are tools to allow you to do that. I also like the materiality of things, I like to feel the wood, the stone the concrete and for that you need light and shadow. So the shadows come and go and they change during the day. There’s no controlling that. It’s a game between me and the shadows.
And have the rules of that game changed in the shift from film to digital? Not for me! I shoot only on film and plate. I don’t touch digital. There are many reasons: mentally it’s very different to work with film. It’s expensive, it’s heavy, so you have to prepare. It’s precious and every photograph you have to say yes! It’s now! There's no fiddling about and fixing it later. I really believe the soul of photography is its relationship with the instant. And the concentration is very different. It’s like a momentum, it’s like a performance. You have to give the best of yourself when you’re there up in the mountains, or when you’ve been travelling maybe and you don’t have the amount of time that you thought you had. You really have to give the best of yourself and that is when you make something worthwhile.
The photo you took on the roof of Zaha Hadid's Transport Museum is a brilliant example of this. What made you realise the defining picture was out of sight? Well, the roof is amazing! But I’d seen some work of hers called Dune Information and I was thinking about the natural process of creating something like the dune with the wind. I thought there was in her work a dimension that was somehow inspired by events that form nature. (During her research for the building Hadid studied icebergs). By going to the roof and excluding many other aspects, maybe an entrance the viewer can hook on to it and realise oh, I’m not in the desert I’m in a museum because there’s a door. I didn't want that. It’s also 20 years of experience! Somehow during the construction you can sometimes create this pure moment. That’s why I also do a lot of work at the working stage, when you have only steel and concrete and you don‘t have doors, alarms. It allows you to go back to one, pure concept.
You’re obviously famous for working with starchitects but who are the younger architects you’d like to work with? I work with very young architects if I think they have talent. At the moment I’m working with Studio Mumbai. They’re based in the countryside outside Mumbai and they have a very beautiful way of working. The way they want to include traditional crafts and a way of making that belongs to previous generations in a contemporary architecture. I think they’re celebrating deep tradition and bringing it to complex thinking so there’s nothing kitsch or sentimental about the work. I photographed several houses, they all have different materials: wood, copper.
We know you're a fan of Le Corbusier. Have you photographed Ronchamp? No but I was in Ferminy and it was absolutely amazing - even if it was a church that was built much later. The space is so subtle and the orchestration of the light is absolutely unimaginable. It’s like giving you the best cake possible! Every moment has a different light. And purely on the concrete which I love to photograph it’s so tactile. His work is something that you could never get to the end of with your photographic exploration. It’s endless. But they’re all very human spaces I think. I’m not religious but I understand the desire to connect with something and these are all spaces where you are not too small. I like to take photos of details. It’s like cutting something into pieces and taking it apart and each one will have something to say. There are other churches where if you start to cut down, everything falls apart but with his work it really is a micro world. When you start to reduce it to the details, something else comes.
We could listen to you all day but we just wondered, what do you photograph when you’re not shooting buildings? I like to photograph the most unwanted thing - weeds! Just normal weeds, flowers in the field - the ones nobody cares about. I try to make them into something special. I love beautiful gardens, but also very, very normal little unwanted plants and I like to give them a bit of a twist. I've been doing it for just two or three years. I have a collection which I hope to exhibit. Some are done in Norway, some are done in India. I call them Field.
Composing Space is in the store now and really does have to be seen to be believed. It's a collection of absolutely stunning photographs. If you buy it for someone this Christmas we guarantee they'll still be thanking you for it this time next year.
The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture