There’s one picture of the ceiling of the Kolumba Museum by Peter Zumthor which is quite abstract – I don’t know if you know that image – where you look up in the excavation parts, the one with the brick walls where there is light on the ceiling.
The one where you can see the light coming through the gaps in the brick wall.
Exactly. And I was shooting, and it was actually the end of the shoot, and there was a lot of construction work going on around – it looks very peaceful but then it was noisy, and there were big machines – and there were two moments that happened. One was that the electricity was cut out. Finally my brain worked better because there was not so much noise but also there was no artificial light, and suddenly, there was this very small effect of the light “touching” the concrete ceiling which made the light coming in through the brick wall much more relevant. So I had to beg the workers not to repair the problem with the power too quickly so I could take this photograph. So, in most shoots I try to plan what I am doing, but this was absolutely not planned, and I was glad it happened because it was a significant moment in capturing that building. For me it embodies a lot of things that are important. That moment of light captures the role of how light creates a “body of life” in the building, and it makes me understand how not only do we need light to see materials and space, but we also need the space to see the light. If we have light without any object or material we would not be able to see the light. This means that the relationship between light and object is incredibly important and somehow poetic. In my photograph you can feel a body of light that is playing around the room. It is created from different openings in the wall, reflecting and refracting into different beams of light.
Was this the first time you were in this city and in this space?
I had been there for four or five days. But it was the first time I shot Kolumba. After I did the photographing I came back a year later to do more photos for the museum – as it was finished with the art pieces inside. So I thought it would be interesting to go back to the same room and see if I can play around the subject. As a result I did a few colour photos, but I do think that the first set was the most successful without a doubt.
Is it the same feeling of meeting the same person some years later in the sense that the essence of the building was there?
It was different because the light was very precise in that first time and had a very important role in creating that image. The second time I was not able to find the same light and capture a similar effect. And I knew this as when you capture a unique moment it is pointless to try and recreate it. Let’s say that there was no space for evolution regarding that topic.
It is quite common in your work to photograph a building while in construction. How important are these very unique moments that you have the opportunity to shoot?
Yes. Well, I just wanted to point out that it was a working site but only on the ground. Looking up it was how it is now, it was finished. But in general, it depends on the architecture. There are some buildings where the working site is wonderful because it’s like a skeleton – it’s the childhood of a building. It is present as a raw concept without anything else – fire exits, electricity features, etc. – and it’s quite fascinating to photograph it in this state. It also almost evokes the feeling of a ruin, suggesting an invisible part, and its in that stage where you know it will never be the same again. But it does allow you to understand the space very well, to feel it and also to convey strongly the essence of the space as it is so bare. But not every building is like this. You need to have a building that has been cast or that has been constructed in a specific way – with some other buildings there’s just no interest in working while its being built.
You frequently talk about the tactile feeling which you try to invoke. In that sense, in a time where image is so present, how important is sound, and smell and temperature and all of these sensations in representing photography?
I think that we are bombarded by images. Even during the construction phase of a building you have people photographing with their phones and publishing the images somewhere online. These instant images are somehow a liberation, as the responsibility of documenting the space graphically is passed on, and there is more freedom to create, play and be abstract. This freedom has given me the possibility to explore my own concepts such as how does one translate a three dimensional aspect of space into a two dimensional medium. I am not interested in conveying everything about a space, but to communicate very reduced aspects and feeling. I try to create a small depiction of a space that can stimulate the imagination of a more complex space in ones mind. Of course smell, temperature and the tactile experience are not overtly depicted in an image, but they influence the palette of the final image. Added to this final image is the viewers own perception and interpretation of the work, and this interaction is an important part of what I am looking to do with my photograph.
Some say that you are very good at capturing fragments of a building and through it giving a global image of the building. Nonetheless, they all transmit and translate into an engaging atmosphere – something that Peter Zumthor frequently mentions. Does this image that you chose – this fragment – represent in a way something about the whole of your work, mainly the fact that it in the case of this photograph the opportunity to do it was a surprise?
I think it’s a situation where you have to prepare yourself. Probably it’s like when in music you have to make an improvisation. I try and prepare and to know the most I can about the architect, how the light works and how I feel there when I prepare my work. But then I have to let it go when it’s the right moment and just go through feeling, because in the end a building’s strength can capture you and make you go in a direction that you hadn’t planned for. And when this happens I think this is an indication that the building is very successful as it has the ability to surprise you.
Do you normally have in-depth conversations with the authors before the shooting?
I think that I naturally will want to know about the architect. It doesn’t mean I need to know his or her view, but I do want to know why they chose to make that building, what was his or her first dream, what was the main concept and why they used those materials, lights and volumes. That’s something wonderful to know, but I don’t think there has been many buildings that I have photographed without any communication. I don’t think it’s impossible but it’s hard not to know something about the architect and to be completely “new” to a piece of work.
You came from a different area that is not related with architecture. It’s not that uncommon to have very interesting people doing very interesting things in architecture who are not trained as architects. How important was that fact in your case?
It has been 25 years that I’ve been photographing architecture, which is much longer compared to the time I was not. My studies were done in three years, and then I was a photographer for the Opera House of Geneva for one year and so the part of my life that I’ve been spending looking at architecture is so much bigger than my education. But it is important of course. My early education as a photographer was very “dry”, I just had to do advertising, it was very technical, and it wasn’t inspiring. So I don’t think it had a very important influence. But i do think that working as a photographer at the Opera House of Geneva did influence me profoundly. I think that some of the most relevant experience was to have a wider experience of things outside of your own field, knowing about music, painting, craft, and sailing and climbing. All these experiences find themselves into your work and I would say that is very important.
Who are your influences?
Judith Turner was quite influential to me when I decided to photograph architecture. I don’t know how she is doing now, but I think she worked for the “Five Architects” (Eisenman, Hejduk, Graves, Meier and Gwathmey) and she did very beautiful work – very abstract, very poetic. For me she was maybe one of the first that started to do architecture photography in a very poetic way. Lucien Hervé has been very inspiring for me. And in the young contemporary architecture photography… I have been influenced but now I don’t have a name just in my head. Maybe some are not very very well known but there have been times when I have looked at a piece of work and thought “oh this is so beautiful”.
This is the full interview which is part of the editorial project “1 Photo(grapher)” and also published on Scopio Network.