Iwan Baan spends much of his life on the road. Once the world opened up to him as an adult, he started travelling and never stopped. It became his passion and his joy. The yearning to discover new places, experience diverse cultures and create visual narratives against a backdrop of architecture has not left him, even after 25-plus years as a professional photographer.
The idea of inviting Iwan Baan to collaborate and to organise an exhibition with him was conceived at CAMP four years ago. It occurred to us that creating a photo series focusing on the city and one of its landmarks, the Vltava River, might be a nice change and challenge for a photographer usually hired by the best architects in the world. This way, we could expect to see familiar places portrayed in a new light.
“I think my driving force is curiosity, which keeps spurring me on to go somewhere. And the camera is a great excuse. That first glimpse of a place I’ve never been to before, being able to see and feel what’s going on around me, how cities grow, change and differentiate themselves from each other, is very important to me,”
First time in Prague
Arranging a collaboration with one of today’s most respected photographers is not easy, given the nature of his workload and the logistics involved. One week he is photographing artworks installed in public spaces in Qatar that will be exhibited at the FIFA World Cup; the next, he is in Morocco documenting architect Jean-François Zevaco’s buildings for a forthcoming book. A few days later, he heads to Uganda to capture images of a newly completed community playground designed by the studio of Francis Kéré.
Until August last year, Iwan Baan knew Prague only from what he had heard or seen in brochures. He knew it was known as the City of a Hundred Spires and was an attractive destination for many tourists. The former Eastern Bloc countries had eluded his attention, perhaps for lack of opportunity, and getting the timing of the project right proved to be the biggest challenge.
“This was my first visit to Prague. I had a basic impression of it. I was interested in discovering what makes it special and in what else I would find here. When you live in a place for a long time, after a while you forget what makes it special. That’s why, in my work, I try to notice details that may not be immediately apparent. The same goes for Prague,” he says.
From the beginning, it was clear that he would take a different, more complex path in his photo series of Prague. He would not limit himself to the best-known and most popular sites, but would also target those that had been neglected and had some rawness to them. The unifying element of each location is the River Vltava.
“The Vltava is an important and dominant part of the city. At one point, it is majestic and splendid, while elsewhere, I saw that it was neglected and under-appreciated. These were opposites that worked well together, and I noticed them especially around the river. It was interesting to explore them,” he says.
Architecture against a backdrop of stories
Baan’s style of work does not conform to the classic concept of architectural photography, which is based on the static play of light and shadow or sharp contrasts and vistas. Baan’s photographic work oscillates between two architectural worlds - the glossy and the mundane. One example is his depiction of the everyday life of the inhabitants of the decaying skyscraper Torre David in Caracas, for which he won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice International Architecture Biennale.
As a documentary filmmaker, his desire to get close to and understand the lives of ordinary people, to document them against the backdrop of buildings, without losing sight of the connection to construction and city planning, are close to his heart. In his artistic approach, he divests architecture of its cold perfection. The buildings in his photographs do not appear to be in isolation; life flows through them. Whether it’s Zaha Hadid’s imposing cultural centre in Azerbaijan or a small glass toilet in a garden designed by Sou Fujimoto, what Iwan Baan is most interested in is the dialogue between a place and the buildings that stand on it. For this reason, he naturally and rightly resists the label of architectural photographer.
“Architects are always trying to be in control of everything, they like to point out certain details themselves, and they form opinions in advance. I, on the other hand, try to be as open as possible and only inform myself to a limited extent in advance. Obviously I know what the project I’m going to shoot is about. It doesn’t matter if my client is an architect, a city, or a university. It’s still the same process of discovery with a visual story at the end.”
From a height and on a bike
Iwan Baan creates intuitively and with abandon. He uses aerial shots to gain some distance from the architecture and capture it as comprehensively as possible. These are at the heart of his visual language. Bird’s-eye photography, for which he uses light aircraft, can be found in almost every one of his projects. It allows him to piece together a story in its entirety, as well as to show why the building and place being photographed belong together.
“I think the idea of taking shots from a height first occurred to me when I started to fly more. I always wanted to sit by the plane window and watch what was going on around me. My first aerial photography assignment was from New York, two days before 9/11. I took a lot of pictures, including the World Trade Centre. Then I arrived in Holland and found out what had happened. It was the strangest experience I ever had. Something that seems permanent to you is gone in an instant,” he recalls.
Iwan Baan relies very little on post-production, doesn’t use a tripod or special equipment, and usually makes do with a reflex camera with a 35mm lens. To get around a city, he most often opts for a bicycle. Prague was no different. “A bike is great for exploring. Plus, you can stop whenever you want. If you’re in a car, you can miss a lot of moments,” he says of his experience.
With the help of the bicycle, he mapped the banks of the Vltava. He photographed places both remote and busy. He focused on buildings near the river, industrial facilities, transport infrastructure, islands, the landscape and the bustling and tranquil life around it. He was interested in how people living by the water live and spend their leisure time. He liked how they used every available green space for their relaxation, and the laid-back atmosphere that prevailed in the capital in summer. As for architecture, he was particularly struck by the cubist buildings. Tapping into his highly honed sensitivity, he let the energy of the city rub off on him, and in doing so, he captured its character. Out of contradictions and absurdly funny moments, he created a mosaic, piecing together a portrait of the city that invites reflection.
Much of Baan's photographic wanderings through Prague will be presented on the projection wall. A loop of aerial shots highlighting traffic junctions near the river or the historic city centre, which had never before been photographed in this way, will be accompanied by sound. There are also plans to exhibit hanging prints featuring several sub-themes, such as the urban periphery or built-up areas. The exhibition will be on display at CAMP in the spring.