Interview: Hélène Binet is one of the world’s leading architectural photographers, but after 25 years in the industry, she still refuses to shoot in digital. With an exhibition of her work now open in LA, Dezeen spoke to the photographer about her devotion to film and why drone-mounted cameras are “a bit of a shock”.
The Swiss-French photographer shoots exclusively in analogue, and regularly works with some of contemporary architecture’s most famous names – including Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.
“I’ve never done anything professionally with digital,” Binet told Dezeen. “If something is a bit strange, a bit rough, you work with that.”
“Digital has made architectural photography very slick – sometimes you don’t know if it’s a photo, or if it’s a rendering, and that I find very disturbing,” she added. “If you’ve spent five years to ten years making a building, you want to make sure that the photos are like a building and not like a rendering.”
Binet studied photography at the Europeo di Design school in Rome, but fell into architectural photography in the 1980s after moving to London with her husband, architect Raoul Bunschoten. Bunschoten was teaching at the Architectural Association, where she met many of her early clients.
Last month, she was named as the 2015 recipient of the Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award – a prize established in 2010 in memory of American photographer Shulman to recognise work that challenges perceptions of physical space.
An exhibition of her work organised to coincide with the award is currently on show at WUHO Gallery in Los Angeles, and closes on 29 March.
Binet’s images tend to focus on snippets of buildings, often heavily shadowed or flooded with light, and the title of the exhibition is Fragments of Light. According to Binet, this approach allows viewers to piece together a sense and “emotion” of a space.
The 56-year-old photographer uses a large format camera, which offers greater control over perspective and depth of field, and she can often be spotted on building sites crouched behind a heavy tripod with a black cloth draped over her head to protect the film from overexposure.
The four- by five-inch format camera she prefers is similar to the one used by early 20th-century American photographer Ansel Adams, widely considered the father of landscape photography. But Binet cites French photographer Lucien Hervé as one of her main influences.
Hervé became a well-known architectural photographer after he began working with Le Corbusier in the early 1950s, leading to further collaborations with some of the best-known names in mid-century architecture including Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, Oscar Niemeyer and Jean Prouvé. Like Binet, he photographed in black and white.
“He was really a mentor for me,” she said. “I think photography is about celebrating an instant. When I go to work it is like a performance.”
Binet has also built close working relationships with her clients over her 25 year career. More recently, she has noticed an increasing demand to shoot buildings mid-construction – particularly from Zaha Hadid.
“She’s more and more asking me to do working sites and early stages of the buildings, when the building is still very rough and strong and doesn’t have all of the flamboyant aspects that we see more and more in the publication,” explained Binet.
“Because it’s not the finished building, the architect is not going to be judged. So from both sides there is a sense of freedom that is quite beautiful.”
Binet’s dedication to film has sheltered her work from some of the more recent changes in architectural photography – like the introduction of autonomous flying vehicles as a method of capturing images and video.
Binet said this approach should be given its own category, rather than be considered part of the “craft” of photography.
“The idea that your eyes are not behind the camera is just like a bit of a shock. I mean it could be very interesting, but it’s something else,” she said.
“New things should happen, but I think it’s good to give the right name to the right craft or discipline.”
Read the edited transcript from our interview with Hélène Binet:
Jessica Mairs: Can you tell me a bit about the body of work you’re presenting in this exhibition?
Hélène Binet: The exhibition is called Fragments of Light and I would say that it’s a collage of different matter concentrating on the topic, which is the relation between light and space and how we see the space because of the light, and we see the light because of the space and materials.
This is a very important topic and I think this is how the title came about, and also the fact that I’m more interested in fragments rather than the overall photographs.
These fragments have to somehow suggest something in your own imagination, and then you might be able to create your own space, more than describing a space in which you’re not because you’re looking at a photograph. A photograph is not a space. So the fragment is very important for me.
Jessica Mairs: You don’t always photograph a building just as it has completed. How do you choose the right moment?
Hélène Binet: Of course a building is there all the time when it’s winter, when it’s spring, so every building has an incredible story of light on its own skin and inside. I cover as much as is possible, but I cannot cover completely this story.
One part is controlled because I decide: “Oh, this is better to do in the spring”. Now, I’m going to go to Spain because they said: “It’s better you come now because in summer the light is too perpendicular” – you don’t have long shadows, light doesn’t enter the building, so you don’t have that diagonal shading.
These decisions are made a while in advance to make sure that we have enough of a range of situations of light. And the light can almost be like a character in itself that starts to appear and disappear. But it’s also something that gives the skin of a building life and all of the volumes are somehow changing and getting closer or further and appearing and disappearing because of different light. It’s quite a range of things that you can cover if you think about the light.
Jessica Mairs: Do you think your photographs change the way people perceive architecture?
Hélène Binet: I hope they allow them to stay longer in the space, to create stories somehow – the same way I create my stories – and to be aware of the materiality, to feel the atmosphere, to feel that they are really somewhere in a special space which is talking, which is singing, which is giving something. And they take the time to look, and especially to make their own interpretation about what the space is.
We all have a big heritage of memories and experience, and what we look at always goes together with our experience of the past. The relation between the memory and the new experiences are important. To let that happen, I think, is very relevant to how you perceive new things.
I hope the photograph can suggest this approach to architecture – which is not about something there and finished; it’s a process. Even if one building is finished, it’s alive and it changes and it’s different for everybody.
Jessica Mairs: When you go to shoot a building, do you go with this agenda in mind?
Hélène Binet: Yes. This is really the important aspect of architecture and photography. The overall image will always be disappointing; will be always not the place because it will be distant. And I hope that somehow can have the ability of doing details, abstract image, with the composition with the photography quality, let’s say, to create an emotion again and somehow you link to internal space.
I always think of the space we can make when we are reading a book or when we dream – we make space. And somehow this space, I hope, is the kind of space you can make when you look at the photograph. So if I’m going to photograph a place I’m trying to make images that can create that suggestion.
Jessica Mairs: You work with quite a diverse range of architects, including Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. How do your relationships differ?
Hélène Binet: Everybody is different. Everybody has a different career and a different approach to the work of photography or to books. And in the case of Peter Zumthor he’s a mountain man, he’s worked and lived there and if you want he will take time to talk with you from his studio.
I think there is a common sensibility and the same way of thought to express the nature of the architecture. I mean his architecture is of course his architecture – it’s not my photograph. But he likes to be not flamboyant, not fast – he likes books more than magazines. If he were to make a book it would take years, and he wants it to be a meditative process and not something which is somehow more of a surprise, more than something that you take time to look.
So I think in that case we have common ground – how we express some of the thoughts that we have. And it has been a very enriching collaboration, of course. Over the years it has been very beautiful to follow somebody. And you get back a lot from the architecture and the architect.
Zaha Hadid, I have also been working for her since her first building – the Fire Station [at the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein]. And with her it just happens as we meet. It’s very spontaneous and maybe some things are never said but she’s able to give you the type of energy that she has in her work – her transmission of energy. It doesn’t go through words.
I’m quite fascinated by our collaboration because she’s more and more asking me to do working sites and early stages of the buildings, and when the building is still very rough and strong and doesn’t have all of the flamboyant aspects that we see more and more in the publication. So the fact that she’s interested in that I found very interesting.
Her buildings have changed a lot because the materiality has changed and technology has changed so much, and she is really playing with the technology. But there’s something that is constant in her interests and there’s something that is in her nature and in her work. I think this is more visible in her working side somehow.
I try to understand what the concept of the project is. That first sketch that the architect did – that would be very important for me to feel and to understand. Sometimes it’s interesting because you can find something that is just an idea and not completely there yet.
When you photograph working sites there is a lot of freedom also. Because it’s not the finished building, the architect is not going to be judged – it’s not going to be published in the same way. So from both sides there is a sense of freedom that is quite beautiful.
And matters of construction are very important, how it is built, and you can see it very clearly. The language is clear because it’s still in process. You don’t have all of the other parts of the building which are more functional, and that changes when it is finished.
Jessica Mairs: You mentioned earlier about taking more time to look at the architecture, does working in analogue help you to do this?
Hélène Binet: I like the idea that when I go to work it is like a performance. You have to give the best of yourself in one particular moment. So you’re extremely concentrated, you’re extremely connected to what you are feeling, and you’re not distracted by looking at the image that is already on the screen. And you try not to make mistakes. You have to be there. I think photography is about celebrating an instant.
There’s something more absolute in analogue than in digital, because the digital you can go back to it and you can modify it. Even if you make as little modification as possible you still have a different relationship with what you are doing in that moment.
I’m more interested in limitations. So if something is a bit strange, a bit rough, you work with that. You’re not thinking, “I’m going to take it away”. The film is a real testimony, and you’re using the difficulty to make a good image.
I’ve always worked with film. I’ve never done anything professionally with digital. This is the way I work. I like to handle things with my hands – to print and to have a physical relation to the product I make.
Jessica Mairs: Do you have any specific influences?
Hélène Binet: I think Lucien Hervé definitely had a great impact on my interest in architecture for photography, for black and white – he was really a mentor for me.
Jessica Mairs: How did you get into architectural photography?
Hélène Binet: My husband is an architect and he studied with architects like Daniel Libeksind and John Hejduk. He was teaching at Architecture Association, so in the middle of the 1980s I came to London and I met Alvin Boyarsky, the director of the AA, and he loved photography and he loved books. And he gave me this amazing opportunity to photograph my first architecture book. And since then, that’s what I did! So there’s a constellation of people.
Jessica Mairs: How has architectural photography changed since then? Is there more competition?
Hélène Binet: There are a lot more architectural photographers. Digital has made architectural photography very slick, I think. And sometimes somehow you don’t know if it’s a photo, or if it’s a rendering, and that I find very disturbing. Because if you’ve spent five to ten years making a building you want to make sure that the photos are like a building and not like a rendering.
But on the other side there are more and more artists and people really investigating space. There is a wider knowledge of what is behind architecture, what is behind the thinking of architecture. There are more people doing interesting work.
Jessica Mairs: What about the impact of drone photography and video?
Hélène Binet: I don’t know what to think about it. The idea that your eyes are not behind the camera is just like a bit of a shock. I mean it could be very interesting, but it’s something else.
New things should happen, but I think it’s good to give the right name to the right craft or discipline.
Jessica Mairs: So you would consider this outside of what you’d call photography?
Hélène Binet: Yes, yes. It could be an art if you have a specific thought behind it. I remember there was a Dutch artist – and also a German artist – who used to throw a camera from a building that he was interested in with an automatic capture. Those photographs were just random images of this camera falling down, and he made an incredible collage about it. Wonderful. I think it’s all about the thought behind how you use things. The spontaneity could be beautiful.
Jessica Mairs: Is there a particular building you have yet to photograph and want to?
Hélène Binet: Many. At the moment I’m doing quite a lot of historic architecture. I never photographed Ronchamp by Le Corbusier. One day I will just have to give this as a present to myself and go there and enjoy and make something beautiful.
But it doesn’t have to be such an iconic building – it can be a little church by Rudolf Schwarz in the middle of nowhere in Germany.
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