3 masters of contemporary architectural photography – Baan, Binet, Guerra

Helene Binet, Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku Azerbaijan, Zaha Hadid

Architectural photography is as old as photography itself; its origins date back to the 1830s when pioneers of photography such as Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Fox Talbot experimented with their primitive equipment, which usually required very long exposure times, by picturing architecture, also because buildings don’t move, usually.
Over 170 years have passed, cameras and imaging technology has changed dramatically, and so did architecture; yet, the interest in architectural photography has never declined and is as strong in the 2020s as it was one century ago. Yet, photographers and their style have changed too; that’s why I present here three of the most appreciated architectural photographers of today: Iwan Baan, Hélène Binet, and Fernando Guerra. Different in style, nationality, cultural and professional background, in their diversity they perfectly express the many possible ways to view, feel, and depict contemporary architecture.

Above, Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku Azerbaijan – Zaha Hadid Architects, © Hélène Binet courtesy of ZHA.

Iwan Baan
Born in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, in 1975, Iwan Baan is considered by many the world’s most influential architectural photographer; an artist renowned for his innovative “humanistic” approach to architectural depiction, far from the “traditional” way to represent buildings.
Baan, who studied photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and has no formal architectural training, developed a personal approach to architectural photography quite different from the usual one. It was Rem Koolhaas the first to guess that Baan’s unconventional and documentary-oriented way to take photos could lead to an original and novel depiction of architecture. Baan, indeed, does not usually focus only on a building but often creates sort of “street scenes” in which architecture strongly relates, and dialogues, with both people and the urban/natural context.

“Baan followed his interest in documentary photography, before narrowing his focus to record the various ways in which individuals, communities, and societies create, and interact within their built environment.” from Iwan Baan’s website

Yet, in his pictures, people never look like they pose or are “directed” by someone else; they always act in a very natural, casual way;  rather than architecture photography I would describe its style as “architectural photojournalism”.
Such an interest in the relationship between people and architecture is particularly evident in pictures such as those he took the unfinished Torre David in Caracas, and which won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, at the Kokono Vaccination Center designed by SelgasCano in Kenya, or at Herzog & de Meuron’s Arena do Morro gymnasium in Brazil.
Though technically very rigorous (you’ll hardly find a line that is not perfectly vertical in his pictures), Baan does not prepare his shots obsessively, as many architectural photographers do, waiting for hours for the perfect light and the perfect sky; he shoots in a rather instinctive way instead, at every hour of the day – including noon which is very unusual for an architecture photographer, traveling lightweight and alone, with no assistants, and always shooting with his camera handheld, without tripods. Yet, he frequently rents a helicopter to picture buildings from above. Baan’s favorite equipment comprises pretty standard Canon 35-mm digital cameras usually coupled with ultra-wide and medium-to-super telephoto lenses. He also uses an Apple iPhone to take pictures and videos he publishes regularly on his Instagram page.

Iwan Baan’s official website – https://iwan.com

Iwan Baan, UK Pavilion Shanghai World Expo, Thomas Heatherwick

Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo – Thomas Heatherwick, 2010, © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Arena do Morro gymnasium, Herzog de Meuron

Arena do Morro gymnasium, Natal, Brazil – Herzog & de Meuron, 2014, © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Vagelos Education Center, Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Vagelos Education Center,  New York City, USA –  Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2017, © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Torre David, Caracas

Torre David, Caracas, Venezuela © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Heydar Aliyev Centre Baku Zaha Hadid 4

Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan – Zaha Hadid Architects, 2012, © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Konokono Vaccination Center, Kenya, SelgasCano 2

Konokono Vaccination Center, Turkana, Kenya –  SelgasCano, 2014, © Iwan Baan.

Iwan Baan, Teshima Art Museum, Sanaa

Teshima Art Museum, Teshima, Japan – Ryue Nishizawa, 2011, © Iwan Baan.

Hélène Binet
Born in Sorengo, Switzerland in 1959, famed French-Swiss photographer Hélène Binet, developed an approach to architectural photography remarkably different from Baan’s one.
Indeed, Binet’s main inspiration comes directly from the masters of 20th-century photography, Hungarian-born French photographer Lucien Hervè in particular.
Like them, her focus is primarily on architecture. Yet, this doesn’t mean she is interested in a purely objective depiction of architecture. On the contrary, Binet’s works are always “expressionist”, so to say, as her pictures do not depict buildings simply “as they are” but also convey the deep impression they make on her and, through her, on us. This way photographs somewhat transcend their subject to become artworks in themselves.
Binet’s extreme attention to the contrasts of shadows and lights possibly originates from the experience as a stage photographer at the Grand Théâtre opera house in Geneve in the 1980s, just after completing her photography studies at the IED-Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, and before turning full time to architectural photography.
Binet is an advocate of analog photography and does not take pictures with digital cameras, since she prefers to use film cameras, a large format Arca Swiss 4×5, and a medium format Hasselblad, primarily.

“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.”  Hélène Binet.

Using lenses with a medium focal length and image cropping techniques, Binet focuses the viewer’s attention on architectural parts, details, surfaces, and textures, and on the interplay between shadow and light. Unlike Baan’s, the “empathetic” approach to architecture she expresses through her pictures doesn’t require the presence of people, because we (she) are that people.

“I believe photography is about celebrating an instant. You say yes to it and commit yourself to that moment.”

Hélène Binet official website http://www.helenebinet.com/

Salerno Maritime Terminal Zaha Hadid 03

Salerno Maritime Terminal, Salerno Italy – Zaha Hadid Architects, 2016, © Hélène Binet courtesy of ZHA.

Helene Binet, Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind

Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany – Daniel Libeskind, © Hélène Binet courtesy of Ammann Gallery.

Helene Binet, Kolumba Museum, Peter Zumthor

Kolumba Museum, Cologne, Germany – Peter Zumthor, 2007, © Hélène Binet courtesy of Julius Shulman Institute.

Helene Binet, Rosenthal Art Center, Zaha Hadid

Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, USA – Zaha Hadid Architects, 2003, © Hélène Binet courtesy of Julius Shulman Institute.


Firminy C, Fiminy, France – Le Corbusier © Hélène Binet courtesy of Julius Shulman Institute.

Fernando Guerra
Together with his brother Sergio, Portuguese photographer Fernando Guerra is the founder of FG+SG, one of the world’s best-regarded studios exclusively focused on architectural photography.
Born in Lisbon in 1970, Guerra is a trained architect and conducted his own architectural practice for several years, before moving to photography.

“I am often asked if I miss designing architectural projects, but now more than ever I do not. There are many ways of doing architecture, to live it intensely. Today I share what I do and live happily doing so.“  Fernando Guerra

Guerra’s approach is not too different from Baan’s one; like the Dutch photographer, he prefers to portrait “populated” buildings with a photojournalism-like approach.

“I like to photograph architecture as an invisible photojournalist as if it were for an editorial piece. I show the reality of the place, including whoever happens to be there by chance. Beyond showing the project’s scale and form, people give the architecture life.”

Yet, the final outcome is quite distinguishable from that of Baan. Compared to those of the Dutch photographer, Guerra’s pictures are characterized by a more oneiric atmosphere, indeed; they are often foggy or cloudy, shoot at dusk or immediately after sunrise. Both indoor and outfitted, light is usually very soft, shadows are frequently faint, and sometimes totally absent.
As already remarked, it is rare to find one of his photographs without people, yet most of them are inhabited by only one person; whether this is a sort of alter-ego of the photographer or a passer-by it’s usually hard to tell. In this sense, Guerra’s artistic vision is somewhat in between Baan’s and Binet’s ones and masterfully combines instinctivity and careful preparation.
For his shoot, the Portuguese artist uses Canon full-frame digital cameras, usually with wide-angle to medium-telephoto lenses. He is also an early adopter and an enthusiast of drones, which he modifies and customizes personally.

FG+SG official website http://ultimasreportagens.com/

Fernando Guerra, Shihlien, Alvaro Siza Carlos Castanheira

Fernando Guerra, Shihlien, Alvaro Siza Carlos Castanheira 2

Shihlien Chemical Industrial Park Office, Jiangsu, China – Álvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira, 2014, © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

Fernando Guerra, Cento Alto Rendimento Pocinho, Alvaro Andrade

Centro de Alto Rendimento do Pocinho, Foz Côa,Portugal – Álvaro Fernandes Andrade, 2014, © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

Mora Freshwater Aquarium

Mora River Aquarium, Mora, Portugal – Promontorio Arquitectos, 2015, © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

Fernando Guerra, EPFL, Eclubens, Richter Dahl Rocha

EPFL Quartier Nord student houses, Ecublens, Switzerland – Richter Dahl Rocha & Associés, 2014 © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

Fernando Guerra Magnifica ossessione MART Museum 2

The Magnificent Obsession, MART Museum, Rovereto, Italy, 2013; installation view © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

Fernando Guerra, Saya Park, Alvaro Siza Carlos Castanheira

Saya Park Art Pavilion, Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea – Álvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira, 2018, © Fernando Guerra / FG+SG.

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