Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan, who collaborates with such masters of contemporary architecture as Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Stephen Hall and SANAA, recently filmed constructivist buildings in Yekaterinburg for the exhibition Hope. Russian industrial cities through the eyes of artists”as part of the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. We met with him before his lecture at the Strelka Institute to ask about how he saw the capital of the Urals, why he takes pictures of cities from a helicopter and why people play no less role in his photographs than buildings.
Before the interview, out of curiosity, I went to your Instagram And I saw only two pictures taken in Moscow: the first (very predictably) - a Stalinist skyscraper, the second - the spider Louise Bourgeois in front of the Garage MSI. I can't help but ask: is this the main thing that struck you in Moscow, or is it just such iconic things that cannot be ignored?
“Seven Sisters, of course, is hard to miss, and besides, they are part of Moscow’s identity. But I have not been in Moscow for so long and have seen little so far, but tomorrow I hope to take a walk around the city. In general, before that I had been here only a couple of times, and each time - with a short visit: at the Skolkovo School of Management at the invitation of David Adjaye and also in connection with the Garage MSI project at the invitation of Rem Koolhaas.
Where will you go tomorrow? Maybe watch the new building of Zaha Hadid on Sharikopodshipnikovskaya street?
- I myself would like to know where we will go, but for the time being they keep me in the dark.
Tonight at Strelka you will talk about your participation in the Nadezhda / Hope … Russian industrial cities through the eyes of artists”, which took place at Trekhgornaya Manufactory as part of the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. How did you end up in this project?
- Simon Mraz (director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow) and Nicholas Schaffhausen (director of the Vienna Kunsthalle), curators of this exhibition, invited me to work on one of the Russian cities within the framework of this project. This proposal turned out to be very useful. It is interesting for me to look at the city as a whole. I constantly visit different cities, but often I concentrate so much on shooting a particular object that I hardly see what surrounds it. Therefore, I always literally force myself to look at the context, and not just at the building that needs to be removed. When I am asked to participate in such projects, I instantly agree, especially if they are tied around some special topic. In the case of Yekaterinburg, it was about constructivist buildings, so I could look at the city through the prism of constructivism in order to understand what is happening today with this once industrial center.
How did you navigate in Yekaterinburg? Did you have a guide there or did you use a guidebook?
- To begin with, my colleagues and I researched the history of the city ourselves, talked with people who knew something about Yekaterinburg. The staff of the Austrian embassy helped us a lot: they introduced us to a knowledgeable young architect from Yekaterinburg. He showed us around the city for a week.
The project is dedicated specifically to industrial cities, and in your photos there are more ordinary Yekaterinburg streets. Have you seen industrial facilities?
- I saw, just any exhibition involves a limited number of works, so not all photographs were included in it. What struck me in this city was the interconnectedness, the close proximity of residential areas and places of employment. Factories and factories occupying gigantic territories are located right in the center of the city. Residential buildings are connected to them by underground tunnels and overhead passages. These two worlds - work and home - were incredibly intertwined. And it can still be seen. Many of the factories and factories no longer work today, but their physical presence in the city is still felt.
The name of the exhibition "Hope" is symbolic. On the one hand, this is the name of the metallurgical industrial zone in Norilsk. On the other hand, hopes for a bright future were pinned on industrial cities in Soviet times. The curators invited the artists to comprehend the phenomenon of industrial cities in today's Russia. Judging by the exhibition, everything is hopeless there. And how did it seem to you in Yekaterinburg?
- Of course, if you look at all these buildings of the era of constructivism, which are in disrepair, then a heavy feeling arises. But, at the same time, we met an incredible many young people who chose to live in this city. There is space for new beginnings of young artists and architects who are actually quite active in Yekaterinburg. The ruins of a bygone era are perhaps the soil for the seeds of something new. They are always waves. Look at America: there is a so-called "rusty belt" with former industrial capitals like Detroit, which experienced [at the end of the 20th century] a huge outflow of population. And today young artists are moving there, who are less and less able to afford life in large cities such as Los Angeles and New York. There they find a "blank canvas", incredible spaces for the embodiment of their ideas. I think Yekaterinburg has a similar potential in this sense.
What do you think about the resulting exhibition?
- By the way, I just came from there - unfortunately, I could not be present at the opening on September 22. It seems to me that it turned out to be a very interesting collection of completely different artists. I like the idea of connecting Russian participants with foreigners who can take a fresh look at a place that is familiar to everyone. I noted a project in which one of the photographers shot the same city at different times of the year. In Russia, I am fascinated by this - the abrupt change in the state of nature from season to season. It would be great to go to Yekaterinburg a couple more times at different times of the year and [each time] to see it differently.
- I did not expect to see so many portraits at the exhibition. For some reason it seemed to me that the exhibition about the city is, first of all, architecture, city panoramas. But it turned out that the city is people who work at the factory and live in their cramped apartments
- People are an important component, if I may say so. They make a city a city. For me, the close-up is important at the same time, the camera's “hitting” the people and details that make up the fabric of the city, and the camera's “departure” - bird's-eye views that allow you to read its topography.
“These bird's-eye photographs are your favorite technique. How did you come to him?
- I've always taken such pictures from the air, for 15-20 years or so.
- How do you find the helicopter? It feels like you have yours
- It would be nice to get one of your own, and not break your head every time over how to find it. In some places this is difficult, like in Yekaterinburg, for example, but we still found a way. It is important for me to zoom in and out of the plan, it really helps to understand the city. You see the relationship of its parts and elements, you understand the intention of architects and city planners, especially when it comes to "big ideas". At the beginning of the 20th century, large-scale urban planning processes took place in Yekaterinburg. From above it all reads very well.
I noticed that in some of your photographs, constructivist buildings recede deep into the background, and people take the foreground, they are given the main place. In general, you pay a lot of attention to people in your photographs. In Yekaterinburg, did you somehow interact with them?
- Of course, I tried a little, although I don't speak Russian, the translator helped me. Communication with residents is another opportunity to discover the city. You show people what you are doing, they somehow react to it. But there is always a fine line: you have to be able to be an inconspicuous observer, without particularly interfering with what is happening, "a fly on the wall." But, of course, I'm terribly interested to know what people think about their city. Often, after taking a shot, I ask them what area they are from. Sometimes they invite me to visit or take me somewhere, so sometimes you can find yourself in the strangest situations. I was photographing a building, and a woman suddenly invited me to come inside. There, in the interiors of the Leninist era, people of 70-80 years old were engaged in dancing. This, with all the desire, cannot be planned.
That is, the people of Yekaterinburg were open and welcoming?
- Yes, in general here it turned out to be quite easy to shoot on the street. People didn't mind, they asked what I was doing and invited me to visit. In Africa, for example, where I work a lot, it is much more difficult to photograph people on the street. For some reason, there is an idea that the person who photographs may be a terrorist.
- Tell us about the shawarma saleswoman - probably the most emotional shot from your Yekaterinburg series
- Oh, this woman was as if completely ready for shooting: all so smart to match her bright tent. When she came out, I immediately began to photograph her, but she suddenly felt timid and began to refuse. I had to show her the pictures, explain what it was all about, after which she agreed to pose. But still, only the very first shot was perfect, when I caught her by surprise.
I read that at the very beginning of your career you tried to shoot architecture, but your client insisted on boring classical angles, and you gave up this occupation. What did you do afterwards?
- In general, I have been engaged in photography since I was 12, I studied photography at an art school. I really had a one-time experience - a single order right after graduation, when I was trying to somehow make ends meet. One architect asked me to photograph his object, and it was just awful. He returned the pictures to me three times with instructions from what angle to shoot. In the end I thought: why does he need me if he already knows how to do my job? On this I gave up with architecture and switched to documentary photography for newspapers and magazines. In general, documentary photography fascinated me even during my studies, we are all fans of such genre masters as Martin Parr, for example.
Is it fair to say that you work in a hybrid genre - photo essay and traditional architectural photography?
- I don’t know, for me there was no change of style - I always shot like that. I pay attention to people and how they behave in public space. Now I am more focused on how to tell a story about the urban environment, about how people “settle in” new places in the city. What makes the place special? Why is this building here and not somewhere else? I travel a lot and in different countries find myself in completely faceless places, which become so because of developers copying each other. The unique is becoming a rarity, but it is the unique that I am trying to find: both in modern architecture and in "folk" - when people are forced to build housing from the few materials available to them.
Do you have to like the object so that you undertake to shoot it? Is there room for criticism in your photographs?
- Of course, it happens that I photograph projects that I do not like at all, but at the same time I find them terribly interesting in a broader sense, in the context of the urban environment. With my photographs, I kind of ask the question "why are they here?", And this can cause shock.
I have approximately the same reaction to your Chinese pictures: ultra-modern architecture surrounded by shacks. The question arises, with what intent do you bring out this contrast. Is this a critical statement, is it an answer to the question “what does this object give to the environment and is it needed here”?
- Absolutely. To a large extent, I show the context in order to compare the object with the environment and reveal the absurdity of their neighborhood. This is part of creating a story through photography. I do not treat the objects I shoot as something sacred, something that is valuable in itself. They are part of a broader context. This is why bird's-eye shots are important to me - I take a step back and seem to be looking from the side.