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Framing light on stone: Hélène Binet

Blessy Augustine | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Frozen precision Binet works with analogue film cameras, assigning herself 20 colour and 20 black-and-white film sheets a day for shooting. Each frame is a “performance” in capturing the elusive perfect moment

Avant-garde A bridge over the Basento river, Potenza, Italy, built by architects Sergio Musmeci and Victor Jones in 1968. The photo shows the almost animal like surreal aspect of the bridge, a structure that doesn’t belong to anything but takes you from place to place. Year of photography 2015   -  Hélène Binet

Breathing walls A picture of Kolumba museum designed by architect Peter Zumthor was shot in 2007   -  Hélène Binet

For the leading architectural photographer Hélène Binet, her work is all about looking for the soul of a space and the use of memory as a tool

Hélène Binet believes that growing up in Rome, a city populated with beautiful buildings and scenic fountains, is what shaped her awareness of the splendour of light falling on stone. There was also the happy coincidence of marrying Raoul Bunschoten, a champion of sustainable architecture, and being exposed to the thought and works of contemporary architecture’s greatest names — Daniel Libeskind, Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid.

Considered one of the leading architectural photographers in the world, Binet’s photographs are about showing you the hidden soul of a space. BLink caught up with her at this year’s India Arch Dialogue (IAD) to learn more about her practice.

At the IAD, you said that it’s important to make a distinction between a photograph and the images that we take with our phone, that the latter is something else for which we need to find a new term. Could you elaborate on that thought?

Because you have a camera, know a bit about technology and Photoshop, and can take some good images from time to time, you think you are a photographer — that’s devaluing the profession. As photographers, we are trained not only to use a camera but also to think through images, to structure a story, to know when a story doesn’t work and why. I’m not just touching a sensor with some light, I’m making something that involves a great deal of thought, preparation and process. At IAD, one of the architects spoke about his disappointment with architectural photography. But I can take each of those photos and tell you exactly why it doesn’t work. That comes with training, practice and knowing the rules.

Another difference between the amateur and the photographer is that the latter extracts from the world the particular things she is interested in. If I am interested in emptiness, for example, I seek out expressions of it in the world. I feel the need to elaborate, arrange and depict it in a certain way. If I’m an amateur, I might be in front of a cave and decide to photograph it. That’s a photo of emptiness made by chance. It came to me. I didn’t look for it or, more importantly, structure it.

You only work with analogue cameras and film, why?

Digital photography doesn’t suit me. There are many photographers who work with digital and make amazing work. But it’s not for me. I work with film sheets. They are expensive and need to be prepared in the dark room before I can use them. I assign myself 20 colour ones and 20 black-and-white ones for the day. So, every shot is the result of a lot of thinking. It’s like a performance. I have that one plate and that one moment, and it has to be perfect.

I like being able to have that kind of concentration. If I know I can take any number of images or that I can fix it later or make certain decisions later, I don’t get into the right frame of mind. It is a very special state of mind where you have to give all of yourself. It's a bit nerve-wracking. You have to feel the space, absorb it. Also, I enjoy working with my hands when it comes to processing in the darkroom. I cherish that. I don't want to miss that.

What do you try to capture in your photographs?

I engage with architectural photography in a very personal way, so there has to be a layer where I’m also showcasing my own concerns. The function of the space exists in the actual, physical space and it is not my task to show it, that this is a place where you rest. I am interested in getting the essence of the room that has been built for resting and to make you think “Oh, I feel rested”. I have to make sense of this quality of rest and search where it is coming from. It’s about looking for the soul of a place. There are spaces which have a certain function but that is not its soul. Then my task becomes more difficult.

Is it easier to photograph minimalist spaces?

It's more about the gesture that I do. I want to be like a Japanese calligrapher who repeats a brushstroke all his life till one day he can express everything he ever wanted to in one single brushstroke. If I could do that with one photo, I would be very happy. I feel that I will manage to find in my life one line, one light, one point where I say many things. I’m searching for this and, probably, it’s easier to find it in silent and reduced spaces.

Avant-garde: A bridge over the Basento river, Potenza, Italy, built by architects Sergio Musmeci and Victor Jones in 1968. The photo shows the almost animal like surreal aspect of the bridge, a structure that doesn’t belong to anything but takes you from place to place. Year of photography 2015   -  Hélène Binet

That said, I also like Baroque architecture. I did a photographic essay of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches in London. They were built in the 1600s but I wasn’t looking at them from a historical perspective. I wanted to find a new interpretation to this mad architect’s vision. He never travelled but liked ancient architecture, so he used classical elements in his buildings, which have strange proportions. I took very abstract images, very tactile ones. They don’t describe the buildings but reinterpret them. I’m going to do something similar in a palazzo in Sicily where there are many Baroque houses. Baroque is about showing off. The façade itself would make clear who owned it and how rich they were. I want to reinterpret those façades.

What else are you working on now?

I’m now interested in looking at historical architecture to understand how they influenced us. So, I’m looking at 16th-century Korean architecture and Italian architecture from the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. I’m moving away from the iconic because Zaha Hadid is no longer around and so I don’t feel like photographing them anymore. Also, maybe now there is a need for something else. In 2013, I photographed the Atacama Desert in Chile as part of a collaboration between artists and poets. In that harsh landscape, we came across the most simple but effective tool to capture water from fogs that pass by. I’m interested in these valuable structures, to see if I can find a way in my language to bring something out.

Breathing walls: A picture of Kolumba museum designed by architect Peter Zumthor was shot in 2007   -  Hélène Binet

I’m moving away from pure architecture. I’m a photographer of space and I’m trying to do more with that premise. There is a Greek town where all the Jews who lived there were killed during World War II. Unlike northern Europe, where records were maintained, there is almost no remnant of their life left in this town, just a few traces. For instance, after the war, stones from the graveyard were used to rebuild the town, so I may find something incorporated. But essentially, what is left is a big void that is really dramatic. The memory is only in the space.

Is memory an important concept for you?

Yes, our memory works with space. When we remember something, we first remember the space where it happened. All buildings have traces left on them. Photography, too, is very related to memory, it’s a trigger. Both architecture and photography have a nostalgic aspect to them. So, memory becomes an important tool in my work. It’s also related to a certain sense of the passing of time. The moment you photograph a building, you create a ruin because that moment will never happen again.

Who are some of the photographers who have inspired you?

I recently saw an exhibition of Berenice Abbott. I knew about her work because she’s a woman and because she had taken these powerful photos, with a massive camera, of architectural sites in New York City in the 1930s. But I didn’t know much about her fantastic portraits and her photos of scientific experiments. In your career, people push you to do one thing, be one kind of professional. I found it inspiring that Abbott looked at so many different things, that there is no need to be strict with one’s discipline.

Are there any buildings in India that you have photographed?

I photographed the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur for a series on shadows and architecture. I spent a lot of time looking at shadows and their relationship to time. That was a beautiful experience. I have also done work for Bijoy Jain’s firm Studio Mumbai. The Indian landscape is too big, too varied. I would panic if I had to capture it. But I would still love to try.

Blessy Augustine

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi

Published on February 23, 2018
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