Ansel Adams once wrote, “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” This is what I think as I look at the work of Dutch photographer Iwan Baan.
The first thing to remember is that Iwan Baan is not an “architectural” photographer. He is a photographer who happens to shoot buildings. In 2010, he was awarded the inaugural Julius Shulman Institute Photography Award. But do not let this mislead you. What is most noticeable about his new book Brasilia-Chandigarh: Living with Modernity is the living part. The architecture is eye-catching, and how could it not be since we are dealing with Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. But what pops in the photographs are the people interacting with these revolutionary and idealized modernist cities. The buildings are sometimes in shadow, sometimes obscured by blurs of people running through monsoon rains, water streaming over the lens.
But the buildings must be talked about. Look at what has happened to them. They are no longer those clean, masterful drawings. These “pure” modernist spaces of Brasilia and Chandigarh have been tamed, pleasantly overtaken by fifty and sixty years, respectively, of clever, ever-adaptable human occupation. Baan’s photographs document the accumulation of use over time. It is interesting to witness how these cities have embraced and activated certain spaces, while seemingly discarding others as background to be overgrown or, say, turned into storage. At turns, these photographs evoke a sense of nostalgic abandonment, only later to confront our gaze with the density and noise of messy, informal occupation, which is, after all, the most striking aspect of these photographs. Then there is the comfortable middle ground where the program has been fulfilled… somewhat. The school is a school. The library, a library.
I showed the book to an architect friend of mine. “They seem a little dark,” he said of the images. I took another look. He was right. I thought it might be the paper it was printed on. But no, there is something intentional here. Baan would not be so careless. Then I started looking for the dark places and looking into them. There was always something happening in those areas. The architecture is in the background, catching the light. You notice the building in the sky first, but as you pull your gaze down and to the side you see the woman with the cigarette to her lips, looking to the side.
“Do you think they care?” my architect friend asked, referring to the occupants’ awareness of the significance of the architecture. “I don’t think so,” I said. The moment I confidently blurted this out I knew I was only partly correct. They care, but they care differently from those of us who are trained by the profession to care in certain aesthetic, philosophical, and historical ways. They are also indifferent, but they are comfortable, I think. This is what Mr. Baan is showing us: they are at home and we must contend with our traveler’s gaze that can be easily jarred by lives lived differently, with different terms for modernity and what it means to be modern.