This interview was recorded on the 3rd of March 2010. The main theme was Hélène Binet’s photographs of Peter Zumthor’s work, however Hélène’s sensibility is far beyond just one example or even one strict kind of photography such as architectural photography. Her photographs thrill and move us so much that we should not fear of expressing these strong emotions as it does not make much sense trying to justify them with austere words or with any photography theory because Hélène’s photographs are powerfully simple and profound. This is also the reason why her work is capable of leaving us, for a few seconds, breathless. We are completely absorbed into the photograph. We are there, strangely driven towards that deep space that arises in front of our eyes and makes us dive into it. We melt within the rocks and the mountains following the course of the water. We feel the fog touching our skin, enveloping us... All of Hélène’s photographs have this effect on our body. They do not just put us there, in the photograph, in the space (and in the space of photography also), but exert an intense sensation upon our nervous system, going through our eyes, our skin and our entire body. All this makes us wonder why all that happens when you are just looking at an image and there seems to be no real answer other than the fact that it’s one of Hélène’s photograph. Then, when we hear her words, we are able to understand more easily why we are so touched by her photographs. Her words are just as simple as her photographs and in the end they make us go back to the photographs and perceive them from another point of view, allowing a different kind of experience and sensibility to emerge.
SV: Taking into account that you may always look at Peter Zumthor’s work with a given frame and an aperture in your mind, how would you describe its perception first as an inhabitant?
HB: It is difficult for me to be in a Zumthor’s building without thinking about my work. Even if I would like to be simply an inhabitant, there is a part of my mind that I cannot control completely, which is aware of the fact that I am a photographer. I think I cannot distinguish the approach of “Hélène Binet, the photographer” from the one of “Hélène Binet, the inhabitant”. In my first visit I like to be able to do something that is not related to my activity as a photographer. While you are doing this activity, there is another part of the brain perceiving information about the surroundings and, as a consequence, the soul of the building comes to you. The result of those perceptions is very valuable for the understanding of a place. But, of course, I also need to have a rational approach by looking at drawings or discussing issues with the architects.
SV: Peter Zumthor says that “we perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility - a form of perception that works incredibly quickly”, because “we are capable of immediate appreciation, of a spontaneous emotional response, of rejecting things in a flash”. Still bearing in mind that you are an inhabitant of a Peter Zumthor’s work, how would you describe its impact on you?
HB: All the buildings I visited, I knew I was going to photograph them beforehand, so I could not just sit there and enjoy and feel the atmosphere completely. But I would say that to really understand a place I actually need time, because I do understand a lot through the light and the light is different on the surfaces or in the room in each and every second of the day. I am not able to pass judgement or express appreciation very quickly because I like to see the building as something alive that changes. I think the cycle of the day is very important to get closer to a building.
SV: Yes and your photographs are a reflection of that; as if light was their first material.
HB: Yes, we see the world because of the light and it is difficult to disentangle the complicated relationship between the light, the object that receives it and the surrounding atmosphere. The work of a photographer is to capture the light. If I am to photograph a space, I am not interested in one perfect image or one iconic image, but in the way the space responds to different lights and in analysing how each situ- ation creates a different world. If you have different lights, you have different pictures and you see that there is no single representation of something, one experience that you might say, “this is the building”.
SV: Then, you take a walk, as you say: as “an unconscious act of seeing”. Why is it “unconscious”? What do you think or believe that it is at stake when you wander around the place and the space?
HB: I don’t know exactly in which occasion I used the expression “unconscious act of seeing” but, of course, there are very different moments when you walk through space and it is about the approach I mentioned before, to do something, to allow, no to look in a rational way, but to be looked up by the building, let’s say. And then there is the walk when you walk from point A to point B and somehow what you see is unfolding. Every time you walk there is something appearing or disappearing and, then, by the end of the walk, you have seen many different situations. When you are at the end of the walk, at point B, you will be confronted with one view, one image, but you also remember all the other images and this moment of layering is very important for perception itself. The building is so complex as an experience. As you know, when you are in a space all your senses are involved in perception. All your senses are working: you can smell, you can be cold, you can move, you can hear, you can remember, you can imagine the plan of the building. It is very complex and a photograph is very simple. It is better not to compete with the complexity of the percep- tion of architecture. An image has to be simple and direct. It has to be able to create an atmosphere and to drown you in it and per- haps to remind you of something else.
SV: What is the role of desire in your work?
HB: What is the first reason to do the photo- graph? I think it is an interesting question and, somehow, it is the same for every artist, be it a musician or an artist, a photographer or an architect. At the end, maybe we are all quite romantic and there is a very strong relationship with the world that surrounds us, and we have the desire to identify ourselves with it and maybe to appropriate it. I mean, art and photography are a strong way to appropriate the world. In photography, you frame it and you control it and then it becomes yours. The desire to produce an image is about this tension between our feelings and landscape (or architecture, which is just another form of landscape).
SV: Is there any kind of previous knowledge about the work you are going to shoot, such as a conversation with Peter Zumthor about the ideas or emotions that have been pre- sent in the work from the beginning?
HB: When I work with an architect I try to look at the concept of his/ her work and also to understand his/ her sensibility. And I try
to understand the first reason for a concept, what is behind the initial idea but can still be perceived in a building. With Peter Zumthor, there is not a lot of verbal exchange. It is up to me to be perceptive and ready to capture what sort of photograph is appropriate for his work.
SV: What do you mean when you say you were only able to photograph the Thermal Baths of Vals after diving into the water?
HB: You have to become part of the building to fully photograph it. In that case, in the Thermal Baths, I see the water as one of the building materials. It is maybe light and stone and water. So, you cannot enter this building without swimming... It would be like not walking in the place and merely looking at it through a window. You need that full experience to be able to realise why he made some choices and, of course, it is also unique, because there is no other building typology where the material is something that you can feel in your body in the same way. Normally, you can touch it; see if it is comfortable or if it is cold... In that case, you can really be part of the building physically and that is quite unique, of course.
SV: When Peter Zumthor explains his idea of “atmosphere”, he gives as an example the photographs that he loves and make him wonder about his ability to design places such as those represented in the photographs. He is looking for a kind of sensation represented in the photograph and we must be aware of the fact that he has never seen one of the buildings and that he is enchanted with a mood that he cannot find anymore on the other one. However, both examples make him desire and pursue those sensations he describes. In your opinion, can photography represent the feeling of an architectural work? Or does photography capture a sensation that does not belong to the architectural work, but lives merely in the plane of the photograph composition, even if that photograph is faithful to the architectural work? Or is it the same sensation, the feeling of belonging to the architectural work that passes through the photograph?
HB: The way I work, I am interested in sublimating the sensation that belongs to architecture. And that brings me to ask myself: Can photography represent a sensation? Yes. If not, it will be not photography. Of course, architecture photography can be seen as a very strict and hard discipline. Sometimes people ask me: “What do you do with photography?” and I answer: “Architecture”. And they say: “Oh!” They think it’s a very unemotional form of expression. But it isn’t. The reason I like to photograph architecture is because I feel that photographing spaces and objects is a way of telling stories that belong to a specific environment. I need them like a musician needs a score. Somehow the camera is a little like an instrument and architecture is the score. You may say that sounds and stories are always very subjective. The camera plays something but someone else has been writing it, has been putting the notes and the harmony together. We need this score... but I’m still doing the sounds, so, it’s a very tight relationship. I need the harmony that was written by somebody else and someone else needs my sensibility to put it together, so there’s no way they exist without each other. I mean, of course, architecture can be visited, but I’m talking about architecture photography. In architecture photography we need to be quite reduced and this is why I like details in B&W. I think Aristotle said “We hear better in the dark”. If our senses are reduced; if we only have one sense available, we may be very impressed, or very concentrated, or hear better.
SV: In the act of creation what allows you to direct yourself towards a certain photograph? Or what makes you decide for a certain frame or angle or a certain luminosity or aperture instead of another?
HB: I think every building is different. I cannot really set a rule and apply it to every building. I think the artist looks at the space and then set the rules. When I frame a building I look for my little inside stories, of course, to decide how to look at the building, but they are never the same.
SV: Can you give some examples?
HB: When I was photographing the Brüder Klaus Kapelle, which is a very good piece of work and is also photogenic and accessible, you see a nice photograph of the place in every way. The landscape around it is also so beautiful and you don’t have to deal with street lights or trucks. I decided not to do any photos at the time of the opening. I wasn’t interested in photographing for the news, but I wanted to tell my story. I went there after one year, when the kapelle was already well known. I thought: “This is a small tool - this kapelle – that is able to connect you with something very big”. If you are religious, it is a God; if you are a thinker, you will want to understand the sky and the stars. So, in all of the photographs I tried to connect you with the firmament. So, there is a series of photos where the clouds somehow become part of the building and there is another series where I am looking up. Then, there is a photo which was made at night using a very long exposure, so the stars move and become a single line and, because the earth moves, they become one circle. So, you are really connected with the wide movement of the planet.