WITH HÉLÈNE BINET: THE PURE SENSATION OF PHOTOGRAPHY PART II
BY SUSANA VENTURA
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.