On the Edge of the Retina 

Peter Zumthor in Conversation with Hélène Binet

Peter Zumthor:
Good morning everybody! Some time ago, it must be twenty years at least, I found myself once again in need of a photographer who can photograph architecture. Doubtless you’re familiar with the phenomenon: You’re inspired to go and visit a building by the photos you’ve seen of it, but on arriving there you discover it’s completely different. You know what I mean: It’s always much better than it looked on the photos! Anyway, a dear friend of mine said: “I know someone whose work you should really take a look at. She’s Swiss by birth and is called Hélène Binet. And she just recently had this fantastic show of photos of Dimitris Pikionis.” Here, I have to confess that I’d never heard of either Hélène Binet or Dimitris Pikionis. But now I can say I would’ve loved to have met him, because although he was absolutely a man of his times, his work remained distinctively Greek. And one of his finest works, I think, is the one that Hélène photographed on the Acropolis in Athens. That’s why I’m so delighted to have Hélène with us today.

Hélène Binet:

Hello Peter. Thank you for the introduction. 


PZ:
You’re welcome! The first question I’d like to ask you is how that connection with Dimitris Pikionis came about. Did you ever meet him in person? Was he even still alive when you took the photographs on show here?

HB:
No, he was no longer alive.

PZ:
He worked in the 1940s and 1950s, I believe?

HB:
Yes.

PZ:
So how did you get the commission?

HB:
I was lucky enough to be in London in the late 1980s, and there I met Alvin Boyarsky, the dean of this incredible school . . .

PZ:
 . . . which school was that?

HB:
The Architectural Association School of Architecture. This was London in the 1980s and everybody was interested in architecture — I mean in architecture generally, not just in trying to build one iconic building or being the first on Instagram, and things like that. (laughs) There was some really interesting work being done back then. I actually had very little experience at the time, although I had done the Sigurd Lewerentz project. But Boyarsky said, “Just go!” He loved finding unknown projects and very specific types of architecture.

PZ:
He knew about Pikionis?

HB:
Yes, he did. In fact he was doing his own research on both the drawings and the buildings. So I also photographed a nursery for him, and a home, although the really great work of his was the pathway up to the Acropolis.

PZ:
So what was it like to see it in reality? I’ve only ever seen it in my imagination — and your photos, of course. What’s it actually like?

HB:
It’s a very immersive experience; after all, you go there with your whole body. And if it happens to be a nice spring day in Greece, say, you will soon realize that there is something very delicate about it, because the pathway is there to escort you to the experience of the Acropolis. It’s not a project that wants to say something in its own right. Its purpose is rather to take you somewhere else. Of course that’s true of all paths, but Pikionis’s pathway also prepares you for the experience up ahead. It takes you up Filopappou Hill, which is the one in front of the Acropolis, and from there leads you to the Acropolis itself. And once you’re on top, the atmosphere becomes very quiet and . . . well almost analytical, because from that point on, all that counts is the view of the temple.

PZ:
Analytical?

HB:
In the sense that geometry is a defining factor — the research that he did, the way he measured it all out, the golden section. Yet the expression is also very free.

PZ:
Because what he was doing was rather like giving stage directions, essentially saying to people: “First you go up there and then you see this and then this.”

HB:
Yes, and of course Athens had far fewer high-rises back then, so now the experience is not quite the same. But the design hinged on the question of how we relate what we see to its larger context, because of course the Acropolis should always be viewed in relation to the landscape in which it stands. And as I said, the expression is very free. The pathway, moreover, was built using stones dug up out of the earth and also with rubble from all the buildings they were tearing down back in the late 1950s. All Pikionis had to do was just go there and pick up the pieces.

PZ:
So he used rubble from the city as well?

HB:
Yes!

PZ:
Not fragments of Greek temples? (laughs)

HB:
No, no! Many of them were stone steps that he just went out and salvaged to put in his pathway. And sometimes he added chunks of concrete as well as countless little stones that just fell into place quite naturally. Those are the three most powerful elements of his work.

PZ:
Which he built using materials which already had a history?

HB:
Definitely! Materials that were full of connotations of their own. I think he must have really wrestled with the decision to build the pathway; because if you’re a Greek architect and you’re asked to do something on the Acropolis, you’re bound to ask yourself: “Am I really up to it?” (laughs) There’s this description of him marching up and down the hill and agonizing over just that question. But at some point — I don’t know when, exactly — he must have decided that he would do it.

PZ:
You know, when I look at your photos, I have the feeling I’m looking at something that he made with his own hands. That’s the way it looks to me. And this is what I tell people, too, although I don’t actually know whether or not it’s true. I tell them, this must have been made by a person who didn’t just do a drawing, give it to the contractor, and say, “I’m off now, I’ll come round next week and have a look,” but by someone who was actively there. What do you think?

HB:
I don’t know of any firsthand accounts by the people who actually built it — like we have for Lewerentz, for example, which is how we know he did it all with his own hands. But if you look closely at the pathway, you sometimes see these tiny stones that seem to be just where they should be, in exactly the right place — both for the rocks around them and for the water to run off in the right direction. So it just has to have been done by somebody with a very good hand.

PZ:
So we agree! (laughs)

HB:
Yes, we do. You cannot possibly regard Pikionis’s work on the Acropolis as the product of pure pragmatism.

PZ:
I like the idea that there are certain things we have to do by hand, that we can’t do everything with computers and machines and so on, that there is a quality that comes out of the making. How is it in photography?

HB:
As you know, I’m a staunch defender of photography. I love to photograph and I’m a firm believer in photography as a craft — which is also what I try to teach young people: that it’s a very special form of work. I, too, like to work with my hands, and for me every shot is like a performance. I have to be the best of myself, and that for several days or several hours or for as long as the sun is good. Besides, the material is expensive, and it’s heavy, so I have to really be there and be completely focused. You’re not focused if you have a computer between you and the world, because then the computer makes the decisions, which for you is a loss. I think the state we all strive for when we’re working is a kind of trance, a state in which you make decisions with a part of your brain that works in a very special way. So it really is like performance. You have to give — and there’s something magical about that! I don’t believe you can achieve that if there’s something else between you and the world.

PZ:
How do you prepare?

HB:
How do I prepare a shot?

PZ:
How do you prepare for that trance-like state?

HB:
By doing a lot of walking! I could, of course, prepare by getting to know the architect and trying to understand what makes him tick. But it’s basically about going somewhere and walking and walking and walking. There’s a very beautiful dimension to walking, because it enables you to feel space with your whole body, and how that space is changing all the time.

PZ:
Walking means walking inside the building, around the building?

HB:
Around the building, inside the building, through different parts of the building — anything to get this feeling of something very beautiful unfolding. Because that’s what I’m going to capture in my photos. That’s the quality I’m going to freeze. Which is why I first have to open up all the many different possibilities. I always say that while preparation is important, a beautiful place and a beautiful building will always surprise me, too, and I have to catch that surprise in my images. I’m not going to say, “Oh no, this wasn’t part of the plan.” (laughs) I’m going to be there to catch that surprise. Maybe in improvisation you do the same. You have to be surprised.

PZ:
So it’s about capturing the moment. And how do you do that? Because I’m sure it’s not so easy, is it?

HB:
I sometimes ask myself the same question, because as you know I have a big camera, and then there’s the blanket, and sometimes it’s upside down, and sometimes it’s windy, and then you get old and you need glasses. It’s not as though I can just march in there and say, “Okay, that’s it!” And it’s not as though I can measure everything and insist on a certain logical sequence. I have a full roll of film and I go into the world and shoot it. It really is that simple. Though I do I work on the composition, which in my view rests on the laws of nature, of weight . . .

PZ:
You compose your images right there?

HB:
Right there. But mostly the composition comes of its own accord and I know when it’s right. Besides, I can’t stay there for hours dithering over when to shoot. You feel it when it’s right. And that’s very magical, that moment.

PZ:
Well, with so much experience you must know when it feels right. And when you look at your works later, can you see that were you mostly right to feel right? (both laugh)

HB:
That’s an interesting question. When I photograph a building, say, I always check the first few photographs to make sure I’m on the right track, that it’s going well. The first three photographs always land in the bin, because it always takes a little time for me to get into it. But I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, and with time I can say that there are fewer and fewer things that I have to discard. So if I take twenty-four shots, there will most likely be fifteen decent ones that I then keep.

PZ:
May I ask you — you don’t have to answer this, of course — how much you manipulate your photos after you’ve taken them?

HB:
In the darkroom? (laughs) The manipulation is more in the choice of film — whether it’s high sensitivity, low sensitivity, black and white or color, the contrast — if you can call that manipulation.

PZ:
More a decision, isn’t it? Let’s call it a decision.

HB:
And then it’s like this: If I were to measure the light right here to take a photo of this table, then the rest would be black. But if I measured it here, then this is the area that would be exposed, and the details would all be black. So one very important question is: What do I want to draw out? Because you can transform everything by adjusting the exposure!

PZ:
Do you do that right there on the spot?

HB:
Yes, on the spot, and afterwards in the darkroom, too. There’s a lot of adding and subtracting of light.

PZ:
So there’s a whole process that takes place afterwards? Can you tell us a little bit about that — because it’s not Photoshop is it? (laughs)

HB:
No, it’s definitely not Photoshop, and it’s never the same. Even if I write down everything I did when I made the print, it’s never quite the same and you can never reproduce it exactly, so every print is unique.

PZ:
Each one is an original — in a way?

HB:
Yes, because you can change the contrast and you can add light, but you cannot take anything away. So if you were to say to me: “Oh, that’s not so great, can you Photoshop it for me?” The answer is: “No, I can’t.” And I like the fact that there’s something in the photograph — you know I make them quite pure — that anchors it somehow, something very real. There’s a photograph I did early on, of your first studio, where there’s a wall with a little window and a road on a slight gradient, and on the road there’s a drain for the water to run off with a drain cover that’s exactly the same size as the window. Of course this was something built by the municipality and not part of your design, but I put it in the photo anyway. That real thing gives a lot of power to your work, because it anchors it somehow. Not only does it have the right proportions, but it tells viewers that they are there, in that specific place.

PZ:
Are you saying that when I look at the photograph I’m actually there? Is that what you’re talking about?

HB:
Exactly. I’m interested in having the viewer enter the space that the photograph opens up. That’s why I don’t have many people in my works. I want you to enter them, and you to imagine what I didn’t say, because in the end my photographs are there to stimulate your imagination. They don’t say a lot, but they do say a few things. And you have to be in there to create your own spatial dimensions.

PZ:
When you talk about space in this sense, you presumably mean not only spatial space, architectural space, but also emotional space or something like that. Is that right?

HB:
Yes, that’s right. I mean, we know that we can make space, because it’s what we do when we a read a book or when we dream — we make space. And we also know that our memory is anchored in space. So if I look at the wall . . .

PZ:
Wait! Our memory is anchored in space? Can you explain that to me?

HB:
Well actually that’s not from me, but from Gaston Bachelard. (laughs) But what it means, I think, is that when we remember something, it’s not so much the fact of it that comes back to us, but the place. The moment I read that, I thought, “Oh my God!”. especially as Bachelard writes beautifully about how duration is frozen in space. So when we look at a wall, for example, perhaps a wall with water and light, we are in fact looking not just at this one wall, but at all the other walls and light we’ve seen in the course of our lives.

PZ:
They’re connected.

HB:
They’re connected. So when you look at my photographs, I don’t want you just to say: “Oh, the Therme Vals is like this” and then go on to the next picture. I want you to feel a tiny bit of doubt about the first image — whether it’s not saying too much, perhaps — and to start to think, and maybe also to imagine, what is there or not there. There’s some ambiguity there, too, because there’s a line of light and you can’t be sure whether it’s water or a reflection. And then you also start to think about what water and stone mean to you personally and how you have experienced them in your life. Because you’re not actually there; you’re not at the baths; you can’t smell, you can’t hear, you can’t touch anything. So I have to take you there, at least in your imagination.

PZ:
Does this mean that you try to look at something, or rather to select something essential in what you’re looking at? Something which connects back to history, to similar memories and experiences, so that you don’t have to show the whole, but only an essential detail? Is it something like that?

HB:
Yes, it is. But while it’s very important that I select something essential to a project — the key, as it were — sometimes it’s also good to have a bit of deviation. Like the drain cover I described just now.

PZ:
To get a bit of distance between the photograph and the architecture or the object — or perhaps even yourself?

HB:
Mostly to move away from pure architecture. Because what is there is static, so you’ve got to say things like: “I wonder what’s behind that little corner?” That’s very important, because that’s what puts viewers onto a path, it’s what makes them start to imagine what’s really there.

PZ:
So you trigger the imagination?

HB:
Yes.

PZ:
And you trigger memories?

HB:
Yes, definitely. (laughs)

PZ:
Photography is a two-dimensional affair, but then so is painting or drawing; yet you can still go into some depth with it. Is that when it becomes art? If you’re lucky? (laughs)

HB:
Yes, perhaps, although I don’t like definitions too much. I do what my gut feelings tell me to do. And if my work moves you, perhaps because I’ve reached some part of your inner world that it chimes with, then obviously it’s more than just documentation.

PZ:
So are you then an artist who gets a commission and then uses it as a pretext to say something of your own? Or is it more like applied art, in that you simply show what you’ve been asked to show? Which is it?

HB:
I think it’s a combination of both, in that I do accept commissions that point in a direction where I know I can say something, but I also have my own topics that I pursue independently. So it’s a combination of the two.

PZ:
You have your own personal signature, but you also respect the desires of your client. If, therefore, I were to ask you to photograph a building of mine, there would at least be a little bit of my building in it, right? (everyone laughs)

HB:
Yes, there would. I’m not going to take my photograph at midnight or in the moonlight and then say, “There you are Peter, I’ve done it.” I’m not completely independent in that way, at least not when I have a commission.

PZ:
Would you like to be independent?

HB:
That’s an interesting question, because what I do is rather like playing a piece of music. Musicians learn a lot from the score. So it’s a wonderful experience for me to work with an architect, to understand her thinking, and to try to express it, even if it’s a photo that shows only a small part of the building. For me that’s an enriching experience and I’ve never doubted that it’s worthwhile.

PZ:
I have this beautiful memory that I know you share from that time twenty years ago when we were working on a book together. As you know, that book [Peter Zumthor. Works] has since become an icon and these days costs up to 1000 euros secondhand. That was such a beautiful collaboration between the two of us — something I’ll never forget.

HB:
Yes, it was, wasn’t it? And for me, too, it was very much the beginning. You gave me a lot of freedom, and I remember coming back to you with my pictures and you would say: “That’s fine”; or if you said anything else it was something like: “Just remember that the Therme Vals is a very sensual space and that’s what you have to get across.” And you once said: “Don’t ask me to take you to the building. Let’s go and listen to some music instead.” Which was really beautiful, because you clearly understood that things don’t always come directly. It’s important to listen and talk about other things, too.

PZ:
I think I treated you the way I would like to be treated by my clients. (everyone laughs) So why architecture? Is architecture your passion or could it just as well have been landscapes?

HB:
I like landscapes, too. And I look at landscape in a similar way. So why architecture? I don’t know, but I grew up in Rome in the 1960s. And since I was home-schooled I had a lot of free time to spend in that beautiful city, and at the seaside among the rocks and stones and the Roman ruins that were right there on the beach. So architecture is very much a part of my own individuation and the development of my sensibility.

PZ:
You grew up in Rome?

HB:
Yes, I grew up in Rome. And Rome in the 1960s was amazing!

PZ:
So what the heck are you doing in London? (both laugh)

HB:
It’s too beautiful to be creative there. You always need a bit of roughness and emptiness to be creative.

PZ:
What brought you to architecture then? And to photography for that matter?

HB:
The photography was a stroke of luck. I had a friend who one day said to me: “I’m going to photography school. Why don’t you come along?” I was studying dance and music at the time, but I wasn’t good enough to do either professionally. So I thought: “Why not? Maybe that’s a profession I can stick with.” I worked as a stage photographer at the Grand Theâtre in Geneva for two years, and then I met the man who became my husband, Raoul Bunschoten. He was the one who introduced me to Alvin Boyarsky at the Architectural Association, and then later to John Hejduk. And that’s when I realized that this is a huge and relatively unknown field — I mean the question of how to convey the quality of space in what is actually a two-dimensional medium. That is my task. And it’s endless, even though I continue to hope that one day I’ll take the photograph to end all architectural photographs.

PZ:
That’s interesting. And although I’m hearing this for the first time, I understand immediately. London in those days was this wideopen field for experiments in architecture, drawing, photography, and all kinds of other things, too. So has this now stopped, or where is it now? Today I’m surrounded by architecture based on all these artificial renderings and what have you. So what you describe sounds very fresh and strong.

HB:
Yes, it was. Having grown up in Rome I did at least have some knowledge of architecture when I arrived in London, so I did have some idea of where I would find what. Also, photography, for me, was more about understanding than representing, at least in the beginning. So in a way I was just carving my own path and asking: “What is this about? What is it? Why did they do that? Why did John Hejduk build that tower in Berlin? What did he see there?” I think I was very lucky to find it all so fresh, which of course is how we would all like to look at the world — although unfortunately it’s no longer possible.

PZ:
What’s happening in photography today then?

HB:
Oh dear . . . (both laugh)

PZ:
We have a rule for these conversations, by the way: that we only talk about positive things, okay? So no criticism or anything like that! (laughs)

HB:
Okay, let’s find something positive to say about all this Instagram stuff. One thing that is positive is that even before a building is finished, there are already hundreds or even thousands of photographs of it.

PZ:
How can that possibly be positive?

HB:
Because it means I can do my work. It’s not as if nobody has ever seen the building before. There isn’t this tension of producing the very first photograph. No, there are already images of it out there — which means that I can do my work the way I want to do it, and investigate space rather than merely reproducing something. I think in the end it enhances the value of what I do. At least that’s what I hope.

PZ:
For me it has become a big problem. I remember when I won the competition for this building back in 1989, I submitted just two tiny pencil perspectives of the interior, which perhaps showed something and perhaps didn’t. Nowadays, however, you can only win competitions with huge renderings and I have the feeling that nobody looks at plans anymore. The rendering also has to be big enough for you to be able to see everything from ten meters away, and then the building is expected to look just like the rendering — like the whole process, in fact. Sometimes people ask me: “Can you show us some renderings of this or that.” But that’s something I cannot do, because the building is not yet finished inside my head. That’s something I’m sure you understand?

HB:
Absolutely. Although you missed an important point just now: that then they want a photograph of the building that looks just like the rendering! That’s when you know everything is dead. (both laugh) I remember once someone came to me with a rendering, and I said to the architect: “You’ve been suffering for five years! Why do you want me to go through that same ordeal? Where is your work?” But we have to stay positive, I think, because the difference is there and people do notice it.

PZ:
Photography is an art. Did you have any role models, photographers, or even photos that you looked up to, that made you say: “This is the way I would like it to be?”

HB:
Not directly in the sense of “That’s how it should be!” But one photographer who made me want to do photography was Lucien Hervé, whose photographs for Le Corbusier are very strong indeed and made a very powerful impression on me. Then there’s Jean Petit, who did the design of Le Corbusier’s first books. He was a friend of the family, which is why I remember him coming over and showing us these books. Things like that stay with you — that love of concrete images and very strong, tactile experiences. Lucien Hervé worked in a very different way. He cropped his images, which is something I never do.

PZ:
Because what you do, you do in a trance, in situ . . .

HB:
That’s what it is! That’s why I’ve never cropped an image!

PZ:
So what you liked about those Le Corbusier photographs was the tactile feeling they conveyed?

HB:
Yes, the works are very, very tactile, and very abstract, too. I think they worked together a lot, so they could really get to the essence of the building — and they used people in a very beautiful way. The people and the buildings fit perfectly; they didn’t just happen to be there. They’re existential. They’re there to say something. And I admire that, which is why I’ve followed that way of using people in photographs.

PZ:
I remember once complaining to you, or rather relaying other people’s complaints, that there’s no human presence in your images. “Couldn’t we have some people in this space? Wouldn’t that be nice?” To which you replied: “There are people, you just can’t see them.” (everyone laughs) Can you please explain that?

HB:
Well there are several reasons for this. First I want the viewer to be in the photos, so that there is at least one person present. Then there are the exposure times. Sometimes I work with long exposures, which means that people passing by are not recorded. But I’m not an absolutist. I’m not Bernd and Hilla Becher. I’ve done some photographs with people and they all looked perfectly natural, because they were there in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, if you have people you also have a narrative. But that narrative has to enhance the building, which is not so easy because the human body is actually a very powerful presence.

PZ:
Did you ever do any portraits?

HB:
I did one very nice one of you! (laughs) Portraiture is something I do for pleasure and not something for which I have any special talent. It’s different with landscape. I really like photographing landscapes. I’ve done things in Switzerland and in the Atacama Desert, and in both cases it was a very strong and powerful experience because you’re dealing with all those raw forces that have shaped the landscape.

PZ:
What do you think is . . . No, let me ask something else and maybe I’ll get the same answer. (laughs) Can you tell us something about the difference between black-and-white and color photography — both in your own work and in photography in general?

HB:
Well as you know I’ve moved away from the idea that I’m just representing buildings. My story is another story. I’m a photographer and I can do photographs in black and white if I want. I choose black and white as my main medium of expression because I want to get away from this other approach — all those wide-angle images and so forth. Besides, I think photography should make you feel the tension: that space is complex and that you can’t show it in two dimensions only. Some photographers try to force the issue with more colors, more wide-angle shots, and such like. But I do the opposite. Aristotle pondered the question of why sounds are more audible at night and it is certainly the case that reduction makes for a stronger image. So I’m more interested in saying just one or two things really well rather than trying to cram in as much as possible. Also, the tactile world is very important to me and it’s expressed better in black and white than in color. But I’m not exclusive and sometimes color comes in almost of its own accord, because it’s one aspect of the story.

PZ:
Why do you think that is — that the tactile is better expressed in black and white?

HB:
The little shadows that define texture are simply more expressive in black and white; and there are fewer distractions than there are with color. With color you don’t know if it’s the color that’s getting darker or what it is, whereas with black and white you really feel the volume and feel what’s happening on the surface.

PZ:
So color is too overwhelming — is it something like that?

HB:
Yes, overwhelming and distracting. I feel that very strongly — not that I can prove it scientifically, but when I see the same photograph in color and in black and white it seems obvious to me.

PZ:
Yes, I understand, the abstraction helps us to see other things. But you’re not against color as such?

HB:
No, not at all! I don’t reject color and I don’t want my interpretation of the world to be too dark either.

PZ:
Then let’s talk about black and white. Tell us something about black.

HB:
Black is wonderful, but it’s also an absence of energy. If we go back far enough in time, everything was darkness — and then the sun came, so there’s this quality of vastness in it, like space. Then the moment you touch a shadow you immediately stimulate the imagination. There have been so many things written about the world of shadows, that other world with all its dark connotations and what it represents. But for me it’s not only dark; it’s about something else in the sense that — well, take this table for instance. There’s a shadow here because the table is casting a shadow. But I can only see the shadow, not the table.

PZ:
So the shadow speaks of the table? Shadows speak of things without showing them?

HB:
Yes, that’s it. And they can trick you, too. I mean if you take the very silly example of the rabbit that you do with your hand. It can trick you but it can also take you somewhere else, to something that is not what it seems. So the world of shadows is a very rich world. Of course we have shadows on the body and shadows that model volume and vitality. And then we have that in-between realm of chiaroscuro and penumbra — a world without light, which is still a very beautiful world.

PZ:
You work a lot with this penumbra, with darkness, with black.

HB:
I try to, yes. They belong to my palette. There are photographers who work a lot with white. Walter Niedermayr for example, who produces really beautiful photographs that are very, very white. He, too, is stimulating the imagination — but with burning white, with transparency, with brightness. I really admire his work, but that’s not the way I do it. It has nothing to do with logic; it’s just the way it comes, which is dark. Not that I want to be obscure. So some of the photos in your monograph were in color, too, just as they were with Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, where there were all these amazing reds and yellows.

PZ:
I remember for my book you did these little color vignettes every ten pages or so that function almost like a grid.

HB:
Yes, that’s right. Let me tell you a little story about the time I took those photos of the Therme Vals. I was there at night when the lights were off and I was sitting there in complete darkness. You can’t see anything, but of course you can smell. And if you swim, you can feel the water — can feel everything in fact. And then the lights came on and I saw all the colors. And I really had the feeling that the space and the volumes were given to us first in black and white and that the colors came only later, when the lights came on. Did they even exist before there was light? They didn’t. They came with the light. That was a very important moment for me, because it was then that I realized that we have this different perception of things when we see them with the lights on: that it’s light that brings color to the brain. Then there are the different parts of the eye: We see colors with the cones, but the first ones to react are the rods, which are the sensors right on the edge of the retina. So for a fraction of a second, our rods give us a black-and-white image.

PZ:
The rods for black-and-white vision are on the outside — the periphery?

HB:
Yes, that’s right. So all the things we need to be aware of for our own safety we see first in black and white and only then in color.

PZ:
That’s a scientific fact, right?

HB:
Yes, it is, although we’re talking here about a fraction of a second. So while I don’t know if we can make use of this effect, I still like to know that this is what happens.

PZ:
You’re so passionate! I forgot you’re such a passionate photographer! I don’t know very much about your profession and about all that it entails, so listening to you is amazing! I’ve noticed that the word strong is one you really like, right? That’s something we both share. (both laugh) Strong image, strong format . . . Are you looking for something iconic or archetypal? It that what you understand by a strong image?

HB:
Well, not iconic.

PZ:
No?

HB:
No. I like the direct and the simple — something that is just there, because it has to feel natural. Things that are iconic are very scary because they don’t move, whereas I want things to evolve, especially in architecture.

PZ:
Let me try again. (laughs) I’m sure you know that in Switzerland in the 1930s and 1940s there was a style called Neue Sachlichkeit, “New Objectivity,” a sort of matter-of-fact photography all in black and white. Many of those photographers went out and took photos of tools, say, or trades, and things like that. The aim was to be completely matter of fact, to put the object there and let it speak for itself, just as it is. Later I saw the photos the Bechers took in and around Düsseldorf and I had the feeling that they were again doing the same thing: looking, very directly, at the object, but looking at it long enough for a simple thing to become very strong. By simple I mean — well actually I’m sure you know what I mean.

HB:
Yes I do! The Bechers, like everyone else in the German school, took this same approach, because it was also very neutral. You have the flowers, the trades, the different buildings. But this neutrality — no background, nothing happening — is actually a very strong statement. Their works are almost like studies, and as studies they reveal a lot. Just look at what they did to the flowers. It’s amazing! But it’s still not the thing itself. It’s still . . .

PZ:
. . . an interpretation.

HB:
Yes.

PZ:
So not so sachlich after all.

HB:
No, but then if it’s not the thing itself, what is it? (both laugh)

PZ:
Well as a photographer you’re always representing . . .

HB:
Yes, exactly. You’re a conduit for something, so there’s no way that thing can stay what it is. There’s a lot of confusion about this aspect of photography.

PZ:
A painter nowadays would probably not represent things. As an artist he would probably do something else. But what about you as a photographer? Surely there’s always at least some representing involved in what you do, some sort of talking about the subject. So here’s another question for you: What is photography’s subjectmatter?

HB:
Well, we work with the world. We’re not making something new — a sculpture, say — where before there was nothing. We work with the world. So the world is our palette — and light. Light is very important.

PZ:
And dark?

HB:
And dark. But you cannot have light without dark. It’s like silence in music. You have to have silence in order to structure a piece of music. It’s the same for us with light. So we have this world which is sometimes overwhelming, and it is up to the photographer not only to represent what is there, but also to take it somewhere else: To a news network, for example, or to people far away, or to a family photo album — there are lots of potential uses for photography. I think that’s why I like photography so much: because there are so many different ways to approach it. It’s also a very simple tool. It’s not complicated. You don’t have to spend years and years learning how to do it. Although maybe that’s also a drawback — that an image can be produced so easily. So it’s all about saying: “No, no, no, no,” and then, finally: “Yes,” because it’s there. It’s just there.

PZ:
So it’s about representing — at least when you say: “Yes.” But it’s about many other things, too, about the world and about looking at the world. Do you remember by any chance what Roland Barthes said about photography? It’s a long time since I read the book — for you too, probably — and I’ve forgotten.

HB:
You’re talking about Camera Lucida, right?

PZ:
I think so. I’ll have to look it up again.

HB:
Never mind Barthes! For me, photography is about celebrating life. I need the world. I need people, too. I need sun. And I need nature. So when I go out into the world with my tripod and my camera and all my gear, I’m certainly doing something very physical, but I’m also celebrating life.

PZ:
Good old Hélène! Thank you so much!

HB:
My pleasure, Peter!

© 2021 Peter Zumthor and Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess AG, Zurich