Monday, October 11, 2010

The girl who sat at the window

Congratulations to Iwan Baan on the Julius Shulman Photography Award! It sounds like a Monday morning quarterback now, but I always think Iwan Baan is the Julius Shulman of our time.

I still remember the story Iwan told me about how he got the close-up of a girl sitting at the window of Toyo Ito's Mikimoto building in Tokyo. He was taking pictures of the building from the other side of the street, and suddenly he saw this girl sitting elegantly at one of the windows. He quickly aimed the camera towards her, framed the shot, and pressed the button. He didn't know who she was at the time, but soon after, he was told that it was Kelly Chan, a famous Hong Kong pop singer. This reminded me of the two girls in Julius Shulman's signature photo of Case Study House #22. When the assistants were setting lights for him, Julius strolled outside of the house just out of curiosity, and he caught the classic moment that perpetually defines the image of Modernism in America.

Iwan Baan: Mikimoto Building by Toyo Ito.
Julius Shulman: Case Study House #22 by Pierre Koenig.

Clearly, Iwan took his inspirations not only from Julius Shulman but also figures like Henri Cartier-Bresson. It's a mode of photo journalism. Like Cartier-Bresson, Iwan loves to catch real people in action. He rarely stages the scene but rather let the architecture be the stage of life. He also travels continuously around the globe. It's actually hard to find him in one place for more than a week.

When hear the name Julius Shulman, one will almost immediately think about Richard Neutra. In a similar manner, Iwan Baan has been associated to his fellow Dutchman Rem Koolhaas. While Julius's pictures represent the pristine quality of Neutra's high Modernism - always clean, organized and efficient, Iwan's work dares to expose messiness to reflect a different Zeitgeist. He tends to capture the chaos of metropolitan life - the pulse of our time that Rem also addresses - while maintaining high quality light and texture. Iwan also utilized new media technology and created interactive virtual tours with the help of a Swiss-made mirror ball and computer software, taking architectural photography to another level.

Both Julius and Iwan had help from architects in the early stage of their photography career. And in return, they both took their responsibilities as members of the architectual community. Julius helped discover hidden gems like Herb Greene, and Iwan's photos have brought our attention to several new talents, including young Japanese Sou Fujimoto and Junya Ishigami, as well as Giancarlo Mazzanti from Colombia. In 1990, Julius "retired" as he was upset by the ubiquitous postmodernism. When he heard that a new owner bought the Kaufmann House and was willing to undertake serious restoration, he helped enthusiatically by providing all the photos he took of the original house, including eighty of them that he never actually printed.

The responsibilities were not limited to architecture. Julius was an advocate of environmental awareness. He initiated a program called "Project: Environment U.S.A." to show how architects could relate to good environment in their design work. Iwan has a keen interest in the developing world. He goes frequently to China, India, Mongolia, and countries in South America and Africa, covering issues such as poverty, cultural identity, and democracy. This enthusiasm could be seen as early as in his school thesis project: a report on the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus who founded the Grameen Bank in 1976, the first bank in the world dedicated to microcredit to the poor.

Here are just some of the obvious characters Julius Shulman and Iwan Baan have in common. Maybe another one to add: they are both so nice! As a professional and as a person, Iwan deserves to be the very first winner of this award.

No comments: