January 7, 2019
The Silent Simplicity of Koen Van Damme's Architectural Photography
Architecture is notoriously challenging to capture in a still photograph. Many argue that one needs to circumnavigate a building and become intimate with its nature in person to truly understand its essence, purpose, and space it occupies. Koen Van Damme, however, is one of the few that have developed a personal style that effectively communicates architecture through photography, injecting perspective while allowing ample space for interpretation.
The reservedness in Van Damme’s imagery is neither modernism nor an homage to minimalism but rather a reflection of his devotion to simplicity, bringing subtle beauty to what others might frame as banal. We interviewed the Belgian artist to get some insights on his process, his inspiration, and his architectural photography must-haves.
When did you fall in love with buildings and photographing them?
It started very early when I was 11 years old and my parents gave me a tiny Kodak camera. There were only two viewfinder settings and a button that gave you the choice to shoot in sunny or cloudy conditions. I almost always used the ‘sunny’ button as I learned how to use my new camera on a family holiday in the south of Italy, photographing the ruins of Pompei and Paestum. I was fascinated. Later on came the medieval cathedrals in Belgium and France.
During my photography studies at the Academy of Arts in Ghent (Belgium), I had the opportunity to follow an architectural course and loved learning about the buildings I was so drawn to.
What are the main challenges you face as an architectural photographer?
There are a few. First, with each shot, you have to make a very precise decision about which elements and subjects you want to show in your image. Excluding subjects from your photographs is actually more important than letting them in.
Another challenge comes with custom work. When you are working with an architect, you need to make sure that you are both on the same page. As an architectural photographer, it’s necessary to understand the architect’s language and therefore the essence of the building. Once you both understand each other, you can capture the real beauty of the building.
And finally, when shooting architecture, your window of opportunity is small. Every piece of the puzzle must come together at the same time: light, exposure, point of view, and space.
“Shooting always starts with the exploration of an architectural space — and to understand space you need to let it react to you.”
— Koen Van Damme
Do you have any favorite photographers?
Julius Shulman, Bernd & Hilla Becher, and Hiroshi Sugimoto are some of my favorite photographers — but my photography incorporates all of my interests. French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson put it well — A good photograph is not just a sudden click on a button. It’s a result of the movies you’ve seen, the books you’ve read, the music you’ve listened to.
What other mediums inspire you?
Music certainly has an influence on my photography. It helps to inspire and rouse a particular state of mind. I really love the musical works of Wim Mertens. I also take inspiration from the light installations of James Turell, the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, and the paintings of Gerhard Richter.
What is your process like when you shoot a building?
Shooting always starts with the exploration of an architectural space. And to understand space you need to let it react to you. Architectural photography for me is a process of meditation. I’m always searching and waiting for the point where silent simplicity occurs. I’d like to think of architectural photography as a continuous process of simplification.
Is there a particular shoot or building that stands out in your memory?
The Golf Club Project of Mies van der Rohe in 2013. It was built in Krefeld (Germany) in a natural environment as a life-size model. It looked like an open-air exposition. It has been since been removed but I remember it well. Shooting this building was a real magical moment. You had to walk half an hour in the fields before reaching this project. At dusk. Beautiful.
Any essential pieces of equipment?
Lens quality is crucial when it comes to (architectural) photography. I could not work without my tilt and shift lenses. There’s no architectural photography without them.
What’s the most significant change or development you’ve seen in architectural photography during your career?
Certainly the digital revolution. Before I travelled around, photographed, came back to my studio, had to develop my film, made contact sheets, and so on. It was a long, slow process. Now I can shoot, edit and send images on the road, in my hotel, car, everywhere. The photographic process has become much faster, like life in general. Also in my early days, I had a lot of heavy equipment, carrying it around like a pack mule. These days I travel light.
What advice would you give someone looking to pursue a career in architectural photography today?
The quest for your own style and point of view is essential. There are many good architectural photographers, so you have to stand out. Search for your own signature, develop it, and stay true to it.
Words to live by?
Architecture arises from images in your head.
Architectural photography arises from architecture.
Images in your head arise from architectural photography.