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Open-Ended Beginnings
Swiss-French photographer Hélène Binet, best known as the leading architectural photographer who still insists on shooting analogue, spoke to us about the ambiguous nature of photography that extends into her practice
Vani Sriranganayaki

In a 1944 study, 34 students from the Massachusetts College were shown a short film and asked to describe it. The film featured two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional space and a stationary rectangle, left open on one side. One of the test subjects saw the film for what it was: geometric shapes moving about a plane. Everyone else constructed their own narratives around it. Rather than registering them as inanimate shapes, they imagined them to have human emotions with explosive back-stories – the triangles were ‘bullying’ the circle; they were ‘angry’ and ‘frustrated’; the circle was ‘worried’. The moral? Stories are universal. The study resonated closer to home when I saw a particular a series of work by Swiss-French photographer Hélène Binet. They were all landscape images in black and white – frames filled to the brim with dense branches of trees, close-ups of wheat fields and cherry blossoms. There were no titles or explanations and the images carried with them very little contexts of time or location. From afar, they simply looked like heavily scratched surfaces. I stared at them for days, sure that there was a pattern hidden there somewhere. I just had to find it. ‘In photography, I’m interested in space. I’m interested in nature because I think it’s a way of finding places where human emotion, human wondering, human memories are projected, sheltered, hidden and expressed. So in the end what I’m looking for is to try to extract from the world an important, emotional moment or questions that us as humans have,’ she said over a telephonic conversation, her words slow and measured.

Although, in her recent works, she has turned her attention to landscape photography, Hélène Binet is known as one of the leading architectural photographers in the world. In a career spanning over three decades, she has photographed both contemporary and historical architecture and has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry including Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor, Alvar Aalto, Geoffrey Bawa and Le Corbusier among many others – another reason why I was so sure about the patterns. But, as she explained, our innate need to attach stories and narratives to images is simply our way of projecting ourselves into the photograph and getting to know the world there; and that even a few random lines or shapes can convince you that you’ve just read an epic story.

As one of the world’s leading architectural photographers, you have recently turned to landscape photography. From man-made certainty to nature’s ambiguity – can you tell us a bit about what prompted this shift? And how has the experience of traversing these vastly different terrains affected your creative process?

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December 2019 - January 2020