IN PRACTICE NOEL BALDEWIJNS
The 21st Century Eye Of Noel Baldewijns Having spent his working career in the European financial industry, Noel Baldewijns retired in 2011, took a degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Heusden, Belgium, and has since dedicated himself to black and white
UK correspondent Thomas Peck discovered the distinctive architectural photography of Belgian photographer Noel Baldewijns, and it’s a style derived from a very meticulous approach to shooting buildings.
Taking record photographs of buildings is simple. Creating artistic interpretations of architecture is quite a different matter. Noel Baldewijns is most definitely a photographer who falls into the latter category. He takes as his subject matter the ultra-modern constructions of Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. These architects are at the forefront of the modernist style of buildings – uncluttered, clear structures, focused on lucid forms. In the United Kingdom, Foster is perhaps best known of the three – think of the highly sculptural shapes of buildings like the Gherkin in London. Gehry is known for his deconstruction and reformulation of building shapes, sleek, radical and playful – MoMa in New York or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Calatrava creates buildings that reflect natural shapes and rhythms. He takes inspiration from zoomorphic forms – birds with outstretched wings (Lyon’s railway station in France), a turning torso (an apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden)
Noel Baldewijn’s images echo the modern feel of these buildings. The look is strongly stylised – black sky, streaky clouds, segments of buildings, dramatic
lines, abstraction etc. Always sleek, always dramatic. The pictures reflect the excitement that he feels emanating from the buildings. It’s an adrenalin rush. He explains that the link between subject matter and artistic style is very deliberate.
“Calatrava’s designs are based on birds, human bodies in motion like dancers and sportsmen. This leads almost always to overwhelming structures. It is as if the buildings have the intention of flying away. From other buildings you can recognise insects and even musical instruments. With Foster’s designs I’m attracted by how functional they are. When you walk in the City in London there is a whole area developed by him where there is a play of light surrounding these buildings. Gehry and his swinging constructions are well known. I like to create photographic series with different parts of his design. With all of these photographers the buildings and structures are quite difficult to shoot, but the results can be massively rewarding.”
Noel’s images go way beyond simply being photographs of buildings. This feels like a style that takes modernist architecture as its catalyst. The difference between photographing buildings and photographing architecture is rooted in what Noel refers to as the emotional content in the images.
“Before I even pick up my camera, I try to connect with the master architect by researching them – what is their background, how do they think, and what were they trying to convey when they worked on the plans for the buidling? I combine this research with my own focus –what do I want to convey with my work? What emotions do I want the viewer to experience when seeing my images? What story do I want to tell?”
There is then a careful planning process in the run up to making the images.
“It’s not like I wake up in the morning and decide to go out to shoot. For me this does not work. I prepare a long time in advance. What surrounds the construction? How do I get access and permission to photograph? What hour is sunrise? How will the sun turn around the construction?
“Nearer the time for the actual shoot I will check weather forecasts – I want to know if and when there will be clouds and what type of clouds. If the weather is not what I need then I will cancel the trip. So preparation is time consuming, and very often travelling is involved as well so I really need to prepare. No preparation means no successful shooting.”
The highly dramatic impact of the images is a combination of photographic technique plus composition and then black and white postprocessing. Noel describes how he likes to keep his pictures ‘tight’; there are no distractions, everything is pared down with a minimalist aesthetic.
He is not afraid to use negative space – often 50 percent of the photograph – which balances the building and allows for a chiaroscuro interplay between sky and building. He explains his process of taking images.
“I start measuring the light in manual mode. I determine the white point in the expected frame. Then I make some test shots. For me the most interesting settings, if possible, are f8.0 at 1/200
“Preparation is time consuming, and very often travelling is involved as well so I really need to prepare. No preparation means no successful shooting.”
second at the lowest possible sensitivity… for me, that’s usually ISO 100. Depending on the available clouds and what I want to achieve, I will then slow down the exposure by about 13 to 16 stops. I use a transformation table, so 1/200 second with 16 stops becomes about five minutes of exposure time. When I use more than ten stops, I add 40 to 50 percent extra exposure time. So in the example above, five minutes becomes seven.
“Most of the time I need to do more than one shot, so taking the photo that I’m looking for sometimes needs around one hour. I cover my camera with a big, dark mantle to avoid light leakage. My wife, Mieke, made the mantle for me. It starts at the front of my lens, goes over my camera and covers the ballhead and a part of the tripod. I sometimes get strange reactions from people and once I got questions from the police…
“Finally, I convert to black and white, but to be honest I’ve pre-visualised the image from the start in monochrome. It effects how I see the shoot. I’m already seeing the drama in the final image and I then bring that out using luminosity masking in the post-processing. I feel this gives the images the sense of timelessness that I’m looking for.”
Drama And Emotion
Indeed the light does seem to shine from the images, they positively glow.
I wonder about Noel’s approach to abstracts. Is there a different way of ‘seeing’ an abstract versus ‘seeing’ the whole? Our conversation brings us back full circle to the discussion of drama and emotion in the images.
“It depends on how I feel on that day or at that moment. Some buildings are very impressive and are asking to be photographed as a whole. I photograph sports stadiums as a whole because of the very exciting design they have. For me they compare to being a grasshopper or a bug so I do not see any reason to go abstract. I just see the grasshopper and the bug. But I keep my own dramatic style. That day [stadia images previous page] there were thunderstorms in the air, the walls were full of graffiti, young people were hanging around – skaters and bikers. There was a very dramatic atmosphere so I never thought about shooting abstracts there.
“With other buildings, you can feel the abstract. For example, I walked in the city of science and art in Valencia. I felt Calatrava must have been very proud of creating this. So I started to look around for a place where I could express that ‘pride’ the most. There was a pedestrian bridge – not necessarily a symbol of pride – but I could feel it was there. After a few hours I came up with the idea to look at that bridge upsidedown, and I had it! I could previsualise a peacock, the symbol of pride. I would never photograph that bridge as a whole.”
Noel Baldewijn’s images capture the sleek, radical and yet organic, sensual forms of the buildings he photographs. A style of imagery that feels very uncluttered and modernistic in its approach. Very much a 21st century eye.
With sports stadia, the whole building is exciting, says Noel Baldewijns, so there’s no need to go abstract.