“I Love Telling Stories and Anecdotes”
So says Julien Lanoo, whose photo-features are spread across architecture websites. Architecture, for him, is not just a beautiful thing or a stylistic preference, it is a never-ending quest to see and understand, it is the reflection of a community.
Julien Lanoo is a Belgian photographer who documents the built environment whose work is best known for their “humanistic” approach, where people and broader architectural contexts are at the center of attention. In 2016, his images were nominated as the world’s best professional photographs of buildings and structures of the year by Arcaid Images.
He has photographed and worked on the book Built Unbuilt that revisits 16 years of Julien De Smedt’s work from the inception of the architectural practice PLOT with Bjarke Ingels in 2001 to the work of JDSA and the founding of the design studio Makers With Agendas with William Ravn in 2013.
Scale is in conversation with Julien Lanoo…
SCALE: When and how did your interest in photography begin? How did it move on to architecture photography?
Julien: I can’t pinpoint a definite moment, but my mother fondly tells stories – in a fruitless attempt to embarrass me – how, as a child, I would steal my sister’s special edition Barbie photo camera, or sneak a disposable Kodak camera into the supermarket trolley from time to time. After having confiscated my father’s Minolta 7, which he had bought during his compulsory military service in Germany, I finally received one of my own for my 12th birthday. The first big decision I had to make for myself was choosing a camera.
It is difficult for me to ponder on why I am so attracted to this medium. I can only recall the WHAT and the WHEN. The WHY, however, is a theme that has and will always be the propulsion of my interests.
The only thing I am certain of is that the reason WHY is that this medium is abstract. It goes much further than a “subject”, or a stylistic preference. And, photographing architecture was a natural evolution in my work.
SCALE: Is it the buildings, the scale, or the juxtaposition of a human near the building, that makes it interesting to you?
JULIEN: None of those. I think the answer to a simple question can be a bit more complex than it may seem.
Architecture is composed of many strands, and it takes more than scale or juxtaposition to understand a particular project, its histories, and problems.
It depends on what we understand by “scale” or “juxtaposition”.
If the scale is understood in the colloquial sense of “big and/or small” (or big vs. small), as the only measuring stick of quality or relevance, then for me, this is leaning towards a “pharaonic” way of thinking.
Maybe too much of fast consumption of either: architecture or candy images.
Even if you take Las Vegas as an example, where buildings dress to impress, there is an inherited relationship to its function, its front-of-house users, its hidden users, and its context. Very quickly, we can easily find four different levels of reading a structure.
If the scale is understood in the sense of how one object measures up against a second subject, then we are juxtaposing. But are we really?
“Juxtaposition” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the fact of putting people or things together, especially in order to show a contrast or a new relationship between them.”
For an analytical brain like mine, this definition thus evokes an artificial situation with the sole purpose of creating an uncanny tension between two (or more) subjects, or so that they state a previously unknown connection.
A lot of people look at architecture with their ears. It doesn’t have to be an “artificial” situation, i.e. in the name of “It’s new, look at it!”. Nor should it always be a contrasting (confronting) situation, or a “new” relationship.
Contemporary architecture can be of all of these things of course, but it also can (and should) be a “known” situation: it can also be integrated into either life or context, it can also be a recognizable friend. For example, anyone can ride a 1910 bicycle just as well as a modern carbon fiber.
SCALE: How was the collaboration with Julien de Smedt? How did working on the book inspire you?
JULIEN: Shortly after we met to discuss this future project, Julien de Smedt said that he didn’t want to make an “Agenda” again.
Throughout our conversations, I quickly recognized character traits we both have: we are both equally stubborn, we would defend our ideas and convictions to the death, and we both have problems with authority – an inherent propensity to rebel. This project thus promised to be a challenge.
At the time, I knew little about JDSA’s work, but when I studied and checked out different projects of his, I discovered a particular discourse resonating from each project, something beyond their iconic value. The environment that he created through his architecture was forming pleasant places to be.
Over many discussions with Julien de Smedt, it became clear to me why this was the case. His quest and ideology to JUST make things better – optimal for living and working, his ability to take on a project with sensitivity, or the way he has expanded his research on a singular function to adapt it to current and future needs of the communities, is an overall theme in his body of work.
During the time we were working on the book, people were rarely looking at the buildings for more than their iconic value and “starchitect” name. A contradiction, a tension.
The initial concept of the book-to-be was also leaning towards this superficiality regarding how architecture was, and still is, perceived. To us, the idea of representing his work in that way, without looking at their importance, on the whole, seemed to be the wrong path.
From that point, the book evolved, and eventually became the exact opposite of what our starting base initially was. It became an “honest” view, a “no bullshit” study of communities around the architecture itself. Errors were made, successes were achieved.
A sort of personal journal, for both of us.
For me personally, this cooperation was not only an aesthetic inspiration, but it also pushed me to think a bit further in my own work, not just stopping at the visual language, at the “generally” accepted conclusion. In photography, it’s not easy to create a visual connection in a composition of things that are speaking about the conditions of a specific moment in time. In order to tell the story of its creator, and translate the actual meaning of a place, a photograph has to capture all the fragments, and environments, that are partaking in the story.
Henri Cartier Bresson’s le moment decisif (“the decisive moment”) is misunderstood and commonly depicted as coincidental. I (like Henri Cartier Bresson) think that the decisive moment is captured by being there and waiting until all the elements come together to “create” that moment. The photographer waits, feels that something is about to happen, and then captures that instant.
SCALE: One of the more recent projects that you have completed in Accra is the Nubuke Foundation. Do you have a particular fondness for concrete structures or brutalist architecture?
JULIEN: No more than for wooden, brick, or mud structures. A defining factor of Nubuke, or any building, is not the material used or how it looks. It is what it’s used for. More importantly, how does the building function, its usefulness, and necessity, why is it there? That’s a much more interesting story for me to tell, in addition to showing the aesthetics of an object or place.
Over the years, I have become very fond of Ghana. I learned through my work here that the formal elements of a project are less important than placemaking.
Of course, we tend to perceive visually how buildings are materialised, but the intentionality behind them, and the knowledge that has been passed on, have an equal importance.
SCALE: Are you equally excited about taking profile shots of architects? How do you get them to relax?
Julien: I very much love doing portraits, both dynamic imagery, as well as “posed”, composed portraiture. My first paid job was as a portraitist for a national financial newspaper, a long time ago.
I had my little time of success with it, but I was very young.
For different reasons, I stopped making portraits for a while, and recently, I felt like I was missing this close, very intimate contact with people and the camera, the singular stories that are told through portraiture. So, I’ve started working on portraits again, but I’ve set myself two “rules”: I only use analog cameras for portraiture, because you cannot see the screen, and you create a sort of very intimate relationship between the person you’re photographing, your camera, and yourself.
To make a good portrait, you have to stay inside this ‘bubble’: the world around it will cease to exist for 1/60th of a second.
We are too preoccupied with the nature of perception. But it’s okay if the result is not sharp in terms of acutance, or less defined than what you would get with a digital camera. The “real” has value, and the beauty of the present is sometimes hidden in the errors.
The second rule is what you see is what you get. A portrait should be the antipode of E.T.A. Hoffman’s Olimpia. Natural light, real situations. It all helps to create that important pact of trust between photographer, camera, and subject. Within portraiture, the physical representation is almost irrelevant. The identity of the subject, with all their ups and downs, is the defining factor of someone’s picture and its relevance in time.
Scale: What is it in photography that makes you want to do it, keep doing it, with so much passion?
Julien: Many things. Photography is my way of telling stories without language barriers. There is this notion that captivates people, the human nature or fascination with grasping things. Whether it’s making a photograph, a freeze-frame of reality which inherently has become virtual, or millions of other different beautiful jewels of mechanics that have been invented, like watches, for instance: with elaborate mechanics just to track time, which in itself is a virtual concept. Architecture photography depicts that certain moment, but within a much larger context of social and environmental forces.
I love telling stories and anecdotes, captivating people. One of my particular favourite ways is sharing interesting but useless knowledge. I’m thinking now of the complete contents of the 1925 Brooklands land speed record rulebook, which stated: “A car must have four wheels. Two of those wheels must steer the car.” End of contents of the rule book.