Cologne architectural photographers in focus II -


A portrait of the Cologne Architectural Photographer Jens Willebrand -

We need poetic pictures



How did you become an architectural photographer?


I started my career as a news reporter and it was during my studies at university that I consciously began to photograph architectural buildings in 1986. My first commission was a commercial building designed by a young Cologne architectural practice. My photographs helped the architects to win a distinction at the German Architectural Prize. That was a key moment in my career as it clearly demonstrated how powerful the synthesis of architecture and photography could be.



Do you simply cover architecture or do you transform the building into a pictorial code?


The important question for me is what goes on within the viewer’s perception. That what he sees is only what is there right in front of him. Therefore architectural photography cannot be understood simply in terms of documentation. My photography provides the viewer with many more clues that will help him towards a deeper understanding of architecture. My artistic challenge is to uncover something that goes beyond the superficially visible as well as what could be described by the use of words. In the end my form of photography is a kind of transformation, an interpretation of the real. My world of pictures does not consist of susprises. Instead they can be understood as the dialogue with a certain place and a project including a systematic assessment of the unexpected. Sometimes a certain kind of disorder fits the picture, however, in another case the removal of disconcertning objects is the key to the photographic success.



How do you approach the architectural concept of a building? Do you speak with the architects and the clients or do you come up with your own approach?


I absolutely welcome the opportunity to have the intentions and context explained to me. However, it takes much more to take a good architectural photograph. I work between the extremes of the client’s explicit instructions and the informality of the unexpected. I fully take on buildings. I do that with the full awareness of delivering a transfer deal on the one hand and on the other a kind of respect for the building’s context in terms of its surrounding. I am constantly looking for clues, for an „audible“ structure. Otherwise I create structures that enable architecture to visualize a perceivable alternative.     



How many shots does one require to understand a buidling, and which ones are those?


In principle I try to condense everything into one single shot. In other words, a shot that reveals everything in one go, in a timeless perfection and for eternity – that’s my goal. However, nowadays in professional publications one tends to tell stories. Therefore we require more than one picture: aerial photography with the help of a drone, perspectives from a pedestrian point of view, interior shots, details, different lighting scenarios and pictures with or without people. As I have said before, it is a transfer deal – whether a singular or serial one – that I am involved in. My architectural photography is a concert of visible signs that has the power to create internal images. Images that go far beyond the rational understanding and touch an emotional recognition. It takes poetic pictures.



During the last years one has noticed a certain amount of „living pictures“ in architectural journals. How do you perceive this trend?


This trend to show people in architectural buildings is the result of the extended technical possibilities of digital photography. Modern photographic cameras enable exposure times that have previously not been feasible, for example, in featuring people within architecture. In such cases architectural photography gets close to news photography. In this context I often deliberately play with special lighting scenarios and suitable objects to create something unexpected, to reveal something about the project and its context.   



How do you perceive the difference between analogue and digital photography?


It is a blessing. Thanks to digital photography I am able to perceive myself more than a painter. Of course, I am unable to enjoy the painter’s total sense of freedom but I have many more possibilities in making use of atmospheric differences. Moreover, I am able to work with a greater sense of freedom, with greater precision and subtle colours, contrasts and all aspects of the picture creation. Such things would have never been possible with analogue photography.



How does one recognize your photographs?


One clue is the specific readability of my pictures. A kind of haptic quality of vision which enables the viewer to „touch“ architecture with his eyes. In a positive sense my pictures allure the viewer to stay put with the image instead of quickly moving on to the next one. The viewer begins to „read“ a picture and thereby immerses himself in the architecture. My pictures incorporate a specific experience, i.e. the experience of a particular moment at the time when I took the shot. Every single one of my pictures is part of a transformation: whether it is a close or remote one, the focus is always on the architecture.


Barbara Schlei and Uta Winterhager interviewed Jens Willebrand.