The Construction of an Image

Edited by Vanessa Norwood

Texts by Kersten Geers, Moritz Küng and Geoff Manaugh.

Published by Bedford Press

Photography has increasingly become content: uploaded, ‘liked’ and swiftly forgotten. The Construction of an Image aims to take the opposite stance and discuss the making of one photograph in detail, telling its story from thinking to making.

Born in the Netherlands in 1975, Bas Princen maps the world through a series of beautiful photographs brought together in books including Reservoir and Five Cities. Recipient of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Architecture Biennale with long-term collaborators Brussels-based Office Architects KGDVS, Princen’s work has long been revered by architects but is becoming increasingly familiar to a wider audience. His inclusion in the Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican justly positions Princen as one of the most influential photographers of his generation.

Ringroad, Houston, taken by Princen in 2005 and the subject of this book, is an arresting image: an ordinary American office block transformed by Princen’s lens into a glowing golden cube cut by the horizon, acting as both mirror and container; the reflected landscape of trees confined within its gridded exterior. Ringroad, Houston took centre stage in the 2012 AA Gallery exhibition Photography, Landscape, Image. It’s possible that the photograph has inspired pieces of architecture, both real and conjectural: Office KGDVS’s Office Building for Voka with its porous horizon bears an uncanny resemblance to Princen’s photograph taken three years before their building began on site.

A lesser known but compelling aspect of Princen’s work are the A5 booklets he makes consisting of a series of small, low-resolution reference images discovered and downloaded from the internet: tiny worlds within worlds depicting landscapes, architectures, artists and artworks. The reference images are peopled with inventors and inventions that play with scale and challenge our expectations in a way familiar in Princen’s photographs. These reference books were first shown publicly in Photography, Landscape, Image and are in themselves beautiful objects.

Princen has amassed a personal alphabet of these images to create a complex language of compositions and subjects, a kit of parts to be reconfigured. The collected images are used by Princen to ‘test possible dialogues and formal arrangements’, becoming placeholders for photographs he has yet to take. The connections are on occasion overt: the bold column familiar as the monolith in Kubrick’s film 2001, for example, is right there in Princen’s 2009 photograph of former sugarcane fields in Cairo published in Five Cities.

It’s possible to see Princen as a modern-day Dürer – the camera Princen’s own perspective device – studying the images upside down through his viewfinder, plotting the position of points and the distances and angles between them. In Princen’s hands the camera becomes a theodolite, measuring and recording what he sees to collate a taxonomy of landscapes. Princen writes ‘despite the extreme differences in the dynamics of spatial production, the emerging spatial units are surprisingly similar – at the very least, in their isolated nature and alienated relation to their surroundings.’

So what of Ringroad, Houston? There are certainly reference images that suggest how Princen came to take this arresting photograph but it resonates so strongly with Superstudio’s golden cube it is possible to believe that Princen had this image in his mind from the start. In fact it was only ‘discovered’ by Princen after he had taken his photograph. Interesting to think that context flows both ways: the luminous office block as hieroglyph, waiting for Princen to decode its meaning.