Iwan Baan on His Famous Post-Sandy Photo, Rising Sea Levels, and Photography by Drone

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(Photo: Iwan Baan)

IB speakingStarchitects rarely agree on anything, except when it comes to who should photograph their latest creations. On that matter there has, over the past several years, emerged near unanimity: new buildings are best introduced to the world through the lens of Iwan Baan.

The 39-year-old Dutch photographer burst onto the scene less than ten years ago, after a 2005 proposal to Rem Koolhaas turned into Baan’s first major project: documenting the construction of the OMA-designed China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing. Since then, his placid-looking name has appeared regularly beneath images of the work of Herzog & de Meuron, SANAA, Toyo Ito, Steven Holl, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and in the pages of The New York Times (today for example), Domus, Abitare, and The New Yorker. Consequently, Baan estimates that he spends “less than one day a month” in his ostensible home base of Amsterdam. “I live out of a suitcase,” he says. “I’ve traveled nonstop for basically the last ten years.”

He and his suitcase recently stopped in Los Angeles for a talk that kicked off Sink or Swim: Designing for Sea Change, an exhibition on view through May 3, 2015 at the Annenberg Space for Photography. After a whirlwind tour of Dutch strategies to withstand watery incursions—from dikes and dunes to operable sea walls and artificial sand barriers—Baan came to another Dutch settlement: Manhattan, where he happened to arrive in October 2012 (to photograph Herzog & de Meuron’s Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York) just a day before Hurricane Sandy did. When his downtown hotel was plunged into darkness and the museum opening postponed, his first instinct was…to find a helicopter.

“I thought, ‘How can I visualize this special moment in the city?” said Baan, who began to call the pilots he knew from previous aerial photography projects. “I thought it would be an interesting view to see the city at night, from above, and really see the divide between the light and the dark parts.” Airports were closed, planes were essentially grounded, and gasoline was in short supply, but he persisted and found a pilot on the eastern tip of Long Island who agreed to fly him back to Manhattan. That trip yielded the famous image (above) that would appear on the cover of New York magazine and in publications around the world. “The chance that that picture would be taken was like one percent, but somehow everything worked out,” said Baan. “A picture like that can give such an understanding of the moment and how a little bit of sea water can knock out the complete infrastructure of a city.”

More recently, Baan has journeyed to regions such as Lagos, Nigeria, where helicopters are not easily procured and where shortages of electricity and running water represent daily realities rather than states of emergency. To capture the aerial views that “give me an incredible understanding of a place, of a city, and how these cities are built, and especially how connected a city is with the water,” he has experimented with photography by drone: a remote-controlled mini helicopter mounted with a camera. “I bought it from a company in the Netherlands that builds these things more for technical applications,” said Baan, who piloted the device during a project to photograph the Makoko Floating School in Lagos. “In places like that, everything is sort of a scramble to make it work. I was on the phone with the manufacturer all the time.” And while Baan got his stunning shots, the drone-copter met its end in a Lagos lagoon.