Unexpected views: Hélène Binet on Vermeer | National Gallery

Unexpected views: Hélène Binet on Vermeer | National Gallery


My name is Hélène Binet,
I’m a photographer. I’ve been photographing space
for the last 30 years. I grew up in Rome, enjoying
the history of architecture there. For 30 years, I’ve been looking at space,
feeling space, understanding space, and trying to see what photography can do. I use a film camera,
I use a lot of black and white. And today I’m delighted to be here
in the National Gallery to discuss why this painting
has been important for my career and for the way I look at space and for the way I dream about
being somewhere like this little room. Well, thank you very much for joining us,
ladies and gentlemen. My name is Daniel Herrmann. I’m the Curator of Modern and Contemporary
Projects here at the National Gallery and I’m delighted to welcome
Hélène Binet with us today. We have one of our Unexpected Views talks. This is a monthly lecture series
that we’re getting together that is supposed to be
anything but a lecture. Lectures at national galleries
and big museums are very often a standard model where somebody with expert knowledge conveys that knowledge to visitors. That’s a wonderful thing
that can be great fun. That’s not just what we want to do. What we want to do is to provide a forum of really discussing
with practicing artists, with practicing cultural producers today, why works of art in general and particularly the ones
that we have in the national collection are of relevance
to contemporary artists and makers now. What is it that people find interesting, that artists, thinkers, makers
find fascinating about the paintings that we have
here in the national collection. And, in that respect, I’m particularly happy
to have Hélène Binet with us tonight. We’re going to have about, let’s say,
20 to 30 minutes of an informal discussion about a painting of Hélène’s choice, after which there will be time
for questions and answers, but it is really supposed to be
a bouncing around of ideas and an investigation
of what makes this painting, Johannes Vermeer’s
‘A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’, what makes it relevant to Hélène,
to her practice, to her work now. Now, Hélène Binet was born in Sorengo. She studied photography
at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, where she grew up, and where she soon developed
an interest in architectural photography. She lives in London, but really exhibits internationally, is recognised internationally. and over the period
of the past 25 years, maybe, Hélène has really photographed both
contemporary and historical architecture, including buildings and structures
by architects ranging from Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, to Andrea Palladio, Peter Zumthor, and many, many others. She has really developed an aesthetic,
an approach and an eye for space, for light, for structure and material that we felt was exceptionally sensitive to the way we look at space
and at paintings, and that is something that we wanted
to invite her to talk to us about. Hélène’s work has been published
in a number of books, is shown in both national
and international exhibitions, and among the numerous awards
and recognitions we have just recently had
the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize and, in 2018, the Julius Shulman Institute
Excellence in Photography Award. Before I start our conversation
with Hélène, I also would like to take the opportunity
to thank Hiscox, which is our supporter for the evening. Hiscox makes these talks possible. They will be, as we said, filmed and they will be accessible
to a wider audience afterwards as well. But without much ado,
please welcome Hélène Binet. And my first question, Hélène, to you would perhaps be
to just very quickly describe your practice
as an architectural photographer, how did you come to photography? How did you come to wanting to work
with photography and architecture? Photography came a little bit by chance. I wanted to do something visual, but I wanted to have a professional… I didn’t want to go to a school of art,
I thought that was too open. So, I was in Rome, that was
the school that was there, I tried. I tried and I was happy. So, it was very, very early, a fantastic
occasion for me to start with photographs. Architecture didn’t come immediately. I photographed in the theatre before. I was the stage photographer
for the opera of Geneva. Then I started to visit London
and visit my husband, who was a young architect here,
and visit the Architectural Association, which is this wonderful school
that created so many talented architects and still is full of young students. The late 80s, lots of ideas, lots of freedom,
lots of research. It was a fantastic time to be here
and to start to look at what is architecture, what is space,
what is photography. It was really not about producing
glorious images to glorify a practice. It was about an investigation. And I think I was very lucky
to be here at that time. Do you remember the first images you took,
the first moments when you felt: “Oh, wait a second. Now I have developed
an approach to architecture that tells me something new
about what I’ve seen.” I do remember the first architecture photo
and I think it’s one of my best, and that’s something amazing because sometimes we think, you know, and I always tell young students
to really trust your first instinct, maybe technically it’s not perfect,
maybe it takes a long time, but you have some kind of gut feeling
of things that matter to you. And it was a building
by John Hejduk in Berlin. And I felt, this is amazing. There’s so much that I can investigate
by photographing architecture. There’s so much that can be said. There’s so much slow
and meditative process. It’s about sitting in front of something, looking at the light, at the composition, looking at how to create
a world in one image. And that’s what I wanted to do. A lot of architectural photography is very different from portraiture, from landscape photography. It’s, in a sense, a genre in itself. How did you think
about architectural photography over the years while you developed it? Yes, maybe… I don’t like so much
the term “architectural photography” because it feels a bit like the profession and it feels a bit like, you know,
photographing a nice product to sell it. This is not what I’m interested in, and maybe we have to reinvent it a bit and also uplift what is
architectural photography, which is… it is one
of the big genres in photography. It has an incredible history and an incredible complex theory
behind it and research and people that have done work,
which is not what we see in magazines. So, I was very influenced by the work of Judith Turner,
Lucien Hervé, these kind of very delicate,
abstract black and white images, and it felt that there was
really something to be investigated that was not yet there completely, and that’s why I wanted to go. And there’s a sense
of, also, impossibility. I think, you know,
space and architecture photography… I mean, photography and space
don’t always work. I mean, we’re talking about a very flat,
limited, small part of the world. So, there’s a sense of always
pushing myself to reach something that can never be completely reached
because space is so complex. You have to make a lot of choices as well because, in a way, you can never convey
the experience of being in this space. You reduce it to a visual representation,
and you have to make choices -as to how you apply that reduction.
-Exactly. What is your process as an artist when you see a building, a structure? Do you go about that reduction process the same time every time,
does it change with every work? I mean, there’s a lot
about looking at the light, how the light is forming the space, touching the space, enriching the space,
changing the space, so you need time, over a day or two,
just to understand. Sometimes I have a feeling
that it’s a little bit like a sculpture. You have this total, and then you take out
and you take out, you take out, and slowly, slowly,
you get to the essential. It’s rare that you arrive somewhere and you have illumination
and these two lines because I want two lines
that say everything. That would be the beautiful result. But you don’t, even after many years,
you don’t do it immediately. So, it’s a bit of a,
kind of taking away what is… When you make photographs like that,
do you feel it’s a solitary process? Or is it one that engages in dialogue with colleagues,
with family, with friends? Or is it always in the moment,
you and the place? It is… …me and the place a lot. I like to dialogue with my assistants,
I have two here today, to talk about architecture, then they can bring
their own expertise on architecture because I’m not an architect. This is very clear, I’m a photographer. And I want to glorify photography,
not architecture. This is where…
It’s very important for me to say, I’m really about photography more than…
I mean, I love architecture, but it is a photographic process. But, in the end, it is a solitary process. But, of course, in this process,
while I’m in front of the building, I bring with me
all the experience that I have, where I’ve been talking with architecture,
I’ve been seeing things in my childhood. So, you are alone, but you’re not alone. You bring with you a lot of… It’s a dialogue with history as well,
to a certain degree. Yeah. And, of course,
in this this dialogue with history and in the way that we are used
to looking at things or have learned to look at things, that’s also very much
what we do in an art museum, it’s very much about looking
and traditions of looking, histories of looking. It’s really interesting to us that you have chosen for a painting
to talk about today, Johannes Vermeer’s
‘A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’, which is dated around 1670-1672. Can you perhaps tell us
how you first encountered this work? And also what drew you to the painting? I mean, I encountered it here, just arriving here and walking
and visiting the National Gallery. My husband is Dutch, so, of course, he was taking me
to all these precious historical moments that are part of his culture. And I was immediately struck
by this painting, also the one at Kenwood House. But there is something
that has been for me extremely important and guiding
a lot of my photographic decisions. And, of course, there’s a light, but this is maybe the most obvious,
the light, but, first of all, the capacity
of creating a complete world, a complete world
where everything works together, everything gets somehow
interlocked together, you cannot take one thing away, and you can enter the space. And that’s what I want to do
or hope to do with my photographs, that you inhabit the space,
and that’s something that happened here. You are invited by the chair,
you’re invited by the gaze, you’re invited by the complexity to enter. And there we can talk a long time, but then, for me, there is something
which is beautiful here, it’s the silence
of the white or beige walls, and the amount of space
that you need around the intense space, to hold them and to compose them, and, like in music,
you need a moment of silence, to be able to understand the rest and how nicely, very, very nicely, composed together
those moment of silences are. For me, that’s an absolute beauty
of this painting and something that I carry
all the time with me, it’s this very, very delicate… …parallel, very intellectual space, because it’s all about pure geometry. And, for me, it’s also about abstraction. It’s almost more a view of infinity because you just have a wall
where you reflect. And the way it’s done here
is absolutely fantastic. What I find very interesting
as an art historian, which is that baggage that I bring with me
when I look at paintings, very often we… …and particularly for Dutch
and Flemish paintings of this time, particularly Dutch paintings, viewers sometimes feel like: oh, Dutch paintings of this time
need to be unlocked. There’s a riddle going on,
there’s lots of symbolism, and there’s lots of…
It’s almost like a roman à clef, where I need to find a secret meaning
behind all the symbolism that is there. And a lot of times that is true. What I find interesting
is that you’re describing, actually, an essentially different way
into the painting. In the painting here, we see a number of paintings
that are painted. There’s a Cupid that’s holding up a card. We see the main character-protagonist
standing at the virginal. There’s been all kinds
of scholarly research that has been done, looking at the symbolism
of this Cupid holding up a card, perhaps referencing, love, fidelity,
love towards one person only. There have been connections between music
and fidelity that have been looked into. All of that is very valuable,
very valid, very interesting. But what you’re doing
is actually providing a way into it that’s based on our own experience
and our own way of looking. Can you maybe walk us through how you, as a photographer,
approach a painting like this, and how you guide your eye and your ideas
when you’re seeing something like this? Where to start? First of all, yes,
there is the parallelism of the plane that is in front of us, so it’s completely parallel
and things are very gently composed. And you have something
to close the image with the chair, with a shadow, which is not exactly clear
if it’s her shadow or not, maybe it’s something else,
maybe there’s something here, so maybe he’s also making an illusion
of the space behind, which is very special. Then you start to think
if there’s a wall here or not, I think there is a wall because, if not, the light would be
much darker immediately, and you need bouncing light
to make something so homogenous. If I ask my assistant
to measure this wall, and here and here
it’s almost the same intensity, which would not happen
if it was a big room, so you start to see those things. And then there are three lines
that make so much joy for me. It’s those little horizontal lines that suddenly… they’re so delicate, and yesterday I was trying to redraw
on a piece of paper only those lines, they are so beautiful,
they’re completely contemporary. And they just allowed you to…
just a little bit, go into the world. And, so I must say, I don’t look so much at the angel
and the card and the clouds. They are there, but for me it was
more looking at the colour of the blue, how the variation is a bit darker
and then it comes here. But I even didn’t notice the card,
it’s a bit embarrassing, but I don’t remember the card, it’s not… I think it’s important
that artworks give us different ways
into the meaning of a painting, and what you’re describing right now is not merely
a symbolic way of representations, but it’s actually a spatial way
of unlocking the meaning of a painting. It’s about the creation of depth, and at a certain point,
if I understand you correctly, it’s also the role of the beholder, the role of the viewer, what is our position
towards this lady in the painting? Yes. And I think in a painting, by creating this world,
by the way he painted, by the way there was
almost no edge, no line, no… …you almost have
an extreme sense of meditation and connection with the old world that you can get
in very high levels of meditation, where, you know, there’s just one thing, and I think that’s what the painting
wants you to do. It’s to enter a very soft,
very composed, very gentle, a world of harmony, where everything is one
and you’ll become one. But, also, I believe
that when you have all this emotion, you need them to…
somehow to flourish somewhere. And that’s why you need the gentle walls that are not full. I can’t do the same
if it’s all painted and cut, I need that space
to let my emotion go into the painting. Do you feel in terms of the composition, in terms of the way that the light is
structured and the artist creates depth, that there are
particular moments of tension? Or is it all homogenous in terms
of atmosphere and spatial hierarchy? Or do you feel, as a photographer, there is a clear direction of space that you would assume
in a painting like this? I mean, it is very gently done because his light is not
a kind of beam light where you have the black
and then you have the white, it’s extremely… It is one source of light,
and very important and very lively, but it is not a harsh one. So, the harsh one
would really give you the, you know… …a Caravaggio one
would give you one centre and I don’t think it is… …is done with the light, but I think the clothes, the cloth, the light on the cloth
makes a difference with the rest. And then, of course, the light
starts to glow, starts to irradiate, it starts to be very different
because it’s a different surface, and then the tension
goes very much into the cloth. And we noticed that very much
in the drapery and the cloth of the dress, of the office sitter, in contrast to the almost velvety surface
of the chair, for instance. So, I think in that case, it’s not the light, it’s the surfaces
that the light touches that… Yeah, so I mean, I don’t know if you know but there’s
a very beautiful sentence from… I think it’s Louis Kahn who said, “The sun never knew how beautiful it was
before it shone on the stone.” So, basically you will never know
the quality of a light before it’s on something, and you will never…
it never knew how beautiful it was before it shone on the stone and you don’t know the stone
before you know the light. So, this relationship, it’s endless. You need that cloth
to understand the light, and the light needs the cloth
to show that it is the light. You mentioned
in your description of the painting and your interests in looking at it the element of time, that in order to, as a photographer, when you’re looking at the role of light, at the capacity of the light
in a composition and the way you want to work with it, that it requires time to learn about
the space and the light and its relation. Looking at a composition like this, and, of course, knowing that it is
a painting and not photography, how do you feel about the element of time
in a painting like that? -You already mentioned silence.
-Yeah. I think it’s very suspended. Maybe it’s also not only the light
and the composition, but it’s her gaze that is just like,
you know, it’s just a suspended magic moment. So, it could be very long,
it can be very short, but it has a sense of… For me, there’s no narrative, really,
there’s not a complete narrative. So, you don’t have a succession of events,
you don’t think it’s going to change. You don’t think… It’s just like the
second that happened in that moment. But it is strange,
there’s a bit of contradiction, but it is also endless somehow, so you don’t think
that there is a depiction of sunset or something that is unique. It can go forever, maybe. So, yeah. I find it really interesting how Vermeer in this place, of course, includes a figure, there’s a human figure, that is both a counterpart and a figure
of association for our own emotions. You work with spaces, with structures. Have you worked with,
or do you work with portraiture or with figures
at any point in your photography? I mean, no, I haven’t done any portraiture like I do photography. I don’t include people in space because I want you to enter the space. And if there isn’t any persons, you might enter easily. With photography, it’s so real,
so it’s different than a painting. And I want you to enter the space more than describing
that the space can have people because, anyway,
the space is for people, so… Yeah, I’m trying to tease out, of course, the differences
between photography and painting, and trying to understand how the element of time that we described
plays into it. And what I found interesting was
also the idea of looking at this painting in what you described as serenity, that gives us an idea of time,
of almost a meditative space, and that requires time
to view it and to perceive it. And, of course, a painting has been made over a very long period of time. So, there’s a certain amount of time
that looking at paintings requires from us that is different with… …a certain kind of photography
these days, the kind of snapshot photography that we
see in museums and everywhere else, but, at the same time,
the photography you do also requires a lot of time,
a lot of planning, and a lot of meditation in itself. Yes, I mean… …one aspect takes time because you have to make the decision, and you walk around
and you feel the space and… …but the moment of existence -is one fraction of a second.
-Yes. So, that’s quite something
that the moment of creating the image, to say now the four edges,
I’m making a picture, it’s a fraction of a second. But sometimes it’s also a few minutes, but it’s quite a complex relation
with the time because existence
is just very, very quick. And then after, of course, I process, I print, so that’s the other stages of the making
which are important. But I cannot imagine how it is to sit in front
of the same situation for maybe months and maybe you start to feel different about this colour or this light
or these details, and maybe you go over
because you felt that it’s not what you… It’s something that I find
quite, quite amazing, to really, really look at something
for a very long time with the idea that you’re going to work
with what you see. So… When you think about Vermeer, and you’ve seen, of course, the painting
over the course of several years now, does the way that this picture operates or that several other paintings
that play a role in your life, does it influence your work
or your thinking about your own work in particular ways? I think, yes. I think the sense of daring because it’s a daring painting, for me. There’s a sense of, you know,
the way, I mean… again, that frame,
that black frame around the edge, and that little black line, it’s a very clear moment of graphism and so it is a kind of energy that you want to always have, that you are daring to say something that is completely yours
and completely new. And these lessons, you keep it with you, they give you trust
that you have to do something. It’s never something direct, you know, but it is about an attitude and to be also very honest with yourself, perceived and slow. He made very few paintings in his life and, yeah, he had a short life, but this is also incredible quality, so… If you had a chance
to meet Mr Vermeer now, what building, what built environment would you like to look at together -with him?
-That’s a very beautiful question. Where would I take him? I would take him to a building
where the light is very important and I know he is extremely well rated in architecture for his painted interiors, but he’s really a master of light. The way he managed to bring light
in the building and create a moment of life, and I think it would be wonderful
to sit down and just look at the light. And maybe just one final question. When you’re working
with young photographers these days, with photographers
who are developing their eyes, who are developing their ideas
about space, light, photography, and our relationship to those images
that photography creates, what are the things
that you feel they should look at when looking at Vermeer, when looking at other paintings
and collections such as this? Well, I think the first thing is
to tell them to discover by themselves, because if I tell them to look
at the lines that are entering the space, I will guide them already, and what you want is actually that they
have their own reaction about the space that you think has been
so wonderfully depicted and they will discover
maybe something I haven’t seen. So, it is about taking time, it is about trying to see something with the eyes of a child
that has never seen it and rediscover, but to say too much
I think that will not… After, then somebody can talk about it,
then you could say, well, have you also thought about this? But I think the discovering is the way of looking at the painting. So, I think, ideally, we should come here and not have any captions
and not have anything and just feel, and then go back home and then say, what did we see, and start to have another part
of the brain working but the first impact should be… That’s interesting, though,
you also described… Very often, we go back
to the dialogue thing, it’s about talking about the paintings
and talking about the works, and exchanging your ideas
with friends, with family, with partners. I think that’s also something
that I really enjoy about particularly the paintings in these rooms, that they are very often to me
an invitation to discuss things, an invitation to imagine
what might happen here, and that moment of dialogue
between us as viewers is something that I personally feel
extremely rewarding. And I think it’s something
that I find also in your photographs that when looking at them
together with friends, family, discussing them, discovering them
and looking at them together becomes a very, very important moment. Yeah, I think so too, so… It’s… Of course, it’s wonderful
to hear about a specialist that comes with incredible knowledge who has been doing all sorts of analysis, but trust, I think to trust
your own feeling in front of a painting and to be able to share it, that’s what it should be, yeah. Hélène Binet, thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you for watching the talk. If you want to do more,
please look at my link, it’s in the description.

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