Page D1.2 . 05 December 2012   
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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Balthazar Korab - Architect of Photography


In fact, when viewed in its entirety, Korab’s archive displays an extraordinary range of sensibilities across a vast array of subject matter: from the sweeping breadth of a photojournalist to the discerning candor of a documentary photographer, from the scenic vision of a pictorialist to the dynamic formalism exemplified by the work of the early avant-garde.

This diversity, however, does not stem from his desire to simply mimic an assortment of artistic styles. Rather, it is the outcome of Korab’s reflective, and often spontaneous, response to the particularities of each situation.

Thus, when faced with the complexities of architecture, Korab pushes the medium of photography to overcome its inherent limitations, such as the inability to capture the dynamics of atmosphere, activity, and change over time. And because of his intuitive and improvisational approach, his photography represents architecture as a complex and complicated subject, created through collaborative processes, shaped by the contingencies of construction, and transformed by unforeseen patterns of use.

His philosophy was expressed relatively directly in 1994, when Korab assumed a role of photographer-cum-critic, asked by the U.S. State Department to curate a collection of forty images, twelve of which were personally selected by President Clinton as a state gift to Árpád Göncz, the then-president of Hungary.

Korab titled his selection “The Mark of Man on the Land” and chose images that reflected a recurring theme that he explored throughout his career: “the extraordinary urban development in the United States, which has occurred largely at the expense of rural life.”

As a compilation, the final twelve images represent a broad spectrum of cultural expressions that range from America’s agrarian roots to its urban and industrial development. Examined more closely, however, the images reveal a much more complex set of narratives.

Notably, very few are the types of images depicting prominent Modern architecture that have won Korab much of his notoriety. And those images that do contain such iconic works depict them not as isolated and idealized monuments but rather as part of dynamic urban conditions more consistent with their everyday existence.

Korab’s willingness to present many of the internal contradictions and paradoxes that emerge through a close examination and critical representation of America’s ever-changing cultural landscapes.

For example, in his juxtaposition of images from the vernacular Midwest and the riffraff of the suburban strip, Korab presents the architecture of America’s humble agrarian beginnings side by side with the very symbols of unchecked sprawl that has displaced much of that early architectural heritage.

And in “Oak Alley,” we are confronted by an image that simultaneously embodies the rich cultural traditions of the antebellum South and the hard reality of the slave labor upon which much of that culture was built.

Korab maintained a vibrant practice well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, documenting new projects by many of his long-term friends, clients, and collaborators while also photographing the architecture of a more recent generation of designers working to extend the Modern legacy: Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Maryann Thompson and Charles Rose, Stanley Saitowitz, and Michael Van Valkenburgh.

With a resurgence of interest in, and reexamination of, midcentury Modern design, Korab’s archive has recently claimed a new and crucial role in the preservation, restoration, and maintenance of aging Modern architecture.

His photography, which combines the exactitude of a forensic detective with the grand narrative breadth of a documentarian, provides a vast repository of source material critical for substantiating the cultural value of Modern buildings under restoration and, more importantly, those at risk of demolition.

As Korab nears the end of his career, it is perhaps most appropriate that his entire photographic archive was recently acquired by the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, thereby securing, for us all, the legacy of his contributions to the disciplines of architecture and photography.

Now housed alongside the vast collections of photographers from previous generations, Korab’s archive will add another layer to our critical examination and thorough understanding of the designed environments that we create, inhabit, cherish, and even demolish.

With Korab’s archive now held in the public domain and open to our unfettered access, we can start to understand his photography within the broader set of circumstances from which it has emerged. For while designers, educators, historians, and consumers of architecture often ascribe a calculated objectivity to the images of designed environments, it is undeniable that those images are always inflected by the particular approach that each photographer brings to bear on his or her subjects.

What results, then, from the translation of architecture through photography amounts to differences in the sensibilities, practices, and circumstances of individual photographers.

And those differences, it turns out, make all the difference.

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John Comazzi is an Associate Professor of Architecture in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches design courses and research seminars at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia and later received both a Masters of Architecture and a Masters of Science in Architectural History & Theory from the University of Michigan. He has remained a close acquaintance of the Korabs since their first introduction in 1997.

This article is excerpted from Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography by John Comazzi, copyright © 2012, with permission of the publisher, PA Press.

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"John Deere was the most challengeing of Saarinen's buildings to photograph because the darkness and texture of the Corten steel created difficult light and shadow conditions. For me it was a project of discovery - I had to discover the architecture over time." — Balthazar Korab
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Korab is also interested in vernacular architecture, and captured this mud-brick structure in a small town near Kawkaban, from the hills near Ta'izz, Yemen (1978).
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Korab's photo of Oak Alley, in Vacherie, Louisiana, was part of a forty-image state gift given by President Clinton to Hungarian president Árpád Göncz in 1994. Korab also served as curator of this image portfolio.
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Korab took this shot looking down from the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France, circa 1951.
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Korab and his friend László Kollár teamed on an entry for the Sydney Opera House design competition. Korab later visited Jřrn Utzon's completed building as a photographer.
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The Cranbrook Academy, a project designed by Eliel Saarinen, was located near Korab's house and studio, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Shown is a footbridge on the academy's grounds.
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While on sabbatical in Italy in 1966, Korab documented a disastrous flood of the Arno River in Florence, Italy. Shown here, rare books, manuscripts, and documents were hung to dry in the heating plant of the railroad terminal after the flood.
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Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography by John Comazzi.
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