Of presence and palimpsest: an exhibition looks into the life of Geoffrey Bawa
by Zohra KhanApr 15, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Zohra KhanPublished on : Sep 06, 2022
With no formal training in either architecture or architectural photography, Sebastian Posingis prioritises enjoying a building instead of strategising his moves to capture the most iconic views. Posingis calls himself a collector who is obsessed with proliferating anything – be it buildings or bottles – if they catch his eye. Photography happened to him out of sheer serendipity, more so as a result of a stimulating childhood in Sri Lanka when he unknowingly basked in the gorgeousness of a few buildings that were designed by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Unaware that he was exposing himself to a life full of beauty, observation and discovery, Bawa remained a constant in his story even in the years that followed.
Posingis today is perhaps the author of one of the most extensive collection of contemporary photographs recording Geoffrey Bawa’s works. Having previously presented a virtual exhibition on rare photographs of Bawa’s buildings in collaboration with The Geoffrey Bawa Trust (Unseen Bawa, 2019), in addition to several publications documenting the essence of the late modernist's architecture, Posingis' images capture an extraordinary sensitivity to the poetry in Bawa’s buildings, while his creative voice reveals a vocabulary that upholds reality above all else. To discuss the globe-trotting photographer's journey so far and where he sees himself heading next, STIR interacts with him on a protracted Zoom interview.
The following are the edited excerpts from the conversation.
Zohra Khan: Could you give us a little peek into your life and creative background?
Sebastian Posingis: Well, I am German but lived most of my life (or all my life) abroad. I was born in 1975. The first four years I lived in Tehran, and after that two years in Greece, and then about four years in New Delhi, until 1984. This was followed by a short year in Germany and then in 1986, my family moved to Sri Lanka. From then I went to school, graduated in 1993, studied Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, but didn't pursue that, and just started with photography straight away. I moved back to Sri Lanka in 1998 and based myself in Colombo, until the tsunami, where I have moved around and changed.
My photography started with wildlife photography. I worked for Bloomberg and for various agencies and UN organisations, and then moved into architecture fairly late, about 10 years ago. In 2020, I moved back to Germany and have been here since.
Zohra: What do you think defines the essence of a photograph?
Sebastian: I don't really think about that. I just try to document.
Zohra: Do you think a perfect photo exists?
Sebastian: That depends on the view. But no, I don't think a perfect photograph exists.
Zohra: How do you get away from visual noise in your creative practice?
Sebastian: Well, it's getting harder and harder. That’s a really tough and interesting question. How do you get away? I think what I do is I try not to. I follow people and then I try not to do what they do and end up doing more or less not much else, because in the end there's so much that we photograph and do which is impossible to change.
Zohra: And how about the noise that comes from one's own self…
Sebastian: Oh, you don't. You embrace that.
Zohra: What do you think is lacking in the world of photography today?
Sebastian: I don't think anything is lacking. I think it's thriving.
Zohra: Do you like to subject your work to professional tools and software given the day and age of AI, or would you rather keep their essence in puritan form?
Sebastian: I have what everyone else has - Photoshop, Lightroom, etc., - but those are just so that I can open the pictures properly on the computer. No, I don't have any filters. I remove dust, and that's the extent. Or I turn something into black and white because I don't photograph film. It's still a digital raw image which I then convert into black and white. I probably spend maybe a minute or two on each picture.
Zohra: How do you keep yourself inspired?
Sebastian: I think that comes naturally. There are weeks and months and, probably recently, a year where there's been no inspiration at all. And then it just pops up. It could be something I see in the newspaper. It could be a film, it could be travelling somewhere, flying again, looking out the window in an airplane, just a reason to pick up the camera and take a picture of something.
Zohra: What attracted you to document Geoffrey Bawa's works in the first place?
Sebastian: There's a backstory to it. When I first came to Sri Lanka in 1986, my parents loved to go to the Triton Hotel which was designed by him. By that time I didn't know who Geoffrey Bawa was, but we spent years going there almost every second, third weekend.
So I kind of grew up in one of his buildings more or less. I wasn't interested in architecture at all. Only took interest in it while travelling around India, especially in Gujarat, after university. Then once I returned to Sri Lanka, I slowly started doing more commercial work. In 2014, I worked on a book with David Robson and Robert Powell, called The New Sri Lankan House. At that point, travelling and working with the two, it was just fascinating to hear David's stories about Geoffrey Bawa.
And that's more or less what interested me in Bawa, and David is also very interested, obviously. So whenever he had a chance, he wanted to show me a building where he would point at it and say, 'Did you know this is a Bawa?', and I’d say, 'No, I have no idea though I pass this every day'. That's where the interest started.
I have never met Bawa but I know quite a few of his collaborators. It's interesting hearing stories about him from them. There's always a kind of adventure, an interesting search, and the further I get away from Kandalama or from Bawa’s house in Colombo, the more interesting he gets for me because I’d be looking at things that are there, but which nobody visits, sees, or documents.
Zohra: I read somewhere that when you started documenting Bawa’s works, you were accurately aware that there have been photographers in the past such as Dominic Sansoni, Christoph Bon, and Hélène Binet who have captured his works brilliantly. So instead of finding new angles and ways of seeing the buildings, you decided to record every work of his in detail "like a bird watcher ticking off every species". What was the idea behind this approach?
Sebastian: It’s difficult, you know. The problem is when you have these iconic images, if you try to improve on them or change them, you are not actually trying to take a picture, you are trying to work on somebody else's picture. What I found is that instead of finding a new angle that nobody has seen before, it’s about documenting the state of the building without looking at the quality of the picture. And that itself just gives you the freedom to not worry about the photography but just to simply document. When that happens, there are surprises and interesting things happen.
In the end what I try is not to put my stamp on the photograph. It's about the building and the structure, and not about if it's taken in a certain style. It should be as plain and as simple as possible that when you walk into the building you shouldn't be surprised if it looked much larger in the picture or seemed much cleaner. The photograph should just be a very realistic representation of a building.
Zohra: Do you remember the first Bawa building that you photographed? What was the experience like?
Sebastian: It was the Kandalama. It was after I came back from the university. I wasn't interested in architecture at all. I was into bird photography, so I had a very large 600 millimetre lens. Kandalama is fantastic because it looks out over the plains, and on the other side, it faces the rock which is perfect for birds. It’s a place where you sit in the most beautiful chairs, order your drinks, put your tripod up and just watch this beautiful long wall. And that's what I used to do. Also at that time it was very affordable to stay there, so I just spent days doing bird photography and I took some pictures of the hotel as well. I wasn't interested in architecture at all, but it worked as a building. Just like The Triton worked for me as a child.
I just enjoyed it without actually interacting with the architecture in a sense that I was trying to photograph it. I just love being there.
Zohra: Is it true that you have documented almost all of Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings in Sri Lanka?
Sebastian: There's one that I definitely have not photographed. And that's a house near Galle. I have tried to get in there a few times but the owner really doesn't want it to be photographed. And there's one - a bungalow in Anuradhapura in the north that we have been driving around for a whole afternoon and we just couldn't find it. Either it disappeared or they changed the outer facade.
Zohra: Having seen nearly every work of Bawa in Sri Lanka, how do you manage to achieve a sense of surprise and newness in your documentation?
Sebastian: I think it's exactly the opposite. I don't want to be surprised. There’s no need of a surprise. When one goes back, one recognises little changes. You remember things you should have done or looked at last time. I love visiting places over and over again. It’s almost like coming home and getting more and more familiar with the place.
Also this helps in trying to find a new angle or a view that is different from somebody else's. You would know what light is there and what time of day, and that might require you to come see the building at different times throughout the day. All that you can't do on the first visit. So every time you go, you discover new things.
Sometimes you might want to go into the details, and stop thinking about the need to capture the building. For example, the Ratnapura Tennis Club, it's not much of a structure, but there are so many small details. After the excitement of being there on the first trip, it’s in the second trip actually when you look at different things. Every time I drive through Colombo and I see something has happened to one of the buildings, I don't take a picture of it, but I take notice of it. It's an ongoing affair of discovery.
Zohra: What areas do your footsteps tend to attract when you arrive at a space? Do you like to remain engaged more with open spaces or do nooks and crevices pull you in?
Sebastian: There’s no one answer to it. I have no method to be honest. I might just go out and take pictures of everything I like and see without a tripod, because I get so excited. And then the next day I want to go back and use a tripod and do it properly without running around. I still prefer those first pictures which aren't perfect, but there's something to it, and then I spend days overthinking it. For example, the Jayawardene House - Bawa’s last work in Mirissa - that has been extensively covered by global publications, I spent only 10 minutes there.
Zohra: Though you are saying there's no method to your creative practice, but I would still want to ask you this. Do you like to directly get on to photographing a space the moment you arrive at it, or do you prioritise absorbing it first?
Sebastian: It depends. If I come at the right time and everything looks wonderful, then yes I directly get on to the work. And If I arrive midday and it places a mess, or if I am tired or not motivated to take a picture, I won't. I can't do advertising, and commercial photography because I can't visualise pictures. I can't think of a great image. I am lazy in that way. I have to see something nice and then I’ll take a picture of it. For me, the essence is, if I like something or I see something that speaks to me, then I'll take a picture, but I will never think of an image or strategising a way of documenting it.
Zohra: Has Bawa’s timeless architecture influenced your creative practice in any way?
Sebastian: Not really. When I started architectural photography, it started with Bawa. Most of my photography has been in Sri Lanka and in the Maldives, so it would be interesting to go and photograph somewhere else and use those 10 years to what I am seeing in Spain, in Germany, or in England. Since my childhood and the years after that, somehow Bawa has always been part of my life, perhaps a part of everybody who lives in Colombo, in Sri Lanka.
Working with Dominic Sansoni for so many years and hearing the various stories of Bawa, and from most of my friends, it almost feels like I have absorbed all this knowledge that it's always there. It's always been a part of my story with Sri Lanka. So it’s a no, as nothing has really changed.
Zohra: If you had ever met Bawa, is there something that you would have wanted to ask him?
Sebastian: No, not really. I just hope we become friends and spend a bit of time together.
Zohra: Is there something about Bawa’s buildings and their architecture, a nuance or an experience that you particularly admire?
Sebastian: I have not studied architecture. Neither photography nor under anybody photographing architecture, but always something resonated with me when I photographed Bawa’s buildings - going back to staying at the Triton Hotel and Serendip, and growing up in these places which were my playground, to photographing birds, not just the Kandalama, but also seeing houses such as the Ena De Silva House. For me, when I think of the tropics, I think this is the house I almost want to take the blueprints of and give it to someone and say, 'Build this for me', because this is where I would want to live. It doesn't go much deeper than that. You can talk about the inside and the outside but I don't have the vocabulary for that. For me, it's a feeling. This is the way I would like to live in a country like Sri Lanka.
Zohra: In the future, would you consider doing a similar degree of documentation on any other luminary’s works?
Sebastian: I think anything I do, I do it like a collector. It’s not necessary that it’d be a person. It could be anything, it could be bottles. Once I start focusing on something, I just like to collect them.
The other thing I have never done, which I am now interested in, is doing portraits. I have never really photographed people apart from humanitarian photography that I did for organisations such as UNICEF. I have never actually taken pictures of people, and I think that's something I might be interested in now.
Zohra: What is NEXT for you?
Sebastian: I am in the process of publishing a book on Lunuganga called Salt River, which has words by Michael Ondaatje and David Robson, and is printed by STEIDL, Germany. We have finalised it about two years ago, but it's been delayed. So that’s the next book that should come out followed by one or two more books on Bawa which are personal projects and they won't have the name Bawa in them. So there's no selling point in that.
I haven't taken a lot of pictures in the last year. My focus has gotten more towards how we can consume images on a mobile phone or how we collect apps, social media, websites, and portfolios online, and could make it a little more digestible. I have been more of a consumer than a producer lately.
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