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Roland Halbe tries to capture images capable of carrying you away

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Stuttgart-based photographer Roland Halbe who believes that his best images are those that are improvised.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Feb 20, 2023

Photography for Roland Halbe has been a passionate affair since the age of 15, when he discovered it during one of his physics classes on the subject of optics. His high school teacher demonstrated camera obscura effects; they captured his imagination for life. That's when he began borrowing his father's old Leica and by playing with it immersed himself in the world of black and white photography. At 16, he started developing films and printing photographs and bought his own camera. He then quickly began learning everything about photography by enrolling in an elective course on photography in his high school and by taking a part-time job at the neighbourhood camera store. In my recent conversation with Roland Halbe on Zoom, between New York and his Stuttgart home, which follows a short introduction, we talked about the photographers who inspire him most; his very special collaboration with MoMA on a seminal exhibition, On-Site: New Architecture in Spain; his experience of working one on one with Jean Nouvel, opportunities that photography allows him to live a different life every time, and his ultimate goal—to create powerful images, capable of carrying you away.

Halbe was born in 1963 in Karlsruhe near Stuttgart and grew up in a small village nearby in the family of an engineer father who worked for IBM, and a housewife mother who besides him raised two of his siblings. He studied photography at IED, Istituto Europeo di Design in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, where he was the only foreigner and studied the three-and-a-half-year program in Italian. That experience triggered his love for learning languages. The photographer is also fluent in English, French, and Spanish. After graduating in 1987, he started reaching out to German and international architectural magazines, taking advantage of the then magazines' golden age, when they could afford to commission photographers directly and independently from architects whose projects they featured. He first started to work with Stuttgart-based db or deutsche bauzeitung magazine. That collaboration led to establishing personal contacts with the architects who were published in some of the leading professional magazines.  

Perfume Boutique by Jakob MacFarlane, Fredrric Malle | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Perfume Boutique by Jakob MacFarlane, Frederic Malle Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

Nowadays the photographer documents between 80 to 90 projects every year, at least 50 outside of Germany. Just one day before our interview he came back from Tenerife where he photographed two projects—a house and a passenger terminal for cruise ships—and already next week he planned to go to Southern France to photograph two more—housing blocks—one in Toulouse and the other one in Montpellier.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: American photographer Elliott Erwitt said, "The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words." What are some of the main intentions of your work?

Roland Halbe: There is some truth to what Erwitt said. But I do my work largely subconsciously. I face a building and I start playing around with it. And I never try to overprepare for my commissions. I always leave things open. I want to discover those moments that let me get carried away. It is leaving things to improvisation and encountering things by chance that I want to experience. I try to be open-minded. Of course, there is always a structure that I follow—I try to relate the building to its site, examine how it responds to the light, define the relationships of various parts to the whole, depict the main facades, and so on. But I am looking for something special. That’s my main intention. And I like those of my projects that leave me as much freedom as possible.

Ghat House by Max Núñez | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Ghat House by Max Núñez Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

VB: Could you touch on your way of working?

RH: I try to keep myself open-minded even though I always ask architects to send me detailed plans and any photos they have of the place. And I work on arranging access and whatever would need to be controlled on my part. I think of a potential scenario of how to move around and take advantage of the sun and weather. There are many of these practical issues. But I prefer not to visit the place in advance. I come and I start working right away. I work with one assistant. Typically, it is a student of architecture or a very young architect who just graduated. They are much more engaged and interesting to me than photography students. 

VB: And how is your dialogue going with the architects who commission you?

RH: Ideally, I like taking walk-throughs with architects before documenting a project. They help me understand their thoughts. And I try to read their intentions between the lines; all this information gets memorised and stored subconsciously. There is a lot of psychology and improvisation in my approach. Of course, all architects are quite different. Some give you a lot of freedom and others try to influence you in any way they can. I had situations when an architect would give me already taken photos and ask me to imitate them with my own equipment. [Laughs.] Of course, I try to avoid such commissions. After all, architectural photography is not just about an accurate depiction. I want to be able to reflect on the essence of a particular project but also discover what even the architect has not thought of. I want to think that I am invited to work on projects because of my personal style. 

Louvre Lens by SANAA | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Louvre Lens by SANAA Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

VB: Your style. How would you describe it?

RH: It is a blend of accuracy and emotion. I am not too precise but neither I am random. I wouldn’t know how to put it in words. But I want to go beyond what is in front of me. I hope the feeling you get when you look at my photographs is that they take you away. This is what I would like. In other words, you see the image but you also see something else. You don’t see merely an object. I want to feel emotions. There are layers.

VB: What do you look for when you start a project? What inspires you?

RH: What inspires me is beauty. I do follow the work of some photographers and architects. We are in a very competitive field. To name some of the people I admire from the past, it would be German photographers August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch, American Ezra Stoller; and among contemporary colleagues, I would name Klaus Frahm, a German photographer based in Hamburg; and South Africa-born, UK photographer Dennis Gilbert who passed away a couple of years ago. All of these influences are subconscious. I try not to copy anything directly but once you see something strong it is hard not to be influenced by it. But the best images are the ones that are improvised, resulting in a specific mixture of mood moment, and atmosphere.

Guerrero House by Alberto Campo Baeza | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Guerrero House by Alberto Campo Baeza Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

VB: Could you talk about working on the 2006 exhibition On-Site: New Architecture in Spain at MoMA? How did that opportunity come about?

RH: I was first contacted by the assistant of Terence Riley, the exhibition’s curator who originally contacted some other photographers as well, mainly from Spain. It was an interesting project initiated by an American curator who did not only invite some of the obvious local architects but included many foreigners. Some of his choices were not well understood in Spain. At the time, I was working a lot there. I speak Spanish and built good relationships there. So, I had already photographed quite a few of the projects that were selected for the show. Once I was selected by Riley, the idea was to use only my photos. He wanted all photos to have a particular style. Everything was facilitated by the architects because they would do anything to be presented in the best of ways in the MoMA show. [Laughs.] Each project was represented by one floor-to-ceiling photo—six meters tall by four meters wide. There were 53 recent building projects, 35 of which were under construction, and 18 were completed. I only photographed the realised projects. Others were represented by models and renderings.

It was Riley’s last show at MoMA and by then he was already asked to head the search for the architect to build the new building of an art museum in Miami, which later became known as the Pérez Art Museum Miami. This was already in the news and that’s why many of the architects in the MoMA show wanted to come to the exhibition's opening in person. So, all the stars came. [Laughs.]

Fondazione Prada by OMA | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Fondazione Prada by OMA Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

VB: Another high point of your career must be your work with Jean Nouvel, who, of course, was also in the MoMA show.

RH: Absolutely. Looking back, I especially liked photographing his Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi. I was commissioned to do the official press photographs. They were released just two weeks before the official opening. The commission came directly from the Ministry of Culture of Abu Dhabi and it was Jean Nouvel who would select the photographer; he recommended me. I was the first person to photograph the finished building. When the time came, he selected 10 photographs to be distributed to the media. They were the only ones available until the official press conference on the opening day. And those 10 images were published everywhere within hours, all over the internet. Then I went back there a couple of weeks later to take more pictures already with visitors. 

VB: Nouvel made himself available to you, right? How was he to work with?

RH: He was there. He took it very seriously. It was a very important project for him. And he felt he needed to tell me every detail about what needed to be in my pictures. He is quite obsessive about how his work is presented. On occasions, he prefers not to show the project until the vegetation, which is always an essential part of his architecture, is grown sufficiently. There are some projects that have been finished years ago and still have not been shown because he doesn’t think his work is complete. He was so serious about the Louvre that I had to meet him in Paris for a one-on-one discussion six months before my trip to Abu Dhabi. He showed me photographs from the construction site at the time, he talked about his feelings and intentions about the building to great extent. It helps that I speak French and he could express himself fully.  

Sou Fujimot’s: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013 | Photographs by Roland Halbe | STIRworld
Sou Fujimoto's: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013 Image: Courtesy of Roland Halbe

VB: Diane Arbus believed there are things nobody would see if she didn’t photograph them. Do you see photography as a kind of mission for you? What is it that you like most about being a photographer?

RH: What I like most is the opportunity to create something unique, something that may last for a long time, yet not a physical object but an image. And then I like the time I spend photographing a specific work. It brings me into contact with a whole new world every time. In a way, it allows me to live a different life every time. I like interacting with these realities and being a part of these worlds—universities, schools, hospitals, company headquarters, housing projects, hotels, sports arenas, concert halls, airports, museums, libraries, Expo pavilions, vineyards, houses, and so on. These are wonderful moments and opportunities to learn about the world and how people live in all its particular realities.

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