When I did my first architectural series, in 1987-91, I chose the typical, undistinguished buildings my generation grew up surrounded by. I thought that high architecture might overshadow the image itself, that a Mies building would be too beautiful. I was worried that there would be too much Mies and too little Ruff. But after gaining experience making various series in the meantime, I thought I could transform even Mies architecture into a Ruff image. When Julian proposed the project in 1999, I realized I was ready for Mies–that I could make his architecture look different from the way it had appeared in previous photographs.
We decided to work on two Mies buildings that were near-contemporaries–the Barcelona Pavilion (completed in 1929) and Haus Tugendhat, in Brno, Czech Republic (1930)–as well as Haus Lange and Haus Esters. My idea now was to work in several modes: straight architectural shots, interior photographs like the ones I was making twenty years ago, stereoscopic photographs, and computer-manipulated images. Some of the computer alterations were done to create the impression of speed–something modernity has always been closely associated with. When Mies’s German Pavilion was built for the 1929 International Exposition, it must have looked like a UFO had landed in Barcelona. Speed in photography is always blurry, and my picture of the German Pavilion looks like a high-speed locomotive–modernity arriving at the train station of the present (albeit the present of 1929).
When Terence Riley saw some of these images, he asked me if I would work on the rest of Mies’s buildings in Berlin and Stuttgart for MOMA’S upcoming show “Mies in Berlin.” So I began shooting those buildings too, but I couldn’t photograph all of them–some were obstructed by trees or by traffic and parked cars. So another mode appeared: using archival material. At first I thought I might hand-color some old black-and white prints, but in the end I did all the alterations on the computer.
In this way, I have tried to do a contemporary-art exhibition about architecture from the past, using every technique available to contemporary photography. The computer is a great new tool for photography, an extension of the darkroom, allowing you to alter color, resolution, parts of the image, or even the whole thing. For the Krefeld show I was playing with issues surrounding the documentary aspects of architectural photography. What was in front of the camera is not what you see in the images, because I altered about 90 percent of them. In some I took out the color and made a new sky. In one there appears to be a ghost (is it Mies?), which was originally a bad exposure that I guided into an intention, let’s say. The curtain in the Barcelona Pavilion is red, but I wondered what would happen if it were blue or green. How might this change the reception of Mies’s architecture?
The main idea was to create a kind of resume of the photographic representations of Mies’s buildings and at the same time demonstrate that the reception of his work was hugely indebted to a relatively small number of photographs.
With stereoscopic photography, it’s obvious that our perception has less to do with what we see than with what our brain does with that information. If you look at the two flat images, nothing much happens; but look at them at just the right angle and the images become one–and it’s three–dimensional. We may look with our eyes, but our brain constructs the images. My idea was to make these 3-D interiors look even more artificial by altering the distance between the stereoscopic camera’s lenses, which are normally set apart about the same distance as a person’s eyes. To take stereo h.t.b. 06, 2000, I used two cameras set about ten inches apart, which creates a perceptual transformation: The viewer becomes a twelve-foot-tall giant peering into a dollhouse-size interior.