Inside Out - Rod Slemmons
Architectural photographers generally make buildings look like they don’t. We correct perspective, eliminate background distractions and then wait for that perfect fifteen minutes of daylight that most resembles the architect’s drawing. And, of course, we do what photography does best - we record surfaces. Jan Theun van Rees has broken through these conventions and gone beneath the visible skin of buildings here in Chicago. In his own way, he has rendered the buildings transparent, enabling us to access the seemingly chaotic and asymmetrical service spaces and structural components that support the elegantly even exteriors.
Part of Jan’s project is an exercise in scale and mass. Seen from the inside, exterior walls of buildings appear suddenly delicate, even though they aren’t. Transparent ceilings turn out to be lit from the attic interiors rather than daylight. Actual structural members appear to us non-engineers as either too big or much too slight. The interior of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, for example, seems far to substantial to support the delicately balanced fluid form we see from the outside.
Photography is, at first glance at least, the greatest ally of Logical Positivism, the philosophy that holds that what you see is what is, that the meaning of the world around us is its surface, with no mysterious hidden underpinnings. As much as Edward Weston championed the creative evolution philosophy of Henry Bergson and his notion of the élan vital - the living spirit behind the visible world = he managed to create beautiful renditions of the visible surfaces of bodies, peppers, sand dunes and more.
Carrying his camera and vision below the surface and finding apparent confusion, or at least not finding any obvious overriding spiritual or even organizational principles, His images ultimately raise the question : What kinds of meaning does photography really provide? … the image of the Holy Family Church above the altar (reminiscent of Frederic Evans’ 1896 image of the attic of Kelmscott Manor in Britain) offers abundant visual metaphoric possibilities for the elaborate supporting structure behind religion faith.
One technical detail seems rather crucial to his visual arguments: When viewing what is being recorded, we see the scene upside down on the ground glass of the large format camera used for architectural photography. We are, at that moment, literally and figuratively ‘behind’ the photograph, seeing it from the other side. This notion is parallel to Jan’s getting himself and his gear behind the scenes in the buildings he visited. There is also the film negative that produces a positive print - mysterious to the layman but transparent to photographers. In a strange sense, Jan has managed to get himself into the negative space that produce the positive building we see from the outside.
Jan’s experiments give us something concrete on which to hang suspicion that a city is not only its outward appearance. A city is what holds those structures up, what gives them their daily impact and long-term authority . It is the people who designed and build them and the people who work and live inside them. The surface is the equivalent of the shining traditions of civic pride and self definition. Behind them - the secret spaces that Jan recorded - are chaotic and often mysterious ambiguities, secrets and confusion that nonetheless support the surface
"Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust
and the press of time running into centuries, play
on the building inside and out and use it."
Carl Sandburg ‘Skyscraper’ (Chicago Poems, 1916)
Excerpts from the essay "Inside Out", written by Rod Slemmons and published in the book "One Wall Away - Chicago's Hidden Spaces" (1997) .
Mr. Slemmons was director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago between 2002 - and 2011