Candida Höfer: Heaven on Earth
Sean Kelly, New York
475 Tenth Avenue
Through April 15
Candida Höfer: Heaven on Earth demonstrates how both photographers and architects shape spatial experience. Venerable architect Toshiko Mori has selected works from the Cologne-based photographer’s 30-year documentation of libraries, museums, theaters, and churches and installed them at Sean Kelly’s New York gallery, a space she designed. Mori successfully amplifies how “we hear the voice of architecture through her photographs,” according to press materials. She could be speaking of photographers when she describes how architects compose “proportion, detail, materiality, and sequencing into an orchestrated experience.”
To that end, the exhibition features monumental, roughly square prints in understated blond wood frames. The scale, viewpoint, ambient light, and uniform focus create an otherworldly feeling of being in awe-inspiring spaces dating from the Medieval period to the present. At the same time, Höfer’s photographs are famously depopulated, following her counterintuitive belief that the social qualities of the built environment are communicated most strongly in the absence of people. The uncanny feeling of experiencing the works is enhanced by the artist’s use of a large-format film camera and wide-angle lens to render focus throughout the vast spaces, which also distorts the images’ perspectival appearances. This approach also enhances finishes and painted areas to create a vibrant harmony between surfaces and volumes.
These effects are immediately apparent in the soaring introductory image La Salle Labrouste – La Bibliothèque de l’INHA Paris II 2017. Höfer’s expansive view of the now-bright reading room celebrates recent restoration of the 1860s landmark and establishes the centrality of light to both architecture and photography. In particular, Höfer features Labrouste’s nine light-reflecting domes, each topped by an ocular skylight. Designed to cast shadowless light through the otherwise unlit reading room, the image is an indirect homage to a monumental lens.
Among the dominant images of historic interiors, Höfer’s photographs of modern and contemporary architecture stand out. Unlike most works in the show, these incorporate asymmetrical composition, exteriors–and even people. Höfer’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos Ciudad de México I 2015 is notably populated, even lively. In another unusual move, the viewpoint looks across the short axis of the long building rather than into its considerable depths.
At the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Höfer explores the dramatic roof. Its reflective disks suggesting a ship’s sails from a distance and an alien landscape up close. She directs her camera straight at a mirrored door, one that would normally reveal the viewer. How did she edit herself out of the frame? This image—and the exhibition as a whole—remind us how both architects and photographers direct our spatial experience.
Jennifer Tobias is a scholar and illustrator based in New York City.