Brian Vanden Brink has been photographing unforgettable historic places since the 1970s, when he moved to the coast of Maine and began shooting for architects and magazines. Since then, he has cemented a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost architectural photographers.
“The images in Iconic, my sixth book, cover more than 35 years of this work -- my whole photographic life,” he says. “It’s almost like a personal travel journal documenting experiences with buildings I feel are important ... Whether it’s because of the way these structures sit in the landscape -- or what they represent culturally or socially -- I felt they had to be brought together for readers to see and appreciate.”
James H. Schwartz, the National Trust’s vice president for editorial and creative strategy, recently spoke with Brian to learn more about his work and inspirations.
Do you have clear memories of the first historic building you admired?
I do -- and it’s in the book. I grew up in Omaha, Neb., and on Sundays after church we used to go to a restaurant at Union Station. I’ll always remember the station as a beehive of activity. I was always so tangibly impressed by a building that takes your breath away and contains all the activity of travel that it left its imprint on me. I’ve had the travel yearning ever since then and have loved architecture since then, too.
The quality of light in your photographs is extraordinary. Do you avoid shooting in certain conditions?
There’s no such thing as a bad time to shoot. You make the most of the light you have. My wife, Kathleen, and I made a point of going to see Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, a building with such personality and such a presence. I asked Kathleen to stand there and the light was perfect -- just showing the texture on those concrete panels on the right and the travertine floor of the courtyard. I shot it with my little 120-mm film camera -- it was 2007 before I went to digital.
Olson House, ca. late 1700s, Cushing, Maine, 1995.
You included a photograph of the clapboard house that Andrew Wyeth made famous with “Christina’s World.” Why?
I teach photography students, and I often take them to the Olson House because it represents a whole genre of architecture here in Maine that’s deceptively simple. This house has its own personality, as if it’s alive, as if it’s almost a living, breathing creature. I’m always impressed with the images the students come up with there that I’ve never gotten. It’s a historic building that just keeps unfolding itself.
How does age or condition of a place -- its history -- add to its status as an icon?
I think it’s easy to be tricked and think that something is an icon just because it is old. That is the challenge of the National Trust: Not everything that is old can be saved. But I find a poignancy in historic buildings, especially neglected buildings. I love to look at the architectural detailing of the past, to see how it’s changed, and to notice what we’ve hung onto and what we’ve jettisoned.
Why do you describe the structures in your book as iconic?
Because they represent something bigger -- in other words they are significant. And significance can apply to places that are so common and generic that we don’t see them anymore. There are certain people who possess the gift of taking something commonplace and turning it into something beautiful. That’s one of the reasons I admire the photographer Walker Evans (1903-75). He turned the commonplace into something noteworthy. In a sense that is what I was doing with some of these iconic places.
Iconic, published in August 2012, is available wherever books are sold or at www.downeast.com.