Los Angeles

Balthazar Korab, Eero Saarinen, TWA Flight Center New York, NY (Interior view from mezzanine level at night), 1964, gelatin silver print, 14 × 11".

Balthazar Korab, Eero Saarinen, TWA Flight Center New York, NY (Interior view from mezzanine level at night), 1964, gelatin silver print, 14 × 11".

Balthazar Korab

Christopher W. Mount Gallery

Balthazar Korab, Eero Saarinen, TWA Flight Center New York, NY (Interior view from mezzanine level at night), 1964, gelatin silver print, 14 × 11".

Balthazar Korab (1926–2013) thought himself “an architect who makes pictures rather than a photographer who is knowledgeable about architecture.” This exhibition—the first in this gallery, which is devoted to architecture and design—included nearly thirty silver gelatin prints of photos taken between 1959 and 1999. Exemplary in their ability to palpably convey what it means to occupy a building, these images validate Korab’s self-assessment and confirm his position in the firmament of architectural photographers that includes Julius Shulman, Ezra Stoller, Ken Hedrich, Henry Blessing, and Marvin Rand.

Like fellow Hungarians Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi, Korab participated in the rich culture of Central Europe between the wars, and after studying architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he attained great success as a professional photographer in the United States. Although he had worked briefly for Le Corbusier in Paris, Korab is best known for his decades-long association with Eero Saarinen and for his documentation of the iconic terminals Saarinen designed at John F. Kennedy and Dulles airports. Working in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, office of the architect, Korab became the key photographer of that midwestern state’s modern-design renaissance. Yet he cannot be identified with any single location, and the images here presented gardens, airports, and buildings in Rome, Berlin, Chicago, and Detroit—evidence of his peripatetic career.

Korab’s photographs frequently feature symmetrical, static compositions. Rarely do they embrace the abstraction or kineticism discernible in the work of Moholy-Nagy or other photographers associated with the Bauhaus. His 1974 image of Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit balances light and dark in its center, showing, with calm nonchalance, one of the most radical post-1945 designs for urban housing. If Korab’s traditionalism might once have been a shortcoming, today it appears a virtue. Less enamored than many of his contemporaries with the idea of modern architecture as autonomous machine, Korab was a humanist who did not banish the human figure from his images. The sense of scale offered by his inclusion of people prevents the depicted architecture from appearing coldly monumental. To heroicize modernism or celebrate its strength and verticality was foreign to his lexicon. Monumentality is downplayed even in a 1976 photograph of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center—a building usually shown in extreme long shot, but here truncated by Korab at the base.

In his famed images of Saarinen’s airports, Korab profiled the buildings’ sweeping organic forms while simultaneously acknowledging their playfulness. The Finnish American architect’s marriage of functional engineering and aesthetic exuberance (bordering, at times, on goofiness) has probably never been photographed to better effect. In a 1962 picture of Dulles Airport, three automobiles are lined up outside the terminal, which appears to be a threshold between the setting sun in the background and the darkness of night, intimating a journey whose final destination has not yet been reached. Viewed as an interim report on the prospect of American civilization, the photograph suggests that somewhere on his own travels from Hungary, Korab traded glumness and Sachlichkeit (objectivity) for a more cheerful (or at least open-minded) relation to his new home.

If the shadows in Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederick C. Robie House, Chicago, Illinois, 1909, 1966, and Frank Lloyd Wright, Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois, 1908, 1994, demonstrate that Korab nevertheless retained the ability to render modern architecture in a noir palette, his photographs of van der Rohe’s buildings underscore the full range of his attitudes toward modern architecture. Seldom has the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin seemed more forbidding than in the photograph Korab made as he looked up the stairs toward its pediment. Nor has S. R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago appeared more dynamic than in Korab’s image, in which the surrounding trees and shadows seem to incorporate the building as an extension of the natural world. (Long before the current wave of architectural thinking that seeks to link van der Rohe to philosophical traditions of vitalism, Korab pursued a similar idea in his unassuming oeuvre.) Indeed, these works deliver an inimitable range of modern architecture’s intoxicating effects and display a lifetime devoted to capturing the built environment in two dimensions.

Edward Dimendberg