As a young writer with Marxist leanings, Mary McCarthy used to ask of each play she reviewed in 1940s New York, “What is this going to be used for?” Would it be used to promote, or bash, some version of the America dream? Would it be used to sway audiences politically? Would it revise history in some way or another? Years later, McCarthy reflected that this “was not the right question to put to a work of art,” but it could nevertheless “yield revealing answers.”
Walking through Iwan Baan’s The Way We Live at Perry Rubenstein Gallery through April 13—a show of photographs of skylines and architectural feats from around the world—you might ask a variation of McCarthy’s question: not what will it be used for, but what have these been used for? Probably, you will have seen some of them before. Baan, often described as an “architecture photographer” though it’s unlikely he chose that strict descriptor for himself, publishes his images in magazines and journals, as well as the photo books he has compiled. For the most part, his images have a pared-down, minimal feel, even if his subject is a skyline. They often have washes of blue running across them somewhere, like the hazy bluish sky over the city in his photo of Dubai or the bluish walls surrounding the glass floor in his image of Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto’s House H. This photograph appeared in the design magazine Domus in 2009.
Baan’s photograph The City and the Storm, an aerial view of nighttime New York after Hurricane Sandy hit, appeared initially on the cover of New York Magazine in October 2012. It shows normally bright lower Manhattan as a dark hole and, printed in large format, it has some graininess in it that makes it seem the storm is hovering over its surface. His photograph of a man, shirtless, seen from belly-button up, lifting weights made of train wheels on the roof of an unfinished high-rise, has the browns, greens and burnt oranges of Caracas’s cityscape in the background. This appeared in New York Magazine in October 2011. The article it accompanied described the unfinished high-rise, nicknamed Torre David (after the tower’s investor, who died right before the banking crisis of ’94 and right before the government took possession of the building), and the community of squatters that have moved into it since 2007, as “a modern ruin buzzing with life, a postapocalyptic mockery of an oil-rich nation’s aspirations.” Baan’s images show that collision of modernistic aspiration and low-tech, poor-man’s resourcefulness better than the words do, however. While the article criticizes the Venezuelan government for not improving safety or stepping in, Baan’s photographs issue no call for redress. Rather, they have an edge of idealistic excitement regarding this bottom-up model of living. These are the best moments in The Way We Live, the ones that show the slippage between the images themselves and their initial uses.