Standing before a 10’-tall high-resolution photographic work by Markus Brunetti of a centuries-old European church is a familiar yet disquieting experience — familiar if you’ve been lucky enough to see the church in person, and disquieting because you have never, in fact, seen it look quite like this.
Imagine the original architect’s rendering of a medieval, Renaissance or Baroque church façade as a simple line drawing, devoid of most of its surrounding structures and any human presence, yet coming to life with every stone, finial and gargoyle visible in hyper-realistic detail. This only hints at the visual power of a Brunetti work.
With the exquisitely detailed capture of hundreds, even thousands of exposures, all from the same street-level perspective, Brunetti has painstakingly, through his own application of digital technology, created both the most perfect image of the church and its simulacrum, an image that stands apart from any identifying badge of time. There is nothing present but the façade and some nearby structures: no people, no automobiles, not even a roosting pigeon.
Consider the photo that began this blog. It is of the Abbey Church of Saint Foy, a 12th century Romanesque structure, and a major stop on the medieval pilgrimage trail to the terminus of the Cathedral of Santiago Campostella in northwest Spain. The open ground in front of the portal and tympanum is quite small, hemmed in by surrounding structures and sited in a narrow valley. Here is how it looks to tourists and pilgrims photographing with their personal digital cameras.
Not all the churches that Brunetti and his partner, Betty Schöner, photograph are sited in such splendid intimacy as Conques. Often, as in Paris’ Notre Dame, the cathedral is still a locus of the city’s social activity, chock-a-block with daily human traffic- an assembly point like the Place de la Republique during the aftermath of of the Isis attacks of November 13. Even today, especially in Germany, many of the greatest churches are surrounded by auto traffic. And in Italy, the façades are frequently smothered by hordes of camera-toting tourists. Brunetti removes every hint of human presence; in fact, he prefers to work in the early morning hours, before tourists swarm, and especially before rising and ever-shifting sunlight creates kaleidoscopic light patterns on the façade. Scaffolding set up to facilitate cleaning and restoration also sometimes requires Brunetti and Schöner to return to the same church over a period of years. They photograph every stone of the façade in even, unblemished light.
Brunetti freely cites antecedents to the way he works. Bernd and Hilla Becher also traveled widely and, like Brunetti and Schöner, lived in and worked out of their van, driving from site to site. The Bechers, highly influential Düsseldorf artists who photographed structures like coal tipples, gas tanks and water towers and then combined them in serial montages they called “Typologies,” made large-format exposures on film. (Hilla died on Oct. 10.)
Complex and detailed digital construction, like laying a course of the church mason’s stones, is essential to Brunetti’s vision.
I first saw Brunetti’s Façades in a booth of the Yossi Milo Gallery at the 2015 AIPAD show at New York’s Park Ave. Armory. A recent show in Milo’s Chelsea gallery was Brunetti’s first American exhibition. As scale reference, here is an installation photo of the Milo exhibition:
Markus Hartmann was the curator of a much larger exhibition of Brunetti’s works earlier this year at the Recontre d’Arles. In a video produced for the Los Angeles Review of Books, he was interviewed along with Brunetti. Hartmann offers a cultural, religious and social context to the photographs, and Brunetti describes how he approaches this work:
Brunetti and Schöner are constantly on the road in their living/work truck. We haven’t yet met in person, but recently, he generously responded to a few questions for this blog.
There are architectural studies going back to photography’s earliest days, in the mid-19th century, that document the great churches of Western Europe. I’m thinking of artists like Édouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Charles Marville and especially Henri Le Secq. When you began this project, did you feel you were continuing this glorious history, or did you think of yourself as a new pilgrim of the digital age?
Markus Brunetti: I don’t consider the pioneers of photography to be role models in that I don’t follow directly in their footprints, but I studied their works, and you can say that my work continues a tradition they started. My style is more documentary than most of their rather romantic pictures. Baldus, among all the early 19th century architecture photographers, is the closest to my own visual ideas. A crucial difference between them and us is that our work is completely self assigned — there is no Comission des Monuments Historique for us. On our grand tour, we do not aim for completeness; we choose from an abundance of possibilities, those that are most interesting for us and are also the most diverse cultural monuments.
You have likened your richly detailed and two-dimensional photos of church façades to the earliest architectural drawings of these edifices as they were originally conceived in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The stone-by-stone construction of those churches by anonymous masons seems analogous to your assemblage of the hundreds of exposures that you make. As a ‘worker’ in that guild tradition, do you feel like a 21st century medieval craftsman?
Brunetti: This is a perfect interpretation of how Betty and I work. When working on a façade, we literally get lost in the building itself, in the smallest of details. We experience in this process a sense of the creation of the edifices in a time-lapse mode (a few months of our work, perhaps, versus a few hundred years), and do so very intensely. When capturing [each exposure], I deconstruct the façades down to the smallest unit. Then, when mounting the large images on our screens, we put these small details back into the big picture. All of this follows an order that is dependent on the individual shape of each building. Just like the craftsmen and builders, architects never could repeat a building; they had to cope with the local circumstances. Of course, we work more virtually than they did! Part of the motivation to start the series came from our idea to raise an awareness of the ideas, visions and achievements of the people who planned and built these masterpieces. With our works, we raise a contemporary monument or memorial for them.
In an age when many artists are quick to disclose the technical details of how they create their work, you have exhibited a certain reluctance to discuss technology. You have suggested you don’t employ elaborate digital stitching, and that you create your façades in an almost ‘handmade’ style. Can you say something about how you work?
Brunetti: We work with what is the current technology of visualization, just like Baldus and Bayard did in the 19th century, or the Bechers did in the postwar times: from glass negatives to SLR cameras. Do you ask painters which inks or brushes they use or on which kind of cotton cloth they paint? Yes, I use digital cameras, one or the other computer, a few disk drives, ink, paper and a printer, but all of these to me are just tools, like brushes, pens, paper and canvas. Instead of discussing technical details, I prefer to talk about the works — their impression, the light, content, perspectives and the overall project — not the single pixel. The single pixel only has meaning in the context of the whole picture!
You’ve said that when you find a new church, you study it for a long time with just your eyes and then eventually make a ‘draft photo’ with an iPhone. How does such a simple camera serve to launch the disciplined process of creating a façade photo that might be made up of hundreds of exposures?
Brunetti: Before I make a decision to work on a façade, I carefully study the whole building and its surroundings. For these preparatory works, I do not need the big camera right away. For such a first sketch, the iPhone is the perfect sketchpad. Even in this stage of my work, I take many pictures, which I mount on the computer quickly to try first ideas and visual solutions. Only when I am content with these first sketches do I start with the final realization of a work.
You’ve discussed how the Bechers’ Typologies have influenced you. On a purely visual level, their works, all made from frontal flat angles in overcast, non-directional light, are images of secular cathedrals of the industrial age. But perhaps just as important, they worked as a husband-and-wife team. Tell us a bit about how you and Betty collaborate.
Brunetti: Only when reading Hilla Becher’s obituary did I realize all the similarities in our work and life situations. Unfortunately, she died before we could meet her! I was aware of the Bechers’ work when I started this series, but I did not realize that they, too, traveled, worked and sometimes lived in their (much smaller) VW-Bully. They also worked self-assigned, only following their own interest in their project. They also must have known that their series would never be completed. I work very closely with Betty — who, by the way, is also a photographer by education, just like Hilla — when researching the buildings, planing the journey, and especially in the realization and finalization of the works. The Bechers used the technical means of their times; then, it was the large-format camera and film, with elaborate printmaking work in the darkroom. Our darkroom work is probably even more elaborate, being digital, but thankfully, we do it in daylight, when we start the composition of our own works. My work begins where the classical photographer stops. The first step of the process, the capturing of the images, is made with the same problems and conditions as on film — and also, the environment is crucial, like the weather, traffic, people, etc.
You’ve also said that you are ‘homeless,’ that you and Betty live and work out of a car. Can you describe how that facilitates your work?
Brunetti: The journey in a large truck for living and working is essential for our work. We can move outside of fixed schedules and stay close to the building we are working on, with as little distraction as possible, in a kind of concentrated confinement. When the conditions cause delays and I need more time to best capture a façade, we can stay as long as needed, or return after awhile or even years later. (When construction restoration is blocking the view, we sometimes have to return several times over the course of 5-10 years.) We also live close to the local people and experience their culture, food and life, so we have a more direct access to the regions where we travel and work. This way, we also have more time to research more closely on the shooting site, and we get suggestions from the locals, and even discover buildings that are not mentioned in guidebooks — for example, Cortegaca.
Recently, we used a normal-sized car for location scouting, not our truck, and we immediately realized it would not work for us. It was too hectic, too impersonal, too superficial. The experience of landscape and culture is very different and much more intense for us when we are traveling with our home/truck.
You’ve called the Façades project ‘open ended,’ and said that you and Betty will also photograph Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues. Have you actually begun this work, and is your approach to these subjects somehow different from your approach to Christian churches?
Brunetti: Yes, we have already begun to capture mosques. Sometimes, the Christian and Muslim religions fade into each other through their sacred buildings, as you can see in Cordoba or Sevilla. Whether we realize a Christian, Jewish or Muslim sacred building, it’s always the façade. The visual concept is the same. This capturing and the realization of the religious site adjusts to the local conditions, not to religion. There will be different and new challenges in the future. With each façade our series develops further!
When Brunetti was corresponding with me, he and Schöner were completing their work on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They were then moving on to Dresden to prepare their truck for a winter’s sojurn in Italy, a more hospitable climate than northern Europe.
The Façades project seems more than open ended. It may be the project of a lifetime, especially as Markus and Betty are led forward into the intricate architecture of Jewish synagogues and Moorish mosques. They may find themselves on a mission not unlike that of my friends Raymond and Kaoru Cauchetier. Cauchetier, after a decade as set photographer for some of the most memorable films of the French New Wave, has devoted more than 25 years to photographing the stone sculptures of Europe’s Romanesque churches. Nearly half a century separates Cauchetier and Brunetti in age, but they share a vision of giving us a photographic record of the majesty of a centuries-old religious architecture that continues to hold center stage in contemporary culture.