November 4, 2012

Shooting in the dark, with a handheld camera, in a vibrating helicopter, 5,000 feet above land sounds like a photographer’s nightmare. But Iwan Baan made it look easy.

The Dutch photographer’s image of a half-illuminated, half-powerless New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy captured the nation’s attention on the cover of New York magazine.

“It was the only way to show that New York was two cities, almost,” Baan said on the phone Sunday evening from Haiti. “One was almost like a third world country where everything was becoming scarce. Everything was complicated. And then another was a completely vibrant, alive New York.”

Baan made the image Wednesday night after the storm, using the new Canon 1D X with the new 24-70mm lens on full open aperture. The camera was set at 25,000 ISO, with a 1/40th of a second shutter speed.

“[It was] the kind of shot which was impossible to take before this camera was there,” Baan said.

It was more difficult to rent a car than a helicopter in New York the day after Sandy, Baan said. And because there was such limited air traffic so soon after the storm, air traffic control allowed Baan and the helicopter to hover very high above the city, a powerful advantage for the photo.

New York Magazine editors explain their cover choice. “Fortunately, Baan was in town, but two of his three different helicopter contacts were unresponsive,” they say.

Shooting from a helicopter doesn’t faze Baan. He does it about once a week, on average, all across the world. But he had never tried it in the middle of the night before.

Imagine crouching inside a vibrating helicopter, clutching a handheld camera and peering down at the devastated landscape of a city just ravaged by a storm that’s claimed more than 100 lives. Now imagine what it feels like to have no door between you and that wide expanse of nothing, just 46-degree air ripping around the sky. And somehow managing, despite the darkness, to capture such a vivid, emotional snapshot.

“With these aerials you shoot a lot, bursts of images, to finally pick one out there which is sharp,” Baan said. “It’s difficult if it’s freezing outside, you don’t have a door, helicopter is moving and vibrating, etc., but you really work towards an idea, visualization of that image which you have in mind.”

Baan knew before the helicopter left the ground what sort of image he wanted to achieve. And once they landed, the process of selecting and submitting to New York magazine editors was easy. The hour suspended above the earth was the hard part.

“In a way, it all worked out perfectly,” Baan said. “You never know when something like this happens. If one thing would have changed, the picture wouldn’t exist.”

The photo captured not only the effects of Sandy, but the reality of New York City on the eve of the 2012 election, he said.

“What really struck me, if you look at the image on the left, you see the Goldman Sachs building and new World Trade Center,” said Baan. “These two buildings are brightly lit. And then the rest of New York looks literally kind of powerless. In a way, it shows also what’s wrong with the country in this moment.”

Within the world of architecture photography, Baan is a rock star, with a slew of awards, including the Golden Lion and the Julius Shulman Photography Award.

He travels from Amsterdam to Miami, Rome to Beijing. Already, he’s moved on from New York and is working on a research project in Haiti. He’s photographed work by some of the world’s most prominent architects, including Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron. Life is in constant movement.

When he’s not capturing iconic post-storm images, the photographer is documenting the world and its people through the buildings they inhabit. Baan, who’s only been doing architecture photography since 2005, said his images are less about buildings and more about people.

“My interest is in showing people, and maybe using the architecture as a background,” Baan said, “and if you go one step further, a city as a background.”

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