Maria Morris Hambourg is a writer, independent curator, and consultant. As the founding curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, she helped to build an audience for photography through exhibitions and catalogues of works by Richard Avedon, Nadar, and many more.
In 2019 London’s National Portrait Gallery commissioned Andreas Gursky to photograph Sir Jonathan Ive, lead designer of Apple’s iMac, iPad, and iPhone. Mantled with awards, arguably the most famous designer alive, and credited with the most successful commercial products in history, Ive, clad in white, stands on the arcing fin of a curving building. Having recently decided to leave Apple to start his own company, he looks composed and thoughtful, his outward focus suggesting his future-oriented vision. Gursky, equally famous, is a German photographer known for his huge, highly detailed and suprarealistic color pictures of the global economy’s infrastructure. Lauded for the gorgeous, razor-sharp precision of his style, Gursky has blunted the rendering in this image with a veiling layer of muted bands; this uncharacteristic and curious surface shimmer suggests the conveyance of something important that is not evident at first glance.
Gursky is highly accomplished at the meticulous description of technological and industrial installations. Although his parents were commercial photographers, and he was thus versed from birth in the glorification of technological prowess typical of annual reports and advertising, he pivoted toward art and studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie with Bernd and Hilla Becher, famous artistic mentors of Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and others. He made his mark in the 1990s with large-scale images of landscape and architecture in which individuals, if they are represented at all, are usually subsumed into crowds, and the focus is on the spaces—often commercial or industrial—where people work. Hagiographic portraits were not a part of his practice, so the National Gallery’s commission posed a tricky question: how to convey the true character of this admired designer, evoking his unique accomplishments and the scale of their diffusion in modern life, while retaining Gursky’s native idiom of impressive yet believably realistic documentation?
Gursky might well have asked himself what others tasked with similar commissions had done. Generally, they have depicted great designers surrounded by their creations in matter-of-fact show-and-tell scenarios: Henry Dreyfuss and the Bell telephone, Charles and Ray Eames with their iconic Lounge Chair, and Dieter Rams, whom Ive cites as an important early influence, surrounded by the products he designed mainly for Braun. This sort of simple demonstration was inadequate to Gursky’s ambition, as well as to his complex grasp of the scope of Ive’s influence, which he saw as more akin in its vast societal reverberations to the metaprocesses engaged by architecture. What models had he, then, in this category?
Traditionally, photographers have portrayed architects with their buildings or models of them, or working in the studio or at the construction site. I am immediately reminded of a dapper Frank Lloyd Wright depicted at his nearly complete, but long-challenging, late-life project the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Its dove-gray tones match his attire and the slicing shadows of its spiraling rings rhyme with his natty topper, while the aged architect, knee cocked and lost in thought, is at one with his creation. The fact that only a corner and a smidgen of the rotunda can fit into the frame is characteristic, for scale discrepancies bedevil this scheme. Smart photographers know better than to reduce the creator to an ant in front of his overwhelming structure; better an equalizing compromise, as with Wright, or with Robert Howlett’s famous portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great British designer of tunnels, dry docks, and steamships, standing before his final masterpiece, The Great Eastern. That 22,500-ton ship would hardly have fit into the frame, but Howlett was still able to present Brunel as a heroic figure, more than holding his own against the ship’s massive launching chains. To avoid scale dilemmas as well as from expediency, photographers frequently pose designers with models of their large structures. In these cases, the inverse scale obtains: Witness a Brobdingnagian Kazuyo Sejima examining a tiny treasure in her palm, as if she had chanced to find her inspiration for New York’s New Museum like a shell on a beach. Annie Leibovitz’s droll exaggeration is a delight of this sort; many architect-plus-model shots are notably less felicitous.
Tracing the hidden pathways of creation is difficult enough in words, but describing the process photographically is nearly impossible. Showing the architect at work aims at a portion of the process but is an obvious simplification. Even so, photographing the drafting studio and the maestro on a site visit tends to do a better job on ambient details or personal relations than on inner inspiration, and often fails through overscripted direction. While such images can capture facts that in time prove interesting as historical documents—such as the assemblage of remarkable talents in Peter Behrens’s studio in 1908—the photographs scarcely get inside the problems the minds in the room are trying to solve. To illustrate those internal mysteries, several pictorial tropes repeat: the concentrated brow, the shining pate, smoke, and eyeglasses, typically owlish, on nose or forehead.
A portrait of Oscar Niemeyer in shirt sleeves and braces, his balding head bent over his drawing board, head on hand, with pen at the ready to sketch the forthcoming idea, is a home run of this sort. Here is photography rounding all the bases to create a set of visual clues equivalent to the invisible path of a design idea coursing through mental circuitry. When the usual pictorial signals for the thinking mind—books, plans, drawings, stylus, cigarettes and pipes—are unavailable, all that remains is metaphor. A fair example is a portrait of Louis Kahn in which the background and some of the ceiling coffers of his Yale University Art Gallery have been blacked out, the better to suggest this mystic’s inspiration as unknowable, even Divine.
Daring to attempt to illustrate cerebration is not a task at which most photographers are willing to fail. Gursky wisely chose to avoid it, electing the balanced scheme: man and creation, equalized through a partial view. The creation here is Ive’s stage, the spectacular new Apple Headquarters in Cupertino, California, designed by Norman Foster and his firm. Although the building is not credited to Ive, not only did his designs fuel Apple’s rise to the top but his design sense was essential to the building’s realization in myriad ways. From the point of view of Gursky, a photographer whose principal subject has been the intersection of global money, labor, technology, and industry, this building was a prime locale from every angle, and the most obvious and appropriate one for Ive. The structure was commissioned by Steve Jobs in 2009 to replace the company’s accumulation of twenty-six buildings with a singular architectural statement of its design excellence, its business philosophy of dissolving boundaries, and its commitment to communication and sustainability. Foster proposed a vast, circular, four-story building containing 2.5 million square feet of open workspace, clad in glass and set in a landscape planted with native species and fruit trees. The entire donut-shaped building, so large as to be fully visible only in aerial views or in models, looks decidedly the way UFOs were imagined to look when these figments, fanned by cold war fears, popped up in the popular imagination in the middle of the last century.
Exactly how Jobs identified Foster for the job is not clear, but it may well have been through Ive, his close and constant colleague; in any case, Foster + Partners has had among the highest global profiles for iconic company headquarters since their HSBC bank design for Hong Kong, completed in the mid-1980s and photographed by Gursky in 1994. Like Ive, Foster is British. As a youth in industrial Manchester, he became fascinated by locomotives, a passion that eventually led him to Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture, 1923), the modernist design of the 1950s (Niemeyer and the Scandinavians), and ultimately to Yale University, where his futuristic bent was reinforced by Buckminster Fuller’s designs for “Spaceship Earth.” There, too, he absorbed the Bauhaus principles of functionalism, minimalism, and truth to materials via Paul Rudolph, who had been trained by former Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
Ive for his part is the son of a design-technology professor-cum-silversmith, so he was drawing, making, and deconstructing objects with his father’s encouragement from an early age. He was educated at Newcastle Polytechnic, where his training was multidisciplinary, object and problem oriented, and espoused minimalist, essentially ex-Bauhaus design principles as codified by Rams. Ive had no success whatever with computers until he met a Mac, whose intuitive use and “human soul” greatly appealed to him. In 1992 he visited Silicon Valley and met people at Apple, one of whom hired him, at twenty-seven. In 1997 Jobs returned to the company after a twelve-year absence, put the designers in charge of the engineers instead of vice versa, and put Ive in charge of design. Dyslexic like Jobs, and like Jobs a stickler for design excellence and simplicity, Ive is especially devoted to humanizing technology and is particularly sensitive to touch. Through his calm, deliberate, and remarkably modest manner and his iterative and collaborative working method, he managed to form one of the most conducive creative partnerships in modern history with the demanding and opinionated Jobs. Although Jobs implicitly claimed Apple’s products as his own, their creation was shared, and was largely attributable to Ive’s process and character, not least his remarkable willingness to disappear into his designs.
Gursky’s use of the glass in Foster’s building is by every measure a virtuoso performance. Through digital manipulation of the original photograph, he heightened its reflections and refractions, resulting in those intangible waves that softly nap the scene, as well as, perhaps, in Ive’s ghostly body-double.
Gursky’s vision of this unprepossessing man is deft, if initially a bit puzzling. We note Ive’s odd stance: he looks like a fencer, sans protections and foil, and he stands shoulder to shoulder with a vaporous body double—a fault, if he were fencing, termed “corps à corps.” Then, too, the “air” in the picture is not transparent but weirdly palpable, as if constituted of some denser medium, variably segmented. Ive stands enveloped in this scrim on the second floor of “Apple Spaceship,” as its denizens call it, leaning toward its fins. These protruding canopies, providing shade and cutting glare, are a critically important element of the design, for without them the building’s enormous panes of curved glass (the world’s largest, at forty-seven feet by ten on the exterior) would allow the California sun to overheat the interior. The underside of these “eyebrows” (per Foster) are of a highly reflective metal, which, together with the curved glass skin, create cascades of reflections and refractions marked by the nearly invisible vertical joints of the glass-to-glass panels, causing the segmentation of the “air” in the picture.
Ever since 1913, when Gropius and Adolf Meyer built the curtain wall of the Fagus-Werk, in Alfeld, Germany, glass has been an important and efficient industrial material for cladding modern buildings. Technological advances in manufacturing ever larger panels, and more invisible fittings to secure them, have blurred the boundaries between in- and outside, providing the unexpected security of transparency. As Stephen Eskildsen writes (in The Age of Glass, 2018), when inside a glass wall you can feel “swaddled” in a sense of impregnability. This feeling is distinctly relayed in Gursky’s image, where Ive’s stance, a kiltered contrapposto achieved by leaning against the (invisible) glass wall, is actually confidently nonchalant and not at all precarious.
Photographers have long noted how glass walls can work pictorially. They principally provide an easy, leading-edge aura, as in the 1951 home that Lina Bo Bardi designed for herself and her husband in São Paulo, for example. Glass can also generate fields of visual complexity that will pump metaphorical energy wherever needed—witness a highly charged portrait of the contemporary architect Rem Koolhaas. But Gursky’s use of the glass in Foster’s building is by every measure a virtuoso performance. Through digital manipulation of the original photograph, he heightened its reflections and refractions, resulting in those intangible waves that softly nap the scene, as well as, perhaps, in Ive’s ghostly body-double. The overall, nonspecific digital iteration suggests an all-pervasive cloud, like the zeitgeist one exists within but cannot pin down, analogous to our current mental condition of information saturation and media distraction. Is not this the modern human condition within the new dimension of global cyberspace?
And what of Ive’s clothing? Designers are known for paying close attention to their personal style; the early moderns sometimes wore finely tailored suits from Knize of Vienna. Compared to them—or to Zaha Hadid, posing in her London office—Ive might seem out of step, but in fact he is utterly in character in T-shirt and jeans. The choice of white recalls early modernist architectural notions of white walls as tabulae rasae, the undecorated antistyle, but it also evokes the minimalist purity of Ive’s designs. The outfit additionally points to Silicon Valley’s origins in garage tinkering and to the jeans, T-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers worn there. Termed “dressing down” when relaxed clothing began to dilute office attire in the mid-1980s, this comfortable nonstyle expanded in the mid-1990s to include Hush Puppy shoes (first issued in 1958) as a cool retro item of midcentury comfort; Ive sports a pair in grassy green. Besides these and his immaculate version of the Silicon Valley uniform, the illustrious designer wears only his own Apple Watch, a small but prodigious bit of technology that took its cue from Dick Tracy’s wrist radio but is light-years smarter and able to connect its wearer with ever expanding worlds.
Ive and Gursky admire one another; their exquisite artistry and technological prowess are complements. Gursky positions Ive as a figure on the cutting edge of techno-contemporaneity, a man who inhabits, and as much as any single individual, has designed, the early-twenty-first-century version of reality, where the privileged will work via cyberspace in cool, transparent structures like this one, a flagship of the future, still lightly tethered to planet Earth.
With thanks for help from Sarah Ganz Blythe, David Frankel, Peter Galassi, Daniel Hewett, and Ijlal Muzaffar.