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Circumstantial Evidence of Balthazar Korab’s ‘la dolce vita’

With its sensuous curves, arcs, and swoops, mid-century modern architecture can have a dizzying effect (martini not required)—and never more so than when captured in the iconic images of architectural photographer Balthazar Korab. So it’s no surprise that, in the 1960s, when presented with an opportunity to climb atop and photograph from the private rooftops […]

TWA Terminal, New York International (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport, New York, c. 1962. Photo: Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

With its sensuous curves, arcs, and swoops, mid-century modern architecture can have a dizzying effect (martini not required)—and never more so than when captured in the iconic images of architectural photographer Balthazar Korab. So it’s no surprise that, in the 1960s, when presented with an opportunity to climb atop and photograph from the private rooftops of Rome, Korab did so. The result was 3,200 photos, some of which made it into a portfolio titled “The Rooftops of Rome.” In turn, images from that portfolio are included in the exhibition, Circumstantial Evidence—Italy Through the Lens of Balthazar Korab, on view in the HGA Gallery in the University of Minnesota’s Rapson Hall.

From “The Rooftops of Rome” series published in 1970 by Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Texture, line, and shape abound in these black-and-white photographs, which to a 21st-century eye are imbued with a nostalgic desire for “la dolce vita.” Korab shot the images while living with his family in Florence; he’d just won the AIA Gold Medal for Excellence in Photography in 1964, and after living in the US for nine years (and operating a photography studio for five), he was ready for some time abroad. Looking at Korab’s pictures, a viewer can imagine a young Sophia Loren or Marcello Mastroianni cavorting just out of view, between takes of the latest film by Fellini, Visconti or de Sica.

Eero Saarinen-designed architecture, photograph by Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

The sweet life, indeed: Made sweeter by the fresh energy and new kinetic modernism coursing through post-war Europe. Korab no doubt felt that burgeoning sense of promise acutely. As John Comazzi writes in his new book, Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography, the Hungarian-born photographer fled Budapest while an architecture student, and he was familiar with war-torn cityscapes. Korab went on to study architecture at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before immigrating to the US where he became Eero Saarinen’s staff photographer.

Comazzi, a faculty member in the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, offers a mesmerizing look into Korab’s oeuvre—particularly his mid-century modern work. Comazzi’s book is the first such retrospective on Korab’s life and career, and it includes more than 100 images, as well as fascinating case studies on two of the photographer’s most notable subjects: the TWA Flight Center and the Miller House.

Korab once said, “I am an architect with a passion for nature’s lessons and man’s interventions. My images are born out of a deep emotional investment in their subject. Their content is never sacrificed for mere visual effects, nor is a polemic activism intended to prevail over an aesthetic balance.” Korab’s well-conceived balance of spirit and intellect, reverence and curiosity, nature and the built environment is clear in every one of his images, to which Comazzi’s book and the architecture school’s exhibition both bring fresh attention.

Related links and exhibition details:

Circumstantial Evidence—Italy Through the Lens of Balthazar Korabis on view in the HGA Gallery in Rapson Hall at the University of Minnesota for one more week, through Saturday, December 15.

University of Minnesota School of Architecture professor John Comazzi’s book, Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography, was recently published by Princeton Architectural Press and is available in bookstores everywhere.

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Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities architecture writer and the author of Charles R. Stinson Architects: Compositions in Nature.

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