Matthias Dengler’s Mom Inspires Him to Shoot Switzerland’s Goetheanum

Sep 4, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

Mothers are pretty much always right, aren’t they? When they make a suggestion, it’s probably a good one. A decade back, Matthias Dengler’s mother suggested he shoot the Goetheanum, an architectural masterpiece in northern Switzerland, and off went the budding photographer. Now, as a professional with about ten years of experience, Matthias recently visited his parents. And wouldn’t you know it, his mother's suggestion was still fresh in his mind.

My mother works in a nearby hospital, and she originally pitched the shoot. Since I recently paid my parents a visit, I finally took the chance to take the best photos I could with more polished techniques and more knowledge than [I had] 10 years ago.

Goetheanum

In order to do so, I asked for the media representative’s permission to shoot these pictures and to use them for my purposes, which he granted without much hesitation.

The biggest hurdle for Matthias, then, came in the form of what to shoot first. The Goetheanum houses two performance halls, a library, a bookstore, and a plethora of educational facilities. Interestingly, the part of the structure that first caught Matthias’ eye was the main staircase.

Everything is so visually pleasing! My favorite part of the building is the main staircase hall, though. It is almost entirely naturally lit by light flooding in from the giant glass façade. Due to the lack of artificial light source, the entire staircase is rather dark and mysterious.

Matthias' favorite shot

It makes you feel like you’re in a temple. The geek in me would even say that it felt like standing in a Star Wars Jedi temple. I was just waiting for Yoda to walk by! Seriously though, the rounded elements combined with all the slant lines and beams were so interesting to look at, and the statues harmonically added scale to the giant interior of this hall.

Red and wavy

The Goetheanum is best known for being the world center for the anthroposophical movement, a school of thought established by the early 20th-century Austrian intellectual Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophy is a type of spiritualism striving for the knowledge and the flourishing of the inner life of the human person as a member of the dynamic spiritual and cultural world. Steiner, although principally known for his esotericism, educational theories, and efforts at social reform, designed the first version of the building in 1908.

Matthias describes Steiner's architecture as “characterized by a liberation from traditional architectural constraints, especially through the departure from the right angle as a basis for the building plan.” This unorthodoxy is palpable in the German’s images.

Yellow stairs

For Steiner, it was completely the right call to avoid 90° angles in his building as much as he could. Nature never shows itself in rectangular shapes. Stones are round, trees grow differently, and animals don’t have edges. Of course, it’s easier to place furniture when buildings are standardized in rectangular shapes, but everything in this building seems to be custom-made.

The red really pops in this one

Most of the doors and windows are not rectangular. So, if one breaks, it has to be custom-made all over again. This lack of standardization is the main beauty of this building. It’s basically breaking out of the human order scheme by breaking all ‘rules’ and harmonizing with nature.

The original Goetheanum, which was made entirely of wood, burned down on New Year’s Eve, 1922. The second and current Goetheanum was constructed between 1924–1928 and is made entirely out of concrete. Not only does this material make the building fireproof, but its versatility also allows for a variety of shots.  

By redirecting the light, you can change entirely one's perception of space. We can compare concrete to a blank grey canvas in a studio; the closer you move the light to the background, the whiter it is perceived and photographed. The further you move the light away, the darker it gets. Hence, concrete can be perceived and shaped individually over the course of the day when lit naturally.

Purple and tan shot

Imagine sitting in this staircase entrance hall, which is almost entirely grey, and watching the sun’s light flooding in over the course of the day. The lower the sun gets, the more shades and shapes it will create, which get displayed as shadows on the grey concrete canvas. Concrete is never the same. It always changes and is a perfect blank display for nature’s beauty.

One of the challenges of capturing this kind of architecture is to edit each image in post-production carefully, ensuring the viewer properly sees what it feels like to be in the actual building. By taking multiple photos at the same angle and tailoring the exposure, Matthias was able to capture each part of the structure under the best lighting conditions. By stitching these pieces into one seamless composite, the German does justice to the Goetheanum.

I exposure-bracketed each shot to have the creative freedom and full control over the entire dynamic range. I merged the exposures, partially manually and partially automatically, and straightened all vertical and horizontal lines. I also removed light halos and color casts and masked out the colors to clean them from those casts.

Blue shot

Matthias has honed his post-production abilities over the last few years as a result of becoming a retoucher. He credits this newfound attention to detail to his expanded skillset. 

I first became a retoucher in 2016. Getting to know Photoshop and working in-depth every day for numerous well-known clients taught me to be pixel-precise and to adapt to clients’ needs. Before I became a retoucher, I over-processed my pictures. I basically did not know how to elevate my good compositions to a professional level. Retouching taught me to [study each pixel] while working on professional imagery. It gave me the control to turn my vision for a shot into reality. Without retouching, I would not have become a professional photographer.

Retouching aside, Matthias' photography career might look a little different had his mother not initially suggested shooting the Goetheanum a decade ago. Life has a way of bringing things full-circle, and this is certainly the case for Matthias and his new shots of a now-familiar place.

As cliché as it might sound, I want to thank and credit my mother, as she was the person who showed me this place 10 years ago. Without her, I would not have gotten to know it. She took me there, tried to help me get permission to shoot, and even drove me back to the building just so that I could capture the outside shot in the overcast lighting situation. Thanks, mum!

Check out more of Matthias' work at snapshopped.com.

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