David Heald has one of the most unusual—and enviable—jobs in his field. As Director of Photographic Services and Chief Photographer for the Guggenheim, he heads a team that is responsible for documenting the museum’s collection and exhibitions, along with artworks in the process of being restored. Among his favorite duties, though, is creating images of the Guggenheim’s buildings in New York, Bilbao, and Venice. During 30-plus years working for the institution, his architectural photographs have helped define the Guggenheim’s identity, appearing everywhere from this website to the museum’s holiday cards to book covers.
Heald has developed an unparalleled relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, and has witnessed changes to the Fifth Avenue streetscape—as well as shifts in the aesthetics of his art. “Over the years, we’ve gone from the more purist type of architectural photography to one that’s more inclusive of the environment where you’re actually sitting,” he explains. “Before, you didn’t accept a lot of the visual noise. Now, there’s more context.”
Recently, David showed me a few of his favorite images of the three museum buildings, and shared memories from a multitude of shoots (see below). He noted that, while he enjoys photographing the collection, especially sculpture by artists such as Brancusi, Giacometti, and Donald Judd, “The most extraordinary thing about being the photographer for the Guggenheim is the privilege of photographing that,” he noted, pointing at yet another superb picture of the New York museum, “and Bilbao, and the palazzo in Venice. If you have to have a paid job, it ought to be something like that, shouldn’t it?” No argument here.
1. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1992
“That shot was actually a great discovery. This is looking up through the bottom of a planter—it’s an original Frank Lloyd Wright planter with ivy in it. I took this in 1992, after the museum had been closed for two years. It had been painted on the outside . . . and the Sackler Center for Education had been created under the sidewalk, and the Gwathmey Siegel tower had been completed. So I was creating views that were new. For some reason, one day, I wandered down into the well: if you walk down by the Wright Restaurant entrance, there’s a ramp that goes down into the lower level of the Guggenheim under the rotunda—it’s public—where there are doors that enter the Peter B. Lewis Theater. I was down there one day, and . . . the light was gorgeous, a crystal-clear day. I looked up through the planter, and framed it, and I thought, “That is an exceptional view of the Guggenheim!”
2. Interior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2010
“After the Tino Sehgal exhibition in 2010, I went up and shot some views on the top ramp that I had been wanting to do for many years. This photograph is part of a whole series that is just about the space, the light, and the architecture.”
3. Aerial view of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1993
“This was the only time I ever photographed the building from the air. It was suggested at the time that it would be nice to do a shot that included the fall colors in Central Park. So we hired a helicopter and went over the reservoir to shoot.
“I had never been in a helicopter in my life. The pilot took the door off the helicopter. I was strapped in, sitting sidesaddle in the front seat, and leaning out the door. There was cause for concern.”
4. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, c. 1999
“This was totally fortuitous: I was exploring the building one day with the camera. That’s the way it is—you have to put yourself out there. If you put yourself out there, you’ll find something. I’d never really achieved a good view of the building from the side. I knew it was compelling, but there were always cars there, and I could never find the right angle. I framed it up, and suddenly that cloud came in. It’s total Guggenheim essence. Almost graphic.”
5. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Polaroid, 1997
“Recently, while working on a reprint of a Guggenheim publication about the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, we discovered in our files the black-and-white Polaroids that I used when I shot the new Frank Gehry building. In the pre-digital era, I used them as a tool to compose and for zeroing in the exposure when I was shooting color film. The Polaroids had degraded in our files, and the images were damaged—in a number of cases, I thought, in very beautiful ways. They were these beautiful little black-and-white gems, iconic views of the Bilbao museum.
“This one, for example, I think is a really fine photograph, if you don’t mind my saying so—the bridge bisects the building, and look at this tree, it almost echoes this fabulous piece of the Gehry building, though I wasn’t doing that consciously. In black-and-white, for some reason, it’s more compelling than in color.”
6. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Polaroid, 1997
“One of my favorite principles of photography is ‘there’s nothing like good subject matter.’ And this is good subject matter. Just sexy. . . I first shot this view when it was still under construction . . . but I recognized that this was going to be a classic view.”
7. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997
“Bilbao is a rainy city. I’m fine with photographing on cloudy days and even in the rain, but once in a while you’d get a gorgeous day with beautiful cloud formations, and that’s what we all live for. Does it get any better than this?”
8. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997
“This was another one of those ‘aha’ moments, when I saw this form. You know Gehry was always talking about ‘the fish’ when he discussed his inspiration for the building, and I thought, ‘There it is!’”
9. Garden of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1995
“The garden is extraordinary. I lived in India when I was in high school, and my mother was passionately interested in art . . . On the way back [to the U.S.], we went through Europe for two months, my parents, my two siblings and I. We spent time in Venice and visited [what is now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection]. Before it was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection it was her home. More than anything, I remember the garden from that trip. Odd that I had been in this place and was sent there later [to photograph it].”
10. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1993
“We had to go up into an upper-floor balcony of the prefettura of the government of Venice to get this shot. That is part of the life of an architectural photographer—getting up high, getting views, and getting permissions and access to the best vantage points.”