Photo Essay

One Wall Away: On Hidden Spaces

December 7, 2015

Text and photographs by Jan Theun van Rees.


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Chicago Theatre at 175 North State Street, The center of the auditorium ceiling is heightened and contains openings for special spotlights. A small corridor, lit by a red colored light, runs along the openings with green light from the auditorium projecting the openings onto the corridor wall. © Jan Theun van Rees.

The concept of exploring hidden spaces emerged simultaneous with my initiation as a photographer. To execute some elementary experiments on space and light, I set up a camera in the crawl-space underneath my studio. While the lens of the camera was opened, I painted light onto the space by waving a flashlight through the open space.

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Crawl space underneath the studio, lit by flashlights. © Jan Theun van Rees.

When I showed the first results to some visitors in the studio, they asked me where the photographs were taken. The images reminded them of ancient archeological sites they had seen in Turkey. I explained that the space in the photographs was located directly underneath the floor and that they were literarily standing on top of the photographed space. A sudden gaze of confusion but wonderment appeared on their faces: how could a space that looked so strange and exotic actually be directly connected to the space we were in? I realized that their response to the photographs showed the way I had to go.

When a person is viewing a photograph of a hidden space of a familiar building, the viewer’s mind will automatically add this image to all the collected impressions and knowledge of that site. The interaction between the photograph and the viewer’s perception of the building becomes most immediate and effective when the image of the hidden space is presented inside the building where the photograph is taken. This makes the photograph “site-specific.”

Many photographs are still considered to (re)present the truth; documents that show “how it is” and “what is there.” This observation in particular plays an important role for the photographs of the hidden spaces. If the viewer cannot trust his eyes—that which he sees is real—the photograph inevitably loses all meaning. An utmost neutral and descriptive photograph of a hidden space will bear no visual interest; moreover, it will destroy every mystery. With my photographs I earnestly aim to show what is actually there, without adding or altering any elements of a given space. Simultaneously, I try to suggest and prove that the building is much larger than it seems, and a complete world is waiting behind the walls to be explored. The “proof” lies in the credibility of the photograph itself.

The main tool that I use to reach my goal is the distribution of light. Even when no additional light is added, one can make use of the specific color atmospheres of the different light sources. To put it simply: fluorescent lights turn green, halogen lights turn yellow, regular light bulbs emanate redder light, and daylight is blue. In essence, these colors cover the total spectrum of light, and in most instances a multitude of sources can be available. Even when the scene is without colors, the mixture of different light sources creates a distribution of color on the photograph, which helps to highlight particular spatial aspects.

The hidden spaces I explored in Chicago are located in many different buildings, but in my perception they are all connected as parts of the same structure, which is the city of Chicago. Since then I have explored many spatial themes where the separation or interaction of spaces carry a motif. When the transition between private space and the public domain is explored, I am dealing with two tangible spaces, namely inner and outer spaces. Photographs of prison cells in detention centers are related to the freedom of the mind, which is visible in drawings on the cell walls.

Last fall I visited the densely populated metropolis of Tokyo. Within the city, every square inch has its purpose, and everything is consciously placed in the available space. Thus, all spaces are related to each other: the cup on the tray, the tray on the table, the table in the room, the room in the house, the house in the street, etc. This implies that ultimately all the spaces in the world are connected in a strange way. My task is to explore and visualize this ever-expanding myriad of interconnected spatial structures.

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Metropolitan Tower at 310 South Michigan Avenue, view inside the beehive on top of the building with the blue glass box. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Medinah Temple at 600 N. Wabash Avenue, view underneath an onion-dome. I’ve often been told, “there is nothing there to see.” “Nothing” is always interesting to photograph. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Bridge over Chicago River at West Adam Street, view inside the space underneath the bridge for the counterweight to move into, when the bridge is opened. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Fountain of Time at 5531 South Doctor Martin Luther King Junior Drive, view inside this enormous sculpture, created by Lorado Taft (1860–1936). © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Saint James Cathedral at 65 East Huron Street, view into the bell tower. Built in 1834, the Belltower was the only part of the church that survived the Great Fire in 1871. Burning marks on the outside are still visible. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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John Hancock Centre at 875 North Michigan Avenue, view of the air-cooling system on the top floor. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Chicago Temple Building at 77 W. Washington Street, view into the hollow peak in neogothical style to mark the building as a church and not just an office building. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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S. R. Crown Hall at 3360 S State St, Chicago. In modern architecture, “hidden spaces” are considered as flaws in the design. The space in between the huge girders on the roof can be considered as a hidden space. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Cloud Gate Sculpture at Millennium Park, view inside the sculpture gives an impression that contradicts the immaterial shining surface. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Holy Family Catholic Church at 1080 W Roosevelt Rd. The space between the interior and the exterior shows that it is a wooden barn enveloped by a brick structure. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Harold Washington Library at 400 S. State Street, view behind the giant owl sculpture on the top of the façade. © Jan Theun van Rees.

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Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. The interior of the glass video towers are lit by constantly changing LED colors. © Jan Theun van Rees.