Paradise Now: The unfamiliar perspective of Ryan Koopmans

Documentary photographer Ryan Koopmans was born in Amsterdam and raised in Vancouver. He continues to travel in pursuit of photographic work that focuses largely on architecture, urban planning, and the built environment of megacities. Koopmans’ perspective is recognisable; an oblique vantage point where the scale of the world’s megacities shifts between sheer enormity, and that of a rendered model. He shared further insight – as well as his fantastical series Paradise Now – with AHB.

Botanicals, Sentosa Island, Singapore At nightfall, large fantastical ceramic flowers illuminate the jungle slopes of Singapore’s man-made resort island, Sentosa, which draws five million visitors a year.
When did you start photographing? When I was applying to study a Masters of Architecture, a component of my portfolio involved making pictures. After a few months of shooting, my trajectory changed and I fell in love with photography. Instead I applied to an MFA in Photography Video + Related Media at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, from where I graduated in 2012. The immediacy of the photographic medium, immersion into the present moment, freedom to travel, and being self-employed, is what attracted me to both the art and profession.

I traveled before I was a photographer, but didn’t make pictures. Now a camera is always with me.

Range, Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia Arctic morning light on a snow-capped Siberian mountain range bordering the Chukchi and Bering Seas.
How does travel / adventure impact your art and your perspective? Has travel always been a big part of your life? Travel is an integral part of my practice, and I spend the majority of the year on the road. However, I have a studio in Amsterdam where I edit, research, and recharge before going back out for assignments or personal work. I traveled before I was a photographer, but didn’t make pictures. Now a camera is always with me. Adventure is what motivates me to get into unfamiliar situations and environments, exert a lot of energy and resources, and return with a developed sense of discovery, knowledge and hopefully strong images.
Interchange, Shanghai, China Photographed through the spherical glass floor of the Oriental Pearl Tower, an enormous roundabout functions as ornament and traffic control in the financial heart of Shanghai.
If your work has a central or common theme, what is it? It has developed from what I am most interested in. I am drawn to surreal structures in our manufactured landscapes, and the way societies have built up enormous cities and settlements in what was once a natural environment. Formal aesthetic qualities such as geometry, repetition and saturation aid me in illustrating the poetry of form in these fantastical places. A range of art and artists inspire me. From the geometric patterns of a mosque ceiling, to ‘wildstyle’ graffiti with its intricate patterns and colour, to the surreal complexity of drawings by M.C Escher, I’m influenced/referencing fine art more and more in my work.
Somewhere just above the height of a building but below the elevation of a helicopter is the sweet spot.
Ophelia, The Hague, Netherlands A deer lays frozen in the irrigation dyke of a golf course near a newly developed neighborhood in The Hague.
Water Green Boulevard, Astana, Kazakhstan A neoclassical grand boulevard runs through Astana’s central business district. The decorative geometric patterns derive from traditional Kazakh motifs.
Why do you seek that vantage point – and can you describe the kind of angle or height you seek? Ideally I like to shoot from a perspective that isn’t familiar or overly visualized. Somewhere just above the height of a building but below the elevation of a helicopter is the sweet spot. I try to create an uncanny sense of suspension by cutting out the horizon line, and flattening/compressing the frame.
Supertrees, Marina South Gardens, Singapore Gargantuan synthetic tree-like structures line Singapore’s manmade marina and serve as vertical gardens of exotic plant life. Connected by elevated walkways, the 25 to 40 metre-high Supertrees are fitted with environmental technologies that mimic the ecological functions of real trees, including solar cells that harness energy from sunlight and irrigation systems for collecting rainwater.
Happy Valley, Shenzhen, China Pedestrians stroll through the gates of ‘Shangri-la Woods’ in Shenzhen Happy Valley theme park, which is notorious for accidents both on and around its 213-acres of attractions.
What are you favourite cities, in terms of photographing them and otherwise? There is a difference between where I like to shoot, and where I actually go to enjoy myself. However, 99% of the time I am only somewhere to produce pictures. That being said, Astana in Kazakhstan, large cities in central China, and the entire former Soviet Union have been some of my favourite places to work.
Thames Town, Songjiang, China A scale model of Songjiang New City sprawls across the floor of the Urban Planning Museum in Thames Town, Songjiang.  Modelled after traditional British market villages, Thames Town is part of Shanghai’s ‘One City, Nine Towns’ urban planning initiative to alleviate inner city congestion.
Especially when viewing Supertrees, I get the idea that Paradise Now is a comment on a futuristic or dystopic garden of Eden. Is this far off the mark?  Paradise Now began as somewhat of a naïve curiosity in the world’s mega and planned cities. What my final comment or position on the matter is, I am still exploring, as it’s a complex one. Singapore’s ‘Supertrees’ are particularly paradoxical in that the natural forest was removed, but the gargantuan structures introduced, actually function similar to trees. Solar panels produce energy like leaves, rainwater is controlled through the structural irrigation, and native foliage has been encouraged to grow back organically. Therefore ‘Supertrees’ is not just an ecologically destructive intervention, but functions as an artificially improved appropriation of what existed before. Singapore is a planned city where greenery and sustainability have been at the core of its development. This is unlike most other places where rapid building and high-rise sprawl have been largely destructive and ignorant to what existed there indigenously. It all may appear futuristic, but is in fact very contemporary. If anything, it is slightly dated as much of that work was produced up to 4 years ago now.

A common reaction to these photographs is ‘wow, that’s crazy, where is that?’, but in a virtually connected world, discovering places that no one has seen has become increasingly challenging.

Spread, Jiangsu, China Standardized villas packed side-by-side form the two thousand-member socialist collective of Huaxi Village in rural Eastern China.
Further to that – the openness of visual communication is interesting for both artist and audience. Do you want to communicate a specific commentary of the situations you photograph? My driving force is to discover places and creations that I personally find intriguing. As for what I’m trying to communicate to an audience, it is a more focused critical perspective, something that I will develop over time. A common reaction to these photographs is ‘wow, that’s crazy, where is that?’, but in a virtually connected world, discovering places that no one has seen has become increasingly challenging. I am still in the stages of researching and observing all that is unfolding, some of which is obviously negative but some very necessary, as populations grow and natural resources dwindle. I was in Seoul when the Dongdaemun Design Plaza was unveiled, a big mean jellybean in the middle of the largest shopping district. Seoul’s massive development in the late 1900s seemed to greatly affect the style of architecture. What do building like these symbolize? I struggle actually calling them just buildings – they’re more like hubs or precincts. In my opinion, many designs like the one you’ve mentioned, function as cultural markers of economic success and/or symbols of national identity. Additionally, they are exercises in computer-generated technologies, trying to push the boundaries of engineering, physics, and construction. Although highly functional as ‘buildings’ serving a utilitarian purpose, their intention and that of those who commission them, involves a myriad of meanings and objectives.
What am I looking at here? This is a detail of a disk-toss game at Joyland in Changzhou, China. Joyland is a computer themed park that merges digital entertainment in a built environment with the real world. It is abstractly based on storylines and images from the videogames World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo, all in violation of American copyright law. I sometimes shoot details of graphics/renderings in addition to the actual buildings and urban plans themselves, then mix the images when sequencing, as was the case in Paradise Now.

Princess Amalia, North Sea, Netherlands

Wind turbines from Princess Amalia Wind Farm off the Dutch coast in the North Sea seen from above.

What are you working on now? How does it draw from Paradise Now? I continue to create work in the same vein as Paradise Now, focusing on similar concepts of surreal constructions and rapid environmental transformation. Additionally, over the last several years I have covered several global events and keep busy with editorial/commercial assignments.  Ultimately though, the focus is to build on the themes introduced in Paradise Now. I plan to release a second version in 2016, as well as introduce sculptures along side large-scale prints when exhibiting.

Images by Ryan Koopmans | Interview by Emilia for AHB