Balthazar Korab, architect and photographer, died January 15 in Royal Oak, Michigan, after a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.
Trained as an architect, Korab was deeply concerned with the relationship between humanity and the built environment. He helped pioneer photography as part of the design development process and created some of the most enduring photographs of modern architecture. Yet his work often went beyond his immediate subject matter, capturing a sense of place.
“I am an architect with a passion for nature’s lessons and man’s interventions,” he wrote on his website. “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.”
Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1926, Korab started studying architecture at Budapest Polytechnic but was forced to flee in 1949 to escape the rise of the Stalinist regime. He landed in Paris, finishing his architecture degree at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1955. While in Europe he worked under various architects, and had a stint as a draftsman for Le Corbusier.
A refugee mentality informed his sense of being, said his son Christian, himself an architectural photographer and filmmaker. Being forced to flee his homeland influenced the elder Korab’s creative journey throughout his entire life.
“My dad behaved as a beauty-seeking missile,” Christian Korab said. “He had this hunting mentality. He was always looking for order, even in the most disordered subject matter.”
His hunt would often compel him to run off at dawn, his wife Monica said, in order to catch the right light falling on the fountains at the Cranbrook Academy of Art campus, a frequent subject. Even when his father was seated at the dinner table, Christian Korab said, he would subject the salt and pepper shakers to his restless energy, rearranging them gracefully as he talked.
A compassionate connection to a sometimes ugly world, his son said, was a hallmark of his father’s work. Monica Balthazar recalled one photograph of a chandelier amid the ruins of a palace.
“He found absolute beauty and destruction together,” she said. “In a situation which was not appealing, he always saw hope.”
Korab came to the United States in 1954 and became Eero Saarinen’s staff photographer, while his firm was located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Saarinen’s star was rising, but much of his best work—and Korab’s—was ahead for the two men.
Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center opened in 1962, and Korab’s photographs of the structure captured the formal reality of the space with the tonal depth and affect of an Edward Weston still life, and the discipline of a designer’s mind. His famous 1965 TWA Interior shot is somewhat atypical—it implores the viewer to objectify the subject and appreciate its formal beauty. Often his work used architectural subject matter as a starting point for moody, even ethereal, journeys to the spirit of a place.
Simultaneously honing his design and photography skills, Korab won international recognition for his work on the Sydney Opera House. Frank Lloyd Wright invited him to join Taliesin—Wright’s school and retreat in southern Wisconsin—as an architect and photographer.
His 1960 Steel and Glass, ostensibly depicting Mies van der Rohe’s renowned 860 Lakeshore Apartments in Chicago, exemplified his sense of artistic discovery.
“That image has this peculiar affect that is very common to my dad’s work—it is looking at nothing, and at the same time looking at everything. It is very complete in its compositional and formal affect,” Christian Korab said. “That kind of duality asks you to look beyond the surface.”
Korab’s work lives on in many collections, including the Library of Congress. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton presented a portfolio of Korab’s photography to the president of Hungary as a gift.
Korab maintained a studio in a 19th century barn in Troy, Michigan. His son and wife are in the process of moving the home-studio and print archives to Minneapolis. After a life spent seeking beauty in fleeting moments, Korab found joy in sharing his experiences with other people, his son said.
“If you’re looking for beauty, you can look for it in the way it affects the people around you, who you share this experience with,” Christian Korab said. “I think he found beauty.”