»INTERVIEW MIT CITYLAB«
Englische Version ab August 2012 auf »Citylab«
Photography often deals with the look of things and remains superficial. Ruediger Beckmann focuses a little deeper. Over years he accompanies girls and women on a photographic basis and observes their development. These photos usually don’t stay on the decorative surface, they are close, personal and honest, you get a glimpse of the being and the soul of every person.
That’s why »Beyond Vanity« is no little coffee-table book, it’s a very autobiographical wrap-up of the past 12 years which explains its own concept over the sheer mass of pictures. 268 pages give a concise understanding of the concept to explore everyone’s very own personal beauty.
Ruediger Beckmann, your photography has always been a great inspiration for me; I hadn’t been long in photography when I first noticed your portfolio in an online photo sharing site, but it was one of those moments where you know you have reached a turning point. Sensual photography never looked better. Let’s start our conversation in a subjective manner – I mean, allow me to ‘break the ice’ using the photo that has been one of my all time favorite of yours ever since I saw it. We have the portrait of a woman, one breast showing while she clutches a red dress against her chest. The red wall behind her is cracked, her face expression is unforgettable – a mixture of sensitivity, loneliness and despite the defensive pose, her eyes express amazing self-confidence and dignity. A lot to see in ONE photo, and yet, this is how your photos are – emotional stories begging for a second look. Please tell me who are your models, and how important is it for you communicating with them before a photo session.
Let me first clarify what we are looking for: Are my pictures mainly about appearance or are they about content? I know a lot of photographers simply deal with aesthetics in their pictures. I don’t mind that, but over the years I got the feeling that my subject must be somehow different. People told me that they have often seen something else appear in the pictures. Of course, you can never completely discard the aesthetic layer because you simply need something to look at, but getting to the layer underneath is the most important task for me.
I found out that the less I dealt with appearances, with looks and aesthetics, the more room we had for the underneath layer to appear. The role of composition and visualization is altered completely. Your selection of favourite pictures changes altogether. I called this quest »Beyond Vanity«. In the interest of pursuing this layer I often chose to portray people who are looking for something else than just superficial beauty. Like the writer in the picture above.
Communication is vital for mutual understanding. I don’t plan out every picture I take, the best ones just sort of happen in the flow, so in order to be comfortable with each other you have to talk about your premonitions, about your fears and thoughts so you can trust each other to deal with the outcome respectfully. This understanding helps to find the pictures we both want to achieve together. This being said, I have to admit that she never thought the picture above was very special. Who knows, maybe in time this will change.
Your book, “Beyond Vanity” is proudly present on my bookshelf; when I asked you to agree on being featured here, on Citylab, I promised you I’d try to keep the questions less cliché – and I am trying to do so after going through it again. I am looking at the introductory pages by Herbert Hindringer: Ruediger Beckmann, buys wine, drinks beer, is allergic to cats; tell us a bit about your non-photographic life; how does your day look like, how do you relate to the world in the absence of your camera and outside your lab.
What life outside photography? No, just kidding. Looking back it seems almost impossible how much time i spent on the process. When I was forced to stop taking pictures after having finished the book in 2010 I took a deep breath and really started to grasp what I had achieved.
Two years later I have now actually developed almost all the remaining exposures (about 250 films left right now) and I am finally cherishing the work by doing cyanotypes, exhibitions and publications. So my life is still pretty filled with my love for these pictures. Apart from that I am a graphic designer by day and a film buff by night except when I meet with the lads for a night of table-football.
You call yourself an amateur photographer; of course this is not true, after all these years (how many years again?...12?) Have you ever been tempted to accept doing commercial work, and what is, if any, the most unpleasant compromise you have made? Can your sophisticated photography match the requirements of mainstream glossy magazines?
It’s a common misconception to think of an »amateur« just as »not being professional enough to make a living from photos«. This is inappropriate. It just means I’m mainly in it for the love and not the money. If I were a pro, I would be forced to adhere to a business plan which would tell me that I’m doing it all wrong. As I’ve put a lot more money into this than I’ve earned. From a business point of view I would either have to change my photo style or have to sell my pictures in a different domain. Both actions will in the long run change my photos altogether, so you can understand my reluctance to change this status.
If you go into professional photography it becomes an entirely different job. You have clients to answer to, a bunch of co-workers to coordinate, briefings and marketing meetings to attend, where you see a few good ideas actually being realized and plenty of others going to waste.
A lot of people don’t get that. They start out as brilliant personal photographers and end up doing wedding or baby or fashion photography as a means to make money and they feel their initial passion slowly sliding through their fingers because not only the subject matter changes, but the whole reason for taking photographs changes over time.
So for me, the answer to your last question is simple: If I intended to be a fashion photographer who makes his way into glossy (or even hipper: non-glossy) magazines, I could achieve that. But the reason for a fashion shoot is unarguably to sell clothes. And I am not at all interested in a bunch of clothes. I don’t care what people wear and I couldn’t care less about their make-up, either. I am only interested in seeing the people.
Now someone out there stated that modern fashion and documentary editorials actually bear aesthetics of my pictures. That my be true, but keep in mind that what I achieve may not be transferable to a professional daily basis as it’s not about the aesthetics, it’s about the relationship. My work is process-oriented and not goal-oriented. This means that I am not simply looking for the killer shot, I am looking for the development.
There will be sessions that maybe show no suitable pictures at all. Other sessions may show lots of good pictures, but they differ from the task at hand. You need very patient clients for this approach, and it must be quite frustrating to argue about this on a daily basis seeing as they only wanted any bunch of pictures they could use.
That’s why I have decided to stay an amateur for the sake of these slow personal portraits. I think that’s how it works best.
Nude photography and vanilla ice-cream – I remember this yummy association you made in your book – tell us please how does your aesthetic/visual philosophy connect with the mundane in your photography. You mention in the book that you avoid working with ‘professional’ models, because they ‘already have an extensive portfolio’. Is working with less experienced girls/women an easier task, or more of a challenge, a leap into the unknown?
There are a few facets to this question that are very important to me.
There’s a vital difference between model photography and personal photography. It’s a completely different thing altogether. A model is chosen for her looks and skills, she has been educated to play certain roles. She may be a pro and very convincing at that, but it’s a role nonetheless and she follows a task that can either succeed or fail based on the target defined in advance. This is not what I am out to find.
I am very attracted to a change in perspective, a development of the mind by questioning the misconceptions of your self-awareness, and you are not likely looking for this when your job consists of constantly validating and supporting your self-image.
People are not at all used to letting all that bullshit go once in a while. Even when they flip through my book their brain is still comparing: »Oh, she is so thin, what a lovely face, she is so beautiful (and I am probably not).«
This whole comparison thing is a curse. In photo world there’s always someone taller, thinner, younger, better-looking, sexually more aggressive and therefore more successful. So you constantly put yourself down and open a great Achilles’ heel for people to pick on – including yourself. In a session I have to overcome these doubts, that’s why I make the experience as unique as possible from the start.
I partly achieve that by choosing people who are not generally known for their presence in pictures and who are not associated with other photographers and the model business.
People are currently educated by their sharing platforms. Today you start out as a photographer with 16 and you already have a website, a blog and portfolios in all the hip networks, before you even have the slightest idea about your own artistic voice or what you may have to say.
Just imagine, I had to endure 9 years of professional tutoring and several years of daily photography before I even dared sharing my first photo online. That seems quite unthinkable now, but in retrospect I’m really glad it happened to me that way because I had a general idea about my photos before I hit the internet (and it hit me).
Nowadays, the web is your first teacher. So you eagerly show the world all your homework and expect to be graded and feedbacked by all the other pupils stumbling about out there.
So when I share a cyanotype I usually get the following feedback: »Great technique, I have to try this myself one day.« But do you really have to? Or are you just afraid you might miss something because your daily photo blog told you so?
The milk dress, the high-speed shot, the body paint, the beauty retouch, the paint bomb, the wheat field with backlight bokeh – how many youtube tutorials do you need to find a passion of your own? We get sucked into this DIY idea that lets us take part in everything and be part of nothing. And we end up putting out loads of mindless garbage.
Most sharing has become so highly derivative and it’s more and more important to shield your passion from all that digital noise.
This being said, here we get to the crucial part of sharing when it comes to models.
When I started out in the pre-internet days there were roughly three types of women you could take photos of. 1. Girls you were involved with personally. 2. Girls who were professional models. 3. Girls who were through some kind of hobby interested in photos (i. e. belonging to a subscene like goths, cosplay, kinky tattoo, fetish, some extroverted sex stuff like bdsm or simply hedonists). All the others didn’t consider themselves to be photo material, at all. They were simply not interested.
With the rise of the all-embracing participation communities like myspace and facebook everyone has become subjected to photos because they need to appear interesting and desirable in their timeline. So now every girl is a »model« and therefore – big surprise – every guy is suddenly a photographer.
And as they are tought sharing is the most important thing people I portrayed are frequently approached by other photographers. Well, that’s generation Facebook.
I resent the idea that every girl on a photo is automatically regarded as being available as a model and part of the public domain. I find this idea rather indecent.
It’s funny, but for me it works entirely the other way around. The more pictures of a girl I see the more my interest in her fades because her uniqueness, her specialties and all that I may find has already been captured by others. So why should I get in line?
If everyone shares everything with everyone we will not be enriched, at all. We will be Borg.
I believe in the unique power of muses. There is a strong connection in a musical relationship which is quite rare. In my 12 years I have had the pleasure of experiencing it very few times and it’s almost all that’s worth looking for.
At my book release I met a girl who immediately stirred me. We tried a few sessions and will hopefully take a lot more wonderful pictures together.
This would be a totally different experience if she were a »model« of some sort. And she was the only new person I committed to in all of 2011. There’s a natural constraint that plays a big part in the protection of a musical relationship. I guess you’ll understand it when it happens to you.
So that’s why I rarely work with either professional or amateur models. I’m not interested in who-shot-who. I want to take pictures of people who are interested in finding out about themselves, slowly becoming aware of their specialness and the rarity of this enterprise.
One of my favourite fashion photographers has always been Helmut Newton; I am not going to ask you about your models, or influences directly, but I would still like to know your opinion regarding modern sensual, nude photography – is there an undergoing trend for the 2000s as opposed to the 80s or 90s, or even earlier photography? Where does your work stand in the greater stream of present day nude photography ?
To be honest, I have no idea what the undergoing trend is.
I see a lot of overly romanticized photography which I attribute to a tiredness of the latest high-tech development. Then I see a lot of mixage, styles that are taken from one mindset and transferred into a new context. There is some pretty intelligent stuff going on there.
But in order to judge the context first of all we have to decide what my pictures are meant to be.
When you look at pictures they could usually be a number of things: A young girl wearing a skimpy dress could be an erotic picture, a documentary or a personal portrait. pictures may look like romantic renderings, like party pics or like porn – but all these looks are also used in fashion and advertizing.
The basis of a picture is not determined by its aesthetics. Looks may be totally deceiving. It’s usually pretty simple to analyze if you answer the question: Why were these pics made? What purpose do they serve? When regarding a personal portrait it changes its flavour if used for a campaign in advertizing. A nude erotic portrait changes its essence totally if it’s sold on a paysite. A lot of people are not really aware of that because our world of today is so totally mixed and they don’t give it much further thought.
For me it’s vital that my pictures do not have any other purpose, but to be personal portraits. I show them in books, magazines and exhibitions, you may even be able to acquire a print, but they will never attempt to sell anything or be sold as anything but this personal portrait.
This sets me apart from loads of other photographers out there. On the one hand this explains why I’m broke, on the other this explains why I’m free.
When asked »what is art to you« i once replied: »In the absence of kitsch, art can prevail«.
Personally I still shy away from the label »art« because I’ve seen far too many people abuse it. The fate of art has been to go unrecognized in its time. That’s obviously what I am aiming for =)
You photographs almost entirely use film cameras. Please share with us your gear, cameras, films, processes. I would of course like to know more about your cyanotypes and how does ‘mistake’ turn into art in your images?
My gear list is simple: There were Kowa Six MM, Mamiya 645, Pentax 645, Kiew 88, Pentacon Six, Kiew Six, Mamiya rb67, Hasseblad and the whole toy bunch like Lubitel, Diana F, Pouva, Holga, Action Sampler, Beirette, then Minolta x300 and Exa1b for the fillers.
As I almost always use the same locations (my kitchen, my shower, my attic) I don’t have to worry too much about lighting. It works out best if I use the widest aperture and times of 1/15th to 1/60th. The cameras are old, they frequently break down. The first feature to die is the picture counter. That’s why I frequently have to check if there’s film left. This accounts for the huge amount of light leaks.
I develop all films myself and as I am quite chaotic a lot of strange stuff happens inbetween. I embrace those mistakes although I definitely don’t force them. That would be tacky, I find. In the past 14 years I have always quite liked it when something went »wrong«: When my camera fell into the river and the water predeveloped parts of the film or when the development machine tore a film in half and left it sprinkled with chalk stains. They apologized – i frolicked.
My Cyanotypes are not really related to mistakes (although, granted, a lot also goes wrong here). They are just means of taking a picture to another level by creating varieties. For a long time I didn’t feel ready to do that, and I simply didn’t have the time. Since I stopped taking photos in 2011 I have started to concentrate on some pictures that I selected to take them a little further. It’s a completely different creative process, and I quite enjoy it, right now. But it has nothing to do with creating pictures like in the years before.
Following the ‘mistake’ path, another interesting project you made – more into conceptual this time is “Destructed Magic”. please tell us how you came up with the idea, and what other projects are you working on.
Wow, this feels like ages ago. Back then my first muse and I often took part in destructed magazine issues because it was fun to follow the task given and see where it took us. »Magic« inspired us to do a piece on esoteric ghost imagery from the 20’s and 30’s, do you remember those? Images with accidental multiple or long-term exposure seemed to be capturing the spirit of dearly beloved who had passed away which generated quite a flourishing industry for photo lab technicians in those days.
We tried to recreate that spirit. And we were deeply into dogma tradition then so we went up to the attic and used whatever we came across, old postcards, some clothes, but the strangest find that day was a box with glass trayers of microscope samples. As far as i can recall the green layer in the picture is a scanned sample of a male testicle from 1927.
“A good nude photo symbolizes the need to meet the camera without any means of protection.” That is a phrase I took also from your book. One of your models, I think, wrote about a session with you “It doesn’t really matter whether I get undressed- if all goes well, I’ll be naked anyway”. How do you know things go well, are you ever worried or simply insecure while making a photo session? To take this more extensively – are you ever afraid of failure, during or after a photo session?
Keep in mind that we don’t usually go out to find certain pictures that were agreed upon in advance. I feel silly repeating this, but it is so important for understanding the pictures.
In the process I try to create as much room as possible for lots of pictures that were not necessarily known beforehand – neither to me nor to the portrayed. So it happens frequently that people are not really comfortable with the outcome in the beginning.
There is always a struggle between our comfort zone, our expectancy and our worst fears. Thus the instant feedback is often harsh and negative. Only after a while people get used to the pictures. Some good feedback from their family and friends then usually makes way to accepting them.
Getting behind the pictures is what counts. Completely understanding why some seem familiar, why some appear desirable and others are most uncomfortable to you or others. Going through this experience usually leaves you curious for more, for much more.
So real failure for me only occurs if we don’t manage to communicate our premonitions and end up feeling misrepresented or when people are so shocked with the unfamiliarity that they don’t return to continue the sessions.
You mentioned the Identity project many times in the book. Please tell us more about it and your collaboration with Marie Hochhaus.
Marie is an excellent fashion photographer and a dear friend of mine. From the questions above you are already familiar with my approach. So now we invited about 30 girls to switch and compare roles, divided equally into people with prior experience with either one of us. In reviewing our respective works we found it interesting for the portrayed people to put the pairings of male/female, young/old, fashion/portrait, and maybe clothed/nude to the test.
Some really enjoyed this different point of view, others were a little frightened, and some missed the opportunities completely, I guess. The different results and opinions were quite interesting to compare.
I loved a lot your images called Portrait of a Writer, We Talked about Love, Five Questions, etc – these titles suggest a good strong story behind the picture. Please select one of your photos, at your choice, and tell us the story behind it...
Well, let me tell you how my approach really started back in 2005. In this session I consciously observed what I now frequently search: the opening, letting go of your inhibitions, being aware of yourself, trusting in your own personal place in the world, and all in the course of one session. It came as a surprise to us back then. I had all kinds of ideas and settings prepared for the rare ocasion of taking her pictures. But they were all meaningless after what we found.
And again, she didn’t like the outcome at first. When I said: »If I could keep one picture and had to burn the others, this would be it.« She replied: »But look at the others. They are so beautiful. There are so many flaws in this one.« About two weeks later we talked again and she said: »You’re right. I get it, now. This is an outstanding portrait.« It’s just so great when something this unexpected happens. Sheer magic seems to be at work.
»I have ceased to engage in my pictures altogether; I cannot control the outcome. Pictures tend to happen the way they want to be, and as long as I follow this free concept, they keep on fascinating me.« Photography can only represent through resemblance; the photograph is ‘transparent' to its subject, and if it holds our interest it does so because it acts as a surrogate for the thing/person it shows. At the end of our interview, Ruedi, tell us what is the right proportion between freedom and constraint in order to create a good image.
Hehehe, achieving »the really good picture« is a very personal struggle. It depends where you are and where you want to go.
For example, in the past years I noticed that I didn’t particularly like pictures without any eye contact, at all.
All these versions of »dreamy girl with her eyes closed«, »girl standing in a lake, photographed from behind with her long hair dripping« were beautiful, but not for me because I need to see how the person is feeling, I need the direct response and her awareness of being photographed. If you take away the view into the consciousness of the portrayed the picture can only deal with decorative aesthetics.
So for me personally the range to decide is between clarity and diffusion. If a picture is too diffuse it could mean anything. If it is too clear it doesn’t hold enough room for the viewers to place their own thoughts and ideas.
The same goes for the portrayed. Of course I am an advocate of freedom if a session goes somewhere totally different than planned, but if this roaming stems from indecisiveness and the target is all too diffuse to grasp, well, it all dissolves and becomes nothingness.
As we always have to face three different entities to judge (me, the portrayed and the viewer) the decision which pictures to put out there is often hard. If only one of a session makes it to be successful to all of us in the sense that it is close, touching and sensual, yet daring and strong, and all that without being a kitschy regurgitation, that’s a really good cut compared to the sheer mass of pictures that leave you unimpressed or even offended every day.
Thank you Ruedi and we hope to have you as a guest in Citylab again.