Wolfgang Zurborn, a man globally known for his magic behind the camera, spent some precious moments with PhotoPeer to give a glimpse of his amazing life and world as a photographer and co-organiser of Gallery Lichtblick in Cologne for nearly 30 years.
The Photographer and His World
PhotoPeer: So as we ask this question to all of the featured photographers which we look up to and all, how photography happened to you?
Wolfgang: Photography for me is very important in the way of communication with the world. I think I use photography as a child going out into the world to get an intense experience of my surroundings. That’s why it was always important to me, beside my whole photography to teach and exhibit photography. Together with Tina Schelhorn I am running the Gallery Lichtblick for nearly thirty years and we have show photographers from all over the world, but also a lot of young German photographers, 5 years ago I startet Lichtblick School in Cologne, because I really love teaching. It’s so interesting for me to help the participants of the workshops to find their own visual language. As a photographer you’re going out in the world and find your images, and by discussing or talking to others about your photographs you get an idea about your individual perception of the world, especially by understanding how others see the world in a different way. For my own photography it’s very important, that I never liked the idea of making pictures with only one meaning. In contrary with my photographs I want to give more questions than answers. I am not staging by taking pictures in the streets of the cities. So you can say it’s a kind-of street photography looking for the decisive moment, but on the other side I am creating in my photographs a special kind of enigmatic game by fragmenting and collage-like combining the depicted elements. I am showing sceneries of everyday-life often in a very special light, so they are getting a surreal expression. The many-layered compositions of the photographs are clarifying the permanent interwovenness of the media with our real life. That’s why I was never interested in the philosophy of German contemporary documentary photography, which is following the idea of an objective and unemotional way to show the world in a neutral perspective and with very strict conceptions. I am not believing in these clear order principles cataloguizing the world.
PhotoPeer: Coming to the German Photography Concept, so if you can give us some idea about German photography concept then we will discuss that why your photographic concept is different from that.
Wolfgang: The German vision for conceptual photography started in the 80s. The most important influence in this field had the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They were teaching at the academy in Düsseldorf and the students of their class were the most successful photographers at the art market. The entrance in the art world for the Bechers and their students was, that their photographs were conceived as conceptual art. I never understood why photography was only accepted as conceptual art by collecting the same things. I think there might be more interesting conceptions reflecting the complexity and diversity of the modern life. The refusing of any subjective aspect by the perception of the world and the hiding behind a neutrality is more an expression of German Angst then an openness for the contemporary conditions of societies. The desire for safe and untouchable systems can be also seen as the late aftermaths of the second world war disaster.
I was always more influenced by the American documentary photography. For Walker Evans his photographic images were his most subjective interpretation of the world. He sees in the outside world something which is linked to an inner vision of the real authentic life. There is no naive idea of an objective perception, but an clear understanding of the personal visual language. He took photographs in a „documentary style“, which means that he elaborated aesthetic approaches to his themes reflecting the conditions of the American society. The very special quality of his photographs is the precision in using the light and the architecture to create personal interpretations of the living space of mostly the poor population in the American West.
Outside of Germany it looks like there is only the Becher-School in Germany, but I can say, that it exists a very rich photographic scene with very different photographic views. Many schools and academies are educating a lot of photographers every year and there are a lot of great results in various views. By lectures in other countries about German photography people are sometimes surprised about this pluralism, because they normally see always the same names. That’s the result of the art market only looking for the safe and commercial successful, but unfortunately mostly very boring works.
PhotoPeer: So we were just discussing sometime back about our initiative, or Photopeer’s initiative, Thek and all. So we were talking at that point of time that this Lichtblick Gallery is coming from the same thought process and now it’s working for the last thirty years, so if you can...
Wolfgang: The Gallery Lichtblick I am running with Tina Schelhorn was founded in 1986. In this time there were not so much photo galleries showing contemporary German photography in Cologne. The most important gallery was exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe, but for sure not young upcoming photographers. For us it were the most important aspects on one side to discover talents and on the other side to have a vivid exchange with galleries, festivals and institutions world wide. We wanted to open the mostly very ideologic perception of photography with our exhibition program. The audience should be surprised by every new presentation. We were showing documentary photography as well as journalistic, staged, mixed-media or experimental photography.
We were not interested in very traditional fine art or advertising photography. The commercial aspect was not important for us. We wanted just to find and show the most interesting contemporary strategies in photography. If selling would have been our main aspect we would have to change our way of looking at the medium. We are working more like an art society.
We had a lot of international co-operations with institutions and galleries in Europe, America and Asia like the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland and the Kolga Tbilisi Photo Meeting in Georgia. It’s great to see, that you can have a little gallery in Cologne but if you’re communicating well what you are doing you can create an international network and can work together with most interesting people all over the world. One of the most well-known projects by Gallery Lichtblick was „images against war“. DirectlyWe had a lot of international co-operations with institutions and galleries in Europe, America and Asia like the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland and the Kolga Tbilisi Photo Meeting in Georgia. It’s great to see, that you can have a little gallery in Cologne but if you’re communicating well what you are doing you can create an international network and can work together with most interesting people all over the world. One of the most well-known projects by Gallery Lichtblick was „images against war“. Directly before the Iraq war was starting, we made an initiative and asked all over the world photographers to send pictures and make their personal statements against war. It could be reactions in very different ways, documenting the cruelty of violence as well as illustrating the hope for freedom - humanistic, cynical, analyzing, critical, hopeful, anxious or frustrated comments on the consequences of war. In two weeks 300 photographers and artists were mailing, sending or bringing their images and the perception of the show in our gallery and on our website was amazing. In two month we had 3 million hits and the Democratic Party in USA and photo museums in China made direct links to our site. The nationwide newspaper TAZ made a whole issue only with the photographs from this project. It’s great to see, that you have the power to move something, if you have a precise idea and if you trust to it. Most important for us was not to make a kind of propaganda and create simple enemy images, which could be the reason for next conflicts.
PhotoPeer: We were also talking about the institute thing, that how this educational photography hit you; or you were thinking about, or how you came to this taking workshops in India, and Cologne also in some institutes. How this happened?
Wolfgang: All the knowledge about photography we experienced in the cooperation with international artists during more then 25 years are the basis for the foundation of the Lichtblick School in Cologne in 2011. The educational program is composed of long-term seminars and weekend workshops with national and international photographers we were working with since years. The results of the classes are amazing and often we are publishing them in catalogues or exhibiting them. Our philosophy is to help all participants to find their very individual imagery, to pick them up from where they are in their personal progress. There is not one wrong or right by creating art, but there are a lot of things to learn by understanding your own photographs, by selecting and editing them to a strong work. In the landscape of German photographic education we are creating a very special own school. It’s great to see how many people with different photographic backgrounds like artist, professionals and amateurs are coming to these workshops. It’s really a fantastic vivid mix. It’s good that most participants don’t have to earn money with the photography, because they are doing other jobs. So they are free to work on their series without commercial interests. There is also a big group of people over 60 and they are serious working on their projects, also making exhibitions and publishing books.
I’m also in the board of directors of the German Photographic Academy, Association of Art Photographers in Germany. This organization is arranging two times in the year weekend symposia with lectures by theorists and practitioners in the field of art photography. The founders of this society in 1919 were engaged amateurs, complaining about the cheap tricks of commercial portrait photography. They were looking for the authentic use of the medium. A lot of influences on photography are coming from amateurs and so I see a great possibility for creating a democratic vision of contemporary life by supporting the engaged amateurs of nowadays to tell true stories about their surroundings avoiding the clichés of the image industry. A very good aspect of teaching is for sure, that I can travel a lot to do workshops in many countries and learning a lot about the different cultures. But by all these teaching experience I could realize, that the photographic language is understandable in all countries. There is no problem for me to communicate my ideas about the grammar of images in Georgia, Indonesia, America or India. Especially the photo book masterclasses with Markus Schaden, Thekla Ehling and Frederic Lezmi in Jakarta, Ankara, Arles and Cologne are attracting a big crowd of photo enthusiasts. The photo-book is one of the most important ways to present a personal vision of the world. It’s a democratic medium, because you have not to buy prints for thousands of Euro. Instead of this you can get for a little money books presenting in a very precise and concentrated way complete photographic series. For celebrating the special qualities of this medium Markus Schaden also founded a photobook museum. Together with a group of friends including me he organized 2014 a temporary exhibition on 6000 qm in an industrial building in Cologne. The reaction of the public and the press was amazing. 14 000 visitors were coming during two month and staying often for many ours in the exhibition. For sure there is a big interest in the culture of the photo book and the development is still in the beginning. A big part of the shows were presented in containers, which are now traveling to photographic festivals and fairs around the world.
Hopefully the city of Cologne is offering a place for a permanent home of the photo book museum in the future.
PhotoPeer: From this, if we can come to your next book, which is online is Catch, but if you can elaborate about that particular thing what you were thinking about this.
Wolfgang: Like in the most of my photo books I worked by the project „Catch“ with an open concept. This publication is including photographs from 1999 to 2013, taken in different cities and countries. I am taking the photographs out of the normal context and combine them in a very complex way. It often needs a distance of time to see the aestetical qualities separate from the depicting aspects.
Finally for the book Catch it is not important, if the photographs are made in Florence, in Cologne or in any other city. So I am not putting titles under the photographs, but at the end of the book I am mentioning all places, where I have taken the pictures. I want to show the cultural context of the images, but I don’t want to give an explanation. I am always dealing on the edge between narration and abstraction.
The curiosity to experience, the search for communication, to long for images that tear us out of the routine consumption of normal media image clutter: images with irritating cutouts, surprising compositions and unusual perspectives. Such an irritation is necessary to reflect upon what we encounter in everyday life. A more mysterious way of seeing evokes questioning of how to look and thus penetrate further into the various layers of the visible. The world as a collage will not dissolve in a unique punch line but rather expand itself in disparity. Space between things is very important. It leaves us room for imagination. The images themselves become catalysts to the experience diverse perception. They extend the visions for the discovery of the seemingly trivial-----Catch!
The editing of the double pages was one of the most challenging part of the work process. The interaction of the pictures has to force the imagination of the viewer. Any too simple connection would stop the flow of imagination. It’s very important to listen to the photographs and not following to strict concepts. It’s not always logical, how pictures are co-operating. The photographs are giving the sound. They tell you “please connect me with this photograph”. Then you have your concept in your head and say “no it’s not fitting”, but they say “please, please”. Mostly they are right.
By working on the book „Catch“ is was very important for me to see what is the difference to my earlier book Drift, which has been published in 2007. The style of photographs is similar, sometimes taken at the same time. For making the reading of the very complex and many layered photographs easier for the spectator I put only single pictures on a double page. This helped the book in theses times to be very well accepted. It also received the German Photobook Award 2008.
In Catch I am working with double pages, because I am very interested in the interacting of images, how they are creating a visual flow. I feel myself also influenced by Daido Moriyama, who was following the idea, that not the the single isolated picture is important, but more the interaction of many photographs in the book.
The sequence of the images in the book Catch is guiding the reader into different moods. I don’t want to prove anything in this publication. Superficially perceived you can see the series like a promenade in the strange modern world and if you want you can follow the complex semantic levels. I’m very sceptical towards too obvious order principles and so I like to deal with the chance to reach more open compositions. But for sure at the end it has to work as convincing images. It’s very complicated to explain this to Germans because they think if you don’t plan it, it’s nothing. It’s true! (laughs).
What’s your opinion about Indian Photography? Do you find your order principle on the subject?
Wolfgang: I could see that the Becher school has a special attraction to some Indian photographers. Confronted with the everyday chaos in the streets of the megacities this kind of clear order must be something very fanciable. The experience during my workshops in Ahmedabad and Kolkata were great. I could see, that all the students were very open for new ways to look at the world. Especially I liked the presentation at the end of the workshops. First the students hesitated, when I asked them to talk about their photographs, but then they were giving very personal statements, not hiding behind any theory or empty phrases. Beside this I really liked the openness for critic and advises by all reviews during my workshops. Photography is for me in it’s best sense the fruitful combination of intuitive and conceptual acting. The enthusiasm, the social interest and the emotional approach of the students by realizing their photographic projects was the basis for the brilliant works we could present during the exhibition tour through Indian cities. The most important learning process for the students was to understand the personal approaches and finding the most useful concept for structuring the projects.
I really liked to do workshops in India and Jakarta because of the enthusiasm of the participants. The most important target of my teaching is to give them more self-consciousness to believe, that they have something to say about the world. On the other hand there are criterias for good images which you have to learn during your whole photographic life. When you are looking on a pile of photographs on the table you can see which are the strongest images and then you have to realize that sometimes only two photographs are surviving. If you can explain the reasons of the selection you find normally open ears for your decisions.
PhotoPeer: Since we are talking about books and all, in India too many photographers are coming up with their self published works, as he is the best curator what is your perception about that, is there any future of that?
Wolfgang: Absolutely, I think the self publishing will be more and more important in the future, because the interest in photo books is increasing and the technical possibilities for the cheap production of book are getting better.. Printing on demand is also an interesting alternative to produce books without spending thousands of Euros.
We have one example in our photo-book workshop with Markus Schaden. One participant coming from an amateur background elaborated with me a convincing edit of her images for a publication and Markus gave a nice idea how to bind the book and then she printed and bounded hundred copies. The perfect presentation of her book on Facebook helped her to sell 60 copies of her book during two days worldwide. Many collectors were buying her book. She was nominated for the Photo-book Award which was then presented in Paris, she showed this book in Paris, in Amsterdam, in Japan and a book shop in Hamburg made an intense advertising for it. This is an example how the self-publishing of books can work. Nowadays it is very much accepted in contrary to earlier times, when it was said that if you’re self-publishing you’re a loser not finding a real publisher. Markus Schaden is also thinking about e-books as an important medium for releasing books worldwide without a lot of transport costs. If the e-books are getting more and more popular, it will be perhaps possible to make so much money, that you can in addition print special editions for classical book enthusiasts. This is smart because now there are so many books published that there are not enough buyers!
Markus Schaden especially got the idea when he was in Jakarta, and many people were interested to buy photo-books but it’s not possible to send them from Europe to Jakarta. The sending costs will be three times more than the price of the book. So I think we have to think of other ways. We have to combine digital and analog publishing together. Frederic Lezmi, who is also doing the photo-book master-class with us, he made this print on demand. The whole edition was three hundred copies and he printed always thirty and waited until everything was sold and then printed with this money the next thirty and so on. Now it’s legendary because Martin Parr and Gerry Badger gave the book a double page in their Photobook History. This is a good example too.