Portrait of Werner Kranwetvogel | LUMAS Gallery in Berlin - Hackesche Höfe: (c) Anthony Lew Shun
Some people shy away from the stony path, the unknown track. Others see it as a challenge that can enrich their lives. Werner Kranwetvogel belongs to the second group.
Werner Kranwetvogel first discovered the camera as a child. At the age of 12 he used an Agfa Pocket he received as a gift to painstakingly document his village. A few years later he was holding his first single lens reflex camera, a Nikon FM2 with a winder and 50mm lense, which he used to take countless photo series of his brother's absurd dadaist scenes. His first relationship with the camera then came to an end: Other interests developed, and he followed them for over a decade.
The visual, the reproduction of internal and external worlds, remained in the focus of his life and, more importantly, it remained his passion. As a studio lighting technician with Bavarian Radio Kranwetvogel realised how attracted he was to the medium of film, an attraction that wouldn't let him go. He decided to apply to the Munich University of Television and Film to study for a degree in Documentary Films. The admission project was a free photographic work. Kranwetvogel chose to portray Kristina Söderbaum, one of the biggest stars of the Universum Film AG studio in the 30s and 40s. Though he got through to the final rounds, his knowledge of the subject wasn't enough – he was rejected. What would have been a fatal blow to most ambitions had a different effect on Kranwetvogel: "The rejection was bitter, but I took it as an incentive and applied to different production companies to work as a lighting technician."
His persistence eventually paid off. Two years later he reapplied to the university – and in September 1994 was finally able to begin his studies. Kranwetvogel sees this period as extremely important in his development because he learned so much about cameras, photo laboratories, film materials, lighting, and focal lengths, whilst also being able to develop his own practical style. He barely photographed during this period, however, becoming completely absorbed in film instead. After shooting some award-winning short films he began to work in the advertising industry in 1998.
It wasn't until he moved to Berlin that Kranwetvogel discovered his old camera and, with its help, his new city. His monthly publication "Nachrichten aus der Haupstadt" ("news from the capital") documents the resulting flood of pictures and explains the fascination he rediscovered. The final breakthrough proves to be his first journey to North Korea in 2005 – "Photography found me again", he says of the experience.
His wonderful images in the series "Mass Games" were published in a book by the Nicolai publishing company and also included in the portfolio of the LUMAS editions gallery. Werner Kranwetvogel can therefore be content – with his development, with his career in photography, and with everything he's achieved. But perhaps having a rest is simply too boring.
Kranwetvogel is already working on new ideas and new series. For some time he has been taking pictures of tourists as they take photographs. "The preoccupation of people with this technical device, and the elements of their personality that emerge unknowingly when they handle it, fascinate me". The project also has a culture-critical aspect: The ready availability of easy-to-use cameras means that most people have forgotten how to appreciate things. "They stand in front of Michelangelo's "Pietà", take a picture, and then look at the photo of "Pietà" in their camera display", explains Kranwetvogel, "no-one takes the time to actually look at this international artwork, even though it's right in front of them."
Kranwetvogel is currently working in both worlds, in film and photography, which he feels complement each other in wonderful ways. The stony path is far from over.
You entered the LUMAS portfolio with your series Mass Games Pyongyang, a remarkable collection of photos of a mass North Korean spectacle. What exactly are the Mass Games Pyongyang?
Mass games are huge dance and gymnastic shows in which thousands of participants move in synchrony, creating enormous patterns and images. The origins of the games lie in the German gymnastics movement of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, famous educator and nationalist who became known as the "Turnvater" (father of gymnastics).
After the Second World War the idea of mass public gymnastics was rediscovered by a number of socialist states and reemployed as a political tool. Mass games became the perfect expression of socialism. In an essay about mass gymnastics, North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il formulated the ideas as follows: "In the knowledge that the smallest error in their actions can ruin the entire performance, the school children do everything possible to subordinate their thoughts and actions to the collective."
Do these games only take place in North Korea?
Yes, North Korea's the only state where this still takes place. Here the games have been taken to a level that dwarfs anything ever performed in the Eastern Bloc. The current show "Arirang" comprises more than 100,000 participants, of which 20,000 are children, who create an imposing "human display" using giant books. This can be seen in the LUMAS photos – it is, without doubt, the biggest show on earth.
When did you first see the show?
The first time I saw a photo of one of the shows was during my studies at the Munich University of Television and Film in the 90s. It had an immediate impact on me but, at the time, I was convinced it wouldn't be possible to travel to North Korea and see it for myself, certainly not to photograph it.
It wasn't until 10 years later that I came across Koryo Tours, while in Peking with a good friend. It was during one of these tours in 2005 that I first visited the stadium in Pyongyang and had the opportunity to experience the show for myself, as one of a small number of western tourists. I took photos from where the spectators sit using a small, single lense reflex camera. From that moment I wanted to return with professional equipment and a license, go to the very front of the performance area, and take photos that really reflected the energy of the show. In 2009 I was finally able to do this.
What keeps drawing you back to Asia?
As a photographer I'm always searching for that undisguised "first impression". I try to surprise myself, to get a fresh and unexpected look at the subjects of my photographs. The permanent culture shock you experience as a European when you travel through Asia produces this energy and alertness constantly. The images we have in our minds of Asia are confronted by a more vibrant and diverse reality, a genuine ‘explosion of life'. This is what fascinates me about Asia.
Is North Korea completely safe?
Travelling to North Korea isn't dangerous at all, in fact – at least with regards to what tourists are able to do – it's surprisingly simple. You can only travel there as part of a guided tour, which ensures the tourists are kept in a strictly controlled "tourist world". You can't leave this world and go exploring on your own. As long as you keep to the rules you're safe. Anyone who isn't able to do this should avoid going there..
In 2009 you were the only western guest with a license to shoot the incredible show "Arirang". How difficult was everything?
It took me the best part of a year to get this license. For months I had to listen to people telling me it was impossible, not least because journalists are usually forbidden from entering North Korea. There's no professionally organised location office, as in Berlin, and for months I tried in vain to find a contact person. I have Nick Bonnor of Koryo Tours to thank for being able to contact the organisers of the Mass Games. This is how I eventually managed to get a photo license. It took lots of effort and lots of persuasion, and wouldn't have been possible without him. I'd therefore like to take this chance to thank him and his team.
Did you have to show all the pictures you took after the performance?
I was in the country as a so-called "individual tourist", which means you travel "alone" with two tour guides in a minibus. I got on well with my guides: They knew my plans and were with me in the stadium. As such, it wasn't necessary for them to control the pictures. Rather, the show is something the North Koreans are very proud of and they were curious to see how the photos looked. A short while later I was able to bring some prints from Germany and they were impressed by the quality of the project.
Taking photographs away from the performance area was discouraged. If you start to take pictures of the audience, the organisation, or the preparations before the beginning, you'll get into a lot of trouble very quickly, unless you're very careful about what you're doing. Still, I've been planning a "Mass Games Backstage" project for a while. I hope to be able to realise this next year.
Which photographs in this series are you particularly proud of?
The idea behind the project was to look for people within the masses, to break through the well-organised phalanx of perfection and find the individual. There are countless photos of the show; every tourist who's been there takes has taken hundreds of pictures. But these tend to be shots of the performance as a whole, images of thousands of dancers – admittedly extremely impressive. I tried to look behind this image, to isolate small groups, to show people as the smallest units of the show.
This perspective is only possible using extreme telephoto lenses. There are some photos in the series that show the two levels together, the pattern and the individual. To be able to capture this in a performance of 100,000 individuals is something I’m quite proud of.
There is a picture in the LUMAS series that shows the children as they’re preparing for the show. They appear simply as children, not functional parts of a performance. When I looked at the photo in the stadium it didn’t seem that special. It’s only under extreme magnification that the effect emerges, perfectly embodying the idea of the project.
What feedback did you get from the "Mass Games Pyongyang" series? Was there criticism?
The feedback for the photos is mostly very position. The fascination that lead me to shoot the series came from the perfection and sheer size of the event, which is both aesthetically remarkable and bizarre. These elements all come together to demonstrate the unique charm of the show.
MThe series breaks through the almost overwhelming human patterns in the show and dares to look behind, at the people in the patterns. Most observers are drawn in by the effect this has.
The critical voices of the work relate to the political context of the show and usually take the form of complete dismissal of the whole event, or something like "How can you do such a thing?". My interest is not a political analysis of the Mass Games as a propaganda event, however, but their aesthetics and the humans within this aesthetic context. The political dimension is a part of the context, but it's not in the foreground of my work.
Which camera and equipment do you use?
I have always used Nikon and remain loyal to them to this day. For the Mass Games series I used a Nikon D3x and a D700. The most important lenses were a Nikkor 200-400 / f4, and a 70-200 / f2,8 (both old series), and a teleconverter set for longer focal lengths. These extremely long focal lengths made it possible to overcome the large distance to the performance area and get as close to the people as I wanted.
A Nikon feels robust. I have the feeling I’m working with a camera that can cope with anything that I could use to hammer a nail into the wall if necessary. This robustness is important to me. In addition, I like to take pictures as an unobserved observer. I have the focal lengths needed to do this, but only for small pictures.
Do you still take analogue photographs, or only digital?
For my documentary projects I need to be able to check the pictures straight away, which is only possible using digital photography. I can't travel to North Korea with my analogue camera only to discover I have a technical problem. I need to know this immediately so that I can deal with it. I love analogue photography, but at the moment I barely use it.
The photo lab is essential in ensuring the effect of your photography is captured. What do you expect from a lab?
The laboratory is of the highest importance, because it's ultimately responsible for what the viewer sees. The technical work in the production and editing of the photos relies on every link in the chain producing excellent results: The whole chain has to be coordinated. I therefore need a lab that consistently delivers the highest quality. I have to have confidence that the prints will look exactly as I imagined them, and they must always look the same.
The cooperation between the photographer and the photo lab has to work. Art meets craft. Can this create conflict?
The cooperation between artists and tradesmen always creates conflict. Artists are trying to bring their visions to life, whilst tradesmen are trying to deliver a piece of work that is technically perfect. Working so closely together naturally brings friction. It needs good communication and a strong technical awareness on both sides to ensure the cooperation is productive.
I don't think much of the notion that an artist is a great visionary who cares nothing about technical parameters. The artistic process always includes a technical framework within which it takes place. It's the responsibility of the artist to continue to expand this framework, and to break through it. Ignoring this isn't art, it's amateurism. To make this possible, however, a photographer needs a lab with which he can communicate well, which understands what he wants and offers him what he's looking for.
We're pleased you found this in WhiteWall.
WhiteWall delivers the quality I'm looking for at unbeatable prices, including, and above all, in large formats. That the laboratory produces all the prints and laminations for LUMAS speaks for itself. This isn't an anonymous internet platform that no-one knows who's behind, but a professional laboratory. I've also been impressed with the advice they've given me from the very beginning.
Having works delivered to other cities, and internationally, is also something that appeals to me. This is particularly important for the sale of large format mountings.
Which form of presentation do you like the most? How do you like to see your works on the wall?
For the Mass Games series I particularly like the sandwich mounting with an aluminium-dibond backing and an acrylic glass front. On WhiteWall this is known as "Real photo print behind acrylic glass". The glass front makes the photo look deeper, the colours more vibrant, and the whole thing appear extremely elegant..
My photos are sections of much larger scenes: none of them are scenes in themselves. A frame would therefore be too limiting for the photo. The acrylic glass sealing lets the effect of the pictures extend beyond the frame.
You work as a director of short films and adverts. How is this different to photography?
My main position is that of director, though I'm currently developing a second string to my bow in the form of photography. The writing and depiction of stories remains my most important work. Filmmaking requires considerable technical and logistical effort, however: The preparation is lengthy and the processes are complicated.
That I can head off for a project armed only with an idea and a backpack is one of the things about photography that I really love. It's also why I like documentary photography so much. I don't need artificial lighting and big equipment, as I do with film, just an idea and a good eye. One man and a camera. It's incredibly liberating.
How long does it take from an idea forming in your head until the actual realisation of a picture?
It varies considerably. Sometimes it happens really quickly: The idea comes, the preparation is minimal, and the photo is perfect. I often have projects, however, that require lots of preparation or the taking of many photos on the same theme over a long period of time. In the case of the series on the North Korean Mass Games, the time from idea to realisation was four years. You need lots of patience to believe in a project for this long.
Do you ever find that an image looks great through the camera lense but completely looses its charm in print?
What the photographer sees through the camera lense is not the neutral sight of an independent observer, but the subjective sight a human has of an image. This human is influenced by his surroundings and by the exact moment when the photo is taken. All of this effects the perception.
Looking at the photos afterwards can bring all manner of surprises, from complete disappointment to the unbridled joy of discovering something you'd been completely unaware of when taking the photo.
Do you remember when you took your first photo?
My first camera was an Agfa Pocket I got for my confirmation, with a 16mm cassette film. I used this camera to shoot the village where I grew up, to document this world with many different pictures. My first single lense reflex camera allowed me look deeper into this world and discover what lay behind.
Why did you choose photography as a form of expression? When did you discover your passion?
There is a scene in the film "Journey to the far side of the sun" from 1969, in which a man takes spy photos using a camera in his eye. There was no camera in the world with which he could do this. I saw the scene for the first time as a small boy, and the idea behind it never let go of me.
During my studies I became so involved with the world of film that I didn't photograph at all. It wasn't until I moved to Berlin, when I came across the camera and set out to discover the city with it, that I rediscovered this wonderful form of expression. For me, it's not a matter of whether I'm a filmmaker or photographer. The two areas complement and inspire each other in wonderful ways.
Do you have a personal role model when it comes to photography?
I consider Richard Avedon's series "In the American West" to be one of the finest photo series that was ever taken. I also like the shots of Jabab Holdt and Larry Clark.
Which characteristic do you use most in photography?
What do photographers have to be able to do?
Master the technical side, so you don't have to think when you're shooting. Have an eye for good light and, when the moment comes, be quick.
Is photography a question of talent or a skill that can be learned?
Talent is important, of course, but is has to be supported and developed through training. The art cannot develop until the craft has been mastered. It's no coincidence that the German word for "art" has its roots in the German verb "to be able to".
Do great pictures occur by chance, or does each picture have to be carefully prepared?
I like being able to build a conceptual framework from a clear idea. This framework allows me to confront an idea and get deeper inside it while I'm working on it. This theme-based approach has a liberating effect on me, as a restriction, because it sharpens my focus on what's important.
Is there such thing as a so-called "lucky shot", a picture that occurs by chance but looks amazing, or are they just a myth?
Photos don't happen by accident. "Lucky shots" are the result of lots of training and routine. Only when you no longer need to think about the technical elements can you be "lucky" and quick enough at the right moment.
Which images don't interest you at all?
I am interested in people, in light, and in the absurd. I'm therefore not particularly interested in catalogue photography.
Is there a common thread that runs through your work? What is "typical Kranwetvogel"?
A different look at things we think we understand. The sharp and distinct look behind the façade, behind the scenes.
As a photographer, where would you most like to hold an exhibition?
In the Haus der Kunst ("House of Art") in Munich. It's an enormous space.
Do you have a dream image you'd like to photograph at some point? A person, a scenario, a landscape?
I'd really like to do a series on men crying. Until now, I've not found out how I could do this.
Do you collect photographs yourself?
If I had more wall space, I'd love to. I prefer to collect good ideas at the moment.
If you could choose anything, which photograph or piece of art would you have on your wall?
Raffael's "Madonna Tempi" from the Alte Pinakothek ("Old Pinakothek") in Munich. Next to this I'd have a nail picture by Günther Uecker.