The photographer and DANSK collaborator Olaf Wipperfürth is born and raised in Düsseldorf, where he studied philosophy and art history. Germany, with its strong art history, shaped him in the way he would take photos today: it provided a direction in what inspires him and how to create unique imagery within the discipline of fashion and art. Moving to Paris, Olaf finalized his doctorate thesis “The aesthetic rest: remarks on an aesthetic of the moment in contemporary art and philosophy,” and further developed his skills to establish, for what he is well recognized today, cinematic photography. Olaf is a lauded storyteller, an artist and explorer within his discipline, which he displays in photo-books as well as magazines. DANSK sat down for a talk to get to know the person behind the camera, discovering his journey and discussing how Wipperfürth continues to refine his art using film and contemporary dance theater as inspiration.
When you were starting to be acquainted with photography, did you already have an idea of what precisely you would like to achieve?
Creating and exploring has always been essential to me. Way back, I was a musician, playing in different kind of bands as a drummer and singer where we produced a sort of subversive punk and industrial sound. When our guitarist died at the age of only 22, we lost track and stopped soon after, realizing that we weren’t actually talented enough to continue alone without him – or simply weren’t talented at all for making music. But already when we were working on the videos for the band, as well as having to photograph ourselves, I did realize, that taking pictures happened to be much more interesting to me than music. My friends, as well as my studies in aesthetical theory at university and the whole art context in Düsseldorf, inspired me to take pictures. At that time, I did not have any “well defined” ideas of what I wanted to achieve. I just played around – it felt like everything was possible.
Over the time, fashion photography came into the picture. The impressive editorials by Peter Lindbergh in Vogue Italia and various books like by Saul Leiter, Henri Lartigue, Walker Evans or the Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu, inspired me in wanting to become acquainted with that particular kind of photography even more. Years later, after I happened to meet Franca Sozzani at Café Flore in Paris, who let me shoot for Vogue Italia. I now look back on a wonderful, very progressive and successful time. Since then I did work for a long list of great magazines and clients.
You talk about cinematic photography as a central theme of your photography—what does such practice characterize? I’m sensing certain lightning and particular angles…
Cinematic photography is about capturing moments that implicate motion and emotion. It has a narrative that does not feel staged. To me, a picture is good, when it actually could be a “still frame” outtake of a movie. “Cinematic” means to bring images into a subtile storyline and contextualize them. I create images of movement and experiment with lightning that resembles the one, used in film production. I love creating lighting situations like on a movie set, mixing daylight with additional light elements, like neon.
You could say I’m a film director and director of photography at the same time. Before I photograph, I envision a story and create mood boards. All scenes are set-up’s and well thought through, even if it appears to look quite spontaneous. My visual identity is strongly influenced by great filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean Luc Godard, Antonioni, John Cassavates and Wim Wenders, to name just a few. More and more I do reel film projects as well.
Do you see yourself as a photographer or as an artist or how would you define your profession?
You can be an artist with being a photographer. I see myself as a hybrid, depending on what mission I am. I can express myself and have a great time working on a fashion story for a magazine and working on a long term art project the next day. One should not to exclude the other. I define myself more widely as a curious images-maker.The fact is that you cannot make art in a fashion story. Marshal McLuhan’s quote :”the medium is the message” emphasizes such, in my opinion. You make pictures in and for a context. The value and meaning of your imagery entirely changes, depending on the place they are curated in.
Talking about my profession in general, I started photography in the times of raw film development, contact sheets, push-and-pull processes and shooting countless roles of films in every film format. I remember it well, when I was working on printing portraits for a Dries van Noten book, and I had more than 30 different prints drying on every spare centimeter of my bathroom, resembling wallpaper. Photography back then took literally a lot of space and patience. Since then, it became much more easier and accessible for everybody which I find good and perceive as democratic. Still, the market of professional photography and the attitude towards imagery completely changed throughout a development towards a constant confrontation with visual content. To me such needs to be handled with care especially when pronouncing something as art. There is less and less professionalism since borders of our jobs in the industry are disappearing.
What about absence, trace and ephemeral space which you name as main subjects that influence you as an artist? Why do these things in particular fascinate you?
In my personal work, I follow a much more abstract “momentism”: I’m interested in the “vanishing point” of situations. The hidden sides of stories appear with taking away the obvious narrative and working only with particular hints. A pending picture, leaving one with “not knowing” but more “guessing” what it will be like, makes it far more interesting.With studying philosophy and art history, I learned a lot about the crossover between art and everything else, influencing it.
What best describes my artistic guideline is the “punctum” of R. Barthes and the “auratic” moment in the sense of W. Benjamin. My work features to a certain extend materialization of art theory and practice. I realized that I always ended up with the same fascination for “absence” in my pictures and the “hypnotic nothing” as a quality to select a photo…
As from knowing your background in writing your doctorate “L’instant dans l’art et dans la philosophie contemporaine”, it would be interesting to hear more about your opinion on where fashion and art intersect. How do you personally as a photographer, experience such – let’s say ‘symbiosis’?
My doctorate and research did not help or stimulate me for my work in fashion,even though it is fundamental for my artistic work. Both sectors play by different rules and do not work the same way. Even when you can do great and highly creative work in fashion, fashion is fashion and art is art. To me, most attempts to produce art in a fashion story is ridiculous. This industry is not “free enough” to be art, since you still work with brand names, made for the purpose to sell in a fashion or beauty context. As I mentioned in the beginning, “the medium is the message”.
What is the difference between having your pictures to be shown at an art gallery and in a magazine?
The fashion and the art market are different in structure and behavior, but they are markets, still. In a magazine you “sell” fashion or beauty content and not yourself. Showing pictures in a magazine is less long lasting, as the fashion cycles are fast changing, to which photography adapts. The work you show in galleries is usually less compromised and more independent, since you are showing your unfiltered expression. It should have a more timeless transcendent quality.
Do you feel that the fashion industry is pressuring you to follow certain rules or would you argue otherwise?
What feels pressuring the most, is not only a fashion industry but a more global attitude. Scrolling and liking, zapping and being “liked” is becoming a ridiculous habit, creating pressure. It’s the extreme loss of orientation in media, that we’re dedicating ourselves to everyday. At the last Documenta in Kassel, I saw an artist’s’ quote framed on a wall, saying “don’t post art”. I agree entirely. Art is too precious and its “transcendence” can’t be transmitted in social media posts. Constant information and an oversaturation of imagery, makes us lose focus and appreciation for a photograph as such. Specifically talking about the fashion industry. I always preferred to stand a bit aside and observe fashion from a respectful distance to be able to reflect and develop within the process of working as a photographer.
Is there anything in particular that you are working on at the moment?
I’m currently finalizing two of my longterm photography and video projects. The first one is on the practice of Sumo that I had been photographing now over 2 years in Tokyo. Another series will be about water fountains, called “ghosts”, exploring the possibilities of mixed media by using paint and photography. I also started sending work out to photography competitions, something I never did before. Besides the preparation of some new editorials and new portraits, I’m looking forward moving into my new office space in Paris soon. Photography is a great adventure and for me the best medium through which I am able to communicate and create. I’m a happy person with my camera in my hands.
Interview by Anika Hatje
This interview has been edited for length
All images courtesy of Olaf Wippenfürth. In order of appearance
1. „THE DIALOGUE“ FOR HEROINE MAGAZINE
2.„GLASS“ EXHIBITION + BOOK
3.ANNIE MORTON FOR SPOON MAGAZINE
4.„NOCTURNAL PEOPLE“ FOR DANSK
5.„KATIA RIEMANN“ FOR INTERVIEW MAGAZINE
6.„THE BATH“ FOR ACHTUNG MAGAZINE
7. „NOUVELLE VAGUE“ FOR ACHTUNG MAGAZIN
8. „DIE BLAUE STUNDE“ FOR VOLT MAGAZIN
9. „NOUVELLE VAGUE“ FOR ACHTUNG MAGAZINE
10. „ANY HUMAN HEART“ EXHIBITION ON CINEMATIC BEAUTY
11. „THE REHEARSAL“ FOR GQ CHINA
12. „SIGNATURES“ EXHIBITION IN PREPARATION