Times are tough for photographers: everyone thinks they can be a Jürgen Teller or a Martin Parr these days. Why should we pay someone to take some pictures when we can do it ourselves with our smart phone or repost someone else’s images from the web? Sophie Lovell talked to architecture photographer Andreas Gehrke about the saturated market, his love of “slow capture” and setting up his own publishing company.
Andreas Gehrke was born in Berlin in 1975. His career has bridged the gap between his art photography and commercial projects. Under the name “Noshe” he has been a regular contributor to the likes of Wallpaper and AD and shot buildings for publishers including Taschen and Hatje Cantz, whereas his alter ego Andreas Gehrke has exhibited his spare yet aura-laden landscapes and building portraits in galleries ranging from Pierogi in Leipzig to PS1 in New York. Yet even Gehrke has not remained untouched by the changes that have drastically altered the practice and perception of photography over the past few years. Self-publishing, globally accessible image banks and the fact that millions now carry a high quality camera masquerading as a telephone in their trouser pocket have all taken their toll. But the biggest problem, in Gehrke’s view, lies in print. For hard hit publishing companies photography books are an expensive specialist niche market they can increasingly ill afford. So last year Gehrke decided to set up his own publishing company, Drittel Books, for his own works and those of colleagues he admires. His first publications are a series of slim, carefully crafted volumes of his own visual essays on dormant modernist buildings that once hosted business enterprises playing a significant role in shaping the political, social and economic face of post-war Germany: Quelle, IBM and the newspaper Der Spiegel.
Uncube: Did you set out to be architecture photographer?
Andreas Gehrke: I have never differentiated between architecture, landscape or portrait. I don’t think it is important what you photograph, but how you photograph it. A good friend once said that he sees a portrait in everything that I shoot: be it a portrait of a landscape, a building or a person.
What drew you to architecture as the subject of your work?
Growing up as a city kid in Berlin, I was always interested in my immediate surroundings: streets, corners, walls, derelict spaces and so on, that’s how photographers are. At the age of eleven I joined a photography club and a few years later I had my first exhibitions centred around the urban⁄rural theme. The distance between nature and city is never far in Berlin.
When did you start working as a professional photographer? What was the work climate like then in your profession?
I got my first commission in 1999 and it wasn’t long before I was able to earn a living from my photography.
Photography has undergone big changes over the last few years, as has the publishing industry. In what ways has this affected your work as a photographer?
Because my career began towards the end of the “fat years”, I got used to a pattern of working hard, staying flexible and keeping costs down. In recent years the jobs have not got any less but there are certain trends that worry me a lot: the growing market invasion of image banks, shrinking picture editorial budgets and the constantly shifting print market. Worst of all is when the photographic element of photography gets lost, when everything is shot in a flat and neutral way and we end up needing artificially generated filters to bring back the errors in order to re-establish our relationship with the medium.
Is it hard to earn a living in this business now, if so why?
Of course it is hard sometimes, but I would not want to switch places with my journalist colleagues or the architects either. It is the same everywhere. The market is saturated, there are far too many experienced photographers, and young talents.
Does the Internet and increasingly high-quality mobile devices mean the death of professional photography?
I don’t think so. It is always the eye behind the camera that counts. Even when it has become technically so much easier to achieve a relatively satisfactory result you can usually see whether the photographer has devoted a lot of time to the subject or the medium, or not.
You have had books of your work published before, so what drove you to take the step towards setting up your own publishing company Drittel Books?
The photography and art book market has really changed a lot. There is a varied and of course interesting range on offer but at the same time the print runs are dropping. This makes it hard for publishers to finance smaller projects. That means that artists today have to finance production themselves with their own money – or that of a sponsor. I will most likely continue to self-publish my own projects in the future. But that will only work if the small editions that I have published so far sell successfully. I also hope to publish more works by my colleagues again, like the recent book galerie berlintokyo that I did with Martin Eberle. Drittel Books is intended to be a platform for contemporary photography. But I have to be realistic and see to it that the organisation of it all remains manageable.
Where would you like to go next?
My aim is to publish the next editions in a print run high enough to allow them to be sold through a distributor.
What advice would you give to photographers wanting to work in the world of architecture?
Use a tripod!
What advice would you give to architects wanting to have their buildings photographed?
Give the photographer the freedom to look at and photograph the building using their own eye. That doesn’t mean you can’t still give concrete specifications, I always find it interesting to see how architects view and understand their own buildings.
Another photographer who has a passion for abandoned spaces, Robert Polidori, said at a talk in Berlin recently: I like the reproducibility of digital, but its capture is brittle and not so great. With digital you take the picture to expurgate it out of your life, with film you take a picture to keep it. Would you agree?
I still shoot my personal work exclusively analogue with a 4 x 5 plate camera. It’s the process, the rapprochement with the place and the slow capture I love. The camera forces you to concentrate on the motif, I love the intensity of that concentration. Also it’s softer in the highlights than digital. On the other hand I totally enjoy the advantages of the digital process, the speed and it can produce excellent results. In the commercial world, no client has time for the analogue process anymore.
Who are your photographer heroes?
The list could be endless, but the photographers that influenced me the most when I was younger were those that I got to know through their books: Michael Schmidt, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, John Gossage, August Sander, Richard Avedon…
You have shot a lot of buildings over the past 14 years – do you have a favourite?
I am still inspired by the concept and realisation of the Boros Collection building in a former bunker here in Berlin and the penthouse on the roof by Realarchitektur and Jens Casper is one of the most beautiful apartments that I have ever seen or photographed.
– Sophie Lovell