This year’s exhibition program at the Leica Galerie at photokina 2014 includes Leica cultural projects including the project “Wanderlust” (teNeues) from this year’s Hall of Fame award winner Thomas Hoepker, a retrospective of his outstanding oeuvre.
With simple humility, Thomas Hoepker has always seen himself as nothing more than an assignment photographer, someone interested in nothing less than the truth, in the honesty of the moment. He was 14 when he made his first efforts using a glass plate camera. In 1959 he started working for international magazines and annuals, travelling throughout the USA for a number of months on assignment for Kristall, and producing Champ in 1966, his legendary reportage about Muhammad Ali. In 1964 he started working full time for Stern, impacting its overall look first as a photographer and later as art director at the end of the eighties. With his precise composition, tight visual statements, and refined imagery, Hoepker has defined German photojournalism like few others. He moved to New York in 1976, where he became the first German member of the Magnum Agency in 1989. He portrayed politicians and other prominent personalities, documented adversity and daily life, and travelled the world. His pictures are engaged, unadorned and committed to the truth, yet they are never voyeuristic or offensive. He did not take shocking pictures, but captured quiet, everyday dramas. Calm, subtle and free of sensationalism, they became icons of “concerned photography”. Consequently, Hoepker is still considered one of the greatest representatives of engaged, humanistic photojournalism.
Thomas Hoepker was born in Munich in 1936. His early studies were in archaeology and art history. As a photographer, he was most influential with Geo and Stern. He became a full member of the Magnum Agency in 1989, presiding over the institution from 2003 to 2007. Hoepker lives in New York and Berlin.
Q: What was the first magazine that you started with?
A: It was called the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. I had just shown the editor a couple of my very fresh and not so interesting pictures and he offered me a salary position. I was with them for three years before they closed down due to bankruptcy. In those times, in Germany, we had four or five very interesting weekly magazines. I believe the day after I had to leave because the shop was closing, a man from Hamburg came to visit me and offered me a job with Kristall. It was a bi-weekly magazine with lots of space to fill. They also used color pages, so I began to experiment with color, although I still primarily focused on black-and-white. They had enough money to send me and a writer to faraway places.
There is one moment that is still very fresh in my mind. In 1970, the editor came in and said to us, “Would you like to go to America?” and we, of course, said yes. We had never been there. I asked what he wanted us to do and he told us we would be flying to New York, renting a car and driving across the country and back. He didn’t care how long it look. It was totally open. We spent five months shooting and writing. We came back and our photo essays were published over three consecutive issues. The pictures are still quite interesting today. I published them all in a book called Heartland.
Q: That sounds like quite a luxury for a photographer!
A: Well, yes. Usually you get an assignment and it’s “get there, get back, no expenses.”
Q: Are there any good stories you can share about the trip?
A: Really it’s best to just look at the pictures.
Q: When you were working at the magazines did they ever let you work in the darkroom, or were you just handing over negatives?
A: At the time, I had my own darkroom in the bathroom of my apartment. I did all of the developing myself. It was hard because I spent many nights in the darkroom and shot in the day. It’s interesting because you immediately see the mistakes you’ve made. It was the best teacher for me. In fact, there weren’t any other possibilities. There were no classes. No photography schools. I had to teachmyself. I had a few good books I could read for technical advice. In the beginning, I actually mixed my own developing material.
Q: You spent a lot of time shooting the Berlin Wall. Can you tell us about spending time in East Berlin?
A: The whole story is that my wife and I were asked to go and live there to report. For the first time after the cold war, the two Germanys had signed a treaty which allowed us to officially be accredited in East Germany as journalists. We had a half-dozen or so colleagues from the west moving as well. It was good because we could really immerse ourselves in the experience of a strange country, which was our neighbor and where the same language was spoken. It was interesting and quite dangerous. We knew we were being watched and observed every day by the secret service – the Stasi. We adapted and if we wanted to talk to someone off limits we went into the street or into a park. We met a lot of interesting people there, including some photographers and artists. We spoke the same language but had a lot to share with each other. I found that good film was not available in the East, so I became a great resource for my new friends. We, of course, could travel back to West Germany any time we wanted – we had a special blue license plate that allowed us to cross the borders. I was very popular with the photographers because I could bring them new film and lenses. They had a difficult life because, although they were great photographers, they could not publish. We would take my film and develop it in West Germany for Stern to publish.
Q: How has your photography changed over the years?
A: When magazines went to using color pages I had to witch from only photographing in black-and-white. It was an interesting new way to see the world for me. More and more I shot in color and it was all slide film so I couldn’t do the dark room work anymore.
At some point I was interested in movie making. I did several films with my wife in faraway countries. From the glass plate, to black-and-white, to color, to movies, I covered it all.
Q: How would you describe your reportage of images in terms of telling stories?
A: Sometimes I was alone on the trips so I had to write my own reports. I’m not a very seasoned writer, so I always preferred to travel with someone else. It was also nice to have someone to discuss the project with at the end of the day. When you travel alone you don’t have that.
There was a pretty grim situation in the 1970’s. There was a Small Pox outbreak coupled with a drought. I heard of it and proposed it at Stern. They wanted to do it but I couldn’t find a writer who wanted to go with me. I went anyway and experienced a lot of really horrible scenes. It’s sometimes very macabre. Occasionally I have felt like I should just put the camera away and help. In other cases I have felt that I could help to trigger help organizations thought the magazine. Once while reporting on Ethiopia, the editor organized food and medicine donations. It became a much larger project and we actually were able to help a lot.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about you work with Muhammad Ali.
A: Well, another interesting element of journalistic photography is that you meet many interesting people. When I met him he still went by Cassius Clay. There was a huge fight coming up for him with a German boxer. Stern took interest in the fight and put me on it. I had never heard of him at the time because I was not a boxing fan. They sent me to London to interview him. He was more than an athlete. He was a political person and was also very funny. He had just converted to being Muslim.
Q: Was that public knowledge at the time?
A: I think so. I believe it was why we were sent there. Now, part of his religion was that he could not talk to white women. My second wife, Ava, who was an editor for Stern, came with me on the trip. She could not talk to the man she was supposed to write about. We said as long as he didn’t kick us out we would stay with him. He was very warm with us and, in fact, sort of operated as if we were not there. I believe it was Henri Cartier-Bresson who said, “A good photographer should be a fly on the wall. He/she sits on the wall and sees everything, but is not noticed.” We were sitting in the dark watching him train. He kept his distance mostly. It was ideal, really, because we just wanted to watch anyway.
Once while we were watching him train, he saw us sitting in the dark during a break and came running over to say hello to me. He paused and let me get in three quick shots. At the time I thought they wouldn’t be very good because the setting wasn’t ideal but one of them, the fist picture, ended up being probably the most important photo of my career. It was used by many people after that. It was just one of those moments of spontaneity. Photography is about catching the moment.
Q: Of course the fist photo is one of your most iconic photos. What is another one of your favorite photos?
A: I don’t think I have one favorite photo. Yes the Ali is the most reproduced and bought, but I’m not sure it’s my favorite. I like it, of course, but other people can decide which ones are best.
Q: You were saying how the Magnum editor touched up the fist photo by bringing the fist and the background into focus.
A: Yes. That is a unique way of enlarging images. We have a printer named Pablo at the Magnum office. His specialty was making a proof print and while doing so, he was marking it so he could come back and know what he needed to do to make every image the same every time he printed it. Of course it’s not a technique used much anymore because everything is done on the computer.
Q: These days you print your own images as well. Would you like to talk about your relationship with your printing?
A: These days I do all of my own printing in my studio. I print everything. I shoot digitally now and I’m really convinced that this is the technology of our day. I’m really glad that Leica is now producing digital cameras. Even this camera, which looks very much like my old Leica M, is a digital camera. I can even use the lenses I’ve had for many years.
Q: Let’s talk about your most controversial photo. Looking back years later, would you still have shown that photo?
A: You’re talking about a photo that has become kind of famous. When I shot it I didn’t understand that it was an interesting photo. It was 9/11 and it was a very confusing day. I crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Queens and then went on down to Brooklyn. On the horizon I saw the horrific cloud of black smoke and didn’t even really understand the weight of what had happened yet.
I took some shots and felt like I had failed because I was on the wrong side of the city. The irony was that we had a Magnum meeting the day before, so we had about six or seven Magnum photographers in Manhattan at the time. They got amazing pictures from there and I felt like I hadn’t been close enough to really get the shots I wanted. I felt I was not close enough.
I got all of the pictures I’d taken and started making a book immediately. The picture of mine that we are talking about wasn’t even in my choices. I put it aside because all of the other photos were much better work. Several years later, a curator from Munich came to see me about doing an exhibition. He was looking through my slides and found that picture and wondered why he had never seen it before. He liked that everyone seemed to be talking and carrying on with their day, meanwhile behind them the world was ending. He liked it because it had more character.
I had it published and a big debate arose. Even some of the people in the picture came forward and told me that they were not happy about the picture. An added irony is that the pretty young girl in the middle said that she was a professional photographer. She told me that she always asked people if she could take their picture. I said that if I had asked her then I wouldn’t have gotten the picture. It would have been a lie because I would have interfered with the situation. I always try to not be seen – the fly on the wall.
It has been discussed, condemned, liked, purchased and it’s probably the second most important photograph I have taken.
Q: Are you glad you shared it?
A: In hindsight, yes. I think it’s a good image. I didn’t judge or condemn these people.
Q: When you were first invited to join Magnum, you turned it down. Can you tell us about that decision?
A: It had a very strange and bumpy start. In the mid or early 1970’s I was just starting to work with Stern. I received a letter from Elliot Erwitt, who I knew to be a wonderful photographer and was, at the time, the president of Magnum. He invited me to join the staff. At the time I was stunned, flattered and nervous about it. I thought about it sleeplessly for a few days, but I had just signed a contract with Stern Magazine with a good salary and great opportunities for travel. I wrote him back saying that it was not a good time for me to take the post. We reconnected many years later and I eventually did join Magnum, obviously. It was the most decisive moment for me to become a part of the agency. I couldn’t imagine my life without Magnum now.
Q: How was it going from being a member to becoming president? Did you enjoy that?
A: I did not enjoy the process of becoming president. You have to deal with a stable of highly talented egos. Magnum is built on debate. It’s a difficult bunch of very high strung, very talented people. I had a hard time getting used to it.
Q: Magnum is rooted in custom in some ways, but very pioneering in other ways. Can you talk about the culture of Magnum in relationship to the photographic community?
A: Well the good thing is that we keep Magnum open for young, talented people. Every year we have an annual meeting to select new talents. It is always growing. We have a real span of styles across multiple generations. We are a family, though dysfunctional in many aspects. The miracle is that Magnum still exists and flourishes and is still the home of progressive and different photography.
Q: Magnum is also partnered with Leica. Can you tell us how you view that partnership?
A: The truth is that most of the photographers are using Leica. It developed from the early days. Back then, Leica cameras were the only ones that professional photojournalists would use. There was a little bit of competition, but Leica clearly rose above. It had its lulls when there wasn’t much development going on, but most of us stuck with them. I personally admire Leica, not just for their equipment, but because of the interest they take in the product that comes out of them.
Q: One of your best quotes is, “I’m not an artist. I’m an image maker.” Why do you dislike the word “artist?”
A: I have a shaky relationship with the idea of referring to a photographer as an artist. I grew up as a photojournalist, reporting from the real world. The art world, I always found very interesting. My earliest roots are in art history. I’ve always been interested in old and new and interesting art. I don’t feel like photographers have to be artists. I’ve always seen myself as a chronicler: someone who travels and shows people how other people live in other parts of the world. I tell stories. Of course, there are lots of photographers who are pure artists. I always wanted to be a reporter rather than an artist. If people like it and want to hang my pictures on the wall, I embrace it, but it’s not my starting point. There is a crossover, we have wonderful artists in Magnum and we have wonderful reporters.
Q: I read online that you had stated, “Don’t be boring. Bring your perspective to the photographs.” It seems to go a little against the grain in terms of being objective. Can you tell us about your approach of bringing subjectivity to your work?
A: A good photographer is a chronicler who just goes there and tries to make good pictures that tell something about a situation. If the picture is skillfully composed, it suddenly moves into the art realm. It becomes more than just a piece of news. Pictures are wonderful because they tell a story, or they are wonderful because they are beautiful. My expression is, “If a picture smells, then it is interesting.” I want my pictures to have a certain aroma. It’s a floating feel that I can’t quite pin down. Everybody has his field.
Q: There has been an enormous change in the landscape of photography which has been brought about partially by the development of the smartphone. What would you say is the biggest shift in photography in the last five years?
A: I remember my mother used to take pictures once a year on vacation. When she came back she may have exposed only five pictures. After two years, she would develop a few pictures. Now everybody takes pictures. You can’t cross the street in New York without finding someone either talking on their phone or taking pictures with it. It’s a huge shift. An ocean of images exists in this world; most of these pictures just exist in the ether. They aren’t printed and physical, but they are there all the same. So many people spend their days taking pictures – mostly of themselves, which is absurd to me! Ninety-nine percent of these pictures are completely uninteresting to most people, but they are important to the ones taking the photos. These people say, “Ok. I was here and I had a very nice sausage.” It’s very banal, but it’s a new way of communicating all things, whether they be important or unimportant.
Q: Could you ever see Magnum accepting mobile photography?
A: There are two sides to the answer. One is the quality of the picture. Up to now, as photographers, we have hoped that we had high-resolution, sharp, colorful, well-balanced photographs. These modern cell phone cameras provide that and, in fact, are in some ways superior to a lot of the old film cameras. The other side is how people are walking around viewing the world through these devices. They aren’t paying attention to traffic anymore – they’re too busy talking to someone in Idaho. It’s very selfish. They even call them selfies. It’s mostly nonsense. It’s banality by the billions. So much time is spent looking at phones that people don’t see the world anymore. I see great danger in this. On the other hand, interest in photography has boomed. But on the whole I’d say that the number of people who produce lasting images which tell a story or an emotion has not grown much.
Q: There are a lot of readers of the Leica blog who want to be great photographers. What advice would you give an aspiring photographer?
A: I would like to say that anyone who owns a Leica is a wonderful photographer, but that’s just not true. Simply owning a wonderful instrument (you can own a wonderful piano and not be a good piano player) doesn’t make you good. The Leica is a precious instrument. It is a wonderful mechanism and it feels as if it has a soul. That is something unique to a good camera. It is not a quality that is unique to Leica, but it certainly has it. You also cannot say that Nikon and Canon produce inferior pictures to Leica. That’s just not true. But Leica has a little extra. It’s the feel, it’s the soul of the machine.
A very simple piece of advice is to think before you click. See the world first, not through the lens. Take it all in. If you see something you truly find interesting, whether it be the place or the light or a person or a face, only then do you try to capture it. And be serious. Stick with it. Follow that person, or that mood or that light. Find that famous decisive moment and that split second where everything comes together. More often than not it’s no good. You may take fifty pictures and come out with only one good one, but that’s part of the process. If you are true to yourself, you discard all of them but the one. That’s the beauty of the delete button – no one has to know!
It’s a fascinating and challenging world. It’s great that so many people take pictures.
Thank you for your time, Thomas!
For more information about #DASWESENTLICHE events, lectures, live Twitter chats, and book signings taking place during photokina 2014, click here.
-Leica Internet Team
Ask Thomas questions about his life and photography Thursday, September 18, from 4-5pm CEST during our live Twitter chat with him using #LeicaChat. See the full schedule of Leica’s photokina Twitter chats here.
To connect with Thomas and find out more about his book ‘Wanderlust’, follow him on Instagram and Facebook, and to see more of his work, visit his Magnum portfolio.
For the sake of convenience, we’ve presented this in a Q&A format but it was actually a conversation between Helen Todd, a member of the Leica Internet Team, and Thomas Hoepker.