German photographer Kerstin Kuntze is literally in her element shooting underwater images, which she describes as an expression of life itself. Kerstin feels at home in the water and her years of experience have given her an instinctive understanding of how to capture light and movement underwater. Her background as a graphic illustrator and designer has also seen her develop an inimitable photo-editing technique. Working with a pen in hand at her tablet, she has managed to retain an analog aspect within her digital process. The images she creates communicate wonderfully the sensory joy of entering this subaqueous world. Better known for her flamboyant, almost surrealist, color images, the following monochrome series shot with the Leica X-U reflects a more emotional and intimate side to Kerstin’s photography.
You started out studying graphic design but how did you first get into photography?
My passion for photography was first awoken by my father’s polaroid camera. I loved this little miracle. It was so easy to create a picture of the world with it. I had to learn photography as part of my studies. At the Folkwang Universität the foundations of photography was a compulsory course for all graphic design students. Thanks to my lack of knowledge, photography back then was rather simple and playful. However my great passion at that time was graphic illustration.
Who or what inspired your photographic style and how would you describe your photography?
I’m not a classic photographer. Graphic editing plays an important role in my work. In this way I still work with a pen in my hand, not on paper but on my Wacom board, creating new visual worlds. My focus is on what it means to be human. The expression of life, desire, passion, longing, all the emotions from bright red to the darkest black.
I take inspiration from my surroundings, from the force of life and the tiniest air bubble under water.
You combine your two great passions of photography and swimming to create wonderfully immersive images, giving the viewers the feeling of being in the water themselves. When did you discover your passion for swimming and what is it about being in the water that you cherish so much?
Even as a child I was happiest in the water. It’s where I feel at home.
For ten years now I have been swimming at least 3,000 m almost every day – always outside in the open air. Two years ago I discovered my love for open water and now I can even be found swimming in the North Sea when it’s 3°C. It’s a sensational feeling that I find really addictive and it also helps create new images.
The thing I love most about swimming is the feeling of the water of my skin. It’s an ancient force, that envelops and fulfills me. Diving into another world can grant me a feeling of weightlessness or demand the greatest effort on my behalf. This is how I create images, which reflect life itself.
They should grab you, carry you away and touch you – just like the water touches me.
Could you describe how these photos were shot? Where did you shoot and who are the people we see?
My pictures are always taken outdoors. Outside at the Seedammbad swimming pool in Bad Homburg, where I do most of my swimming, at the lake, in the river or the sea. I love it when the sun makes the water shine. I’ve shot so many people swimming over the years, some of them are famous swimmers as well.
My three kids are some of my favorite subjects. They are good swimmers and I can get really close to them. This proximity and trust creates very special pictures. In addition to this I also shoot a few self portraits. With an outstretched arm I like to capture photos of my face or curves. Bright and extravagant photos of a curvy swimmer.
You shot this series with the Leica X-U, known for its robust nature and excellent performance underwater. How would you describe the experience of shooting with the X-U and what do you appreciate most about the camera?
With my flippers I can swim right next to my often quite speedy models. This proximity is very important to me and to ensure I can achieve it, I need a reliable camera that is easy to handle. Waterproof housing would be too cumbersome, it would restrict my mobility too much.
That’s why I love the Leica X-U. It fits perfectly in my hand and feels amazing to hold. The simple and intuitive settings are a great help and the quality of the pictures is astonishing. The Leica grain and the broad dynamic range provide great depth to my photos. I really love this camera a lot.
A lot of your photography uses bright, almost pop-art color and composition, yet this series features your black and white images. What do you see as the difference in these two approaches and are you looking to capture a different feel with your monochrome work?
I’m more well-known for my explosive color work. Sumptuous, living testaments to life itself, which are often expressions of almost iconic grandeur.
Nevertheless, I enjoy creating my black and white images just as much. The world of emotions and the feeling of being at the heart of the action are even more immediate in these images and they tend to capture the eye of the beholder in a more open way. The images are often easier for me. I have to do less editing work on them.
I love both types of images. The powerful, vivid forms and the deep monochrome ruggedness.
It’s great that I get to show my wild side here for the first time!
You use the water itself as a medium for expression within your photography. Often working with reflections, distortions and the interplay of light and movement. What are you trying to express with these effects?
Of course, I’m interested in far more than simply photographing the water. I employ my favorite element as a symbolic image of life. I often work with unspectacular subjects, such as a ripple in the water or an exhaled breath under water.
By capturing a single moment in an image, this act becomes something sensational. Perhaps it’s exactly that, which I love so much – the magic of the smallest moment. The eternity, which can be encapsulated in a moment. Timelessness. In this way, water becomes the mirror of life.
How much are you aware of the effects while shooting and how much are they a result of post-editing?
Last year I swam a total of 888.8 km. Water, with all its power, is something I feel close to and I’ve known since I was a child. Just like a photographer knows their favorite model; every curve, every look, every movement… I know my favorite element in exactly the same way. I know how it moves, how it glistens, how it reflects. Thanks to my years of experience I can manipulate the aquatic, blue and green tones to create an image out of the chaos.
Nevertheless, in spite of all that, water still manages to surprise me again and again, showing its endless facets depending on the light and movement. It’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration, just like life itself.
Your passion for experimentation is clear from your work. Could you describe your editing process?
Thank you. I’m glad that my love for experimentation comes through in my photography.
To reinvent oneself, to try new things out and experiment with joy, these are the foundations of every development, not only those relating to the images them themselves. Creation and destruction, desire and pain, the dividing line here is often very thin.
When it comes down to it I’m still an illustrator. I work with a pen on my graphics tablet and explore the possibilities that an image provides me with. Just as in the water itself, I have been swimming through editing software for many years now. I feel far more at home in this type of darkroom than I ever did in the analog equivalent.
The more varied the possibilities to express myself, the more I can do without. It’s a process of conscious creation that is also open to the happy accidents, which can occur.
In addition to exhibiting your work, you also produce calendars and prints, as well as offering shooting sessions for other people. Could you tell us a bit more about each of these endeavors?
My art should go out into the world. Because not everyone can afford a signed original by me, I started publishing my photos in printed form. It makes me very happy that my pictures are now hanging in many places across the world. From Ethiopia to Mexico and from Portugal to Korea.
A lot of swimmers are really into my images and have asked me back in the beginning if I could also take photos of them. This is how I turned my photography into a money earner. By now there are many passionate swimmers, who have graced my world of images. I’ve had the privilege to shoot families obsessed with swimming, long-distance swimmers and even the women’s ice swimming world champion.
Due to the fact that the editing of my pictures can take anywhere between 3-5 hours per image, I can only accept a limited number of jobs. I love working with people and really appreciate this aspect of my art.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
The future is something I’m looking forward to. I’m sure I will continue devoting myself to water. The desire to work on images every day will also never leave me. Up until now everything has developed wonderfully step by step.
I am very grateful for my exhibitions in good galleries here in Germany. Last year my works were also exhibited in a museum in Seoul and a gallery in Pohang, South Korea. Some of my pictures will also be shown soon in Romania. I’d love to continue in the same vein.
In addition, I feel as though it’s about time for a book focusing on my Wasserlust (passion for water) theme. If any publishers happen to be reading this I’d love to hear from them.
Lastly, if you could offer just one piece of advice to your fellow photographers, what would it be?
Art and photography are deeply personal. I’m a passionate creator and having a burning desire for what I do. Images are my language. To develop this language you need a lot of passion and strength. You won’t get far being half-hearted about things. Courage helps. Also having the courage to try new ways of doing things to expand your own horizons, to show something that goes beyond simply yourself.