The weird and wonderful street photography of Siegfried Hansen displays a fine understanding of graphics and color, creating an often humorous aesthetic of coincidence. It’s a world full of surprises. His work has been profiled in the books “Street Photography Now” published by Thames and Hudson and “100 Great Street Photographs” by David Gibson. Siegfried is a member of the renowned street photography collective iN-PUBLiC. He has been a speaker and a juror at many photo festivals around the world, while his internationally acclaimed photo book “Hold the line” published by Kettler Verlag sold out and won several awards. We spoke with Siegfried about his influences, his love for the Leica Q and how he goes about capturing his fantastic photos.
How did you first get into photography? And street photography in particular?
I started as a typical “snapshot” photographer. Then, in 2002, I saw an exhibition by André Kertész that impressed me an awful lot and completely changed my way of looking at the world around me. That’s when I discovered my passion for street photography and since then I have been carrying my camera with me wherever I go.
Who or what had the biggest influence on your style of photography? Which of your fellow street photographers do you admire the most?
I would say I have been influenced by an array of artists – photographers as well as painters. For example, the works of André Kertész, Ernst Haas, Henri Cartier Bresson and Ray K. Metzker, as well as painters, such as Lyonel Feininger and Piet Mondrian. The Bauhaus movement has inspired me a lot too. Influenced by all these great artists, I finally developed my own style.
Street photography is my way of creating unique images in public spaces, by composing graphics, colours, and fascinating combinations of people and objects in a harmonic but surprising manner. I like the aesthetic of lines, patterns, and shapes. I strive to add a “second layer” to a picture, for example, by matching seemingly unconnected elements within my subjectively chosen frame.
How do you go about capturing those fantastic and often very funny, coincidental shots? How much is it a matter of “right time, right place” or is there more to it than that?
My photographic style is intuitive and I don’t plan what I am going to photograph when walking through the streets. I believe that the street is like a “stage”. Usually, the graphic patterns of a place strike me first. Then I wait for something interesting to happen to complete the scene. After many years of observing, I quickly see, if a situation might evolve into an interesting image.
Photography requires my mind and eyes to work in harmony, since there is a unique relationship between time, space and perception. One has to be very concentrated to compose these different layers. However, the process should be rather intuitive. Otherwise the pictures loses character and soon becomes too “technical”.
You have such a great eye for creating this “second layer” of humorous or absurd connections in your photos. Is this something you’ve always had or is it something you have trained over the years?
I did not receive any formal academic training in art or photography. However, during the last 16 years of daily practice and extensive studies of the aforementioned artists and photographers, I have developed my own style and techniques. I now know how to see and frame graphical compositions best. Therefore, realizing situations others may not be aware of and capturing them within seconds has become second nature to me.
Obviously a photographic memory does help. There are many things you learn by training and discipline. Nevertheless, you should internalize both theory and technique to the point, where you can fully concentrate on the moment when shooting.
Recurring elements in your photography include reflections and shadows, as well as geometric forms and shapes. What would you say are the visual “tools” you like to work with most?
Street photography produces, in my view, the best stand-alone shots. A strong composition, which makes you smile or astonished. Even though I hardly ever show people’s faces, human beings are a very important element in most of my pictures. Apart from that, you have mentioned the main elements I use; geometric forms, lines and light.
You’re from Hamburg and a lot of your shots are captured there. Is there something about Hamburg, which makes it such a dream for street photographers? Which other cities around the world do you think produce the best street photos?
Yes, Hamburg is a wonderful city. It has a lot to offer (for example, over the year several big events, the harbor, interesting, modern architecture) and I really like to photograph there. However, in Germany there are strict laws governing personality rights, or personal image rights, and these mean it is not easy to photograph people in public spaces without their permission. This has led me to change my perception of the street. I tend to concentrate more on abstract objects and situations.
If I have the choice, I would go to London, New York and Tokyo, but I am also curious about Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, which I will try to visit next.
You shot this series of photos with the Leica Q. What is it about the Q that you appreciate when shooting on the street?
The Leica Q is a very simple camera to use. For me that’s what it’s all about. I don’t like to be hung up with instruction manuals. The Leica Q felt right from the first moment. The camera is handy, quick and takes high-quality pictures – I really love it!
Could you describe how you work with the settings of the Leica Q? And how does the 28mm lens affect your way of seeing the street?
I was never much of a 28mm user in the past. However, because of the 28mm lens of the Leica Q, I’m forced to get closer to my subjects. On the other hand, it’s also very good for capturing a whole scene. This is precisely what works so well for my graphic images. In terms of settings, it simply depends on the situation, the light and the moment.
You also run street photography workshops around the world. Could you tell us a little more about this?
I’ve been taking pictures around the world for the last 16 years and I love teaching photography, in person and over the Internet. I run street photography workshops for beginners or advanced students. They are either one on one, in small groups or online, in English or German. I’ve been teaching and coaching for quite a few years now and had participants from all over the world.
What one piece of advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their street photography?
A good street photo is an interplay between photographic know-how, luck and stamina. That takes time and there are no shortcuts. After a while I think any person can take good street photographs. The most important things are, when aiming to improve your skills: to train, to learn about imagery and to get constructive feedback from like-minded, experienced photographers. A good workshop can also help in many ways. Having said all that, the most important advice I can give to anyone is simply to go out and shoot!