Devoid of people and with drooping palm leaves: the Berlin photographer, Christian Werner, has regularly been taking pictures in Los Angeles since 2015. On the whole they are detail images, and rarely landscapes. They reveal a tired, burnt out city, far from the ideal of the American dream. We spoke with the photographer about places of yearning and the challenge to not lose focus.
What links you to Los Angeles?
I always saw Los Angeles as a very symbolically-loaded city, and for a few years now it has been a real place of yearning for me: I don’t, in fact, just connect it to beauty, but also to a strong feeling of melancholy; like a premonition of the end of western civilisation. Los Angeles is the furthest place I can think of from where I come from in the provincial area of western Germany. It’s a place where you can immediately and continually reinvent yourself, or where you can disappear completely if you want to. Breaking out of middle-class constraints and Catholic humbleness into the endless vastness and eternal light; yet, at the same time, in fact, too big, too garish, too artificial and too excessive. Using psychoanalytical vocabulary, it is a type of fearful thrill that links me to Los Angeles.
Is it easier to photograph at home or abroad?
When you’re in foreign places, your eye for signs, places and situations is always much more alert than when you’re in more familiar surroundings. That makes it easier, of course. In the case of Los Angeles, it was also a challenge not to lose focus. The city is so visually intense, that at first virtually everything seems interesting and worthy of photographing. But, when everything fits together, the individual things lose significance.
The photo book, Los Angeles, appeared in Spring 2019 published by Korbinian Verlag. Does the book contain a photo you are particularly fond of?
Of course it includes some pictures that I personally prefer over others; however, it is the actual composition and dramaturgy of the book that are most important to me. I took a lot of time for the editing, looking at the pictures for months, placing them side by side, and then reselecting again. In the process, some pictures I had originally decided on ended up falling along the wayside, as they would have driven the flow of the story in an undesired direction. Kill your darlings!
Did you already have the book in mind when you were taking photographs?
During my first trip to Los Angeles I already felt a need to commit myself to a visual narrative about the city and undertake a larger project. However, it took a while and further visits before I found my own particular approach. Los Angeles is an intimidating subject for a photographer, and certainly a precarious one. The city is among the three most photographed places in the world. The supposition that there are still secrets to discover here seems, at first, highly unlikely.
Why do we never see people in the pictures?
I made the decision not to include any portraits in this book relatively quickly. For me it was about showing the surficial in-between and behind-the-scenes places, in front of which the film industry spreads out its sets. I also deliberately avoided any level of clearly visible scripts or symbols in the images. For this book, I considered they would be too powerful and would distract from what I wanted to show. The fact that absolutely no one is seen in the urban landscapes further underlines the book’s slightly dystopian mood.
Towards the end of the book, however, people are given the word. Rather than a “classic” catalogue text, I was able to get author Tom Kummer to write fictitious interviews with five characteristic inhabitants. Consequently, for example, Dr. John (life coach), Julie Kay (helicopter pilot) and also Tomas (tennis trainer) speak about their lives in Los Angeles. Using the fictitious interview format plays with the displacement between fiction and reality that has always been an inherent part of Los Angeles.
What camera did you use for the project?
The project was photographed exclusively with Leica cameras, primarily an M-P and an M10, which are predestined for this kind of street photography, if you want to be out and about with a relatively light bag of equipment. Some of the pictures were also taken with a Leica S, which has very special qualities and reproduces colours brilliantly. Even though I still like to work with film – especially when it comes to portraits –, it was very important for me to photograph this project in digital, so that the pictures would have a modern and more objective finish. I wanted to get by without any “aesthetic tricks” to describe Los Angeles at the present time
Are there other places that you’d like to capture in pictures?
I would really love to travel to Tokyo and find out what keys I might find there to produce an interesting and maybe novel portrait of the city.
The Berlin, Leica photographer Christian Werner (born 1977) works for many national and international magazines such as Zeit magazine or Numéro and clients such as SSENSE or 032c. His work focuses on long-term projects, which have already resulted in a number of books. Another of his books that has just appeared is Bonn. Atlantis der BRD (Bonn. Atlantis of the FRG). A series taken from this book appears in LFI 3.2019
To see more of Werner’s photography you can visit his website.