Oliver Rüther is one of Germany’s most sought-after photographers. For instance, he works for numerous prominent magazines and has shot portraits of many well-known personalities from the worlds of politics and society. Andreas Dippel interviews Mr. Rüther to discover that his M9 delivers the shots that, for him, express the essential property of any portrait: power.
Oliver Rüther, what makes a portrait a successful shot?
I always admired the work of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Their photography was always characterised by the fact that their subjects dominated, and never the background. My aim is to portray my subjects in a way that makes it clear that they have been captured in a vital moment. As the photographer, I help my subjects to find this special moment. First of all, I try two or three simple poses to give my subject the feeling that he or she is good at it. While doing this, I find out which poses are really good for the subject and which are not. So for me, a successful portrait is a shot that reveals and expresses the inner strengths of the person portrayed. That’s the essential factor. However, this is only one way of doing it. Although I very much appreciate the work of other photographers, I would never shoot people the way they do. This is the way I’ve found that suits me best – and it’s the way I go.
What do you do if your subject simply doesn’t possess the power you envision or hope to find?
Even if the subject doesn’t have this vibrant aura, photographers can still capture a powerful image as long as they observe the basic rules of photography – composition, the right light, the omission of superfluous details, concentration on the essentials. I also feel that it’s important that my subjects focus on a distinct point and don’t just stare into space. What I really appreciate is when my subject looks straight at the camera.
How have your portraits evolved over the years?
When I started, I tried hard to recreate the work of Penn or Avedon, although it’s possible that no one noticed it. I wanted my photography to possess the same vibrant power. So I just asked my subjects to look serious and straight at the camera. That’s the way I saw Penn and Avedon portraits at the time. Of course, it’s clear to me now that that was the wrong approach, and now I try to capture and express the character of my subjects.
How do you prepare yourself for shooting portraits?
It differs. If I’m shooting for magazines or newspapers, I like to be there when the subject is being interviewed. Then I listen carefully to every word and make note of every statement and gesture that I think is essential and could potentially characterise my subject. For instance the shot of the Count: He had a cup in front of him all the time during an interview for a prominent business newspaper. I began to envision a shot of him pouring himself a cup of tea. Of course there’s no cut and dry way to go about it. Sometimes I only have around 30 seconds to get the portrait I want. And afterwards, I’m sometimes astonished at the power the portrait communicates after all – even though I never had the time to consciously look for it.
What form does the ‘power ’ of your portraits have?
A good portrait always grabs the attention and emotions of its viewers, just like any good picture. This is what makes it a powerful photo. It tells us a short story and motivates viewers to ask their own questions about the person portrayed. A successful portrait depicts the character of the person without passing a judgement. It leaves lasting impressions
What are the particular impressions and ‘power’ revealed when you shoot with an M9?
My M-photos are generally less artificial in terms of posing and composition – I suppose you could say ‘more classical’. I shoot what I see and how I see it. It lets me realise ideas immediately. At the same time, it keeps me close to my subjects and lets me communicate while I’m shooting – without the barrier of a big, fat camera body. I feel that these shots have a particular immediacy.
Which are the favourite situations for using your Leica M?
Any time when I’m completely free to choose how I compose my shots and have everything under control. I also very much appreciate being able to carry my light and compact M rather than several kilos of heavy kit.
Oliver Rüther, many thanks for the interview.