Alexander von Wiedenbeck: The Obsession and Freedom to Create

Alexander von Wiedenbeck started photographing in 2004. In 2012, he left everything behind and started the production on OBSESSION FOR FREEDOM. Below, Alexander describes this project and his use of the Leica M Monochrom.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: My photography is real and one on one. For me it is important to photograph something honest, that there’s a real person in front of my camera not just an illusion of what someone else maybe wants to see: real people, real feelings in real situations. I am not a friend of posing or even retouching. I’ll pass the situations and then try to see the right moment.

Q: Do your photos fall into a specific genre?

A: I do (fashion) editorials and portraits, but I’m also very interested in reportage.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Ninety-nine percent of the time I use the Leica M Monochrom with the 50 mm f/2 Summicron-M, 90 mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, and 28 mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lenses.

Q: What particular operational or technical characteristics or features of the Leica Monochrom do you fine especially useful in your work, and how do you think this camera helps you in capturing images?

A: So, first of all, I only do black-and-white photography. It was, of course, worth a shot to try the first digital camera with a black-and-white sensor. And the Monochrom did not disappoint me. Quite the opposite! More importantly, it is my first rangefinder camera and it was really exciting to discover photography from this side. It changed my way of working, totally, in a better way.

Q: You note that you use three Leica-M lenses. Which of these lenses, if any, do you favor for the majority of your work? And do you believe as many have stated that there is an identifiable Leica look in the way the Leica lenses render the subject? If so, how would you describe it?

A: At the end, when I saw which photographs found their way into the book, the 50 mm was of course used more than the others. But both the 90 mm and the 28 mm were also very important for the whole road trip. I’ve done a lot of good photographs with the 28 mm. I can say that the Leica lenses have their own look, of course, but I couldn’t find words to describe it — but you see it!

Q: Can you describe your photographic approach?

A: I want to make my contribution to photography. The world is becoming faster and faster. What is invented today is already old school tomorrow. I think it doesn’t hurt to hold on to some old values. Finally, it was the past that built the present and will build the future. I could see my contribution being to create a bridge between the old values and the new digital world. This is the goal and I have completely dedicated my life to that.

Q: When I first looked at the title of your book “Obsession For Freedom” I thought it might consist of images of people fighting for freedom from oppression or political or economic freedom, but it seems to be about artistic freedom or perhaps a kind of existential freedom that creates a mindset favorable for free, honest expression. How would you describe the freedom you are striving for?

A: Yes, you’re absolutely right. It is about the freedom to create whatever you want to create, to photograph what really happened, free from the thoughts of advertisers or art directors. Of course, I needed to setup some situations, but inside these situations everyone was able to act absolutely free and from that point my only function was to be someone like a silent observer who captured the reality. That freedom was also the main reason to go to the island Sylt in Germany. Have you ever been in the Wadden Sea? When the water is completely gone, all that remains is an intense silence and you could almost think an endless wideness. It’s so beautiful and I think only here, in such a place, you can develop freely as a human being, unaffected by external circumstances.

Q: Obviously these images taken with the Monochrome are all in black-and-white. What is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your work and do you ever shoot in color with other cameras? Do you believe the outstanding image quality and extended tonal gradation possible with the Monochrome are crucial to your kind of photography?

A: Of course, that was the main reason for the Monochrom, to create some more intense black-and-white photographs. It was awesome to discover that. I have done black-and-white productions before, with regular SLR cameras where I needed to transform the colored photographs into black-and-white ones, but I’ve never seen so versatile and intense gray tones like with the Leica Monochrom.

The reason I just do black-and-white photographs is maybe, that I have always preferred black-and-white and gray tones since I was a child. Even in school my favorite colors for clothing were black and white. But generally I think it is the photography in people’s minds, that the present, the reality is in color and that the captured moment, which one belongs already to the past at the same time, is better represented in black-and-white. At least that could be an explanation.

Q: This image shows a young woman with tousled hair, with her face obscured, fingers on her forehead, and an overcast scenic vista in the background. Her knitted garment and bracelet are rendered in exquisite detail but her clenched right fist and the pose express tension and stress. What’s going on here and what do you think this image communicates to the viewer?

A: The other side of the book title and theme is the “OBSESSION“ and in this photograph, I see this obsession — the OBSESSION FOR FREEDOM. For me it is the obsession to be free in creating my photography. For the woman in that photograph, her name is Wlada, I guess in that moment it was something that comes from deep inside of her. This moment was really intense and when I think about it now, I still get goose pimples.

Q: This dreamy seascape showing weathered poles in the water and dark clouds in the sky is a serene and somber image enhanced by limited depth of field. Can you tell us where and why you shot it?

A: I took this photograph separate from the main production. The team was already finished with packing the equipment back into the cars and I was just standing beside and turned around for a short moment when I saw this awesome scene. It came over me at the same time and I pushed the shutter. The photograph was taken with the Summarit-M 90 mm.

Q: The most striking thing about this tightly cropped vertical image of four young women is how the distinctive personality and state of being of each comes through loud and clear. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: To be honest to you, at that photograph or otherwise, at that time, at that moment I had taken a whole row of really good and intense photographs of the women. And all that time I realized how lucky I am to have these wonderful and amazing women as a part of this project. To answer your question, what I thought at that moment was just happiness and real freedom in my doing. But after all, it was not that easy to make the choice to exactly take that photograph from a row. I guess the choice came from inside. I saw this one as the one among hundreds … that’s it!

Q: They say the eyes are the windows of the soul, but hands can also be very revealing of a person’s essence and emotional state. The young woman’s hands here are meticulously manicured and expressive denoting a sensitive artistic nature. Is that who she really is, and why did you decide to exclude the rest of the subject and concentrate on her hands?

A: These are the hands of Jennifer; in real life she’s an actress and model and a really lovely and sensitive person as well. Of course it’s right; you can imagine the emotions and the mood by observing someone’s hand. In that case, for that moment, you could see that it was for sure to focus just on her hands.

Q: One image looks like an actress on a movie set that is about to launch into a heart-wrenching dramatic performance. The overall darkness of the scene and low clouds in the sky give it an ominous and foreboding quality. Was that your intention, and what does this image mean to you personally.

A: As I mentioned, I always tried to give my companions a situation in which they all could act as free as possible … and so it was in that scenario. We created a setup in which I’ve done some portraits, and beside all this we had some moments in which I was able to function as the silent observer I wanted to be. I can’t find words to describe what this photograph means to me, but I can tell you, that the reason to press the shutter came from deep inside. It’s a kind of being in trance while I’m doing this. Really often, after all, when I see the results, I’m wondering again and again how I could do these photographs and sometimes I couldn’t even remember the moment when I took it. I know it’s weird, but that’s it!

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so? Do you have any other projects in the works for 2014 and do you plan to explore any other genres going forward?

A: The plan for the upcoming years is to save the photography, basically portrait and fashion editorial, for the following generations. The reasons for that, on the one hand is, that I love to work with people, especially with creative ones like in the fashion genre. On the other hand, especially in fashion editorials, it has developed in a totally wrong direction over the last 15 years. It increasingly seems that it is already socially acceptable to wave shallow pictures and goodwill through as artistic freedom. So, as I mentioned, I see myself as a connection between the old values and the digital age, and for that it is important to show the photography to a broad public — and that’s the aim!

Thank you for your time, Alexander

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Alexander’s work here.