Christian Reister: Combining Reality and Fiction in Photographs

Christian Reister, born in 1972, lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He is a member of the photography collective Seconds2Real, curator of Fenster61 and has spent time as a bass guitarist and commercial web designer. He has self-published three books: “Ankunft Bei Aufbruch,” “Alex” and his latest “Berlin + Wien.” Below, Christian provides details on his most recent book collaboration with photographer Kay von Aspern, whose images are displayed in the gallery above, and comments on what a well-done photo means to him.

Q: What is the inspiration or idea behind your book “Berlin + Wien?”

A: This book is a collaboration with Vienna-based photographer Kay von Aspern. We have known each other a long time and share a passion for photography. Both of us mainly work in the cities we live in: Berlin and Vienna. We are two of those people who always carry a camera when leaving the house. As a consequence our photography is very authentic and close to daily life.

The idea behind this book is to mix and mash some of our best photographs from recent years and to look for the differences and similarities of the cities and their residents. We have found out that a big part of our photographs work perfectly together so this is how the whole idea came up.

Q: Clearly you and Kay von Aspern are on the same wavelength, but do you see any identifiable differences in your approaches to street photography? How do Berlin and Vienna differ in terms of their street feel and the opportunities to capture the kind of images you guys shoot?

A: We hope to deliver some of the answers to those questions in the book. Finding the similarities and differences is what the project is about. I think it wouldn’t be helpful if I attempt to summarize in words what we try to communicate with our photos. Part of the game is that the audience finds their own answers to those questions. And it’s also part of the game that there are as many individual answers and interpretations as possible.

Q: From your photos, it seems that both of you have a keen sense of humor and also a feeling for the absurd juxtapositions of everyday life. Why is humor and whimsy such an important element in your images, and what do you think they express about life in the big city or life in general?

A: I don’t go out and look for particular funny situations. They just occur. The world we live in may have its problems and tragedies, but it is also a very funny one. In this book we have mostly put together the more humorous pictures because – as you say it – we both have a keen sense of humor and photographically it fits best together with these kinds of photos.

But I would disagree that the main element of the book is the comedy aspect. Pain is always close to pleasure. If one has the will and sensitivity to also see the ambiguity and the abysmal in the photos, you may come a little bit closer to what the intention of the project is.

Q: Do you think your images have any message or content as social commentary, or are they primarily whimsical slices of life with a touch of humor, and occasionally, pathos?

A: Social commentary, yes. Message, no. Not in the way of “This is good and this is bad.” I want people to look, to imagine, to think and to feel. And in the best case I want people to re-think some of their opinions or prejudices of certain kinds of people, habits, behaviors, etc.

Q: You’re  a member of the street photography collective Seconds2Real. When did you become a member and can you provide us some background on this group?

A: While Kay von Aspern is one of the very early members of Seconds2Real, I am the latest and joined the group in 2010. They asked me if I would like to join them right after the publication of my book “Alex.” Seconds2Real is a street photography group from Germany and Vienna. Member Guido Steenkamp has actually been interviewed on the Leica blog before and gives a good overview of what we do.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica and do you have a favorite camera or lens?

A: I became interested in Leica when I started to learn about photo history. Photo history is very entangled with Leica. A lot of my favorite photographers are Leica shooters: Erwitt, Frank, Winogrand, Kalvar, Kay von Aspern.

For equipment, M9 and Summilux 35 mm f/1.4. Perfect combination.

Q: What characteristics of the Leica M9 and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux make it a perfect combination and especially conducive to your kind of work?

A: I prefer smaller cameras; it’s less complicated to carry it with you wherever you go. I don’t like camera bags and smaller cameras fit into the pocket of my coat. Of course it’s just a matter of taste.

Q: Which lenses do you use in your street photography other than the 35 mm Summilux you mentioned, and have you considered using anything wider on the M9, such as a 28 mm, 24 mm, or even a 21 mm?

A: For me – Berlin is a 35 mm city. I use a 35 mm 95% of my time on the streets. It’s just a personal decision. I use what I feel most comfortable with. If I was a New Yorker, I would probably use a 28 mm or wider lens just because everything is much closer and more crowded. But Berlin, to me, is 35 mm. Take one step back, relax.

But of course there is no rule without an exception – when I did my “Alex,” book I shot everything in 24 mm (but that wasn’t with a Leica). It just felt right for the expression I wanted to have in those pictures. But I have never used a 24 mm lens anywhere else.

Q: This provocative image was evidently shot in a bordello or sex club. Do we have the context described correctly, and what do you think this image says about the commercial sex industry or European society in general?

A: It’s not a bordello or sex club. It’s an erotic fair and the guys on the left-hand side are staff members of a company that is selling water beds. Furniture industry meets sex industry.

Of course this image says a lot about several issues, but again, this is one of those photographs that do not say exactly what is going on. We have a broad range of possibilities on how to read it. This photo is somehow funny, it is confusing, and it is deeply sad. Comedy meets Tragedy. Reality. Fiction. Well-done.

Q: Your ironically paradoxical description of your photography as “Reality. Fiction. Well-done.” is very telling. Where does the reality end and the fiction begin, or are they inextricably linked. What is the relationship between art and artifice in street photography, which generally purports to “tell it like it is”? For that matter, how do you determine, in your own mind, when one of your images is well-done?

A: Reality is the basis for my photography. But by taking pictures and framing this reality, the result will be a very subjective version of reality. Or even a complete distorted representation of it.

You see something on a photograph that is just a little frame out of a much larger scene and only a split second of time. How will you ever get what was really happening there? And is that important? Isn’t it more stunning to see what you see and add your own imaginary context?

If a photo can trigger your imagination in that sense and if it provides several layers and possibilities in it, it is well-done for me. Apart from some formal and compositional aspects, of course. It happens very rarely that all this comes together.

Q: At least a few of these images are amusing and sad at the same time, notably the black-and-white image of a someone in a gorilla suit sitting forlornly on an escalator and the guy in a hat eating soup with a pink toy duck on the table and his dog and bags on the floor. Do you agree with these assessments, and was this disparity intentional?

A: For me, an interesting photograph should have this kind of double layer. Maybe in the pictures you have mentioned, this element of “amusing and sad at the same time” is more obvious than in others. These are some of my favorites indeed.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your photographic approach or what photography means to you?

A: Photography has just become a steady part of my life. I love taking long walks through Berlin or any other city and that goes together perfectly with documenting the society I live in. The essence of my photography is finding the jewels in daily life and you never know what you will get at the end of the day. It definitely opens my mind to details and areas I would maybe never look at or go to if I wouldn’t be looking for good pictures.

It’s my passion not only to take photographs but also to work with them: printing them, putting them together for exhibitions, making photo-books, editing series for a website or whatever. One of my next activities is a collaboration with two musicians to set up some live music photo screenings. It’s a stunning way to bring my photos into a new context, edit them very differently too – let’s say a printed matter or whatever. The first performance will take place on April 26 in Berlin at Hotel Bogota, at the vernissage of my “Nacht” (Night) exhibition.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres besides street photography and portraiture? Do you have any other special projects in the works?

A: I’m pretty sure that there is still so much to discover in street photography for me that I will be still doing it in ten or 20 years. And I’m also sure that I will always be doing some other photo projects aside. Whatever it will be – I’m curious and happy that I don’t know today what photo I will get tomorrow.

In addition to exhibiting “Nacht,” I have exhibitions coming up at Eigensinnig Schauraum für Mode und Fotografie in Vienna and Café Aroma Photogalerie in Berlin.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this book and exhibitions?

A: Exhibitions are important to interact and communicate with the audience. It forces you to bring your work to a very clear and well-edited point. For a photographer, or any artist, it is important to show your work and to cope with all different kinds of reactions.

The book is an artist book and a limited edition with 100 numbered copies only. We just thought that the project should not only have the vanishing component of the exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna, but also a permanent one as a book.

Thank you for your time, Christian!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Christian, visit his website and blog. You can order Berlin + Wien here and see more of Kay von Aspern’s work on his website.