J. Konrad Schmidt: Staying Ahead Of The Curve, Part 2


J. Konrad Schmidt is a Hamburg based photographer and member of BFF, an organization of 500 freelance German photographers. His work has appeared in such publications as Elle (Germany), NEON, Selected Views and Cosmopolitan (Russia) among others. He has shot for clients like American Apparel, BACARDI, Philips Healthcare, Samsung and Radisson and has won numerous awards for his work. In part 2 of our interview, Konrad discusses the state of photography and advertising on the web and how his work is ahead of the curve.

Q: You’re very knowledgeable about lighting. Are you particular about setting up the lighting yourself? Or do you assign assistants to do that for you? A lot of photographers have light specialists as their assistants.

A: I think as a photographer YOU have to be the light specialist! Like the director of a big circus involving the team. I do have a assistants but I just ask them to do the little things I can’t do while shooting.

However, the set up and looking at light, the set and trying it out with the camera, I do it ALL myself. It’s the same as the idea, the casting and everything. I do all the casting myself. It’s a bit like cooking. When all the ingredients just fit and work then the soup will be great. But I have to do it! No one else.

I like the idea of having an assistant around to do things. But I think lighting especially is SO important to the final image. I know of many photographers that don’t really do their photos themselves. They just get to the set and ask “Okay, is everything ready? Perfect!” And then just take the photo and go.

Q: Do you have a hard time editing down your own work? Or do you have colleagues that you really trust their opinion and let them edit down your work?

A: Editing the photos is my job! No one see’s it like I do… Only sometimes I ask people if I’m right or not. I don’t ask for their opinion on a single image, I ask for their opinion for the whole thing. I try to get in touch with the people that have made photography very successful for the past 50 years. I ask them what they think about the work in general. Most of the time they just say “I like it” and I say “Okay, thanks.” Because then everything must be fine.

I think one of the biggest problems of the world today is that this way of inventing something is: There is an old person who knows how to do something and a young one, that learns how it’s done. It has been like this for the last thousands of years. But since the Internet revolution, it’s completely the other way around. Very young folks can learn things so fast in such a short amount of time and then they can easily be better than someone old. And the generation before mine is now learning from us. Just look at all this iPhone stuff… A six year old can handle that! It’s still hard when you are young in photography. Because like architecture, no one is a real star under 50 years old or so. Actually it’s a pity because all the years before are gone.

Q: Many of your photos have a dreamlike quality. Even your train series, which is a more realistic set, still has a bit of fantasy element to it. It always looks like you have a great personal connection with your models. Most photographers are looking at the light and the clothes but they lack that personal connection.

A: It’s interesting cause so many people tell me the photos look like, there is a very personal and intimate connection to the models I shoot. That there is a certain magic in the moment. To be honest… I don’t know why it’s like this. I’m just myself. I make people trust me very fast. I give confidence. Everyone on the set, even the stylists should feel very comfortable with their work and I think these looks, it’s just a bit of a trust thing. I communicate with the models. I let them know, that we all really know what we are doing here and it will all look great in the end. So the model can just relax and let go. And “letting go” looks very personal and sensual…

Q: You have such a creative and technical approach to your photos. Tell us the story about what happened since we featured you on the blog two years ago with the corset piercing pictures and you were only 26 at that time… It’s interesting because you’ve been ahead of the curve in your work (i.e before 50 Shades of Grey got people interested and rediscovering this photo).

A: So many thing turned out good but there is still a lot to come… It’s a bit strange, most of the times I’m just following a feeling, an interesting idea, a kink… and randomly a year later everyone is talking about it. I took this photo with the corset piercing and I’ve sent it to really every magazine and every agency and the answer was exactly NONE. Nothing!

But now this sexual offensive culture thing is getting a little more popular and now everyone is freaking out. “Letting go” seems to take some time.

But I’m glad cause sometimes I have the possibility to do what I really want using the camera without taking care for anything around. You have to be yourself in work… Pretending to be a photographer is not a state of mind, that will make good art…

Q: What was it about the corset image that people didn’t understand how you shot it? A lot of people saw that image and couldn’t figure out how you shot it without Photoshop.

A: I think that’s a perfect example. The photo you see is the true picture. Nothing was merged in Photoshop. The piercing is real, the girl is real. Everything. You can see it on the video. We made the whole thing a tiny bit hotter but that’s it. It was shot like this! And I love it for being this real and authentic!

Q: Do you think this would have been any different with the new S?

A: I think the image quality is nearly the same. I think the real invention is handling, the new menu, the lenses and the worked out new flash connector is just brilliant. This locked cable is so good to have!

Q: It just makes it easier as a photographer in general?

A: Yes. It’s the same thing with the cameras as with the lighting. When you stop thinking about what the camera is doing or what the light is needs. When everything is just working intuitive, then you are free to do what you should do. It’s the same with the team. When the team is very good and they trust you then the final result will be stunning.

Q: Something I like about the images from the hotel series you did was that it was very intimate, and you used the S which is more of a technical camera. People don’t use it usually with this type of emotional quality.

A: Yes, but I think most people just don’t do an emotional thing at all.

Q: That’s true. But I like showing these images maybe from that standpoint. Yes this is a big technical camera, but you can still have these intimate moments. It’s interesting.

A: The key to use it like this is that you don’t make a big thing of it… It just looks and feels like an S but the model shouldn’t care about. I try not to hurry on set. Not to have this stressy appeal of many other photographers. In combination with music these intimate moments come up just on it’s own. With the S you have the freedom to do it.

Q: Can you talk a little about the difference with web advertising and print advertising? And where your camera makes a little difference?

A: I can’t tell you why, but when you shoot something in medium format with a similar resolution and you have a trained eye, you can see the difference to full frame SLR’s easily. Even if you make very small size files o fit later. I can tell you if it’s medium format or not.

The general problem with print is, that print always needs to spend much money, but at the same time you have to save money. So hard! But print just has to be good! Very good, otherwise, it won’t work anymore.

It’s very important. In Germany many magazines just closed down, and it’s going on and on because they are cheap! It’s a hard thesis but… When you go to a store and spend 2 Euros or 15 Euros on whatever, for my money I want something perfect and something I would like to keep. I don’t spend any money in something I will just look at three times and then put in the waste. So when print is brilliantly made, it will work, always. I will buy it and I will love to keep it. The same thing goes with Internet if it’s brilliantly made, advertising on the web is very easy. Although I think the focus for me especially in art is the print.

When I’m on a website, I need information on something. The first and most important thing about advertising in the internet is: the search mechanisms must be perfect. Sometimes I’m searching for something and I don’t know what it is, yet. But if I can’t find it I can’t buy it. It’s the same with clothes.

The fashion industry is doing everything on the web. It’s nice and it’s easy. But honestly, When I’m looking for something special, I won’t buy it in the Internet! It’s the same with print and real life. If you want something good, something expensive and personal – something with importance – then I will go to a real store. There are photo studios, especially in Germany, there are 13, 14, 15 sets in a massive studio in one hall just shooting 700 or 800 pictures a day for web stores.

Fashion always had this appeal of being the expression of a person’s personality and soul – the way you are, the way you act, whatever. It’s a mass product I know. But everyone is trying to be themselves and expressing that. When you go to an online shop and just shop for something, it’s like going to a super market and you buy something you NEED!

The fashion market or the beauty market is about buying something you WANT! And when you really want something, then you want to know what the fabric feels like. If the fabric falls nicely over your legs, etc… You just don’t go to a website to look at a far teen model wearing a dress in a cheap photo. It used to be easier, but now these two worlds drift away, I’m afraid…

Q: Do you want others to pick up a project you created or come to you with a creative concept? Because it seems like so much of what you do is driven by your own ideas. What’s your dream scenario?

A: I’m reading a book at the moment and one of the first lines of the book is “Intelligent people do what they should. Creative people do what they want. So creatives are causing problems!” I like it, when people have concepts and say, “We want it like this. Do it.” However, the problem is: Every agency is looking for something new and revolutionary for their client. And at the end they come up with something like: “for the styling we’d like the white polo shirt!” and you’re like “ohh okay.” That’s what I meant with: “trusting artists.” With Leica it’s great at the moment. They say okay “We need a good show at the fair. Do whatever you like! Just make it look brilliant! ”

When someone is asking a photographer to do something for a brand then the brand should attempt to let the photographer do what he want’s to a certain point. I mean, the clients, the agencies, they look through so many books to pick the right photographer for the shoot. An immense amount of work… When they book an artist for his look and his feeling for his work and then start pressing him to do it exactly their way, they should just do it themselves! Why make choosing a photographer so hard and then make him do everything as always?

I think that’s when the process of creation just starts. I just hope for the chance to be asked to do the things I do and not the things that others did before… In many agencies they sometimes say: “We need you to make it look exactly like this!” And I might answer: “Why don’t you ask the guy who took this original photo?” They ask you to copy someone else. Why???

Q: So aside from client work, do you have any projects in the pipeline for 2013?

A: To be honest: I don’t have any plans, yet but… Maybe next week I will follow a story I don’t even know about, now. Being good once is not a problem. But staying good is a problem and when I look at myself and pictures I took maybe in 2008 or 2009, now is the point where I should start to cut the past a bit. I had a stunning conversation with a girl from and art buying in Berlin and…

There are some photos, that will last forever. But there are photos that won’t last. And for every photographer an interesting moment is when you start getting better just by erasing things. It’s like when you have a big book and half of the book is brilliant. You just take it away and then you have a book that is all brilliant and the look of the whole thing is just more focused and interesting. And then you can add new things and learn from them. I think that’s my project for 2013.

Thank you for your time, Konrad!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Konrad’s work, visit his website and Facebook page.