Manuel Uebler: Compassionate Images At the Intersection Of Fine Art And Reportage

The true nature of Manuel Uebler’s evolving quest, both as a photographer and a human being, is a story told best by viewing his timeless images of residents of an old-people’s home, Sadhus, street kids and useful objects with a human connection. But to understand how he came to be such a remarkably insightful and heartfelt artist and photojournalist, it really helps to understand his personal narrative. Since nobody can possibly tell it better than he does, we’ll let him speak for himself. First in the short personal bio that follows and then in an equally remarkable interview that reveals his world-view and ongoing mission with uncommon clarity.

Q: You were interested in photography at an early age – can you share how you came to be a photographer?

A: I was born in 1975 in Traunstein, at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. My family (mother hairdresser; stepfather graphic designer) opened my eyes for beauty and the arts. As a child I wanted to become a painter and was fascinated by photorealistic works. After I found out that the stroke of my brush did not meet my expectations, I discovered photography at the age of 14. After several years of experimenting, I decided to study photography at the age of 19 to establish a sound foundation by acquiring solid technical and handicraft background. Fascinated by the black and white classics, I worked as a black and white photography lab technician for one year after I had finished my training so I could completely immerse myself in the various levels of grey.

But, in the long run, eight hours of ruby light per day gets pretty hard to handle. So I started to travel the world as camera assistant in the documentary film field. After that I coincidentally got the opportunity to move to New York, where I was able to work as a freelance photographer’s assistant for one year. In the meantime, the digital revolution had begun. In the beginning, many things were based on half-knowledge, and digital photographers were autodidacts. But for me it seemed the best approach was to study digital photography professionally as a pre-press media designer. In the end I completed my many years of study by becoming a master photographer.

In 2003 I started working as self-employed photographer. My first lighting units and digital cameras were purchased on credit. I rented a studio in Munich and spent infinite days and nights practicing in my studio until eventually the quality I was producing was high enough to meet my own standards. The first big orders for still life photography started coming in—jewelry, watches and accessories for catalogues and ad campaigns. Gradually I managed to hold my own in the editorial field. With lots of commitment, I was able to acquire new customers. By then, I even had a little money left at the end of each month to put into my independent projects.

Q: Has anyone influenced your photography?

A: My photographic influences include the renowned photographers Richard Avedon, Albert Watson and Irving Penn, but most of all, my colleague photographer Jens Heilmann. He has always been a very competent partner with whom I could discuss topics related to photography for hours on end and whose gut feelings and instinct are still important to me.

Q. The compelling images you shot at The Elderly’s Home in Nepal reveal the individual dignity of the residents, but also convey a sense of pathos about their condition. Do you agree? Were you consciously aware of this dichotomy, and how do you see your mission in creating this impressive portfolio and book?

A. Every human has his own fate to deal with, has certain tests to take and difficulties to overcome. The entire world seems to be filled with injustice. Despite all hardships it is important to keep your dignity and sincerity as a human being. Acceptance and humility give each individual the strength to cope with life and all its ups and downs. This is the attitude and mind-set I wish to communicate.

With my work I do not want to accuse or condemn. With my photographs I want to induce people to start thinking about themselves and their position in this world and possibly inspire positive changes. We, in our rich industrial nations, are often unaware of our own very privileged situation and tend to complain and become desperate. But even just a short glimpse at very different realities can offer new prospects and hopefully lead to more contentment with one’s own self. Furthermore, I want to illustrate that personal happiness is not found in material things but emanates from the depths of our souls.

Q. All the images at The Elderly’s Home can be described as classic documentary photojournalism in the Leica tradition, and they evoke a strong emotional response. Also, they’re all presented in black and white. Can you comment on this, and also tell us why you chose the black-and-white medium for this project?

A. When I saw The Elderly’s Home for the first time, I felt as though I were on a journey through time. The people, the building, the atmosphere… I immediately felt as if I were back in the early days of the orthochromatic black and white-film era and the first generation of extensive photo reportage.

Everything here is based upon an authentic depiction of reality, not exaggerated by additional effects, and that is important to me. That is why I don’t work with extreme focal distances or camera positions. Also, when using digital recording techniques, I tone down the levels of grey to make them look as if they had been created with an analog medium with their respective filters. That gives them a classic appearance. I often have the impression that the viewer unconsciously perceives black and white photographs more emotionally. The documentary aspect is more clearly discernible for me here.

Q. As with the residents of The Elderly’s Home, the facility itself calls forth mixed emotions. On the one hand, here is a place that aged and displaced persons can find some kind of a refuge; on the other hand, it is a decrepit and ancient asylum where these unfortunates are condemned to live out their final days and die. Do you see your images in any sense as a depiction of wretched conditions that demand social change, much as the moving images of exploited children in the early 20th century resulted in child labor laws?

A. At first the pictures seem appalling. But when taking a closer look, the person’s dignity becomes visible. It is my impression that, despite all their physical sufferings, most elderlies there are happy and have found their purpose in taking care of one another. Now, if we take a look at the nursing homes in Germany… There, all the physical needs are taken care of exact-to-the-minute, but the people there have sad eyes and they have grown lonely. Every individual has to make up his mind for himself and judge which way might be the better one. But photographs change the world and all I want is to make a small contribution to help improve the living situation of all poor people. With the reportage photographs, I was able to support a fundraising project that has provided new beds for The Elderly’s Home since the pictures were taken.

Q. Which lens or lenses do you favor when shooting with the Leica M9, and did you use the same ones when photographing Sadhus and the old people in The Elderly’s Home?

A. When working with the Leica M, I mainly use two focal lengths: 35mm and 75mm. In my experience, the 35mm is similar to the human vision in the distance and the 75mm is like close up vision. Using only two focal lengths gives me space for creativity and intuition. With the given focal length, I often have to compose a nice photographic detail or I just have to keep moving accordingly – always close to the object. Thereby, the photographs gain presence and intimacy. Through this closeness I deal directly with the people I want to take a picture of. You can feel this interaction in the photographs.

Q. Your images of the Sadhus are technically excellent, eminently straightforward portraits in color, yet they convey a spiritual dimension and have timeless quality. Do you agree, and why do you think color was an essential element in this outstanding portfolio?

A. In commercial photography, very often the pictures are turned into waste-paper right after they are produced. To find a diametrically opposed counterpoint to this fast moving kind of commercial photography I have been looking into the various aspects of timelessness in photography during the last couple of years. If you study the “Old Masters”, such as Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait, and then combine them with the screaming colors in Warhol’s prints you just might find that combination expressed in the Sadhu Series. Along with the graphics elements, color is an important aspect. The colors of the Sadhus often seem as if they were glowing from the inside. They offer a fascinating contrast to their ragged clothes and the dirt on their skin. The radiant colors of the portraits, mostly in shades of red and orange, also have a positive psychological effect on the viewer and fill the entire room with positive energy.

Q. The color portraits of street kids in Nepal on your website use a technique that is quite similar to the Sadhus images, but the feeling is entirely different, conveying a sense of nobility and survival tinged with suffering and even despair. What do you think accounts for this?

A. When I started working with portraits on a white background in documentary photography, I noticed an amazing effect. The white background turns into a stage for the individual. Like a catalyst for one’s own self, the character traits of the subjects are accentuated by taking them out of their familiar surroundings. If a Sadhu is on this “stage”, self-confident, proud… this can be clearly seen in the photograph. Unlike the Sadhus, children do not have an accepted position in their society. They have to fight for their daily bread. Also, their self-perception is not as strong and stable as that of an adult, much less a Sadhu. This sense of insecurity and low self-confidence can be clearly witnessed in the Children Series.

Q. Other portfolios on your website consist of fine arts images—abstract color patterns, images of gloves, and padlocks rather than people, but they somehow manage to convey emotions and suggest various aspects of the human experience. Do you think these images somehow relate to your compelling pictures of people in some way, and can you say something about that connection?

A. In my personal work I often look for connections between humans, environments and objects. These connections can either be clearly apparent or might only be created in the viewer’s fantasy. The less obvious this connection is in the photograph, the more is left up to the viewer’s own mind and thoughts. I like to detach objects from their surroundings and then shape the graphic aspects of their nature. There is a small story behind every single photograph. The worn out working gloves, for example, show weeks of tough physical labor. Where, what for, and most of all – by whom? What did those padlocks used to keep safe, and for whom? A long imaginary journey can begin right there.

Q. What particular characteristics of the Leica M9 do you find especially useful in your work, and how do you think the rangefinder camera influences and shapes your way of seeing, or is conducive to your style of shooting?

A. The most brilliant thing about an “M”, aside from its picture quality, is its size. My reportage equipment basically fits inside a trousers pocket. This is a huge advantage when you have only limited luggage. Also, nobody notices you are a professional photographer, which gives you lots of freedom. The people don’t back away; they don’t feel “shot.” I can move around naturally in strange terrain, right in the center of things and close to the object. The digital “M” is operated classically; basically only aperture, shutter speed, and manual focus. That makes me feel at home, and I can keep my mind free for the motifs. The larger viewing field lets you somehow sense movements in the image frame and you can wait for the magical moment –and I simply like to hold it in my hands.

Q. How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years, and do you have any documentary projects or places you’d like to cover in the immediate future?

A. I hope I will be able to expand on non-commercial photography and to fascinate more people with my projects. At the moment, I find a large topic that really touches me for reportage photography is humans in conflict with industrialization. The fates, hopes and ambivalences involved are very interesting and diversified. Several fascinating and gripping areas for documenting this can be found in Australia or Africa, for example.

Q. Do you believe that fine art and documentary photography are distinct genres, and since you are accomplished in both, do you think that these aspects of your photography influence one another?

A. I personally have difficulties with stereotypical thinking. Does fine-art photography always have to be aesthetically banal? Is the only purpose of documentary photography to tell a strong story? For me, technical and handicraft perfection build the foundation for my own vision. If you let the various aspects of photographic genres converge, enthralling intersections and synergies will develop. And in today’s flood of pictures it is actually the unseen that is so fascinating.

Q. Can you tell us something about how attending the Leica workshops helped you to become a successful professional, and how you feel about being featured in a Leica workshop as a guest photographer?

A. It is always a great thing to take part in high-grade workshops amongst like-minded people. New technologies and new ideas and approaches expand one’s own repertoire and help one advance, not only as photographer. The handicraft and love for the materials completely inspired me during my first Leica workshop in the early days of the Leica Akademie. Unfortunately, I had to wait many more years before I could finally buy my first Leica. I would be thrilled to take part at a Leica workshop as lecturer. I enjoy working with good equipment and interested people. I like to share my know-how and am delighted by shared success. A good atmosphere and productivity are important to me. In the end, every participant should have a good feeling and know his money was wisely invested.

Q. What are a few of the things you’ve learned over the course of your creative quest that you will impart to those attending your lecture?

A. First of all, well-founded technical knowledge and craftsmanship are important to me.

Whether analog or digital, a photographer must know and be able to handle his equipment to be able to exploit all the potentialities it offers. Only those who know the possibilities can actually use them for his personal expression.

Secondly:  Throw out the television! Mass media is ruining our personal vision. The overkill of images, fast cuts, etc. are limiting our capabilities to evolve on a personal level. Instead, sit down in the evening and explore an illustrated book of the great classical photographers.  How is the picture composed?  Closely observe the grey levels or chromaticity and the lighting.

Thirdly: Use as little as possible. Use one camera with one fixed focal length lens, preferably small and robust. A 50mm lens offers enough challenges for years! Be open to others and others’ ideas and—in the immortal words of Robert Capa – get up close!

Thank you for your time, Manuel!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information, visit Manuel’s website.