Murat Aslan: Faces That Speak For Themselves

This young German photographer began by shooting pictures of his own graffiti on the run, evolved into covering the world of hip-hop musicians, quit his job at an ad agency in Düsseldorf to become a graphic designer in Berlin, and is now a full-time professional advertising photographer who’s been under contract to UPFRONT since 2011. Self-taught and self-motivated, he has evolved into a brilliant portrait photographer whose riveting portraits of men “matured and marked by life” reveals their essential character with an unflinching and timeless truth that takes them to the level of fine art. Here in his direct and laconic prose is the fascinating story of his ongoing portrait project and his abiding passion for photography and authenticity.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I’ve tried almost every digital camera out there. For the time being I’ve arrived at the digital medium format—namely the Leica S2, and now the new Leica S. From time to time I’m using a Canon 5D Mark III as well. For private pleasures I’m shooting the Leica M9-P and hopefully soon the new Leica M.

Q: How long have you been a professional photographer?

A: I’ve been making a living with photography for 5 years now. Prior to that, I had to do graphic design part-time to make ends meet.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: When I was 16 I started doing graffiti and took photos of these artworks in dark surroundings and always on the run. That’s what piqued my interest in cameras. As time went on, I moved away from graffiti and started to take photos of performing artists at hip-hop concerts. Those were the pictures that led to my first portrait photo shoots held backstage. Eventually I ended up organizing more and more of shoots away from the concert environment.

In 2005, a Berlin-based independent label offered me a job in graphic design. In retrospect it might sound quite naïve, but I liked the idea and gladly quit the job I had in an advertising agency in Düsseldorf. I rented a car and got to Berlin the next night and started to work on CD covers and booklets, which I did for the next 3 years. Once the glamour of Berlin had faded, I realized that I was still immersed in the same crap, doing work that couldn’t make me happy in the long run. So I decided to change how I was using my time, focusing solely on photography and everything associated it. That was in 2008. Since 2011 I’ve been under contract with UPFRONT.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography?

A: I once tried to assist a photographer but quickly realized that life itself teaches the best lessons and that one should learn from his own mistakes. Even now, whenever I shoot I always learn something new. This might be the reason I never grow tired of my job!

Q: In what genre would you place your photos?

A: I consider myself a portrait photographer. For me it is essential that the person in front of the camera, preferably his or her face, is what takes center stage in my images.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: In 2000 a friend of mine proudly presented his M3 to me and told me every minute fact about its history. Despite this, his analog Leica failed to impress me, because I was already dreaming of my first digital Nikon D1x. From that point on I experienced a Leica from time to time without ever falling in love with it.

It wasn’t until I got my first well-paid advertising jobs and Leica started to manufacture digital M cameras that my interest began to rise. At first I bought a different brand of digital rangefinder camera but soon realized that I had to have the real thing. So I sold it quickly and got me my first Leica, an M9-P. The process of finding the best possible solution for me in the field of medium format cameras was quite the same. After testing 2 or 3 different systems I finally decided to go with the Leica S2, and now the S, and have stayed with the S-system since.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Besides my family, which comes first, photography means everything to me. It is my hobby. It is my profession. It is my passion. It’s not just a job you have learned once and work at it from 9 to 5. It is much more than that. It is constantly evolving into something new, and by pursuing it passionately you as a person can learn something new every day too.

Q: Can you provide a little background on the portrait images in your portfolio? They were taken at photokina, correct?

A: Yes, partly. They were taken either in the Leica S-Studio at photokina or were shot at my studio in Berlin. As one can easily recognize, the focus was on men in their prime. To me their faces speak for themselves and reveal everything about the life the person has gone through. Sadly in today’s photography the essential often plays a minor role. Adverts and magazines are full of pictures that show everything but the person pictured. So it was important to me to show real people. One man. One light. One background.

I’ve yet to find a name for the series but an elderly man once commented after seeing the pictures, “Matured and marked by life.” I believe that statement describes the series best.

Q: The portraits in your Leica S portfolio are all framed horizontally with the men posed smack in the middle of the frame, thus violating one of the basic “rules” of composition, yet these portraits are surprisingly dynamic, and the personal character of the subjects comes through loud and clear. Can you say something about why you chose to photograph them in this way, all against the same out-of-focus wood paneling background?

A: I like backgrounds with a certain structure. This time my goal was to match the background with faces in terms of color and feel. Wood is a warm and natural material and thus gives a perfect background to these faces.

Q: The color rendition in these portraits is very subdued, and the general impression is similar to that of old-timey hand-colored sepia-toned pictures from the ‘30s or ‘40s. Since these gentlemen are all getting on in years, the choice seems appropriate, but was there some other artistic or aesthetic reason you decided to present them in this way, and were the images altered in post-production or shot that way in camera?

A: Basically the post-production method I used was the same for every portrait in the series. Yet, in order to match each individual’s skin tone, the color rendition varies a tiny bit in detail. However the variation is so small that one would barely notice even if all faces would be put on a white background.

Q: You refer to your portrait subjects as “men in their prime” which, in the U.S.A., usually means men in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Were you being facetious, and if not what is your concept of “prime?”

A: One can only tell what life is all about if one has seen life and all it has to offer. One cannot tell that at the age of 20, 30 or 40, in my opinion.

Q: The underlying concept that “their faces speak for themselves and tell everything about the life the person has gone through is profound. Was that your goal in creating this series, and do you also believe that portraits can also convey something of the subject’s personality and essential character?

A: Although each one certainly tells a unique story, the faces offer some space for interpretation to each beholder. Everyone can make up his or her own story as each person has a little different perception of the face and the stories it tells.

Q: The technical quality of these portraits is extraordinary and is an essential part of why they are so powerful. Which lens or lenses did you use on the Leica S, and what are your general impressions of the camera itself and the S-series optics you’ve used?

A: I’m not too much into technical specifications. I can only tell you that I really love working with the S-System and the results are fabulous. The person in front of the camera should not perceive the camera as a weapon but as a little necessary something between me and him or her. He or she should rather concentrate on me. In those respects it works very well. For me the camera should only be means to an end. And in case of the Leica S it is a nice, simple and very effective one.

Q: Judging by the “Making Of” series of black-and-white images of the Leica S-Studio you evidently used a single large umbrella and electronic flash to light these portraits, but the lighting appears relatively flat for shooting “male character portraits” which often rely on higher-contrast lighting ratios. Can you tell us how you lit these portraits to bring out incredible facial detail while giving such a “neutral” feeling?

A: The choice of models was more important than the lighting setup. Before I decided to go with just one light my initial plan was to work with 5 lights. In any case my goal was that the faces should “speak for themselves” regardless of the light used to illuminate them.

Q: All the portraits in this portfolio are of men. Can you see yourself creating a follow-up series on women who have been “matured and marked by life?”

A: For this kind of photography, women would only be interesting once they are 80 or older. I think in general women have a greater fear of growing old than men do. They tend to hide their age behind anti-aging products and therefore often don’t show their real personality.

Q: How do you think your background in graphic design has influenced your photography, and what are some of the reasons that led you to become a portrait photographer?

A: My boss was not just my boss but my mentor as well. In retrospect he didn’t teach me anything about graphic design but everything about people and how to deal with them.

Q: How did you manage to find such an amazing assortment of men to photograph, how did you persuade them to set (or stand) for you, and what were their reactions when you showed them their portraits?

A: I approached 70 people at photokina and persuaded them to come to the Leica S-Studio to be photographed. Back in Berlin my method of acquiring subjects was more planned.

Q: Do you plan on doing anything further with these portraits and any additional ones you may create, such as publishing them in a book or having a gallery show?

A: Unfortunately I don’t have time to get involved with such projects at the moment.

Q: Since you are a full-time professional photographer, what kind of pictures do you shoot professionally to earn a living other than portraits—your snarky aside about advertisements and magazines suggest that you are, alas, all too familiar with the superficial aspects of that world.

A: Yes, since I used to be the client myself I know what clients want and need. So I’m familiar whit that kind of business and got to know it from both perspectives.

I started doing CD-Covers for national and international artist. After some time more and more advertisement jobs started to replace the music-related shoots. Today I actually shoot more advertisements than musicians.

Q: What kind of pictures do you shoot, as you aptly put it, “for private pleasure” with your Leica M9-P

A: They’re mostly my family and private life in general. From time to time I use the M9-P for commissioned portraits as well since the camera doesn’t scare people. They tend to underestimate its capabilities and therefore act more natural in front of it.

Thank you for your time, Murat!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Murat, visit his website, blog and Facebook page. For more information on the Making Of Images, visit Nady El-Tounsy’s website.