Severin Koller: Revealing the Truth in Unforgettable Images

A native and current resident of Vienna, Severin Koller was raised in a family focused on politics, culture and art, but his decision to pursue an artistic, creative lifestyle was very much his own. Initially intending to become an architect, he began taking pictures seriously before finishing school in 2004 and by the time he was 18 had garnered his first professional assignments. In 2005 he enrolled at The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, which he attended for three years, and then began working as an exterior and interior photographer for various design and advertising agencies. In 2005 Koller also found his true passion and began pursuing street photography on his own, shortly after acquiring his first film SLRs. He develops and prints virtually all his black-and-white images by his own hand. Since 2008 Koller has traveled to Germany, France, the United States, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and Monaco on assignment, shooting editorial, documentaries, portraits, architecture, advertising, fashion and product photography as well as working as a Director of Photography for commercials, and even as a film cutter and editor. Both his commercial work and his personal street photography capture the spirit of the place and time, often with a surreal or ironic twist. Here is the story of his Leica connection and his creative personal adventure.

Q: Evidently you shoot black-and-white film for your personal work and use a high-end DSLR for your commercial/professional photography. Is this true, and if so why do you favor film for your personal creative work?

A: I started shooting street photography seriously about six years ago. Back then there was no digital alternative to film suitable for this approach. Knowing I have black-and-white film in my camera makes me shoot differently than I do with a digital or color film. There are subjects I only capture because I know it will look beautiful with black-and-white film and there are those I don’t even consider photographing since they will only work in color. Needless to say, a lot of images can work both ways. Also, my personal approach is focused on a timeless look. I can’t say with certainty how we will examine photos that were taken today 30 to 40 years hence. I believe though, that black-and-white will always be less dependent on the prevailing trends in aesthetics or technical developments. Even if I have the possibility to convert a digital image to gray scale and change contrasts, how would I know if a film image would have looked this way? Also, it takes me several minutes of work to do that on the computer, while a black-and-white negative is what it is. If you have endless possibilities of changing and manipulating photographs, then you can easily miss the point of what photography is about. You’re not a good photographer when you have to manipulate your photographs. “We’ll do that later in Photoshop,” is a sentence I’ve heard many times, but that’s just an excuse for sloppy work beforehand. Shooting film just eliminates that possibility from the start, so you have to try harder to take good photographs.

Q: Since you use a Leica M6 with an older 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens for street photography, what is it about this camera/lens combination that is especially conducive to your work? Have you ever considered using a digital Leica M9 for street shooting?

A: The first Leica M6 I used for five years had a 35mm f/2 Summicron 2nd Generation attached. These older lenses have their own look. I’ve never been nerdy enough to experiment with all different versions, but I realized that I like the characteristics of ‘60s lenses. I shoot with a Rolleiflex 2.8F with a Zeiss Planar lens as well. Incidentally, the films I use most are traditional emulsions like Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X. I have used the Leica M9 for street photography and I was very satisfied with the image quality. The colors looked almost as if Kodak had developed a new slide film and the sharpness was better than I expected. Still, I missed the sound of a film Leica and the process of winding to the next frame. Every time the battery died I was reminded why I believe in fully mechanical cameras. However, I would definitely use an M9 for travel and documentary shooting.

Q: Your work is characterized by strange and unlikely juxtapositions you encounter or conventional happenings that unfold in unusual settings. Can you say something about this? Do you consciously seek such things, and what do you think they say about the nature of being human?

A: I don’t think I’m looking for certain things. It is more the other way around, that something grabs my attention. There are times when my senses are totally focused on what’s going on around me, like someone just put me on a drug that intensifies everything. When I’m in that mode, many photos happen instinctively. Looking at my scans, in most cases I remember why I took a photo, even if I had no time to think about it when I shot it. I guess that instinct is simply an honest way of photographing strangers. I try not to judge people by taking their photo or compromising anyone’s privacy. I’m simply interested in life on the street.

Q: You stated that each of your photos should be “self-explanatory” and that the messages in them should be clear, unmistakable and require no further explanation. Fair enough, but isn’t that enigmatic or surreal quality of your images part of their message?

A: By “self-explanatory” I mean that I don’t try to alter reality by having my own vision of the world. I try to take photos so that viewers can relive the situation the way I experienced it. Any surreal quality lies in the moment itself. I guess what one needs is the ability to see, to see the potential of a certain combination of light, composition and content that will have this certain quality when put together in a frame.

Q: What kind of pictures do you take when you’re working on commission, and does your approach or technique differ depending on whether you’re shooting for a client?

A: I’ve done exterior and interior photographs, documentaries, portraits, a little fashion and recently I also edited and cut film for an advertising agency. I haven’t published much of my commissioned work lately. It’s not that I think it’s of lower quality; it’s just that I prefer being associated with my street and portrait work. The only downside is that sometimes people don’t know what else I can offer. In the long-term, I think it’s better to be a specialist in a certain area and known for that. I find that the street approach is helpful when I shoot documentaries on commission. The only difference is that I have a certain predefined topic in mind, but the way I work is quite similar — trying not to influence moments by my presence. When shooting portraits I try to remain calm and serene. All my attention is focused on the person in front of the camera, without putting any pressure on my model. I believe that the photographer’s personality is always influencing the shoot.

Q: What special, distinctive, identifiable element do you bring to your professional photography that will ensure your continuing success in this field?

A: Most of my customers say that they like my style and that they were looking for something less conventional. This allows me to work with clients who appreciate my work, which is a great benefit and motivation. I’m grateful that I have a profession where I often get good feedback. There are not many jobs like that.

Q: Can you tell us something about your passion for the darkroom? Why do you find this to be an essential part of your creative process?

A: Every time I capture something on film, I feel I just created something, unlike shooting digital. After developing the film, I often say “that’s a beautiful negative” because I already imagine it as a print. I can appreciate great lab prints too, but when it comes to my personal work, I just don’t feel like giving it to someone else. I want to have control over every single step. I like the idea of being able to take a photo, develop a negative and create a print. When I exhibit or sell prints, I know it’s not just a copy of a photo of mine, but also a personal, handmade product I offer or present. Also, I believe that working with your own negatives in the darkroom teaches you a lot, giving you a deeper understanding of exposure and film development.

Q: You mentioned that you were inspired by the work of Dennis Iwaskiewicz, your favorite street shooter, and two other black-and white shooters, Kenneth Josephson and Jason Eskenazi. What is it about their work you find so inspiring and how has it influenced you?

A: I like Dennis’ work, but I wouldn’t say he is my favorite street shooter. I never had a favorite photographer. I try not to idolize people in general. In my hometown of Vienna, I think he is one of the most talented young street shooters. Unlike some others, he is not trying to invent something new. His work is about the people in his photos and that is what street photography should be about, in my opinion. His work is straightforward and not over conceptualized. Kenneth Josephson’s work made me rethink what you can do with the medium itself. He also directly influenced and changed some of his photos taken on the street, which is the opposite of my approach. I must admit, though, that he is more on the conceptual side and never claimed to be a street photographer. Jason Eskenazi’s work has a staged look to me, even though I know it is pure documentary. It inspired me to see the several layers in the image and to go beyond focusing one’s attention on the obvious first layer that is the closest one to you, but to have a look at what else is going on within the frame.

Q: You observed that a successful photo is one that “reflects the feeling I had when I first saw it in the viewfinder” and that if it doesn’t meet this test it “just didn’t succeed.” Is that another way of saying that the emotional reality is more important for you than the physical reality? And is it possible that one of your images that doesn’t succeed for you will work for others who view it?

A: I always regarded street shooting as a big challenge. When I first started, I did it for fun. Soon, I discovered the work of brilliant photographers who documented their time. It made me think that I couldn’t create something interesting enough just by repeating their approach. I remember how I continuously tried to find and capture even more extraordinary situations from even more unusual perspectives, until I realized that street photography is not a competitive sport. I admit that I had put some pressure on myself, always trying to get better by exploiting the extraordinary. To me the meaning of street photography is not about proving how skilled you are with the camera, but capturing pieces of our time. When I decided that I simply wanted to capture what is going on, to take the world as it is, and not try to prove myself how I was getting better as a photographer, I started taking and selecting different images. I stopped looking at my own work in the context of perfectionism. I try to look at it and see if it reflects the moment the way I felt it when I took it. For me every moment is equally important, because you have to look at street photography in a larger context than just as a single photograph. A single street photograph only tells one story, but the work of years of taking photographs can capture the zeitgeist. I try to take photos that will still work in 40, 50 or 100 years and not just because “people wore funny clothes back then.”

Q: How do you see your personal creative work evolving going forward? Do you plan to shoot more portraits, the other genre that interests you? Or do you see your work moving in any other technical directions, such as shooting digital black-and-white images?

A: Shooting portraits has become a big part of my work recently, and though I don’t have a particular project in mind, I will try to focus my work on portraits in addition to street photography. After almost six years of shooting street, I feel the urge to look back at what I’ve done and think about a way to publish it. This will either be a book or a couple of rather small series of handmade print collections I would offer for sale, or maybe both. Also, I will be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo around the end of this year. This could open up a new chapter in my work. I’m excited for how this stay will influence and expand my work. I don’t plan on changing my workflow from film to digital, but especially for traveling like my upcoming trip to the D.R.C., an M9 would be my favorite digital alternative at the moment.

Thank you Severin and thanks to Chris Weeks for bringing Severin to our attention.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Severin’s work on his website, www.severinkoller.com and his blog, severinkoller.at/blog.