Thomas Hoepker: Heartland

Thomas Hoepker is one of the most acclaimed Magnum photographers. His pictures of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, his shots from the USA in the 1960s, as well as newer photos like the one he took in New York on September 11, 2001, have become emblematic. Hoepker has been using Leica cameras ever since he started working as a photo journalist for renowned magazines.

Q: Mr. Hoepker, how did you get your first Leica camera?

A: As far back as in my schooldays I had the dream of becoming a photographer. My grandfather bequeathed me a plate camera and with it I made my first photographs. Later, in a photo competition, I was awarded a camera by the AkArette company, which was my first 35mm camera. The more seriously I got involved with photography, the stronger the desire to own a Leica became! During my university years in Munich, I eventually bought my first Leica MP at Foto Elgas with instalments that I paid off for several years. With the help of this camera, I began to make money as a photographer.

Q: What were your first pictures with the Leica camera?

A: My first pictures as a Leica novice were rather experimental. Although there are some photographs that date back to my early time as a photographer which would be presentable even today.

Q: Actually, in your exhibition at the Leica Gallery Frankfurt – and come September at the Leica Galerie Solms – there are photos that you made in 1963 during an extended photo reportage journey in the USA. How did this assignment come about?

A: Soon after I got my first permanent position as a photographer at the “Münchner Illustrierte”, I was hired by “Kristall” magazine that was published by Axel Springer Verlag in Hamburg. Robert Lebeck also worked there as a staff photographer. The editor-in-chief had an affinity for pictures, so I could tour quite freely to work on projects. One of the photographs that is shown in the actual Frankfurt exhibition is from my time at “Kristall”. It was part of the report “Kids at the Berlin Wall”. Then, in a meeting the editors decided to send my colleague, writer Rolf Winter, and me to the USA.

Q: How long did the journey take?

A: Our briefing was simply: fly to New York, rent a car, drive up to the West Coast and back and see what you might discover on your way. All in all, we spent approximately two months on this journey, something that would be unthinkable in magazine journalism today! Photographers normally have no more than three to four days to document a story.

Q: You are one of the photographers that represent Leica – with your personality and, of course, your pictures. Are there pictures that, in your opinion, can be called typical Hoepker-Leica photographs?

A: Well, I am still a street photographer as I have always been. I see what happens around me and then I photograph it. There is no premeditated concept, no pre-arrangement. In my view, that’s the interesting thing about photography, to cut out a part of reality, to capture moments that are suitable of documenting an event in a memorable way. The secret recipe for producing such pictures has always been nothing more than a good eye, a lot of time and patience, as well as sheer luck. Not only I, but most Magnum photographers adhere to this maxim. If there are two to three photos each yearthat outlast the actual event, that is quite an achievement.

Q: Your portraits of Muhammad Ali are certainly among these outlasting photographs. How did you get that near to the champion?

A: The Muhammad Ali story was one of my first for “stern” where I (once again alongside Robert Lebeck amongst others) worked as a staff photograher. The Editor-in-chief of the magazine was Henri Nannen and Rolf Gillhausen was the ingenious photo editor. I first met Muhammad Ali during a world championship fight in London, but I did not confine myself to photograph him boxing. I also photographed him in more private moments, for instance, while he was being measured by a tailor on Savile Row. Our motto back in those days was, “We stay until we are kicked out”. And, as a matter of fact, Muhammad Ali never kicked me out.

Q: Apart from the unique portraits of Ali, you also took what is perhaps the most memorable photograph of  September 11, 2001, the day of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.

A: Coincidentally, we held a Magnum meeting in New York on September 10, so many of my colleagues were in the city on that day. But on the next morning, when the horrible assaults were perpetrated, we had no contact with each other because the telephone networks were overloaded. Eventually, a colleague got me on the phone and she told me that there were a fire in Downtown Manhattan. I got in my car and drove over the East River to Queens and Brooklyn and from there I shot the photographs. The picture you mentioned is one out of many others. I personally did not think much of this picture at the time; it seemed to me just an incidental photograph. Other Magnum photographers were really on the ground and they had documented the ruins, the smoke, the people in panic. Only some years later, while preparing my retrospective in the Munich Fotomuseum, I retrieved that picture from my “B selection”. Ulrich Pohlmann, the curator of that exhibition, made me aware of the strange tension in that picture and I understood was so special about that photograph.

Q: By now, the photograph has been published in almost all magazines.

A: Strangely enough, only in Europe, not in the USA. The picture has been mentioned only once, in the New York Times, but they only mentioned it and did not show it! The reason may be the Americans’ collective trauma and their special sensitivity with regard to that day.

Q: Since 1989 you have been a member of Magnum, the world’s most renowned photographic agency, and from 2003 to 2006 you were president of Magnum Photos.

A: Magnum was established in 1947 and is still the most interesting picture agency simultaneously encompassing a unique tradition and highly modern, pioneering ideas. That is in large part thanks to the contributions of our young photographers who are especially interested in combining high image quality and the possibilities of modern media. The fact that Leica and Magnum will continue their longstanding relationship will prove a great gain for professional photography.

Mr. Hoepker, thank you very much!

-Leica Internet Team

You can also read the original interview with Mr. Hoepker in German“Heartland”, an exhibition of Thomas Hoepker’s work, is currently on view at the Leica Gallery in Frankfurt through June 25th. From May 11 to October 3, 2011 the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin will show photographs from the former GDR by Thomas Hoepker, as well as photographs from Eastern Europe by Daniel Biskup in an exhibition titled “Über Leben” [On Living/Surviving]. The exhibition is shown on the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. For the exhibition, Hoepker’s book “DDR Ansichten” will be published by Hatje Cantz.