Simon Puschmann: Pursuing the Fine Art of Serendipity

An acclaimed commercial photographer expresses his personal vision and refreshes his eye by capturing the unexpected as it happens and transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Simon Puschmann is an award-winning commercial photographer who transcends the concept of photographic categories. For more than 20 years, he has been creating his own brand of dramatic, unexpected imagery for a prestigious clientele, including Audi, Citroen, BMW, BMW Sauber F1, Mercedes Benz, Doc Martens, FC St. Pauli, Lufthansa, Hamburg City Film Council, Volkswagen, and Mobil One NASCAR Racing and many more. Among his honors are bronze and silver medals from the International Aperture Awards, 2008; first place, Altpick Award, Photography Series, 2007 and 2008; and Photography Website of the Year for 2008, by altpick.com. Here is the amazing story of how he has created a parallel universe of fine art images based on his everyday experiences all over the world, from surreal and melancholic juxtapositions to people undressing in the kitchen!

Q: I’m looking at your work. You call it Serendipity. Why did you choose that title and how does the concept of “making fortunate discoveries by accident” relate to your images?

A: In my day job, if you can call it that, I photograph cars. I do so in a very polished manner. Almost overproduced because of the clients’ desire to see everything on the car. I was photographing in Cape Town recently with an art director said I needed more serendipity in the pictures. He kept saying it over and over and at first I didn’t know what it meant. He said it’s pretty much like coincidence but a lot nicer. That word stuck with me. I decided to use it as a title for my more artistic work.

Q: What camera did you use to shoot these pictures?

A: The older photos were shot with an Olympus OM-10. Later I bought a Leica M6, a Monochrom, and an M.

This year I have my Leica M Monochrom with me at all times. In 2011 I started a project on January 1st called ‘365.’ The plan was to take that camera with me every day and to document whatever it was that I was doing throughout the year. I’m doing the same thing this year. Then I used an M6 and shot on black and white negative film. This year at the end of each month I turn the images into a little short clip that I put on my Facebook page and on simplesimon.tv.

Q: What is it that you like about the Leica M for this kind of work?

A: Only older people recognize it as a good camera. Younger people think that it must have been inherited it and it must be really old. They don’t take it seriously. It’s compact too. and I can get it into concerts or football games or wherever single lens-reflexes aren’t typically allowed. I’m not commercially interested in photographing those places, but since I’m documenting my life I need to take it with me and I don’t want to leave it at the door.

Q: I noticed that many of those photos are shot in black-and-white, and I’m sure many of them were shot on the Monochrom. What do you think of the Monochrom?

A: It’s the largest amount of money that I ever blew without regretting it. It is completely unnecessary in a certain way, but it’s bloody awesome. It delivers a tonality that I’ve never seen before with a digital camera.

Q: Let’s talk about some of these images. There are these self-help posters plastered all around and it’s kind of an ironic picture about the state of the human condition. I can’t really tell where it was taken. It’s sort of funny and sad. Can you tell us about this picture?

A: I had the Monochrom ready when I arrived in Atlanta and that picture was of the inside of the taxicab I was riding in!

Q: You have an interesting take on photographing cars. There is this one picture that’s taken from above a square with one car in the square and one entering it. It almost looks like a toy camera picture. When you printed it out you did this border thing. It’s a very striking image. The use of space, the way you can see the road with cars coming down it. I like the play of light and shadow in this picture. What was going through your mind when you shot it?

A: A lot of my pictures start off somewhat formally, mostly because of my history with advertising photography. But when I’m photographing for myself I can throw some of that formality out the window. So I see something that fascinates me and I capture it. For this one I was fascinated by the lights and the shade of the cars and buildings.

Q: This is a real photographic print right made the traditional way, right? It isn’t digitized or scanned?

A: That is correct. All of the images with the funky edges are printed on a negative printer.

Q: Tell me about this image where you have an Audi facing the camera. The setting seems sort of bleak and desolate, and that is the feeling it projects.

A: It’s funny, but my personal photography has a tendency to turn out very bleak and melancholic. It’s funny because I am nothing like that. I’m a very happy person, but whatever I photograph turns out lonely. I find so much beauty in the ugly. This is the “backside” of an advertising shot. If you turn in the opposite direction, everything is beautiful. We are looking out on the Dubai skyline and it’s perfect, but if you turn the camera the other way it sucks! I just had to capture it.

Q: Advertising images certainly have their place and can be quite creative in their own right, but it seems that these photos have a lot more depth and emotion.

A: This photo was taken back in 2011 during my first ’365′ project, so I was just documenting where I was every day. Naturally I had to take photos while on advertising photo shoots.

Q: What about this photo of a BMW motorcycle nestled in a parking place surrounded by vegetation with boxy industrial looking buildings in the background?

A: That bike was actually mine. I sold it unfortunately, but it was the first motorcycle I ever owned. The picture is in my garden. It’s a classic BMW R60/5.

Q: What about this image of a Lincoln car in the snow? Here is another bleak image, sort of reminiscent of the Audi. It seems to be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Where did you shoot it?

A: This is in Detroit. I was driving with my agent. We had just gotten lost. I had her stop the car so I could get out and take this picture. And then we turned around and left.

Q: It certainly has a melancholic aspect to it as well as a very clean composition. It’s clear that your advertising history shows in your photos.

A: It’s funny, I always tend to frame so that you could always fit a logo on the image. I can’t get it out of me.

Q: There’s a very strange, abstract, kind of enigmatic picture. It’s of a wall with some kind of leaves growing on it. There are two black lines.

A: That’s a hedge with the shadow of two trees cast on it.

Q: It slaps you in the face. Those lines almost look painted.

A: I’m really happy that my designer picked this. It’s one of my favorite images.

Q: It’s a very emotional picture. On the one hand it just sits there, but on the other hand it has such a creepy quality to it. I don’t know how else to describe it. You can’t immediately program what’s going on, and that’s part of its charm.

A: Just on a technical note, none of these images have been edited or Photoshopped. There was no magic performed here. That’s always important to me, because everyone always accuses me of cheating because of my car photography. In that case it’s my job to cheat, but when I do these photographs I want everything to come through as is.

Q: Whatever makes you feel right. Art is like coping with death; everyone has their own way of doing it, and whatever it takes is OK. If it makes you feel right to shoot on film and print using a traditional photographic process that’s great. If you want to scan and manipulate them, that’s fine too.

Speaking of enigmatic pictures. There’s a picture of two guys standing in a barren field with some machinery in front of them. They are looking into the sky and there is this out of focus thting in the air with some mountains in the background. Where was this taken and what the heck is going on here?

A: That one is interesting. On the left side is a platform in Cape Town where we shoot cars. The guy on the left is my art director and the guy on the right is my retoucher. It was a really hot day and as the sun was setting they were just out there trying to cool off. The out of focus thing hanging there is one of those car air fresheners. When I saw them standing there I thought that they looked like they could have been a band and this could have been their album cover.

Q: I like the way you have a very soft foreground and a very soft middle and then there is this dangling thing. It seems like it must be what they are looking at, but if you look closer you see that it’s not true. What did you shoot that with?

A: That was the Monochrom.

Q: I’ve seen a lot of pictures of lines painted on sidewalks and roads but this one is exceptional. These dotted lines on this image form an asymmetrical rhombus. Then you have this arrow pointing seemingly to nowhere. It’s like the indirection of direction.

A: I saw this from my car in 2011, so I had my Leica M6 with me. This is meant to be a gathering point for cyclists who wish to turn left. That was shot here in Hamburg.

Q: What lens do you use with your M6?

A: In 2011 I used only the 35 mm and this year I’m only using the 50 mm.

Q: Which models of these lenses do you use?

A: The 35 mm is the 35 mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH and the 50 mm is a Summicron-M f/2.0 non-ASPH. It’s a little older.

Q: Well, with Leica lenses it doesn’t really matter how old they are. They all shoot beautiful pictures. By the way, how do you feel about that? A lot of people say Leica lenses have a special way of rendering the image. They aren’t made just to be sharp. They are made to shoot an image that has a certain quality to it. They build upon the heritage of the previous design. Do you have any particular feeling about Leica lenses?

A: Yes and no. I love using them, but I’m not a tech geek, so I couldn’t really tell you whether or not aspheric lenses are better and why. For me, I look at quality versus affordability. Now, on my desk in front me there’s a 50 mm Leica and a 50 mm Canon. The Leica is a lot heavier, and I love that. You want a solid, quality camera and want a real glass-and-brass lens, not plastic.

Q: I’m looking at another picture that was obviously taken with the M6. It’s a street scene in Europe. You can see the steering wheel of a car and it looks classic. It’s obviously taken from inside the car. There are people in the street. It’s very nice and it’s not melancholic. It’s almost pleasant and happy.

A: Ha, well that must have been an accident. That was our Fiat 500. I was driving and I was at a red light in traffic in Hamburg. I love shooting through windows. It gives you a little extra protection from people being able to see you shooting them. I really love sitting in New York and looking through windows and just photograph whoever goes by. This is pretty much the same. The ’365′ project is very important to me. I encourage anyone to try it. Even for a month, to take a camera everywhere you go and catalog your experience. It’s exhausting, but I love it. I believe it improves your eye and allows you to see the world more clearly.

Q: There’s a picture here of a cat in a window. It’s obviously at attention, maybe meowing, ears up. It looks like a black and white image but it’s printed in monochromatic yellow. Why did you print it this way in yellow?

A: Well first it was printed in black and white. The designer did this yellow thing. I think she took that idea of serendipity into this design. She said to me; let’s throw in some neon paper. It’s not a very good photo paper but it turned out quite well. We printed all of this through one of those companies that prints high volume, low quality paper, like for fliers and such. We thought well, if they change the quality of the images then that too is serendipity so it’s OK.

Q: There’s one picture that I don’t quite get. It’s the one that has a label in the corner that says Scott at South Bay studios. He is sitting on a couch in casual clothes with one leg over the other. There’s a little round table in the foreground and in the back there is some kind of artwork. Looks like he’s in a corporate lobby or something. It looks like there is a spotlight somewhere above, giving harsh lighting to the subject. Can you help me understand this picture?

A: Well, it’s one of those that started with that formal aspect. We worked here for a couple of weeks. My office was right there. From time to time people would sit there to have a cigarette. Scott was my assistant at the time. I saw him sitting there and thought it was good. I had photographed the space before without a person and knew it needed more. It was a very unusual space and I found it very interesting. I was glad I had a model, so to speak. It’s kind of random, but that’s the whole idea.

Q: Is South Bay Studios a photographic studio?

A: Yes, it was a huge studio in LA. I was there shooting a car catalog for KIA.

Q: There’s another yellow picture here, a skyline. Is that the Middle East?

A: Yes, Dubai.

Q: There’s something majestic and strange about the way you have interpreted this image. What were you doing in Dubai?

A: I was there for the Audi shoot. I’m there at least once a year for a job. I think this was taken through a car window.

Q: Do you recall what camera you used?

A: I think it’s the M6.

Q: There’s a fascinating picture that looks like an aerial shot over some fields, but it has an abstract quality and also looks like it could be something else entirely. I love the pattern of it, but trying to figure out what it is actually is quite difficult. Can you enlighten me?

A: It’s the result of my sitting in a window seat of a typical passenger plane approaching Detroit airport in February. I shot it with the Monochrom, and I was very happy with the outcome considering it was taken out the plane window. To me it looked like a huge chessboard or maybe like a grey-scale testing setup.

Q: What is next for these images?

A: I’ve launched my new website, simplesimon.tv. I have been doing artistic work over the last 20 years. I always posted all of my work on the same website, but believe it or not people were complaining that I had too much on the site. So simonpuschmann.com is a purely car photography website and simplesimon.tv is my photography playground. Some of these are part of another project I’ve been working on where I have people undress in front of the camera for a series of nine images of each subject. It sounds a little weird, but the result is really beautiful. Those can be viewed at http://www.naked-in-the-kitchen.com/ and I hope to put them all together in a book sometime soon. I feel like, aside from my car photography, the naked series is the most important work I’ve done.

Q: The idea of photographing people undressing is very interesting. How did you decide to do that?

A: In a lot of my work I try to capture the passing of time. Still photography is a very challenging medium for doing that effectively, but I love to keep trying. The nine images to me is like a QuickTime movie. The camera doesn’t move. In the first frame the kitchen is empty. And then the person enters the room, fully clothed. They play around, do whatever, then they slowly take of their clothes piece by piece. When I travel for a shoot I try to extend my stay and set up some of these sessions. I like it because it allows me to see a whole different side of these places I visit. These people open up their homes to me. It’s very personal. I’ve done these shoots all over the world.

Q: These people are revealing themselves. I don’t just mean their bodies, but who they are and how they live. I like the idea very much and I wish you the best with it.

A.: I’d say that project is going well. I’ve photographed 75 people in all sorts of countries. The project isn’t finished yet either. Anytime I go someplace I haven’t been to I try to set up one of these sessions. I feel like I have the US and Germany covered though, so I don’t think I’ll do any more in those places. When I feel like I have enough I’d like to compile them in a book and call it “Naked in the Kitchen.”

Q: Well this has been great, Simon. So, to come back top the original question, why Serendipity, and why now?

A: Well I’m known as a car photographer primarily and I wanted to do something different. I don’t expect a lot of commercial success out of the book. But the way advertising works, if one of the people who sees this has a project likes this and hires me, that’s great. But maybe they’ll see it and be inspired to do something completely different from this. That would be great too. I really just want people to know that I’m capable of much more than just slick, high quality car photography. And I’m not saying I don’t love what I do. I just want to present new ideas. A famous German art buyer once said that if you want to be successful in the long term, then you have to completely reinvent yourself every seven years. This is part of me trying to accomplish that. I’m printing 1,000 copies of the book, and because it is Serendipity it’s being hand bound by me and my family.

Thank you for your time, Simon!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit http://www.simplesimon.tv to see Simon’s personal work and http://www.simonpuschmann.com for commissioned work.