We’ve been on the lookout for the perfect photographer to interview for quite sometime. Someone with a brain full of smart, a large collection of transcendental work and an undeniable connection to the universe. In the global search for such a suitable photographer, we looked to the far reaches of the globe’s creative belt. Upon finding the perfect suitor by the name of Jan von Holleben (http://www NULL.janvonholleben NULL.com/), we sent one of our foreign correspondents to Berlin for a short but knowledgeably dense chat. The resulting interview is exactly the type of chin-wag we requested — filled with advice for creatives of all shapes, but particularly handy for confused but excited young photographer shaped people. If you wanna know the best way to find assisting work, whether to go to university or not, or how to be happy doing this creative thing for the rest of your life, read on and drink up all the good stuff.
Junior: Jan! Hello! Welcome and such. Tell us a everything about how you got into photography. We know you studied in London, but were you working in photography before that?
Jan von Holleben: Well I have to say that before I did my university degree I intended to become a teacher of handicapped children. I always thought I was going to do a very classical teacher training in Germany, to go through university, and then start my job. But whilst I did that, I assisted a photographer in the south of Germany for about two years. He was a still life photographer who basically taught me all I know about light. And in a technical sense, after those years, I already felt well equipped to be a photographer.
Then I started my degree to be a teacher, and I realized very quickly that it’s wasn’t my world. I loved the idea of working with children and playing, and I really loved pedagogical theories, but essentially I really missed photography. I was always a little worried, because I knew it was very tough to be a photographer. Originally I’d wanted to go the secure way, become a teacher and be employed by the state, you know, do all that. But when a friend of mine showed me the prospectus for a university degree in England where she wanted to study, well, I flipped through the pages and suddenly realized they had a really exciting photography course based on the theory and history of photography. What they wrote about that really hit something inside of me. After that I realized that was what I wanted to study.
I went with her to England and we spent a week going from college to college, university to university, showing our portfolios. I had some really amazing encounters there and realized that I had to go to England and study. So that’s when I stopped my teacher training, and head over heels just went very quickly to England, which was really an overnight decision to enroll there. It was already in the middle of the semester, but the tutor there was really excited about my ideas and technique that I used and said, “You can start straight away, you don’t have to do the first semester. You can just go straight into the second semester”.
So I was well taken care of there, and I didn’t have to learn anything about technicalities. Which I didn’t want to learn anyway, because I had already worked with large format, with a studio, with light — I was very much experimenting with that already. So, starting my degree in England was really great in its prospects, and especially knowing that I would only learn theory and history in photography.
Jr: Wow! So when you started university you weren’t doing any practical photography at all?
JVH: I did a bit of practical stuff, but most of the time, either I knew already what they were teaching or it was so basic that it wasn’t interesting for me at all. I had already done portrait lighting, I had already done studio lighting, I’d done landscape, I’d done all those sort of classic things — that’s what they would teach the other students that hadn’t had that. So I could really concentrate on concepts, on writing and on researching; I didn’t have to go through all this ‘how am I going to take a picture’ stuff, which for me was extremely helpful.
Now I think that particular degree is better targeted towards people who already have some kind of technical understanding. Most of the students who go there have obviously done their own little personal projects, or assisted someone here or there, but had never had the chance to go through the entire process of teaching, or apprenticeship, that in many ways I had been through. So because of that I felt very privileged.
So, for me at least, it was really two and a half years of purely thinking photography. Although, I did do a lot of projects, and we had a lot of practical projects also in the curriculum.But for me the most exciting thing was just working on concepts, researching and developing ideas, and just yeah — doing photography that matters. You know, photography that is not so much purely visual, but has an actual opinion. So that’s where that degree was really helpful.
I also had to read a lot. My tutors were quite strict on reading material that we had to go through. It was always funny, my favourite tutor, David Campany, always had these particular reading lists. One was the essential reading list which had three to five books per project that you had to read, and then there was another twenty or so books which were optional.
Jr: Yes! Kinda Like recommended reading?
JVH: Yeah, recommended reading, but you were supposed to read all that as well. But you know, at least if you can’t be bothered, read those five essentials — but those twenty ones you should be reading.
Jr: Ha! Yeah, it’s the same at my uni as well. There’s always so much to read! So anyway, I want to know if you can help me out with something. I am constantly involved in this debate with one of my friends because he doesn’t think that university is necessarily the most efficient way to get an education in creativity and learn a craft. He’s of the opinion that it’s better to just get out there, do things, teach yourself along the way, find a mentor, and so on. But! My argument is that it’s imperative that we read and learn and be exposed to the history of our crafts as well. And I think university is the best way to do that; the best way to be exposed to new texts and ideas and ways of thinking. Of course it’s really important to also find a mentor or assist with an experienced photographer or what have you… But university should be the top priority. Are you on my side?
Jr: Ha! Awesome!
JVH: Yeah, I mean, I think there are people who are very successful in what they do, and they’ve got there just by what they’ve taught themselves, what they saw in the world, and how they translate things. To me that is a very emotional approach. There a whole bunch of examples of people who are really great — just look at Nan (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=0Z3sihEuiEk) Goldin (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=0Z3sihEuiEk) or Ryan McGinley (http://www NULL.ryanmcginley NULL.com/) — or look at anyone who is very closely attached to their photography and their life. Life becomes their photography.
Even look at Sally Mann (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=qZ4PftQZqo0) photographing her own family; she didn’t have to go through traditional teaching of critical thinking to do that. I hope, no I know, that she does think critically, she does! She just has not acquired the skill through university or study — but through being exposed to the subject matter and having a camera to translate her thoughts into a picture. But then, other photographers like Jeff Wall (http://www NULL.moma NULL.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/jeffwall/) or Martin (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=4vF1X8-BTQo) Parr (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=RQV8ah7H5TA) or any of the very conceptual photographers, they know 100% what they’re doing, and for every single picture they take they know why and how they do it.
Jr: So you mean there’s a difference between having a philosophy that supports the work and simply documenting your own particular way of seeing?
JVH: Yeah, they have a vision, and they have a mission. You know, they go out and they know what they want to take, and they know the recipe and they know how to achieve what they need. I think that’s how I see myself much more; I feel that I have an idea of a picture that I want to get, and I go and create it. And that is really juxtaposed to the idea of finding an image. Like Nan Goldin — she would always go out and find things; she’s much more of a hunter and she’s hunting for images. Or there are photojournalists that do that — that’s their profession anyway by definition. But then there are the other photographers who construct images how they want them, how they see them, and really create a thought much more than an emotion.
So I guess it really depends. It depends on the photographer and the learning they go through — you know, if it’s self-taught or if they go through university. I mean, a university degree can be really great for some, but it’s really bad for others. You can’t really say yes or no to that question. It really depends.
Then, on the other hand, there are so many university degrees. In London alone they have twenty different ideas of how to teach photography and different agendas in photography. Some just look at fashion, others look at political journalism; some look very philosophically, others very technically, and there are some that go really politically or really conceptually. There’s just so many ways, and photography is so varied, that I think that really reflects the magic of photography in many ways. It isn’t just the photographer and the camera, it is so much more what the photographer wants to do, and what kind of imagery they want to produce.
Jr: Yes, I do guess it does depend on what you want out of it. I knew the answer wasn’t as simple as yes or no. So, how long were you in London?
JVH: Well, in total, seven years. I studied outside of London in Farnham which is about 45 minutes away by train. I did two and a half years in Farnham and then graduated and lived in London for another four and a half years.
Jr: So was when you graduated the moment you started your first photography collective? (Editors note: Jan has started three photography collectives — the first is called Young Photographers United (http://www NULL.ypu NULL.org/).) Was it with people you knew from school or just from, you know, around?
JVH: Umm, not really. There was probably one or two of my friends who joined in the beginning. It was more of an extension of my university degree — you know, a place where I was always surrounded by friends and we would do photography and be on the same level and we could really communicate with each other. After finishing my degree, I realized I had to really rebuild that network and find people to debate photography and make projects with. I could show them my work, get critical feedback, and we’d just do what we thought we should be doing with photography. So that’s when I set up the collective with a friend of mine and we sent out a call to anyone who wanted to be involved, and we got quite a good amount of feedback.
Jr: So, what you’re saying is, getting together and being productive and making shit happen is the best thing young photographers could do?
JVH: Yes, it’s a very important part. I’m a great believer in the collective, I’m a great believer in the debate, and I don’t think that a photographer should sit in his own little chamber, go out once in a while, and snap some pictures. Why should he? I mean, that would be…
Jr: Pretty boring.
JVH: That would be extremely boring! And I almost couldn’t take his work very seriously. Where does he place himself in the bigger picture? What is he inspired by? What does he critically think about things? How is that matched with other thinking? I mean, naturally the photographer is a very lonely practitioner, but I don’t think that there is a reason for it. You don’t need to be protective about your contacts and you don’t need to be protective about the work that you do. At some point you need to air it anyway, and as long as you’re not just shooting for yourself, why the fuck are you not showing it to people and getting some feedback?
That way it’s so much easier getting exhibitions because you know that the project is solid and you know that it works. Then you can go out and have a completely different confidence. You can ask your friends how this picture editor is, how that art buyer is, how to approach an agency, how to get representation, how all these things work — you don’t want to figure it all out yourself. There’s an incredible amount of information you need to gather there.
Jr: Yes! You’d also have access to a bunch of other photographers to work together with when you need some help or an assistant. Which is a good thing to bring up actually. What advice would you give to young photographers who want to assist other really great photographers? It’s something that in my experience is quite hard to do, especially when you’re just starting out.
JVH: It is very hard, yes, it’s definitely very hard. In London there are far too many. You have so many assistants, or so many students that want to assist, and you have too few successful photographers who need an assistant. The best way is through connections. If you see an option there, if you see an opening, then just go and grab it. Or if you have a phone number of one of those photographers that you really admire and you really want to work with, just call them up and tell them why you think you should be doing work with them — why you should be assisting them. Never ever say, “Hey! I’m looking for a job as an assistant — do you have something?” Because then they’ll just say, “There’s thousands out there, why should I have you?”
Jr: Do you think phone or email is the best way to get in touch with someone who you want to work with? I mean, these days with email you could attach a folio and some pictures and things…
JVH: Yeah, but only if that photographer is actually checking his emails and reading them and has enough time for that, then yeah, that’s great. But, you know, the further we’ve moved into the 21st Century, the more phonecalls have become completely underestimated. People might feel that an email is quick and easily done, and that you’ve just sorted it and ticked it off, but I don’t think it works as well. I think you’re lucky if it works.
On the other hand, I work mainly with people that I know — with friends. I don’t need a real photo assistant — I don’t need the ’professional’ photo assistant. I want to work with people that come fresh from school or from college and still want to take that opportunity to learn a lot. Personally that’s how it works with me. I don’t necessarily take in assistants that are only coming in for the week or a month — that’s too little time — because being a photographer is so much more complex.
So I think an aspiring assistant really has to consider at least another half year, or year, or maybe even two years with a photographer if there really is a good match. You have to invest in it. I mean, I know that Nick Knight (http://www NULL.nickknight NULL.com) only takes assistants for two years minimum because he sees it as such an investment. You know, that’s what makes sense for me, and that’s what make sense for them. We’re starting a contract of sorts. We’ll work for two years together. It’s almost an extra degree. I very much believe in that idea.
I know that when I came from university I didn’t know anything about how to be a photographer. I mean, you can do the theory, you can debate that in college or have visiting lecturers telling you how it works, but you have to build your own career. You have to build your own profession, because no photographer works the same. So, I think once you’ve finished your degree you have to think at least for another year or two to just…
Jr: Go and learn.
JVH: Go and learn! And find a photographer you can do that with. If you communicate that to the right photographer, and you can convince the right photographer that you are in tune with what they want to do, then I think that it can be a really great opportunity for both. But yeah, I’m very hesitant to take on assistants, just because it’s such a commitment. It really works when it works and it’s all the time — at least for me anyway. If you want to assist Annie Liebovitz (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=ZEjho8I8XBY) to have the thrill of a big production for a while, then go and assist her as a third, fourth or fifth assistant for a day, or two, a week, or even on an entire production. Then you’ve seen the hardcore life of a huge production. But if you want to learn more about yourself and photography, see it as an extended part of your degree and take the time to find the right photographer. Convince him or her that you need to work with them.
Jr: Yes! Great advice! So, obviously you work commercially, but you also do more fine art/personal type stuff too. Which one do you prefer? The commercial or the personal?
JVH: I’m in a really good position at the moment. I can produce my fine art work, or my personal work, and get it published in magazines that pay for the publishing. Or, on the other hand, I will get clients who want to do the same, but just slightly different, for their purposes.
Jr: You mean like what you did with the Rooftop Cinema in Melbourne and the dreams of flying stuff (http://chaseandgalley NULL.com/ongoing/rooftop-cinema-200809/), where they used what you did originally and then built on it?
JVH: Yeah, exactly. Or a client has an idea they want me to execute. But you know, I’ve had to struggle a lot to get people to understand what I do. I’m not a photographer who’ll just realize anyone’s ideas. I’m a photographer who thinks much more about photography — I want to really develop an idea. Yes, I do have a certain style, which really isn’t that important, because to me it’s much more important to go onto a project and think about the idea behind the photography. My thinking is always about photography — what can I do? What can I not do? What are the limits? Can we stretch those limits with video? Is it a moving photograph? Can we do it differently if we just turn the picture upside down? What happens then? So I have to convince people that I’m not a traditional photographer and that I’m still doing valuable work for them. I have to teach them — educate them is probably a better word — how that can function.
Which in the commercial realm is very difficult. There are Creative Directors and Art Directors and they all think about things before you get onto the scene. For me that doesn’t work. Unless of course they’ve already had me in mind in the very first step. If they say, “Let’s do this project with Jan — let’s write the concept and then we’ll contact him once we’re done.” But, of course, that doesn’t happen often.
Recently magazines have seen me as a hybrid between illustrator and photographer. They come to me with really abstract ideas. They generally have no clue what to do — they’re asking, “Should we use an illustrator or a photographer?” Which they answer by saying, “Oh! Let’s just call up Jan. Maybe he has an idea and we can develop something together.” I love that because they send me all the research, all the visuals, and everything they have, which afterward I try to build something out of. That’s a whole different way of working. I’m not translating ideas into a photograph — like what a normal, I would say average commercial photographer would do. I’m much more involved in creating the idea for the images that I will then photograph later on.
So it works very differently — I get excited about working commercially if I’m involved in the production of the contract. Obviously it’s great to be free and do whatever I have in my mind. But you know what? I have a mission, I know where I’m heading towards and I know what kind of work I want to do. I just try to do as much of it as I can in my lifetime. I want to create loads and loads of projects that always deal with the issues I want to make a point about. I can do that with a commission or I can do that if I work by myself. It’s that simple.
Jr: Let’s talk about the thinking behind photography, because I find that really interesting. There are so many people who take hundreds and hundreds of photos and put them on flickr — for them I guess that’s their way of photographing and how they see themselves as photographer. But the more successful photographers don’t seem to do that. They think a lot about what they’re going to shoot then exhibit the shots.
JVH: All the successful photographers that I know and appreciate all know what they’re doing and why they do it. I think most of them have a higher concept of what they do, which is to not just make pretty images. I believe there’s a great divide between photographers. The ones who use photography for aesthetic reasons who want to create beautiful images, which is the majority; and then there are the other photographers who want to use photography to communicate something. They may add a style onto their photography, and if it’s pretty, then it can obviously communicate better. If they have a style that works with pop culture or whatever culture they want to work with then that makes sense. But I think, and I strongly believe, that the aesthetics of a photograph always come second. It’s easy to make a beautiful picture. It doesn’t require any skill to take a good picture. Just look at all the amateurs, look at flickr — every tenth picture is pretty. It really makes a difference once you step beyond the aesthetics and understand that there is so much more than beauty.
But it’s not just photography mind you. I’d like to know from anyone that works — whether it’s a photographer or a postman. I’d like — no, I wish — that everybody knew why they were doing what they’re doing. Any creative art lends itself to people who don’t know what they want to do. It’s an, “Oh this is pretty, how nice! Oh being a photographer, how glamorous! Oh I want to be a fashion photographer, I love fashion! I want to be a commercial photographer! I want to be a portrait photographer because I like people!” That’s not enough — it’s just not enough. I think you really have to know 100% why you are in this game.
Jr: Absolutely, definitely, and infallibly so. Speaking of flickr and digital photography, are you a fan of digital photography or not? I mean, I know commercially it’s probably really easy and important to use digital because it’s really quick and clients need things done now, but how do you feel about the whole film/digital thing?
JVH: It comes down to the concept of your photography and asking what is more suitable. If you want to have a large format camera and can afford the digital back then great! But if not just take your dark slides and do dark slides — why not? I know for me, I’m shifting back and forth depending what the project it is, or maybe how big the budget is anyway.
It’s definitely a point I always evaluate whenever I’m doing a project; whether I’m going to be shooting analogue or digital. Personally I have an array of cameras at home. They go from very snapshotty, rough and dirty to really elaborate medium format, or I could even shoot large format if I wanted to. I always make my choice of camera and technique very clear. If it’s film, what kind of film? If it’s digital, how many megapixels does it need to have? I always make the choice very specific.
Jr: So, what you’re saying is: know your craft and the technology well so you can get the image that is going to communicate most effectively the idea you want to get across.
JVH: Exactly. Some people are completely fixed on one camera, and they should not leave it. Why should they? If people think that digital is the best for them, then that’s great! But they shouldn’t just use it because it’s the easiest.
Jr: You touched on how expensive digital backs for large format cameras are and obviously that’s pretty extreme. But seriously, for young photographers especially, money is a huge issue. I mean, photography is probably always going to be a pretty expensive road to take, but how important do you think it is to have a whole heap of expensive equipment?
JVH: Get a camera, know what that camera can do, then learn how to explore and exploit it. As I said, I started my career in photography with a still life photographer and we only had large format cameras. All we would do is large format. Sometimes we would use 35mm cameras, but that was really minor. Then when I went to university I knew all about large format, but I didn’t need it for the ideas I had in my head. I realized I could just throw all this technical knowledge overboard. I didn’t ever want to shoot again with large format — I just wanted to reduce everything to the minimal.
Then my dad gave me a present. It was a small instamatic camera from Nikon. It’s a super simple product and the only thing it could do is flash on or flash off. It had a fixed 28mm lens. Even today I love that camera to bits because it’s so straightforward. I don’t think it matters what kind of camera you’re using, as long as you know what it can do and how to exploit that.
Jr: And you can communicate something with it! So we gotta wrap this up, but do you have any last advice or ideas that might be useful for anyone who’s thinking of becoming a photographer?
JVH: Well, it’s always helped me to know exactly why I’m doing this. I must always have a very clear vision in mind of why I have to be a photographer. I must always know why this is the best thing I could possibly do, why I should take pictures that matter, and not be one amongst a million who take pretty images. For me that is a very important thing to know. Whenever I question what I’m doing I can fall back on that and think, “Oh yeah! That’s why I’m doing photography. That’s true. That’s what I want to do, yeah! Let’s continue with this.”
Interview by: Ruth Morris (http://www NULL.ruth-morris NULL.com/)