James Fancourt chats to ‘urban topography’ photographer Markus Lehr…
Markus Lehr is a Berlin-based photographer whose work focuses on urban and industrial topography. Ranging from the gravel pits near Berlin to the steel mining industry in the Ruhr, his photography tells a story of the way that humans shape and change our environments, yet without focusing on images of people themselves.
What first got you interested in photography?
When I was 16 or 17 I was allowed into the dark room of my father’s photo club and that opened up a whole new and exciting world. Around that time I also watched Antonioni’s movie Blow Up for the first time. I remember I found that photographer’s life incredibly sexy and cool and there was another darkroom playing an important role…
Did you study photography formally, and if so where?
I studied communication at the Berlin University of Arts and that included a bit of photography as well, but basically I learned it myself by trial and error.
What is it about Berlin that you love in terms of photography locations?
The layers of history and the side-by-side situation of the former political blocs. If you travel through Berlin today and look close enough you can still experience the former border between the East and the West: the architecture changes, the traffic signals for pedestrians look different and the streetlights change in colour quality. The latter you can even see from space. Another aspect is the speed of change. A location you capture one day might look totally different the next time you pass by. It stays interesting.
What are the most challenging things about photographing in Berlin?
Chaotic architecture. It’s one single big construction site. Berlin is a mix of different influences. Balancing the particular parts in a composition. On one hand I like that but on the other it is a real challenge to make your way through that jungle and find a meaningful voice.
One of the most striking aspects of your images is the lighting. What would you say is your favourite time to shoot and why?
Towards midnight when usually crowded places get calm and quiet. This atmosphere helps me to find perspectives which otherwise would be lost in the noise and movement. The other side of night shooting is the amount of control you have over the light. I am usually working very slowly and compose my frame around a scene and the available light.
Many of your photos must be quite difficult to achieve, such as your long exposure shots. What kind of equipment and techniques do you use?
I take the majority of my images with a Nikon D800e and use the Zeiss 25mm f/2.0 and the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses mostly. Both of them have great flare and ghost resistance which is really helpful at night. I always shoot raw and work with Photoshop for post-processing. This process makes me feel a bit like working in a darkroom but with much more controlled results. I use my own presets but often tweak them according to the light and the colour mood of the image.
Your work explores a lot of industrial areas and reminds me of the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, based on the work of Edward Burtynsky. Is he a photographer you admire?
I like his work a lot. Just recently I had another look into his book about Quarries. He says, “we are surrounded by all kinds of consumer goods, yet we are profoundly detached from the sources of those things.” I know no other photographer who makes us aware of this in such an impressive way.
What other themes have you worked on, or would you consider working on in the future?
Early in spring 2014 I travelled to the Ruhr area for a series I later called “Notes from the rust belt“, a region which used to be the heart of Germany’s heavy industry. With the decline of coal mining and steel production in the last decades of the 20th century it suffered a fate similar to the American rust belt. While I was shooting that series the most striking experience I made was the difference in how the various communities have been dealing with their heritage. Some were embracing it, others turning it into a museum and some simply put a fence around it.
In another series. “Cambrium“, I captured a few sand pits and gravel mines in and around Berlin. I usually worked in the night and on Sundays when nobody was around. This is quite ambiguous: Even though those locations were completely man-made and one hardly can imagine a more drastic change to a landscape, I often caught myself seeing them like they had been there forever resting in that quiet majestic way.
A very wrong interpretation because each time I came back, they had changed a bit. A new machine was there or a heap of sandhad disappeared and rematerialized in another corner. New tracks of vehicles had appeared. A constant flux of material and traces in an almost fluid landscape. It was also a fascinating journey because I began to realize that I was shooting in a different time zone than the people actually working there. It was a bit like time travelling. In the end I guess the images of that series are both fictional and documentary at the same time.
Currently I am preparing a trip to the SaarLorLux region. It’s a border territory including the German Saarland, Luxembourg, the French area of Lorraine and the Belgium area of Wallonia, which underwent tremendous changes similar to the Ruhr area.
Is the city – any city – infinitely photogenic, or are there inherent limitations?
I love that mesh of interweaving narratives that you can find in urban spaces. Cities are a focus point for human development and so it is here where we can feel the pulse and that wonderful cacophony of voices. You can call this photogenic if you have a very open definition of that word. On the other hand it is easy to loose yourself. Focusing is mandatory or otherwise the results might look arbitrary.
Who else inspires you, photographers or otherwise?
There is a scene in Antonioni’s Blow up where the main character is situated outside an empty tennis court. We hear the sound of a ball being played but we see nothing than the empty field. Everything happens in the head of the main character. I think I would be happy if my images could achieve an effect like that.
Living in this image soaked media age I find it rare that a picture stays in my mind a little longer. One such image is Alex Colville’s Pacific from 1967: A man leaning against an open door looking out to the sea while a pistol rests on a table in the foreground. There is tension disguised as tranquility. Uncertainty. The endless sea. Contemplating man. I think I first saw this image in my early twenties and it never left me. I don’t have it displayed at home but it is always with me.
Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson are influences. I do like photographers of the new topography movement and Richard Misrach, especially his book about Petrochemical America. After shooting the remains of a firestorm that happened a few miles from his studio, Richard intentionally put away the work for two decades out of respect for the victims of the fire. Tell this story to somebody who is on Instagram.
Are there any Berlin photographers or places in Berlin you would particularly recommend?
A friend of mine recently introduced me to the work of Jörn Vanhöfen, a photographer who is currently based in Berlin and Johannesburg. I saw his big format prints in the gallery Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung in Auguststraße in Mitte (the exhibition is currently running until 26th April – ed) and was immediately drawn into it. Very inspiring material.
One of my favourite places in Berlin is the island Eiswerder in the district Spandau. The area is used by one of the oldest active movie companies in Germany: CCC Film. Founder Artur “Atze” Brauner, born to a Jewish family in Poland and Holocaust survivor intentionally moved to these premises – a former Nazi munitions and poison gas factory – to realize a dream. He once said: “Out of the poison-gas factory I wanted to make a dream factory.”
I also recommend the Humboldt University’s campus at Adlershof. Buildings like the great wind channel, the Trudelwindkanal and the sphere laboratories look like backdrops for an old sci-fi movie from the ’30s and lying in the grass of the Aerodynamic Park you can listen to some strange UFO-like objects making strange UFO-like sounds.