Literary Orphans

Interview with Joel Hohner

1. What sparked your interest in photography, and when did you know you would pursue being an artist?

There is a bit of history to this…but I will tell it here since you’ve asked. I hope it’s not too boring for your readers.

I wasn’t always a photographer. Prior to mid 2008, I had almost no interest in photography as an art form or even as a hobby.

I had always had an interest in visual art: drawing and sculpting, and also painting and to a lesser extent, poetry too (though I have to confess, I’m a terrible poet!).
But photography just never really caught on. For me, making a picture by snapping a machine just wasn’t the same as creating one by hand with a pencil or paintbrush.
When I was teenager I was briefly interested in photography and I tried to get into wildlife photography. I lived in British Columbia, Canada, so I guess something like wildlife was the natural choice for my photography at that point in my life.
Anyway, I was trying to photograph one of my many pets (a pet lizard…’wildlife,’ honest!) with a Carl Zeiss Macro lens. I think it was a 100mm f2.8…but I might have it wrong. It was a long time ago. And yes that was on film in those days! And I managed to drop the camera and damage the lens. The lens belonged to my father and it look my entire life savings to pay him back (not that much money, but then, I was only 16 so my “life” savings wasn’t that much either).
And that was the end of photography for me for a long, long time.
Instead I pursued my interests in other visual art forms such as painting, drawing and sculpture.
Paint brushes don’t break when you drop them.
Sculptures do, but that’s another story.
And then for years and years I had absolutely no interest in photography as an art form. I still had my old Contax 139 but I almost never, ever used it. And I didn’t own a digital camera of my own until 2009.
So what happened? I really don’t know, but I was wandering around in Munich one August in 2008 (yes, I am aware that 2008 only had one August in it) and I was the artist’s district. At least someone told me it was the artist’s district. And I liked how the light looked on some of the buildings in the late afternoon and I decided to borrow a digital camera from someone and take some pictures.
I took my pictures and I loaded them up into my computer and played with them a bit in PS. I liked the results.
I then I decided to take more pictures with another borrowed point-and-shoot digital camera….and then I took some more…and I ended up thinking it was cool to make faux IR pictures and neat looking shots of local parks here in Copenhagen and then Photoshop the hell out of them….but something stuck and I just kept shooting.
I wondered when I would get bored with it and move on…as so often happened with many of my various ‘passions’ over the years.
But I didn’t get bored, and I kept taking pictures.
And then I got my own digital SLR. I thought it was really cool and I shot the hell out of it.
Then someone showed me a Leica M and it was love at first sight. I took a photography seminar with someone who had a Leica M9…he let me use it and I instantly knew the Leica M was the camera for me. He lent me an M4 (probably as a means of prying his M9 back out of my hands) and I shot with that for about a year. Now I have my own Leica M4-P and I take it everywhere I go (except the shower!).
What the hell happened?
How do you go from no interest at all in photography to being avid – if amateur – photographer?
I really don’t know but here I am and I don’t go a day without taking pictures! I’m glad I finally found my muse.

2. What other artists and art forms have influenced you and your work?

There are many. Some I could name offhand are the following:

Picasso (and cubism in general…even if you can’t really see it in my work)
Dylan Thomas (I know he’s not a photographer!)
Ansel Adams
Robert Frank
Joel Meyerowitz
Garry Winogrand,
Jeff Mermelstein
William Eggleston
Alex Webb
Sebastiao Salgado
Severin Koller

3. Can you describe your current artistic process, habits, techniques you have formed?

Well, this is probably going to sound very disappointing since there’s really nothing special about it at all. The “process” – if you could call it that – is just to take my camera with me wherever I go (well, I don’t take it in the shower as I’ve said already and I’ve also found no use in taking it to bed when I’m sleeping – but otherwise I’ve always go it handy). When I see something interesting, I take a picture of it. I have no specific plan or theme in mind generally – though I do try to hit places with a lot of people in them of course.

As to just what will seem “interesting” – well, there is no real pattern or logic to it. Some things just seem to catch my attention.

As to technique – I have not perfected that by a long way. But generally, I try to go unnoticed – that is I don’t ask permission before photographing someone, nor do I run up and flash people in the face so I end up with a picture of them reacting to my camera. I know some people do that, but it’s not my thing. Therefore I often “shoot from the hip” and sometimes I also make a point of shooting (using the viewfinder), and then looking pointedly at something behind the subject so as to hopefully give the person the idea that I was actually taking a picture of something else. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I also use a 35mm lens most of the time, so I don’t need to point the camera right at the person I’m photographing.

I also tend to use film (in a Leica rangefinder camera) and not digital. There is nothing wrong with digital, but I just prefer the look of film. I also just prefer the fact that film takes more work – there is no instant picture. Somehow, the fact that it took more work to get the final result makes the final picture that much more satisfying to me. I guess it’s the same for a person who wants to fix up an old car or build one from parts just for fun, rather than buy a new one, or a craftsman who makes handmade furniture. For me, film has a “made by hand” feel to it – even though it’s pretty far from that (ever try to make your own film? 🙂 ). As of right now I am not set up with my own darkroom so I don’t develop or print my own work – but I’d like to start doing this soon too.

I should add here that this does not mean I think digital is bad – film is simply a personal preference and if I’m covering a wedding or something like that I’m pretty happy to be able to check the LCD and make sure I’ve got the shots I needed to get!

By the way film did not catch on for me until 2010 – after I was lent a Leica M4. I could not afford a digital M9 (I still can’t…!) and so this was a substitute since I really want to use an M. And at that point I actually realized that I preferred film over digital for me street work.

Now, why street photography? Well, this started as a by-product of getting a DSLR in 2009. I wanted to get out and use it…but up to that point I was mainly interested in landscapes and such (comes from growing up in Canada, I guess). But since I now live in the middle of a big city – Copenhagen, Denmark – this was not a possibility unless I was out traveling somewhere in the country. So I went out and shot people on the street – and this caught on big time.

I have found that I love trying to find the art that actually exists in the everyday world around us. You have to learn to see it, and learn how to put a frame around it with a camera, but once you do the world suddenly looks like a different place full of fascinating people and scenes and objects that can turn into art simply by being framed by my camera. I also try to look for interesting forms (or forms that will be interesting once framed) and try to combine this with interesting content where possible.

I also like the fact that street photography (as Joel Meyerowitz actually pointed out to me, believe it or not) is the only form of photography that is not rooted in an earlier art form. This is something new that the camera has made possible (even though I think some painters were possibly heading in this direction – like Renior or other impressionists perhaps though I’m seriously not an expert on these things – but only the camera allows you to just freeze something as it’s really happening).

4. Is storytelling important in your photography?

I believe that art needs to communicate SOMETHING, so the answer is ‘yes’ – but my photography at present is not storytelling in the traditional sense. That is, I don’t shoot a series of pictures that tells one story. I do street photography – meaning one picture is generally meant as a standalone piece. However I think that a picture, in order to be effective, needs to communicate something to the viewer and also let the viewer somehow contribute something to it; even if it’s just an emotion, feeling, etc – even a smile. I certainly can’t say every picture I’ve taken actually fulfils these criteria (!) – but it’s what I’m going for when I’m shooting and it’s what I look for when I try to edit my own work.

5. What are some of your favorite books, poems, authors?

Dylan Thomas – basically everything.
T.S. Elliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Irving Stone – the Agony and the Ecstasy.
Roger Zelanzey – The Creatures of Light and Darkness
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
Czeslaw Milosz – various poems
Ernest Hemmingway – everything.

6. Can you put into words the way you have evolved over time as a photographer?

Well, I think I’ve ended up covering that above. My evolution has been from “no photography” to “interested in photography”…to someone who is almost never without a camera!

7. Where do you turn for motivation and new sources of inspiration?

I like to look at the work of the photographers I listed above – these to me represent an ideal to strive for in terms of my own work. And also really enjoy looking at the work of other contemporary photographers on dA and Flickr. Youtube documentaries on well known photographers is also another source of inspiration…even if I’ve watched them before.

And when I’m really stuck and uninspired, I’ve found that just going out and taking pictures…of anything at all…often works. Somehow, after a few clicks, the pictures around me just start showing up again in front of my lens.

8. Discuss the role of community and gallery showings, etc to your growth as an artist.

As above, the internet photography community is something I use for inspiration. Actually, DeviantArt (and later flickr) was a big part of how I ended up getting into photography that I didn’t mention earlier. When was I was a teenager these things did not yet exist really. So if I took a picture, I could get my little glossy prints from the lab and show my friends, but that’s it. With DeviantArt, I could actually show my work to a wider audience right away…and get feedback and comments and encouragement. This was very helpful in the early stages of my development as a photographe. As I have said, I think art needs to communicate. Well, communication is pointless if there is no one listening, or no one to talk to. The internet solved that. Also, I should point out that the wealth of online information, tutorials, and so on, was very helpful (and still is very useful) in learning the craft itself.

9. What do you think is more important for your craft: passion, dedication, or raw talent and can you elaborate on why?

I would say passion and dedication.

Raw talent is great, but it’s an X-factor I can’t do anything about. There are photographers out there with way more talent than me. So what I am supposed to do about it? Sit there and fret over it? Or get out there and shoot and get better at my own photography? I think the answer is obvious. You need to know your camera and know the craft cold (which also happens by practice more than anything), so you can do it without thinking about it, and after that you just get out there and do it and get better at it and keep at it and until you get the kind of shots you want to be able to get. That’s what it’s all about.

10. What is a project, or theme you are currently working on, or something that is currently taking your attention, that you are aiming to explore in your work?

By now it’s probably clear that I don’t really have a specific project except documenting life itself all around me. It’s just something I do almost compulsively. I just can’t stop taking pictures!

So I guess I’m just trying to explore life in my pictures – at least the life I’m seeing around me as I go through my own life. That’s about what I have time for right now – probably if I won the lotto or something and could just shoot all the time I’d get more specific with different themes or projects.