Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner
Kai Gundlach hates being bored. Winner of two AOP awards in 2006 alone, he is a highly accomplished commercial photographer—but it is his pursuit of personal work that brings him the most satisfaction. When on location for a shoot—whether that be Shanghai, Iceland, or Texas—he likes to shed the strains of crew, deadlines, and the zealotry of clients to wander off and aim his camera. Drawn primarily to landscapes, Gundlach prefers the rugged and industrial—not boring “typical post cards of just landscapes and blue skies.”
And this is what brought us to our Featured Image. Gundlach was on an airfield in Houston, location-scouting a campaign he was working on for the BMW X5 when inspiration hit. Before him was a provocative view—a weed-filled concrete drainage ditch, the steely lines of an industrial park, and glowing lights from a gas-station peering out from a ledge. Jets blinked overhead. Gundlach and his crew stopped, set up, and hunkered down, remaining on location for four long late-night hours. They shot roughly once every three minutes, whenever a plane passed. At first Gundlach planned use the sky as a backdrop for the X5 campaign but he became so enraptured with the foreground elements that he left them in, letting the image stand as part of his growing collection of industrial landscapes. A fan of ambient light, Gundlach lit this image exclusively from the surrounding street lamps (metal halide or mercury vapor) both in front of and behind the camera. He used a Linhof Technika 4 x 5 with a 115mm lens at f/16 on Fuji NPS 160 film. The shutter speed was programmed at 6 seconds, a long exposures to capture the lights from the airplanes as sweeping yellow strands. It took a while to get it perfect—and this late-night vigil was only half the battle.
“fifty percent is shooting the image and fifty percent is adjusting the color in post-production,” Gundlach says, “I make most of the look I’m creating in my own studio.” A fan of the unique hues of Polaroids, Gundlach took a few during the shoot and gave them to the retoucher to use as a guide for adjusting color tones. “I often like to go with a bit more yellow in the light and more blue in the shadows,” he says. For Gundlach, good, creative, retouching can make a bland picture exciting—Photoshop is a boon to photographers—and a boon to himself, “my wish is to not create the work new, but to put in some little things, the color tone…that makes the photo more interesting.”
Gundlach spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his personal and professional work:
TFS: What attracted you to advertising photography when you were starting out as a photographer?
Gundlach: It was more about my living situation, about my surrounding. I was very young and I was living in a small city. I asked a few local photographers if I could work for them. I could have studied with a portrait and wedding photographer but that seemed too boring. The other possibility was a job with an advertising photographer who had a lot of equipment. I said “Okay, I’ll start here.” After I worked for him for three years, I settled in Hamburg, where I assisted other photographers. I like those situations where I can work collaboratively with art directors or creative directors on a brief. I need to work within a frame and some rules around me so I bring my own ideas and spirit and language to the campaign.
TFS: How would you describe your vision, your style as an artist?
Gundlach: I don’t like to describe myself. I’m looking for good pictures. I have no really good answer for that. Fifty percent is shooting the photo and fifty percent is how to turn the color in the post-production. We do most of that work in my own studio. I have a big team of retouchers. We are really looking to enhance the natural colors in post-production. We put in a bit of strange stuff or we turn the color a bit in different directions.
TFS: You have a very distinct color palette, how do you and your retouchers accomplish this look?
Gundlach: I think it’s not good to talk too much about that, all the little stuff. I’ll give you some general information about how I make my pictures. It’s not a big deal; everyone uses Photoshop to create some weird colors. But the specifics are a special thing.
TFS: I understand. Is there something that you look for when you try and create a color palette for an image? For example, specifically with the image that we’re talking about here, it’s got such a beautiful unique look—cyan color caste, but there are some warmer colors that work together, some yellows. It’s an interesting mix. How much of that was created in post and how much of that was from the existing light?
Gundlach: It was very easy because of the Polaroids I did on location. It looks a bit in this direction, and I often like the color tone of Polaroids. Often times if I get the contacts or the transparencies it looks totally different. Often I tell my retoucher to look at the Polaroids first, and go in that direction with the color tones. Then sometimes he turns it a bit more and adjusts the color tones to make them more interesting. I often like to go just in the light with a bit more yellow and in the shadows a bit more blue tone.
TFS: You said you really try to take work that is essentially more creative. How often are you sent out and just allowed to photograph whatever you want within certain limitations, and how often is it more controlled by the client?
Gundlach: I think my creative contributions are very important in most of my jobs, and eighty percent of the time the art director loves to work with me–the reason why they book me is that I bring my own part into the campaign. Often times I get very boring layouts. If I talk to the art director and bring some ideas into the stuff, how I like to shoot this, then they decide “OK, we can talk to the client and maybe we can bring all the creative ideas into the campaign.” Often times everything is fixed–especially for the big car campaigns. Often times it’s fixed and I see the boring layout. Then I say this is not my stuff. If I get ten layouts, I think seven of the layouts are too boring and I don’t want to shoot the stuff.
TFS: Why do you think there are so many boring layouts?
Gundlach: The clients do not have enough background. There are so many people, they are so afraid and don’t want to lose their job. I think this is worldwide the same problem. Everything is often times too boring, especially for big clients. If you go to smaller clients or if you have direct contact with creative partners, or direct contact with the owner of the firm, then it’s more interesting. But, I don’t know.
TFS: Do you see things improving at all? Do you see people getting more creative with their layouts or is it getting more boring?
Gundlach: It goes both ways. Sometimes I think it’s getting worse but some stuff its getting better. Reebok, Adidas, Nike, are getting better and better. It’s art–this is all art. If you go to the fashion industry, it’s getting better and better. But if you look at the car campaigns, they’re getting more boring and uglier, especially now with the tools that permit you to shoot without the car and add it later with CGI. It’s unbelievable.
TFS: Do you think CGI is making things worse for the creative side of the business?
Gundlach: It’s a question of how to use the tool. If you have a good art director, a good photographer, and a good CGI operator, then you can create wonderful results. If you have no time, no money, and a bad retoucher, then you can see all the ugly stuff from other campaigns.
TFS: Did BMW give you a focused brief on the X5 campaign?
Gundlach: I wanted to create original work for BMW. I have become more selective about my projects. In Germany, I have declined assignments that I don’t think are right for me. Car campaigns can be very uninteresting. I don’t think the car advertisements in U.S. magazines are very interesting right now either.
I’m happiest when my art partner wants to create original work. Currently I’m working on the post-production for a campaign for Mercedes-Benz. We shot some beautiful landscapes in Iceland. Our concept is called “electric nature.” We shot often in the evening, using one flashlight to scan the whole desert. By moving the position of the flashlight in each shot we were able to cover the entire area with 150 shots. Each three meters–one flash: go three meters back–flash; go three meters to the left–flash. It’s like painting with a flashlight.
TFS: So you must have used very long exposures.
Gundlach: Yes, it was amazing and fun. There’s a lot of post-production to do: we’re combining the flashlight stuff with the ambient light stuff and looking for a good result.
TFS: That sounds wonderful. I look forward to seeing that.
Gundlach: I think you’ll find it very interesting because it required a lot of art and skill to shoot. The post-production effort, as I said, has been extensive. We also had to put a car into CGI. It’s a very interesting job. I like the combination for jobs. I have learnt a lot from jobs that required a lot of post production. But for my personal work, I prefer to shoot more simply. It’s just the Linhof–open the lens for six minutes, shut down, and print the picture. It’s a very simple method.
TFS: When you’re not working on a campaign, do you go out and do a lot of personal work?
Gundlach: Not so often. I travel a lot. If I’m in interesting cities or countries for jobs, I’ll look to stay one or two days longer and try to shoot some personal work. But it’s not so often that I book a journey for personal work. I have family, and I am happy if I don’t go. If I go just for me, then I get in trouble with my wife. Half the year I’m traveling and there are a lot of possibilities for me to make personal work. Last year I was in Shanghai and I shot a lot for personal work–a normal Chinese family living in a normal flat. It was just editorial. I shot some interesting Chinese people, the normal people, the normal life. This was a series I did for myself.
TFS: When you are doing personal work, is it whatever speaks to you visually?
Gundlach: Exactly. I’m not looking for special things.
TFS: I noticed you have a particular affinity for highways, highway overpasses, parking lots, and hotel rooms. Is that because you travel extensively, or do you prefer those subjects?
Gundlach: I don’t have a preference for those subjects. Each journey is different. Sometimes I photograph my hotel room; sometimes I shoot out the window of a moving car. It’s not a particular thing I’m looking for. I’m looking on each job, on each trip, for new things.
TFS: I noticed that there are a lot of empty spaces and landscapes in your work, what is your attraction to that type of environment?
Gundlach: Good question! I just love to make landscape shots. It gives me a good feeling to shoot my personal work solo. For jobs, I have a big crew and lots of technical equipment around me so I don’t have the flexibility to shoot other stuff. It can be boring. Sometimes in busy cities I shoot cityscapes or landscapes with a small amount of civilization in it. The typical post-cards of landscapes and blue skies are not interesting to me.
Ad Agency: Jung von Matt Hamburg
Art Director: Sina Gieselmann / Jan Knaur
Creative Director: Thim Wagner
Retouching: Elisabeth Sigmund c/o Gloss PostProduction