Olaf Blecker has antennae, but don’t think that makes him special. “I think everybody has these antennas. In German you would say, menschdenken, which is the knowledge of man.” He uses his powers to take breathtaking portraits for commercial shoots for AOL and Sony, among others. His editorial work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Details and Wired. Countless actors and models have found themselves opposite his lens.
Like Richard Avedon, Blecker appreciates the candid snapshot but believes that portraiture must have higher standards “[it’s] much more interesting if people are aware that they are being photographed”. The young Berliner is developing a reputation, and not just from his images. “Some people say I’m not nice,” he says. “I don’t want to be nice. I was told that everyone was talking about who they would want to be photographed by at my agency in New York. One person instantly said, ‘Not by Olaf Blecker’. I think that’s quite funny. I don’t take it personally. I am good at making people more intense, but I’m not good [at] making them look beautiful.” Blecker is a perfect match for Phillip Roth, the subject of our featured image, whose Zuckerman saga hurt a few feelings in its day.
This gorgeous, calm image photographed five years ago emerged from a shoot fraught with logistical snags. “It was a mess,” Blecker admits. It was also his first work in the U.S., and both the crew and the equipment were radically different for the young photographer. Blecker was shooting with Profoto lighting equipment for the first time and had to deal with assistants that needed constant direction from him – difficult for a photographer who was used to lighting everything himself. Despite the loss in translation Blecker managed to finish the shoot outside the office of Roth’s press manager and wrapped in 30 minutes. He shot on chrome film using a Mamiya RZ Pro 2 with a 100mm lens. The exposure was f/22 at 250th of a second. He used two Profoto strobes, one equipped with a magnum reflector and Lee white diffusion and the other aimed through a translucent umbrella. In post Blecker started out in Photoshop by increasing the contrast of the image, followed by desaturation, then he lightened up the highlights and darkened the midtones and finally removed any blemishes and unevenness in skin tone. This image captured the essence of a powerful man, he says, and is the sort of thing his stateside clients covet. “American magazines know exactly what they want. They want you to create an image that follows their own ideas about the person. It becomes less of a portrait and more about illustrating,” he says. “You’re making the clients ideas and opinions about the subject legible.”
People like how Blecker shoots skin, but perhaps that’s because of his constant search for what’s beneath it in his subjects. Disdainful of makeup and soft boxes, he says all his apparent stubbornness is based on a philosophy that is about the true character of his subjects. This doesn’t win him many friends though. “Many people don’t like themselves in my images. I admit, I wouldn’t like to see myself like that.”
Blecker was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: We’re featuring an image of Philip Roth you took. Tell me what the assignment was and how you approached it.
Blecker: The image was shot for .23 magazine in Switzerland. When I got this assignment I didn’t know who Philip Roth. I heard much later that he’s one of the most important living writers from the US. The image was shot very early in my career and was the first time I traveled to the US to shoot. It was challenging at the time because I liked to work with my group of assistants and regular lighting set up. It was my first time using Profoto lighting. I didn’t like the idea of changing my routine because I feared that things could slip through my fingers. Luckily they didn’t. Still, it was difficult because they used completely different equipment than in Europe. I had a good assistant, but the guy was always screaming, ‘What do you want? Just tell me what you want!’ The shoot was a mess because I didn’t understand the different flash equipment. Also, it was the beginning of my career and I was used to setting up the lighting by myself. It helped me see and understand what I was doing.
F STOP: So what is it like to work with assistants in Germany?
Blecker: Well, the Roth shoot was five year ago. Now I work the same way in Germany and America. Because the shoot was so early in my career I needed to light myself and see what the modeling light was doing. It helped a lot. Now I explain to my assistants what I want them to do. If they worked with me before I remind them of past shoots.
F STOP: What was it like working with Phillip Roth?
Blecker: He was really easy. But it’s different to shoot celebrities in America. In Germany some of the people do not really understand that this is a job. They try to be a little more posh in Germany. They try to act cool. In America celebrities are nice people who understand that it’s their job to make everybody like them.
F STOP: So it’s easier to shoot celebrities in the States?
Blecker: Yes, Absolutely. The scene isn’t as professional in Germany. In America everyone has a PR person and a publicist, which is not as common here in Germany. In Germany you could shoot really important people and none of the actors would know your portfolio. My experience in America is that they have already seen your work and approved of you as a photographer.
F STOP: What kind of retouching was done on the Roth portrait?
Blecker: It was shot in chrome – the best thing for me is to have the chrome and the light table. If it’s just right, not too dark or light, then it’s like beautiful. If you scan the chrome there always need to be gradation and some light color corrections. Saturation will pop when I increase the contrast; orange and red tones will come out a little more intensely. Then I reduce it to a point where I think it looks interesting.
F STOP: How did you get into photography?
Blecker: I went to an after school program once a week when I was about thirteen. I was fascinated even by doing pictograms. There is something so mysterious about the darkroom; I fell in love with photography. Unfortunately, hobbies were not supported by my family. I started shooting pictures for a musician friend when I was seventeen. He wanted to be a pop star and made tapes every month. I borrowed a camera and equipment for the lab and shot his covers for him. At this point it clicked that photography was something I wanted to be doing professionally.
Blecker: It’s what I am best at.
F STOP: Do you direct your subjects a lot? Do you give specific directions or allow for more improvisation.
Blecker: It depends. My photo of the German foreign minister was one of my most important shots in the last few years. Pressure can make things interesting. The foreign minister it took about three minutes. It was a big day for him, so the whole thing could have been cancelled. I didn’t talk; I took him as he came. My work was more subtle a few years ago. Five years ago I would have said that my job is to do the best lighting that I can and the rest needs come from the camera. I was not doing so much advertising then. The foreign minister was a powerful image. Advertisers want to have that kind of feeling in their images, but if I book a professional model and take him as he is I won’t get the same result. When I shoot portraiture I prefer to talk with my subjects, usually quietly, and take them as they are. For advertising you often need to push a lot to make something happen in front of the camera.
F STOP: Is the level of direction you give dependent on whether it’s editorial or advertising?
Blecker: Yes. The question is whether my client wants a portrait or a life size image. You could say it’s between editorial and advertising. American magazines know exactly what they want. They want you to create an image that follows their own ideas about the person. It becomes less of a portrait and more about illustrating. You’re making the clients ideas and opinions about the subject legible. Of course, when you shoot someone like Philip Roth, it’s a portrait. It’s much more interesting to see what happens if you just let a person be.
F STOP: Do you ever sit your subject sit down and say, ‘Do whatever you want’ and start shooting?
Blecker: No, it’s not the way that I work. I just do it. The person is sitting there and I have a light meter in front of their face. I like the idea of taking the talent by surprise. They don’t always know that it’s the real shot.
F STOP: Your images range from people crying and laughing to making really goofy faces. How do you get your subjects to emote in front of the camera?
Blecker: Most of the time those images are advertising or editorial. Sometimes I make a fool out of myself because I show them how I want them to do it. I ask them to imitate me; It’s the easiest way for me to get the images that I want. I always shoot actors in New York, I never shoot professional models in the US. In America you show the layout, explain what you would like to see and direct very slightly. In Germany the budgets are really small and I mostly shoot semi-professional models. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, cry.’ It will be terrible. It’s difficult to work here. I found my personal technique by pushing models in Germany to reproduce what they saw in my face. Sometimes it looks quite funny.
F STOP: When they’re crying in front of the camera you’re crying behind the camera.
Blecker: I’m just trying to push them, you know. Some people are quite shy and it’s difficult for a semi-professional model who only does a shoot every three to six months.
F STOP: How long do you usually have your subjects for? What’s the range? How long does it take you to get a good frame?
Blecker: It can be very quick. I try different things when I’m shooting to figure out what is best, I just try as many things that I can do. If I have one hour, then I’ll use one hour. I prefer when I shoot celebrities to have about twenty to thirty minutes, so I have the option to try different things. I had thirty minutes or so with Phillip Roth. With advertising you have more like two or three hours per image.
F STOP: Do you adjust your lighting to a large degree while you’re shooting? Do you try different lighting style with a longer shoot? Or is it more about different facial expressions with the subjects? What’s changing in that three hours?
Blecker: The lighting does not change very much. The background may change. For example, I did two different shots with a house in Iran. One with the house in the background so you could see how the person was living and the other was set in front of a white bed sheet. I like using a seamless, but it can be just a blank wall in the house. The image Philip Roth was also taken just in front of a white wall in his press manager’s office. With advertising I like to figure out what the art director likes. I follow the layout and give them as much variety within the expressions they are looking for as I can.
F STOP: Tell me more about your lighting. I want to know how you came up with it and also how you modify your style to match the person’s face.
Blecker: When I first started shooting I didn’t think the images were sharp enough. At some point I was making a light test and I said, ‘OK, I want to have sharp images, so now I will never, ever shoot with less than f-stop 22’. People like how I shoot skin, but it is less about seeing every single pore and more about wanting to have a sharp image. The images are also sharpened with a reflector. The Philip Roth shoot used Profoto lights and one umbrella. I often need to clean up the skin a lot because I usually do not like to use makeup. I hate it. I had a shoot in Paris last week and it was the first time that I said to a makeup person, ‘Use as much makeup as possible.’ It was product advertising, but I wanted to make it look more like fashion. In the earlier years I needed to take the makeup off later. The makeup person is trying to do a good job, but if it’s not done perfectly you see it. Then you need to take the makeup away in retouching which is something I don’t like to do. What I want to see is eyes. I like when women wear mascara or a little bit of lip-gloss on the lips. It does depend on the subject. Obviously if I am doing a beauty campaign there needs to be make up.
F STOP: Do you have a makeup artist on site at all?
Blecker: For advertising of course there’s always makeup on the set, but they are just there to make it look pretty. I don’t want to see any powder or other products on the skin. Maybe moisturizing creams because they give a nice glow.
F STOP: Do you have a general message that you’re trying to communicate with your portraiture when you have more creative freedom? Or is it always specific to each person? You mentioned before trying to capture the person as they are.
Blecker: There is no general message. I work as an amplifier. Often I will not know much about the person I am shooting. I have a photographer friend who does a lot of research, but I think, ‘Why should I read anything?’ I have antennas. I feel it anyway. They just have to sit there. I think everybody has these antennas. In German you would say, menschdenken, which is the knowledge of man. Some people say I’m a little bit beastly. Not evil. I think evil is too much. Some people say I’m not nice to people.
I don’t want to be nice. I was told that everyone was talking about who they would want to be photographed by at my agency in New York. One person instantly said, ‘Not by Olaf Blecker’. I think that’s quite funny. I don’t take it personally. Many people don’t like themselves in my images. I admit, I wouldn’t like to see myself like that. It’s not beautiful. I am good at making people more intense, but I’m not good into making them look beautiful. It’s not my goal to make people as beautiful as possible.
F STOP: Right. You’re trying to show them as you see them and amplify those qualities.
Blecker: That’s right.
F STOP: Is it generally a pleasant experience when you work with a subject? Do you chat with them while you shoot and try to loosen them up?
Blecker: I try to be as nice as possible when I shoot advertising work because I need to deliver. In that instance I need to make the people do what I want them to do. With editorial work I don’t think my personal opinion is that important and usually I am not working with a preconceived image in mind. It can be just as interesting not to talk at all, but it’s also interesting to talk with them. It’s kind of a trick to act like little things are very important. For instance, a man is sitting in front of you and you say, ‘Okay, sit straight, sit straight, Put your chin down a little bit, up a little bit. Look a little bit over here.’ Then the people follow because they think that this is really important. They forget to pretend and pose because they think it’s really important that they sit straight, even though I don’t care. It’s not so important that they sit straight; I just want their attention. I just want that concentration on this that we’re doing here. I like when people are aware of what they’re doing (in the studio). I read this once in an interview with Richard Avedon. He said that snapshots can be nice, but he finds it much more interesting if people are aware that they are being photographed.
F STOP: When you’re asking them to straighten up or move their chin, you really want to bring them into the action of being photographed?
Blecker: Yes. It also comes from working as a graphic designer. For five years I pushed logos and lines from there to there. Now I experiment with the graphic aspect of the image. Focusing on this helps people forget to do other things to pretend. Everybody has thousands of masks. Some people want to be sexy. They will give you their sexy face and their sexy laugh. It’s boring if people give me their own interpretation of themselves.
F STOP: The last thing I want to talk about is lighting. What lighting modifiers do you use?
Blecker: Most of the time I only use Profoto equipment. The reflectors are magnum reflectors; it’s my all time favorite with an umbrella or two. I use grids a lot. While shooting in France this month, I found it was really beautiful to use just one beauty dish with a grid inside. It was perfect. We didn’t even use something to light up the shadows. I almost never use a soft box. When I was studying and also when I started up with my own studio I thought was important to make people beautiful, so I used soft boxes. Everybody knows soft boxes make everybody look beautiful. I hated these pictures. The soft box is totally not for me.