What happened in 2002 that made you call this point in your career a turning point?
The end of a deadline and the beginning of something great
2002 was the end of a 5 year deadline I had given myself and symbolized for me the entry into the American market, of which not so much remains today. But I am quite happy that today I am working with a former assistant of Martha Schneider from Chicago who represents me in USA. But slowly. This turnaround or better career jump started because I really wanted to fly to Houston for a portfolio event.
Collapse and risk
That was a difficult time shortly after 9/11. People saw the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center in New York in my pictures and my sales in Germany and England collapsed. I had already paid the fee a year before, booked the flight and reserved the hotel half a year before. Before departure, I cleared my savings account and withdrew as much money as my bank account would hold. My first flight to America. I was excited and nervous.
Portfolio Event in Houston
Arrived, jetlaged, the portfolio meeting started the next morning. At the time, I had no idea what was coming up, no idea who I was going to or should meet. In a rather exhausting procedure, all the photographers lined up and picked up one appointment after another. As strange as that may sound today, it was communicative. One got to know many of the colleagues while waiting. People then took 20-minute appointments to present themselves and their work. However, I could see how professionally many of the photographers were equipped and had nice portfolio boxes, printed Vitae du business cards. Of course I had a few pictures and a book with me, but I felt a bit unprepared at that moment because I showed my 10 pictures in a passepartout but without a box and otherwise put my book on the table. I tried not to care and went to my appointments. I showed my paintings and met many gallery owners, curators and journalists. Some I met on the very first or second day, with whom I later worked, e.g. Martha Schneider and Stephen Cohen. I was quite nervous and faced with questions I couldn't answer. However, after a few appointments I realized that my work was well received. Somehow it was like a birthday and Christmas all at once: every meeting seemed to be a major win. But I reached the peak when I arrived at Martha Schneider's table: she apparently already knew who I was, and as soon as I showed her my work, she announced that I didn't need to go on to the other appointments. I had everything now.
The turning point
I didn't buy that right away, of course, and continued with my appointments. The next day, as I was waiting in line for appointments again, she walked past me and tried to convince me to go to breakfast with her. That didn't work, of course, because she was sitting in a room with all the other curators (I still find this division into reviewers and reviewees pointless to this day, since it's about getting to know each other and networking in a very small circle of players) that was off-limits to us photographers. So I continued to wait in line to book my appointments. With my list of appointments in hand, I was about to move on when she reappeared, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me into a room. There they sat, the most important people the event had to offer: gallery owners from New York, the head of Aperture, the most famous magazine for photography in the world, the curator of the MFA and a patron. I was seated in a chair and my work was shown around while Martha talked about me.
The fulfillment of all dreams
After that, I was basically done. When I flew home I was incredibly happy and excited that I had everything an artist dreams of: galleries in major American cities wanted to represent me and exhibit my work. An article about me would appear in Aperture. Commissions, sales... Martha stood there on the last day and pressed a check into my hand to cover travel expenses, which we would clear later. I have rarely been so happy and have never felt so blessed by life again. What followed were 6 years of incredible travel, commissions, exhibitions, and most importantly, new artwork.
The collapse due to the financial crisis 2008
All this was abruptly slowed down by financial crisis 2008, which hit us hard. When the financial crisis came, it was really like an iron curtain. It fell in the spring of 2009. The end. Rien ne va plus - nothing works anymore. Dancing Walls had just started. The catalog had financed itself with the sale of the special edition within 12 hours and for the first time we had ordered a whole exhibition as Diasecs. The first exhibition went fantastically well. We sold well and reordered what was to tour half the world after that. But although Dancing Walls still had many stops, none of the galleries could sell anything in that situation anymore. Ice time! Since the beginning of 2009, the art market has been badly damaged. In the first phase, many galleries went bankrupt. At the same time, a myriad of art fairs emerged, artists jumped from gallery to gallery, photo galleries suddenly became galleries for painting. There was a stormy vibrating unrest and from my perspective a rather disastrous competition emerged. We know from the annual reports on the state of the art market from Art Basel and UBS that the segment in which most artists are active has been shrinking ever since. Corona has not done any better.
What happened next for you after the event in Houston?
Success as an artist: exhibitions, travel and guest professorships
Everything was going really well until the banking crisis. The Art Institute in Chicago was buying paintings. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston was buying paintings. I had exhibition after exhibition in Chicago, New York, Portland, then Los Angeles with Stephen Cohen. He was the owner of many photography fairs at which he often showed my pictures, to which I flew. So four times a year I was in the States attending fairs in Los Angeles, New York, Miami or San Francisco. There was a lot of travel on top of that. Everything was really cool until 2006. I spent half the year at home, otherwise I was always traveling to other cities, countries, continents. We sold enough paintings to finance my work for the whole year. It was exhausting, it was crazy, but it was great, I had an incredible amount of fun. From 2003 to 2004, I also received a call to a one-year guest professorship in Giessen. I was able to make a good living from that, and above all to pay off my debts.
The way to independence
In 2004, after the professorship, I decided to become self-employed. There was enough work and I had no more time for jobbing. I had always been careful with costs and expenses before and had all that pretty well under control. Nevertheless, looking back today, I can say that it was already starting to get complicated in 2005, because the analog labs were failing and I had to scan the negatives, which is a real investment. The risk was getting bigger and bigger. I had to sell enough images to cover the costs and still make a profit. Profitability, even in the profession of an artist, often came into focus and made many decisions dependent on their financial viability.
Self-determination and joy of life as an artist
There is much about self-employment that is great. A completely free self-determining life. I can pack my bags at any time. I've seen almost every continent. Last year I was supposed to see Africa. We've had great trips all over the world and met fantastic people. Life doesn't only have crises, but also surprises and joyful moments. It's also nice to have the incentive to always do something new.
Project in Boston and Tango Metropolis
In 2006 I had a real high phase in which I made larger pictures. Back in 2003, the director of the Boston Athenaeum in London had discovered me and wanted to give me a grant for the library's 200th anniversary. He gave me the assignment to photograph in Boston. Then, as a fair-weather photographer, I had to turn to interiors for the Boston Athenaeum series and Dancing Walls, which we exhibited in the galleries starting in 2008/9. At the same time, I was working on the new wonders of the world for the Tango Metropolis series, like the Great Wall and the Golden Gate. Until the financial crisis in 2008, I mainly had exhibitions in galleries. After that, those esteemed gallery owners retired one by one, and I am grateful to them to this day for that brilliant time.
How did you survive this crisis in 2008/9?
Rescue from the financial crisis: Project Brasilia and art prize from the district of Düren
I was lucky enough to have started a project in 2005: Brasilia. I continued to pursue it with support from Brazil. In 2004, at FotoFest Houston, I had met Karla Osorio at the hotel reception while checking out, and had already been to Brazil once in 2005. With support purchases from the galleries, I was able to complete the project. Then, through Brasilia, it was suddenly clear that the galleries didn't dare exhibit new series. It was right after the financial crisis and no one wanted to touch such a special theme and risk an exhibition. Looking back, we should have promoted this exhibition much more. In 2009/2010, I also got an art award from the district of Düren and opened the exhibition in Brazil at the same time. Through these two projects I could actually save myself.
Support in the studio
In 2009 I started getting requests from students who wanted to do internships with me. In 2003 during the visiting professorship until 2008 I always had someone with a few hours to support me in the studio, which I had to give up in 2008 with the financial crisis. Since then, however, I have had up to 15 interns with me almost the whole year, and since 2018 I have also had someone permanent again to support me for a few hours.
Project genius loci
Then in 2012 I got a great request from Russia that led me to the genius loci project. Such requests come at irregular intervals and are like the salt in the soup. They draw you in and spontaneously take you in a different direction. In this case, it was about a project for the Photo Museum in Ekaterinburg on the subject of Georg Wilhelm Henning from Siegen, founder of the city of Ekaterinburg and industrial architecture.
Disappointment at the portfolio meeting in Houston 2014
In 2014 I flew to Houston again because I felt the need to find new contacts. I took with me the perfectly prepared project on industrial architecture and had formal and informal opportunities to show my work to 165 curators and gallery owners. I had high hopes for this trip, but tried not to raise expectations. Still, it pretty much went down the drain. I was very disappointed with the portfolio meeting. I felt like I was too far along in my career. They were mainly there to discover new artists. The fun had cost me 15000 euros with all the follow-up and follow up over two years afterwards. That's how much a mailing with a catalog to 2000 addresses costs and is more effective. Would I want such a meeting online today? Probably not, because the whole informal part to get to know the colleagues and the fun is missing.
How has your art evolved/how will it evolve?
The trademark contact sheets
I have managed to stay with the contact sheets since 1997 until today and always create something new in short intervals. Some examples for the contact sheets are the Monuments, Dancing Walls, Tango Metropolis, Genius Loci, Black & White and flucticulus.The longer I work with the contact sheets, the more often there is criticism and at the same time the contact sheets have also become my trademark. Sometimes people wanted to know when I will do something else again. Until now, I have successfully resisted such demands, pointed out differences in my work and my research, and still done other things. Thank God I stayed in Siegen and can do my work here in peace. The contact sheets are a slow work, because the motifs are often not in one place, but have to be gathered from numerous journeys I think the provincial tranquility of such a medium-sized city is an advantage that the Bechers or August Sanders, both of whom came from the Siegerland, also appreciated very much.
I will stay with the Kontaktbogen as long as there is the possibility to work on film. I still have many ideas about what and how to explore movement in the image in Kontaktbögen. I still want to do a few projects. That's all right, too. It has become my trademark, after all.
For example, the project with monuments that I set out to do is still not finished. I would like to finish it, but for that I have to do a lot of traveling around Europe, which is not possible at the moment.
Different art media
Through Flucticulus I started to work on other things. Drawing, for example. In between I made a series in linocuts and sold them successfully, in between I made another video and right now I have reinterpreted the half-timbered houses that the Bechers photographed 50 years ago.
Movement and change in the works
The size of my works has changed. I've gone from the small monuments at the beginning, with the idea of one film becoming one image, to the Grand Canyon which is made up of 60 films. With the monuments, I've gone from a cubic decomposition, to a vibration in Tango Metropolis, to a hard breaking in G20, to a contrast of stagnation and dynamism in Genius Loci, to a wave in Flucticulus, just going on and on with the thought: what movement can I bring to these arcs of contact?
What I photograph is sometimes a story and sometimes the vehicle. I have photographed people as well, but I am still missing some portraits to finish my series about people. I have another project with people in mind, I just have to figure out how and where to do it without a real studio. And of course I have to make the now small studio rather small images that still fit into a drawer.
What role do external influences play in your work?
Loyalty, collaboration and new opportunities
The demands are constantly changing. In the beginning I did everything myself and then when it went into color photography I collaborated with a Siegen lab. Today, I work with external service providers on many levels. I am someone who is loyal. If someone starts fleecing me, I take that as an invitation to look around and possibly part ways with the person for a while. The gallery owners I've worked with are now retiring one by one. When you get into the market at 30, you find people who are maybe a little older. That's a good thing, too. They already have experience in the market, they have contacts. Today I'm in my mid-50s and they're retired. That's when they usually stop. I've also been looking for young people to work with for a good 10 years. Some of them are certainly my interns in the studio. It's important to make new contacts, you never know what will come of them. Often everything works out somehow. Sometimes you know people for a long time, and suddenly you're in much closer contact. You just shouldn't give up. You knock on a door and if you get a no, that's a no on that door, and you just go on and open another door. What's the problem?
Self-determined time management
The beauty of art or being an artist is that I set the pace. I make the work because I want to make it. I don't do commissioned art in that sense, unless it's a real commission That's the other part that I live off of as well.
Besides being an artist you are also a curator
When and why did you start as a curator?
The artist about his work as a curator
Actually, I don't see myself as a curator, but as a networker who brings people and images together. I really started in 2004 with the Photographers Network project. There I organized exhibitions in the studio. I got 4 portfolio pages from Profifoto, later also from fotoMagazin, which accompanied the project. The project mainly appealed to the Americans, who invited me three times as curator to portfolio meetings. Many more followed in Brazil, Russia, China and also in Germany.
Impact on the local culture of Siegen
So I got to know many artists every year. Today I see myself not only as a curator, but also as one who creates cultural structures. I initiated many projects such as Brauhaus Fotografie, the Rundgang, the Kunstsommer in Siegen and Kunst Tag. After that, Photographers Network came into being. This gave me the opportunity to bring my knowledge and images together.
Expanding your horizons through travel
When you travel internationally, you meet artists from different cultures. You get a completely new horizon and you also learn to structure ideas in terms of time. It's a lot of fun to have the opportunity to set up an exhibition yourself and not only be the artist, but also the curator. So I can give colleagues the opportunity to be exhibited and to travel to other countries. It is always important to give something back to the community you are in.
Now we are again in a very difficult time for art. How does the pandemic affect you & what do you take away from such crises?
How did you deal with the crises?
Reaction of the government in relation to culture in the Corona crisis.
At the beginning of the Corona crisis, I didn't even expect culture to be so loud and for it to be so well cushioned. So chapeau to the federal government, the state, the city, the county, etc. They did everything well.
Crises lived through
I have, after all, been through many crises now. These include personal crises like my brother's suicide or losing my mother to three strokes. She is still alive, but she is now in care and we are looking after her intensively. The first crisis that hit me hard was certainly 9/11, when the romantic Europeans saw only collapsing skyscrapers in my paintings and virtually my sales plummeted from one moment to the next. Until then, I had sold a painting almost every day or every other day in the London gallery. The banking crisis followed in 2008/9 and Fukushima in 2011. The consequences of the current crisis, in which the art market is virtually closed to the players, are not really foreseeable.
Consequences of the Corona Crisis in Culture and Exhibitions
At Corona, the economy nevertheless seems to be recovering faster than expected. The only thing that is already clear is that there will be no more cultural funding like there was before Corona. There will be no more money for it. This means that we will have to think about culture in a completely different way and develop other models. I am very curious to see what kind of upheavals there will be. You can see a certain exhibition backlog now, which means that you can't find exhibition opportunities in the short term. So you have to trust that something from all the cancelled exhibitions from Johannesburg to Havana, Chengdu, Chongqing, Pingyao, Malaga, Cordoba, Seville, etc. will be made up.
Effects of the financial crisis 2008 until today
For me, however, the defining crisis to this day is still the banking crisis. It has changed the market so permanently that it can hardly function in this way. There are studies on this market, from Art Basel, Artfacts, UBS, which can say that this banking crisis has led to the fact that the segment in which most artists move has continuously shrunk over the last 12 years. And nothing is being done about it. The associations have not yet managed to look and make the politicians listen. In the short term, they have been able to absorb the culture because of Covid, but the politicians do not seem to want to see or implement the necessary structural changes.
Entering the American market through 9/11
9/11 has been the way into the U.S. for me as a crisis that took a long time in Germany, because the Americans simply said that history gives my pictures a new meaning.
Positive outlook despite all the challenges
After all, we have learned from the crises. I've learned to respond, whether with curbing spending, interim funding, offers, or new ideas. I just hope that this crisis won't be as bad as suspected. While I expect it to be worse than the financial crisis, I feel like I'm already back on a wave of sunshine.