Profile: Thomas Kellner
Innovative and unique ways of portraying icons has brought the world to his door, by Peter Skinner
Trying to pigeon hole the extraordinary and unique vision and images of Thomas Kellner, a young German photographer who in a relatively short time has breathed new life into the genre of architectural photography, is virtually impossible. In truth, his work is not architectural photography by any traditional description apart from the fact that buildings and structures usually are the principal subjects of his dramatically reconstructed photographs.
Kellner, who was born in Bonn, in 1966, also struggles a bit when asked to encapsulate his imaginative approach. “I think I am more of an artist than a photographer. At the moment I am working on architecture, but it is not classic architectural photography. There are definitions in art about ‘construction-deconstruction’ or ‘collage-decollage’ but I don’t think any of it really fits what I am doing right now,” he said, adding that photomontage might be a closer description. “I am not yet convinced that any of these definitions is really accurate as they are part of history and none of them really fits. Maybe my work is closer to conceptual art or conceptual photography. Many have said it is ‘very Germany’ and that might be closer.”
Regardless of trying to categorize Kellner’s work the inescapable truth is that his intriguing images have grabbed the attention of connoisseurs of fine innovative photography on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Even the most familiar structural icons take on a new and different character as they are visually reconstructed through Kellner’s well-planned and meticulous methodology which involves printing every consecutive image from each roll of film. His final images are contact prints of the films he shoots—the more film, the larger the final image. If he shoots one film, the size is 20cmx24cm; if he shoots 36 films, the print is 100cmx120cm. And because the frames are shot in sequence, he simply cuts the strips of film and mounts them together. The final step is a standard contact print.
Through this process he portrays great architecture in ways never intended or imagined by the architects themselves. The most familiar become scrambled and reassembled, resulting in dynamic images that make the viewer look, and then really look again. Kellner’s first reconstruction photography was of the Eiffel Tower and from the moment he saw what he had created, the young German artist-photographer knew he was on the verge of something special. And so it has proved.
Kellner’s career in photography evolved from his studies to be a teacher, the profession of his parents. His father, music and his mother, art, both teach at high school level and they considered Thomas would find more security as a teacher than as a photographer or artist. He followed their advice and applied to study art and social sciences at the University of Siegen where basic courses in sculpture, drawing/etching, painting, design and photography/film were incorporated in the curriculum. Before long Kellner was absorbed in the creative potential of traditional and experimental photography such as pinhole, photograms, old printing techniques with gum and oil, cyanotype and salt paper and other similar techniques along with the more familiar 35mm photography.
Creativity, combined with curiosity and the courage to explore and experiment with the venerable pinhole camera laid the foundations for what lay ahead. He became adept in designing, building, and using the camera. Its capabilities intrigued him and he kept looking for new challenges for pinhole photography. And he also began to see how even the most unusual thing could become a pinhole camera.
“On looking back, I could say that I could build a pinhole camera nearly out of almost anything imaginable. It just takes imagination as almost anything has the potential to be a camera— a room or apartment, a van, a garbage can, tins, boxes, snail shells. I made cameras out of wood or cardboard, from found objects—everything is possible, if you understand how a pinhole camera works. I used nearly all kinds of materials such Polaroid, Cibachrome, C-print-paper, negative films and slide film of all formats from 35mm and120-films to sheet film. I also used orthochromatic films a lot because I could process them under red light, and it was cheap.
Today I build cameras mainly out of cardboard and for 120 films. From start to finish it takes me about four hours to make one and the material costs about one dollar,” he said.
In 1996 he completed an ambitious final student project to photography the German border, all 6,000 kilometers of it, using a selfbuild pinhole camera out of cardboard (the 11-pnhole-series are different to the border series) , and for his efforts won Kodak Germany’s Award for Young Professionals. “I was lead by the idea of combining or collaging different exposures to overlap and collage on one negative (take this out here, this is about the 11-pinhole not about the border, maybe use it below, where we refer to the cubism and 11-pinhole). Obviously, I could not do a single panorama of 6,000 kilometers of the entire German border but I was able to do a series of single images that combine to give general idea of what the border looks like from inside Germany,” he said. Kellner adds that one of the most apt descriptions of the project (by Eric Renner from the Pinhole Resource in San Lorenzo, New Mexico) is: “Looking out of Germany all around the country, Germany itself becomes the camera and the single images are the pinholes around.”
The border project provided valuable education. “I learned that this is a way you can create a project, a strategy, a concept, a camera. And then the process and the camera teach you what you are able to do with it,” he said. Over the years, his subject matter has included landscapes, portraits, panoramas of Venice and still lifes. In fact, nearly everything archived on his web site, apart from the monuments and photograms, is made with pinhole cameras. Significantly, Kellner’s pinhole photography was to have important ramifications when he virtually stumbled into his reconstructionist imaging style.
“At the same time that I used the 11-pinhole camera, I also built a camera with 19 holes that would use a complete length of 36-exposure 35mm film so I could photograph panoramas with 35mm film. After 1996, I started to work on the tableaus (the deconstructed architecture) with 35mm film,” he said.
There is an adage that an ill wind blows no good. For Thomas Kellner, the south of France’s mistral, a strong, cold wind from the north that is unpleasant to most, actually boosted his career—albeit in a roundabout fashion. It was in the summer of 1997, a year after completing university, that Kellner found himself in the south of France, attempting a series of images with 15-pinhole cameras. But mistral blew his camera around while strong sun and dark shadows helped contribute to unsatisfactory results. So, Kellner reverted to a normal camera, using his Mamiya 645 camera to do a series of images in much the same way as he would have with a pinhole camera, naming the project La Nature Provencal. That autumn he was invited by friends to visit Paris and while he considered using a pinhole camera in that photogenic city, for various reasons—such as not being too keen on lugging a large camera around the city—he decided to try creating a contact sheet of fragmented images of the Eiffel Tower in a cubism style.
During his college days, Kellner had been profoundly influenced by the cubism of artists such as Braque and Picasso and also by the work of painter Robert Delaunay. “I was very much attracted by fragmentation and wanted to do something similar in photography that would lead me more in the direction of cubism, which was what I was already working on in my 11-pinhole pictures and 19-pinhole panoramas. So, I decided to try the contact sheet approach with the Eiffel Tower,” he said. The results were dramatic and pleasing—“I was nearly shocked by the beauty of my Eiffel Tower images”—and even if they did initially appear somewhat David Hockney-ish to Kellner, later he was able to appreciate the difference. For example, Kellner’s photographs are calculated frame by frame and contact printed in exactly the sequence and size as shot. They are not cut and pasted into a collage; there is no digital manipulation.
Kellner’s modus operandi involves good planning and meticulous execution starting by selecting subjects from a list of his favorite buildings, scouting the location—either by foot or taxi—to ascertain best angles, optimum time of day and direction of light, and then making sketches to frame what he is going to shoot. “Then I decide the final size of the image through the number of films that I am going to use. I already know how many frames there will be and I have to divide the images into this number of frames by finding the right focal length. I use a scale on my tripod to match all the vertical lines as they must line up precisely,” he said. Usually he will work from the left bottom to the right top, but at times will start at the top and work down.
“Often, when people see my images published they imagine them as giant enlargements. But of course they are not, they are contact prints and the size is only a question of how much film I use. I arrive at the defined size through my process. The bigger the image gets—that is, the more film I use—the more the building itself disappears; the more you begin to see the picture itself rather than image of something,” he said.
Kellner also sketches a storyboard to help keep the shooting process on track. It’s a process that can be interrupted by many things—weather, changes in light, and interminable questions from passersby. “As I am working in tourist places where are a lot of people I get asked many questions in numerous languages such as English, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian or French. I can get interrupted in the middle of 400 exposures by silly questions or comments like: ‘A fool, what is he doing there?’ Is there something interesting in that window or in the sky?’” he said.
Because each frame has to be exposed with same density, consistent light is essential. Kellner prefers a plain blue sky with a small scattering of clouds or no clouds at all. Shooting can take anywhere between 30 minutes to four hours, depending on the size of the image. And while the methodology is complex and exacting, his equipment and film requirements are relatively simple. For years he used his first amateur camera, a Pentax ME Super, with 28mm, 50mm, 135mm and a 70mm-210mm zoon lenses. Currently he uses a Pentax MZS with 24mm-90mm and 80mm-320mm zoom lenses and two teleconverters. He has remained loyal to Kodak products, because the company has supported his efforts for many years, and currently favors Kodak Portrait 400UC film.
In the past four years Kellner has applied his reconstruction process to many buildings, becoming more ambitious and making his images more complex. Along the way he has come to the realization that his fragmented images mirror aspects of the human condition, a consideration reinforced by the attack on the World Trade Center. “Well after the attack in New York, I am still thinking about the parallels that my pictures have with that tragedy. These buildings that I photograph, like the Twin Towers, have become metaphors for a culture in fragments,” he said.
In a relatively short career, Thomas Kellner’s work has made substantial inroads into galleries, art collections and commercial markets. Among the institutions in the USA that include his photographs in their collections are the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Pinhole Resource, San Lorenzo, New Mexico; the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks; and the Worcester Art Museum, Mass. In Germany his work is included in the Collection Schuppmann; Museum of Photography, Burghausen; Oberhessisches Museum, Giessen; and the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Art Collection, Cologne. He has had numerous solo exhibits throughout Europe, UK, USA, South America and Asia and exhibitions are being planned through 2008 including venues in London, Los Angeles and Boston.
Kellner’s reconstruction images have been well received by a wide audience as was a project for Porsche, shot in the same style. He has completed assignments in Wales, England and Chicago, and it’s highly likely other agency work will come his way. His second book , Ozymandias with an essay by A.D. Coleman, was published by Ffotogallery, Cardiff, Wales, and his work is represented by Getty. Plans are in the works to photograph more buildings in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the USA, Great Britain and Japan. Kellner admits, however, that his future shooting projects hinge on financial and other support combined with potential exhibits and other outlets.
None of this success was really planned or aspired to when Thomas Kellner began his odyssey and as he points out, “I did not think about success—I just wanted to make beautiful pictures.” Results to date—and with the future looking bright—can be attributed to his own self-belief, something he encourages other photographers to grasp. “Sometimes it helps to look around and see what others are doing but be careful not to just copy ideas. One should really reflect on one’s own ideas and see where you end up,” he said, adding this caution: “Trust in your own work, but perhaps don’t be satisfied too fast.”
To see more of Thomas Kellner’s work and other information about his exhibits and publications www.tkellner.com.
Skinner, P., 2005. Thomas Kellner. Reconstructive iconographer. In: Rangefinder, October 2005, pp. 100, 112, 118-119.