Interview – Severin Koller

Through street photography I often get in contact with strangers. It is a good way to connect with others and a great benefit when traveling.

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Severin Koller (Vienna), 28 years old. He studied at the Vienna Fine Arts Academy. He started shooting before his last high school year. The author has found in street photography a great way to express his artistic point of view. He also works as professional photographer for different companies, shoting portraits or videos for advertising. Severin Koller has developed in, probably, one of the most important international Street Photographers, using is very particular ability to show the social perspective of daily aspects. He is specialized in film, yes: F.I.L.M. Only a chemical Technic could reflect his work in the way he takes his pictures, which shows different stories.  

Severin Koller

Severin, In which way contributes street photography to your personal life ?

When I grab my camera, I’m automatically on the look for things and therefore pay more attention to what is happening around me. No matter where I go, street photography gives me a reason of being there. I see daily life in stories, visual patterns or details. Often it even feels like a game and the camera is my toy to collect the booty. Through street photography I often get in contact with strangers. It is a good way to connect with others and a great benefit when traveling. For my profession, it is also a great way to practice my skills on a daily basis. If you’re good at spontaneous photography, it will make other jobs easier and less complicated.

Severin Koller

You have published a photo-magazine about Vienna recently, with 131 photos taken between 2005 and 2014. In those pictures you show the street-life of this city.

Well, 131 is about the number of prints I have made in the darkroom for the magazine. It actually features 88 images in total. In the process of the making that took about a year, I had to change and replace a lot of photographs with new ones that I’ve just created during that time.

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How is Severin Koller’s Vienna ?

It’s a magazine that shows a side of Vienna that is hardly available to visitors, not even to locals because it takes a trained eye to see the city from that point of view. It’s not just about random snapshots or beautiful postcards, it’s a collection of unique situations captured over almost 10 years.

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Severin Koller working in his dark room

You started to take street photos in 2005. All your work is on film, you take the shots and also process your films… even the impressions are your own creation. We could say that the whole workflow is a very personal question for you.

What makes chemical photography so special for you ? Do you think that film photography has a future in a short period of time ?

When I shoot film for years, creating thousands of negatives, there is only one way to get these photos printed: in the darkroom. It’s me who creates these photographs on paper, not a computer or a photo-lab and I have to work with negatives without having endless possibilities to manipulate. It’s the only way I feel I can pay tribute to these images. Once you have reached a certain level of quality, you can’t go back and I’m not talking about resolution or contrast, more about a look that I only achieve when I work with my hands. Light, time, chemicals, temperature, paper and other factors create a life of its own in analoge photography.

Film photography will never really come back in professional photography but I can see how it will always survive because some people keep up the spirit, no matter if it is a fun lomo-like camera user or a fine art photographer. When I talk with young people that are into photography, they always speak about film in a special way, while digital is just the standard tool. So I don’t worry about analog photography extinction.

Severin Koller

You have shot with Leica, Rolleiflex and latetly with a Konica Hexar AF. Which is the most comfortable one for you ? (not necessary one of this…) You always shot in black and white ?

I’ve shot Leica M6 (with 35mm lenses) for about 5 years and the Hexar for almost 5 years as well, so I can say that I have a good amount of experience with both cameras. The main difference is not the optical quality. I can easily have prints of the both next to each other without one being any better.

The difference lays in the way I am taking street-shots. The Hexar makes it unbelievably easy, because I only need to point and shoot and it is the most silent camera I have used so far. The Leica requires a little bit more attention to focus and compose. In my experience, this means that the Hexar lets me get even closer to people and focus mostly on moments I want to capture, while using the Leica will give me a bit more sophisticated photos. It’s almost like using the Hexar is more free from thinking about everything too much, while using the Leica makes me feel and also look a bit more serious about what I’m doing.

I’ve recently used the Leica with a 21mm f4.0 lens. Just by looking through that wide finder, I feel like in a different world. So with that lens attached I have to be very close to my subjects, but walking through the streets feels a bit like a computer game, which is a lot of fun.

The Rolleiflex is a bit slow for street but the look is pristine. Vivian Maier used her’s all the time. I usually shoot portraits with it, sometimes stills or landscapes. These photographs are just beautiful, I prefer it to all other 6x6s that I have used so far, like Hasselblads or Mamiyas.

Colour I usually shoot only with 120 films, because I’m not the biggest fan of 35mm colour to be honest, but I love how Portras look on the Fuji 6×9 or the Rolleiflex. Portraits, stills and landscape I often shoot in colour. The worst part are the expenses though. Since I only print my own work in black and white, I have to invest a lot of money for analog c-prints. So when I have an exhibition with colour work, It can cost me a few thousand euros.

Severin Koller

How do you feel about taking pictures on the streets ? You feel more comfortable interacting with your subjects or capturing the moment without being seen.

I don’t hide when I shoot but I try to be calm, focused and quick of course. It’s all about how people see you, not if they see you. Interaction only happens if someone starts talking to me, or if I am interested in a chat. But there is often no time for that, because after a shot I keep moving, or act like I don’t pay attention. People only think you are weird if you look weird, or if you stare at them. Being friendly and fearing no contact makes everything quite easy. You earn what you seed, so I try not to show much interest in my subject because it might distract. Many people are suspicious when they realize that someone is taking a photo of them, because photography always needs a reason or occasion and taking photos of strangers without asking, seems like an awkward thing to most usually.

It also depends on society. In a city where photography is a part of daily life, like New York, people got used to photographers everywhere, while in cities like Vienna it is not so common. In Germany, there is a general discussion about the right of privacy so that they even sue street photographers, which I think is a very delicate situation. You can’t ban street photography, it’s impossible, so people should get used to it or maybe start wearing masks if they want to be incognito in public. In the end, an honest street photographer always tries to document life for a good reason.

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Your pictures reflect the whole spectrum of street photography, from portraits to more architectural pictures, without taking to much care about conventionalism. Don’t you think that street photography has become more and more typecast in unnecessary purism’s ?

The term “street photography” is mainly an invention or an unnecessary categorization of a kind of photography that has existed since cameras have been invented and is what most photographers simply do: capturing what’s happening around them. Some call it the “human condition”. To solely define myself as a street photographer would be wrong, because I simply have the urge to take photos most of the time, not only on the streets. Some try to use this term, to underline that they’re doing something special, important or pure. For me there is only two kinds, good and bad. The question is, does it work? Does it speak to me, or not? Street photography is by no means anything more special than playing the guitar, or being a DJ. In any category there are a few masters, many talents and a lot of people who do it just for fun. To make a living from it is another story.

Severin Koller

You have visited a lot of different places in Europe, the United States and Africa like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Besides Vienna, which place has enthralled you most as a photographer ?

I’ve been to the eastern part of DRC for a week in 2011. The city Goma left a big impression on me, mainly because I have never seen anything more otherworldly than that place. Many streets and houses are completely black, because a volcano nearby has erupted a few years prior. Some streets are purely dried lava and many people used the lava-stones to rebuild their homes. What itches me the most about it, is that I could not leave the car whenever I wanted to take photos back then, but I could take a few anyway.

In 2013 I have traveled to India. The streets of old Delhi have been a very intense experience. A noisy place, full of confusion. It felt like a maze, in which I got deeper and deeper while taking photos. It was great to get lost on purpose.

Severin Koller

In general any place you shoot will leave impressions on you if you dare to risk things, go to your limits. It’s similar to sports. If you stay in your car or hotel or shoot with your 70-200 mm behind a fence, you won’t get good street shots.

Severin Koller

You are very dedicated to portrait photography, not only when shooting at the streets. Why is that ?

When I take photos of people on the street, I see humans as performers in daily life situations. When I take a portrait, it is about the person on the photo and the background and light are just the supporting elements. In both attempts, I like to put or capture people in their surroundings.

I just have fun taking portraits. It’s always different and never boring, as long as I can work with my subject. I usually have the same approach when taking portraits, no matter if it is a friend, an artist, some business man or a model in a fashion shoot.

SeverinKoller

Your website is a combination between personal portfolio and blog. You also presented your last project, the photo-magazine, called “Vienna”. Which are your next street photography projects ?

My next project. could be a magazine about New York, or a more conceptual book about my street work in general. I have many plans, but in the near future I will focus on a new website and keep promoting my Vienna magazine. After I have had a couple of street-related exhibitions in the last years, I plan to have a portrait exhibition with some experimental work by the end of the year or early 2016.

Severin Koller

It would be impossible choose a specific picture of all those you have had published over the years but, I’d like you to comment on two of your pictures:

A man dressed like Jesus who observed another person arrested by police.

Your VIENNA Photomag cover: A man with his trousers around his ankles who tries to make a phone call in a phone booth.

Could you talk a little bit about them ?

I took the Jesus photo in Los Angeles back in 2009. I was in the US for the first time. I had a commission to take photos at the WSOP in Las Vegas, so I decided to visit my friend Chris Weeks. He was working on a project called “Documenting the Human Condition”, a movie that featured street photographers. He asked me if I want to be part of it and so we walked through the streets, filming each other while taking some street photos. On that night, we went to Hollywood boulevard. I initially shot film with my M6 but I didn’t bring enough rolls, so I switched to chris’ camera, that was an M8 with 24/1.4. I usually don’t take any digital street shots, because I want all my work to have the same look. The M8 was not a great camera to be honest but in the end, without it, there wouldn’t be that Jesus shot – so I’m not complaining…

Back home, I sent that file (it was shot in jpg BW-mode at 640iso, so there never was a colour version although it was digital) to a friend, Phillip Schulte, in Berlin who lasered it on a 6×7 negative. Since then, I’m producing fiber prints from this photo, so I can include it in shows and offer the print as an original, handmade silver gelatine print like all my other work.

It was the summer of 2012 in Vienna. I was having a drink with a friend, sitting in a sidewalk café. A man walked up and down. He seemed to be in his own world. He did random things and when he stood in that phone booth, he turned around and then back to the booth, while slowly loosing his pants. I took a couple of photos, although it felt like some kind of easy steal for me as a street photographer. When he grabbed the phone I took this photo. To me this was the strongest moment of the series because it was anonymous, which makes it more symbolic and less about the man himself.

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Severin Koller’s website: www.severinkoller.com/

Interview by José Luis Gea

Translation & edition by Fabián Spura

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