Frank Herfort and His Inspiring Images
An award-winning photographer based in Moscow and Berlin, Frank Herfort’s work as a documentary photographer spans across the globe. From the surreal, melancholic and almost unremitting life of the citizens of rural Russia as seen in his book Imperial Pomp to the moto masks of Vietnam, his work is inviting, intriguing and thought-provoking. And with a mission to “transform the magical, mystical, and seemingly vague into inspiring images,” how can he go wrong as he continues to successfully create a body of work that tells an endearing story through a narrative of images while adopting the surrealist aesthetic and denying journalistic facts as he has for more than fifteen years?
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.
You grew up in Leipzig before the fall of the Berlin wall. Tell us about how your time there influences your work today.
Today I’m very lucky to have experienced two different systems in my life and right now a new system is on the way. Although I was only 10 years old when the soviet influenced period in Germany ended, this was most of my childhood. I was too young to understand what was going on and if this or this was better or worse. It was like it was. But I still remember the rare moments, when we waited for hours in queues to get 2kg bananas restricted for one person and my older brother waited a couple of people behind us for getting additional 2kg. Not to mention my drinking can collection or my first sip out of a Afri Cola bottle from a west German parcel shipped by our relatives to us.
This was really a time when people prayed for western products, which were absolutely not available in our country. One of the key moments was, when we first time entered West Berlin and we could finally use the Warschauer Brücke (Warsaw bridge) as official border point in 1990. Just a few steps behind the bridge, a few steps behind our world, a completely other universe started.
Suddenly, the streets were full of advertising, the shops were full of any products, people were sitting in cafes, hundreds of cars rushing around – so many colors and so many things. In the evenings we were happy to return to our grey, empty and quite world. I think ’till today, these things are playing a big role in my photography for the search of bizarre, surrealistic and realistic stories. I am always looking for the pure and plain things, for the contrasts in any social aspect. I know the advantage of having everything you need around you, but also know the happiness of keeping your life as simple as possible.
“I’M SO IMPRESSED BY THE NEW AND MODERN RUSSIA, WHICH IS FAR AWAY FROM MELANCHOLIC, OLD-SOVIET STYLE. IF YOU GO TO MOSCOW, YOU WILL BE BLOWN AWAY” – FRANK HERFORT
It’s said that during your childhood you weren’t very fond of taking pictures. At one time, you even tore the film out of your mother’s camera to destroy all of the images. What changed your mind? How did you end up taking pictures for a living?
I could not understand why we took photographs of our family life. Just to remember the past? So, I was bored of taking family pictures, because I always wanted to enjoy the moment, which is going on right now and not spending time on collecting moments for remember it later on. Today it is a bit different and people are taking millions of images and share it instantly. They are still not enjoying the moment. It ́s a time of social marketing. Accidentally, I saw my first art photo exhibition of students from an art school during a boring historical school excursion. So, I let the teachers talk and went further to the neighboring rooms of the museum, where the photographs were exhibited. For the first time I realized that you can do much more with photography than shooting weddings, birthday cakes and newborns. I saw images and it was breathtaking for me. There were presented like paintings and there were hanging in a museum. By the way, there were photographs of Olaf Martens, a famous Leipzig photographer, who I think was the first one who activated my photography life.
While in Hamburg, you studied art at HFBK. Once you completed your studies, you then moved to London where you studied under photographers Walter Scheels, Gulliver Theis and Richard Ansett. Tell us three things you learned while working with them that you couldn’t do without today.
I worked a lot as a freelance assistant for many photographers during my student life. And I’m very thankful to all of them, who let me work with them. I actually spent more time around the world traveling with photographers then spending time in lectures. In one day working with a photographer I learned more than in three months at university. I really enjoyed it. It’s not about learning how to use a camera, setting up a light or any other aspect of dealing with equipment. These are things you can learn by your- self, in any workshop or Youtube tutorial. It ́s more the emotional part of how to deal with people, models, clients, friends. How to organize yourself, how to create your schedule, how to keep your own vision even if several people around you are trying to convince you to do something different. All of these photographers have their own ideas, visions, interests and lifestyle, which they want to turn into their images.
It is all about the process of expressing yourself and find your own composition and style. Trying always to be yourself and never do anything because it maybe will please someone. Or even worse, never do anything for the money. You’ll feel happier to cancel 10 shootings and only agree on one you ́re really interested in. This gives you a much better base, stability and self-confidence than running for clients or buyers.
They should run for you.
While watching websites, portfolios, films, publications, shows and whatever, you only see the well selected surface, but I took part also in the private life of famous or less famous photographers. Never forget that everyone needs to deal with private tragedies, romances, divorces, accidents, financial problems, creative breaks and so on.
So never give up, everyone has their own way and tasks and just go on as best as you can. Or, like Bob Marley, once said, “If you stop the race, you will win the race.”
When embarking upon a new project, briefly describe your creative process. Also, tell us a bit about your favorite part of being a photographer and what you’re trying to say through your work.
Researching work and trusting your intuition is the key part of starting a new project. Mostly, I don’t even realize that I am starting a new project and, only after a while doing the same or similar things, I see ok, let’s continue with it. I also started several times with some clear and straight-forward concepts in my head, but after a while I noticed that they were not for me or it didn’t feel comfortable with them. So, I quit.
The lovely part of being a photographer or artist is that you can do what you want, you “only” need to find a right composition for it. Everyday is different, even if the process may be always the same. And, of course, traveling is my favorite part. Especially while shooting for commercial projects. I like to move.
Throughout your body of work, a storyline seems to develop out of the relationship between the people in the photos and the space around them. Give us some insight into how composition, space and subject play a part in your work.
Yes, I love architecture, interior, social aspects of people and wired spaces. My main aim is to create magical and storytelling images out of these elements. I do not follow classical reportage aspects or rules. When everything is real and untouched, I love to change perspectives and compositions out of real things to put them into a new light.
I carefully set up the shoot and mostly try to shoot from a tripod, which gives me the possibility to shoot more quietly and balanced.
In 2013, you published Imperial Pomp: Post-Soviet High-Rise, a collective of images documenting post-USSR architecture. Tell us what captivated you most about the project.
I started this project without realizing that it would become a project itself. I was so fascinated by these new and strange high-rise constructions in Moscow. Irregularly, I went out with my Sinar 4×5-inch camera and shot those amazingly bizarre-looking house objects. After a while, I put those images together on a table and was surprised by how they looked together, so immediately started shooting, for the next 5 years, all new high-rise constructions throughout Russia, Kazakhstan and all post-soviet countries. I shot more than 600 buildings. 100 of them were published in my book. In 2016, I even did an update of the new architecture in Azerbaidshan and Turkmenistan which I published in my post card series, which is still available. The book is sold out, but I am already working since 2 years on my new book.
Most of your work documents life outside of Germany where you were born. Given that, do you ever feel that you have a social responsibility to your homeland to document it as you do Russia, for instance? Is that something you’re interested in?
That’s an interesting question and I even tried several times to do the same in other countries, like I did in Russia. But I only feel magic in Russia or in post-soviet countries. In Germany or any other western country I can’t see this kind of space or people. Everything is perfectly and effectively organized, there is not much space and time left in between.
As mentioned above, outside of your work in Russia, you’ve traveled to places like Ho Chi Minh, London and Istanbul. Tell us one unforgettable, personally inspiring story about each place.
To Vietnam I travelled together with my family. We lived there for almost a year. We sold all our stuff, gave up our flat, took our kids from school and kindergarten. We bought a second-hand motorcycle on which we travelled through entire Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh to Mekong Delta, back north to Ha Noi and further to the Chinese border. Four years ago, we did the same in Indonesia, where our daughter was born. We like to change our places and be on the move. In London I lived on a scholarship also for a year right after finishing my studies.
I could not work anymore as an assistant and wanted to improve my English and started with photo commission for magazines like The Evening Standard – Weekend magazine, The Guardian, etc. This was a quite tough time because I knew anybody in London and everyday was very challenging. I always tried to meet new people with my first portfolio and my very bad English.
In Istanbul, I photographed several times some commercial projects for an British architecture office. Also the Trump Tower in Istanbul. Istanbul is a lovely city, especially the place around Ortaköy.
While in Vietnam, you amassed a collection of images which led you to publish the series Vietnam: Moto Faces and Concrete Boxes. Tell us how you fell upon the ideas for these projects. How did you scout the locations for each? What was the creative process?
These were two little projects which I took on our trip through Vietnam. I know that everyone in Asia rides scooters, but I never saw such stylish and specific creations of face-protective fashion like in Vietnam. I stopped on every traffic light and looked out for the most interesting looks.
While Vietnam is one of the fastest growing and developing countries at the moment, I noticed that around Ho Chi Minh a lot of new residential areas are in the process. Freshly built houses from wealthy people who can afford this expensive land are creating some for me strange looking concrete boxes without windows. So I drove around and looked for the brightest examples.
In your series Time In Between – Fairy Tale of Russia, you seemed to capture the surreal, melancholic and almost unremitting life of the citizens of rural Russia. Tell us about your influences and sources of inspiration for the collection. Does the collection say anything about you as an artist or individual?
Yes, any artwork is more about the artist than about the thing itself. I never had the intension to create a reportage about life in Russia. It’s just my interpretation of the people and places I meet there. There, I have a lot of possibilities to create my images. But very often I get contacted through Russians who ask me how me, as a foreigner, can capture their life in that way? How can I see and understand that? I guess I have a quite positive and little ironic way of showing Russia. I cannot photograph the Russian cliché, which people always expect from you.
Now, I’m so impressed by the new and modern Russia, which is far away from melancholic, old-soviet style. If you go to Moscow, you will be blown away by how beautiful the city is. After so many years, the city is finally made for people, but it has not lost its face.
In my series Russian Fairy Tales I’m still continuing but I can hardly plan the images, because I need to meet them first. It’s a series which slowly grows.
You’ve exhibited at a myriad of places across the globe. If you could name one place in the world you’d like to have feature your work, where would it be?
My work was recently exhibited at the Festival Circulation(s) 2018 in Paris. I am very happy to see my work in front of the Gare de l’Est.
I like this idea of appreciating art not only in galleries, museums and classical places, but in public places. People get attracted by this idea, otherwise they would maybe never popped in such institutions.
So, I am quite open to see where my work will be exhibited next. A big show of all my work with my original framed prints would be nice in the nearest future.
Since the start of your career, you’ve done work for ad agencies like DDB, BBDO and Spoon. How do these collaborations come about?
I split my time between art and commercial work and I am always happy about nice and interesting projects. I show my work around and try to publish as much as possible and work with different people who represents me.
Given that you started out despising the art of photography as mentioned earlier, if you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
If I would have another idea of what to do instead of photography, I think I would do it.
If you were stranded on a desert island with a camera, what’s the first thing you would do to make sure you could sustain a life as a photographer?
The first day I would do nothing but be happy and thankful to be stranded and alive. I guess, the next day, would think about: Hey let’s start a photo project about the last days of a man on the island. I’m not that survival guy who starts fishing and looking for water. The last day of battery life, a ship would rescue me and a new photo work is done.
Looking forward, what’s next for you as an artist? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I’ll focus more on my art work and my own projects and less on commercial work. I have been working for two years on my new book which will be published hopefully this year.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has
developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of
businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab
A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his
clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and
cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand
strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient
of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom,
Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards
competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful,
quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design
advice to his peers.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.
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