Portrait Photography

Birgit Krippner | Wellington, New Zealand

Brigit Krippner is an award winning photographer, born in Austria and has lived in New Zealand since 2003. Her specialty is capturing candid images using only available light. She has exhibited internationally and her works have been published in media like New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NZ Life & Leisure Magazine and many more. 

In 2015, Birgit was the recipient of the Team Lee Award for photojournalism, at the Missouri photo Workshop in Perryville, with her project 'Unexpect the Expected', Small Town Cop. In 2011, Birgit won an award at Grand Prix Terroirs d'images in Paris, France.

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Hello Birgit, thanks a lot for getting in touch with Women in Photography. Can you tell a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?

Hello Nicole. Since childhood, photography has been a big part of me. I am dyslexic, and expressing myself in visual ways seems to be natural to me, maybe the best way for me to communicate.  As much as I have an extroverted side, I really see myself as an Introvert and as a loner. Being on road trips on my own, traveling to exotic places and putting myself outside my comfort szone are elements which my camera is able to capture. This helps my friends, family and audience to understand me better. It helps me to understand myself better.

After finishing a master degree in Graphic Design, I started working at a design studio in Vienna. Soon I realized that this is not where my passion is, and still, I continued working as a graphic designer some more years. In 1995 I moved to NYC where more and more I picked up my camera to photograph my surroundings. When I moved to New Zealand in 2003, that was when I started needing my camera, relying on it, and when I started developing my own voice by making pictures. About nine years ago it was, that I first used the words ‘I am a photographer’. This was a milestone. About at the same time I designed my own website for photography, and I manage having my first solo exhibition in Wellington at Photospace Gallery. One thing lead to another and over years I became a photographer. 

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What does photography mean to you?

This is a big question, since it is not one thing that photography means to me. There are many different photographers out there who approach their photography from all kinds of angles. A lot of their work does not speak to me. When photography starts crossing boundaries, maybe by breaking rules - then chances are, that I will start paying attention to it. Some people are amazing photo journalists, which I very much respect and appreciate. And some of those photo journalists become superb in showing different dimensions to their pictures. Removing oneself from being too literal, showing poetry in your images and becoming figuratively, that is what I am striving with my photos.

You submitted photos of your latest project called „Smitty“. Can you tell us something about the project and how did the idea came up?

In October 2017 I was accepted to Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey’s photo workshop in Brooklyn, NY. About six months before that, I was introduced to Smitty and thought that he would be a person who I would enjoy getting to know better, and to photograph. One thing led to another, and Smitty opened up his doors to me. He welcomed me into his world as a musician, as a man who is passionate about all he does. I put a lot of time, thoughts and emotions into this project and the feedback which I have receive really was mind-blowing. A lot of positive comments from people around the world.

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What is your creative process when you work on a project, like „Smitty“? 

It all starts with a conversation. At the beginning I don’t introduce my camera to my subject. I find it important, getting an understanding of who the person is, who I am about to photograph. Equally important it is, that my subject gets an understanding of who I am. Only then, my subject and I can start our calibration together. Smitty and I became friends during this process, which not only brings an assignment to a different level, it actually exceeded what I was hoping for, and the photos seem to reflect this curious and positive feeling. 

When you plan a new project. What are you looking for? 

More often then not, a new project is approaching me, not the other way around. How I live my life, being open minded, challenging my comfort zone, and stepping into the unknown and excotic only makes curious situations come to me. My projects get me excited. It can be almost anything that gets my attention, but photographing people definitely is what I enjoy most. I love capturing low light situation, especially twilight/low light. This means that my camera is constantly on its limit. Aperture fully open, ISO on as high as bearable, and shutter speed on as long as my hand allows without creating shakiness. 

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You shoot with Leica cameras using only available light, which gives your photos a fantastic cinematic look. Can you tell us something about your post processing ? 

Thank you for your kind comment on the cinematic look of my photos. For post processing I have been using Adobe Lightroom for many years. I used to convert my pictures to B&W, which I found Silver Efex Pro 2 works really well. Over the last couple of years I have been confronting color photography. I vey much enjoy this change, but saying so, I find color photography more difficult to make it work, than if in B&W. My specialty is low light, twilight, photography. In Lightroom I make sure that the different light sources which I show in photos go well with each other, and that the white balance reflects in a way how I want it to be seen. I might bring out the contrast. On of the world’s best photo editors told me four years ago, that I should not crop my photos. I took his advice and hardly crop my pictures at all. 

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Besides your work as a photographer, you are the judge for the international „I-shot-it“ photo award. What are you looking for when you judge work from other artists?

Sometimes a photographer submits a photo to the I-Shot-It competition, which breaks the rules in a way that is difficult to put into words. I find it important that a good photographer is aware of rules, which need to be followed in photography. Only then, a good photographer can become a great  (or even exceptional) photographer. This can happen in breaking rules of photography. Framing, seeing light, being sensitive of what you photograph, how you want to show it, and also post production. These are all elements which are which are extremely important to create a potential good photo. The bottom line is, there is no formula on how to become a good photographer. My thoughts on this are, follow your heart, keep all your senses open, and have your camera with you as much as possible.

 

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The photography industry has changed a lot over the past years. What advice would you give female photographers who want to start a career into photojournalism?

I am not sure if I’d be a good person to give ‘advice’ on this, but I would like to share some of my insight. I find it important to be as much informed about other photographers in the industry as possible. To be aware of which photo projects have been done in the past, and who is the photographer who did that project best. If you decide on repeating a project which was done by someone else in the past anyway, make sure that you have your own way how to do this. Create your own voice and style as a photographer. Be authentic. Get strong in your vision and don’t give up easily. Believe in yourself, surround  yourself by photographers who you look up to, and share your work with them for critique. Be honest to yourself and be honest to others. Honesty will reflect in your work.

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Next year you will give a 2 day workshop on Smartphone Photography in NYC.  What can your students expect from this workshop?

I am rather excited about running this Two-Day-Smartphone workshop in NYC! This workshop on Smartphone photography will be the first of its kind, which I will give. I am looking forward to it since there is so much to be forwarded. With today’s high end smartphone cameras, a photographer can shoot the cover of a magazine without a professional camera needed. And this is happening! It does not show anymore, if a good photographer shoots with a smartphone or a ‘real’ camera. This line is getting thinner, and smartphone photographer is only getting stronger in the future. I have been asked to consider running a workshop in smartphone photography, so I will give it a try. If people will sign up, I might use this model in different cities and countries. 

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Tell us a little bit about the photography scene in New Zealand. Are there any female photographers you could recommend?

New Zealand has a vibrant scene of art, photo journalism and all kinds of photographers. One of my favorites is John Crawford, whose work I find superb. John covers a lot of social issues and he has a poetic approach in how he shows his work. When it comes to female photographers, I very much enjoy Lottie Hedley’s work, especially her photo project on Curling in New Zealand. There is a playfulness to this assignment of Lottie, and how she uses color I find rather special. Lottie is based in Auckland. Fiona Pardington, Yvonne Todd, Marti Friedlander, and Ans Westra are wonderful and influential female photographers, who are living in New Zealand.

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Website: http://www.birgitkrippner.com
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/birgit_krippner/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/birgit.krippner

Sarah M. Lee | London

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Sarah studied English Literature at University College London (UCL) in the late 1990s and trained herself as a photographer.

In 2000 she was offered a freelance position at the Guardian and has continued to work for the Guardian and Observer ever since. Sarah is specialized in portraiture, features and the Arts and interested in all photography that focuses on people.

In 2011-2012, she shot most of the commercial portraits to accompany Coldplay’s MX album and tour. Her work has appeared in many publications and places, including the covers of TIME magazine, Billboard, Rolling Stone, The Sunday Times, Intelligent Life and Vanity Fair. She’s also an official BAFTA Photographer and an official Ambassador for Leica Camera. 

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Hello Sarah, I admire your portrait work a lot and so it’s a huge pleasure to interview you for Women in Photography. You actually studied English Literature. What has finally brought you into photography?
I came to photography relatively late in that I was given a camera for my 18th birthday, a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm 1.6 lens. I didn’t have a specific interest in photography until this point but once I’d learned how to use the camera I became quite obsessed. Unfortunately, film and developing film was quite expensive and I was a student with an extremely limited budget. So my opportunities for learning and developing my new skill were frustrating limited. Fortunately, someone, I can’t remember who but I’m forever grateful to them let me in on the secret that if I started working for the student newspaper I’d have an unlimited supply of film and access to a dark room with printing materials. What I couldn’t have known was that the student paper in question was being picture edited by Abbie Trayler-Smith and other photographers on its roster included Ed Alcock, Dom Tyler and Christophe Tweedie so it was an unbelievable hothouse. Not just a place to learn, not just to print (which I did) but also to grow and develop as a photographer. In effect, it was a second university experience running in parallel with the literature degree I was also doing. Unquestionably I “graduated” from this experience into the career I now have in that it was the Guardian student media awards which introduced me to the Guardian’s then picture editor Eamon McCabe, who on the strength of the portrait I’d taken of the novelist Iris Murdoch, offered me a job. 

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Was it clear for you that your work would focus on portrait photography?
Yes, if it doesn’t sound horribly pompous I’ve always been interested in the long tradition of humanist photography. I’m interested in people. I like people. It would never have occurred to me to have a career that didn’t involve portraiture. That would be unthinkable to me. 

What is a good portrait photo for you?
To me a “good portrait” is one which is honest. One where there is obviously a honest connection with the sitter. Obviously composition, light use of colour [or if you’re working in black and white; texture and tone] matter enormously but all these things, in my opinion are to be used by the photographer to service the emotional connection with the subject and to capture that moment of honesty. Without that all the technical brilliance in the world is meaningless and a “portrait” just becomes an advertising image. But where those things work together you have incredible magic. Think for example of the famous Arnold Newman portrait of Stravinsky - one of my favourites that I hope illustrates what I’ve been trying, slightly clumsily, to say. But also there is something very deceptive about the simplicity of some the best portraits there seems to be so little to them, but it’s all in the incredible understanding between the photographer and the subject and the photorapher's skill in knowing exactly how to capture that. Think how powerful Wolfgang Tilmans portraits are, but how bad so many of the imitations of them are! I’m in danger of waffling, but put as simply as I can: good portraiture is entirely dependent on honest and emotional connection. Without that all else is lost.

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Let's talk about your latest project called „Tender are the Nighthawks“. Can you tell us something about it? 
“Tender are the Nighthawks” is a new series I’ve been working on mostly though not entirely exclusively in Camden and North London where I live. The title gives clues to my inspiration for this project in that it references both Keats “Ode to a Nightingale” and Edward Hopper and I’m trying I suppose to capture that strangely specific still point in the turning world between the very late night and the early morning when the city is at it’s quietest and the very very last stragglers are coming home from their night outs alongside the workers who have to get to work just before the dawn. I love the way the bus system in London is so democratic, used by everyone. All classes, all ages all socio-economic groups and races of people. It’s cheap and crisscrosses the entire city. I’m interested in tone and mood, and looking for the things that unite us, moments I suppose that emphasise our shared humanity, in a city that is hard to live in. Moments of tender melancholy are what I most hope to catch. I’m not sure I always manage that, but it’s what I’m trying to do. 

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The pictures of „Tender are the Nighthawks“ are very powerful and intimate. Each picture tells their own story. It must have been very difficult to shoot in a bus or from the outside without being recognized. Can you reveal us some insights how you did that?   
For a photographer, buses can be a bit of a gift in that they tend to be lit on the inside in a way that to my eye can make them seem like moving Hoppereque diner windows, each one with a vignette or framed tableaux of city-dwellers absorbed living their lives. And thank god in Britain we have entirely opaque bus windows unlike in many other countries where the glass is darkened to combat the effects of the bright sun - not a problem we face that often! Though I’ve discovered the 88 Bus is hopeless for this project, the lighting just doesn’t work, the shadows it creates are all wrong, my heart sinks when I see it approach... In terms of working candidly, that does create its own issues. I’ve shot all this work on a Leica M Rangefinder with a 50mm lens usually open at f1.4 or f2 in very low light. This means I have to be pretty accurate with my focusing. There can be no ‘shooting from the hip’ secret guesstimating with my framing or focusing. This can be challenging when you are trying to be discrete at 3 am at a bus stop…. So far I’ve got away with it. I very much subscribe to the asking for forgiveness rather than permission school of candid documentary photography. I do often explain what I’m up to after the fact if I’m spotted and someone says something. There is no point being confrontational as a woman alone on the street in the middle of the night [carrying an expensive camera]. Often sympathetic eye contact and apologetic smiles help me get away with it... Also at that hour my subjects have been drinking and aren’t that sharp or aware of their surroundings/ sneaky photographers which can help me too... Technically I find focussing on something very near the subject when they aren’t looking gives me a head start for speed so that I can be quick on the rangefinder when I do want to focus, so I will often blatantly focus on their shoes and then when I feel ready to reframe more boldly…  

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Was there a certain „trigger“ to start „Tender are the Nighthawks“?
One of the first photography books I ever bought was Tom Wood’s phenomenal “Bus Odyssey” and it certainly sparked an interest in photographing on Buses. I also love Bob Mazzar and Nick Turpin’s recent work though I very much hope this doesn’t feel derivative. Personally I feel the buses are big enough for all of us and there are much more people out there being inspired by them all the time... It has always felt like a series I’d like to do to be honest since I started living in London, it was just a matter of when rather than “if”.. I can’t quite remember what started me off, but I call it “prowling” now and I’m very much in the middle of this series now, I definitely haven’t got it out of my system yet.

Besides your personal projects, you work as a photographer for the Guardian. What advice would you give young female photographers who want to start a career as a photojournalist or in the publishing business?  
Oh god, the hardest question of all! The industry has changed so much [and not really for the better] since I started 18 years ago. Pictures seem to have been devalued. Clients pay less for photography. There is the dreadful culture of “exposure” etc. What I would definitely advise for women starting out is an extension of what I’d advise anyone, and that is to always try and remember the value of your work. Do never work for free, or for exposure. If someone wants you to work for them then they want YOU and your work, they will also, as a rule, be willing to pay [even though they may try to claim otherwise]. I’m not for a moment suggesting money matters more than art. But knowing your work has a value is very psychologically important and it is also extremely important if like me, and like many other photographers, you don’t have a private income. Because if you don’t earn from your work you quickly stop being able to work as a photographer. And following on from this I would say for women don’t be afraid at calling out sexism where you see it, or the sort of everyday discrepancies that shouldn’t be there but are. It can be hard at the start of a career to do this, but if you do it when you see it and feel it I think it sets a tone about who you are and how you yourself would like to be treated. Also, and this applies to all photographers, use whatever works for you TO WORK for you. I’m always amazed when I see other photographers work because I just couldn’t do what they do. I can only really do what I do. But that’s ok, I’m me and I’m trying to learn and improve all the time as me. But it took me the best part of 15 years to be ok with this. I spent FAR too long being hung up that I wasn’t all the other people I admire or am in awe of. That way madness, and, worse, lack of authenticity lies. 

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How do you prepare yourself when you are on an assignment, for example, a portrait shoot? How important is the atmosphere between yourself and your subject? Do you give your subject any direction? 
I approach every shoot differently. I prefer a loose approach and to try and respond to each situation organically and be open to each shoot as it unfolds rather than come with an idea of how it will be. And yes, the atmosphere between myself and the subject is HUGELY important!! I try everything I can to make that work. It doesn’t always happen, but as a rule I find I enjoy meeting and being with pretty much all types of people and find that aspect of this job an enormous privilege. Hopefully, that comes across and makes that atmosphere a bit smoother to start with. Though as I said there has been the odd personality clash and then it’s made the resulting shoot nothing but painful! 

Is there any photographer who has influenced you as a person or your work?
God, too many to name. I hesitate to say anyone’s influences my work because I wouldn’t dream of saying the names of the people I admire alongside my own work. I bloody wish my work showed their influence. But in no particular order, and no doubt missing several important names off this list, here are some of the photographers who are always top of my list:  William Eggleston,  Saul Letter,  Cartier-Breson, Vivian Maier, Stephen Shore, Polly Borland, Jillian Edlestein,  Jane Bown, Helmut Newton, Tim Walker, David Hurn, Martin Parr, Sean Smith, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Laura Pannack… Actually, the list goes on. This is an impossible question. Thank the gods. 

Final question! When you need to choose one of your favourite pictures you took. Which would it be and can you explain to us why?
I’m not sure I’ve taken it yet. But of what I’ve done so far. It may be my first proper published portrait. The one I took of Iris Murdoch back when I was both a student and a student photographer. She is still my favourite novelist, and one of the people I’m most delighted to have met. But, it is also a portrait that literally changed the course of my life. I may well have stayed an amateur photographer and had my life go in an entirely different direction had Eamon McCabe not seen it and made an impulsive on the spot decision to offer me a job. From that my entire adult and creative life has unfolded. Something for which I shall always be entirely, endlessly, grateful. 

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