By Pygmalion Karatzas
Philip Gunkel is an international professional fine art photographer who specializes in architectural, commercial and landscape photography. He was born in 1986 in Berlin where he is still living and working today. Philip made his graduation in Photodesign in 2012 at the Lette-Verein, afterwards he started studying geological sciences at the Freie Universität and began working as a freelance photographer. His two main passions are to shoot abstract architecture with a desire for perfectionism and high quality that does justice to and reveals the main thoughts of the architects. He also feels determined to travel to the most remote and rugged landscapes of mother earth to capture the unique and utter beauty of nature and its living beings.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us about your background and how you started being involved with photography?
Philip Gunkel: I appreciate the opportunity. I am born and raised in Berlin, Kreuzberg and I am 30 years old now. I started with photography back in 2007 as I was hiking the alps for the first time with a good friend of mine. Back then I spent all my money for a rather cheap SLR-Camera and tried to capture the beautiful landscapes these majestic mountains had to offer, with limited results for sure. But one year later I already started working as a photo assistant here in Kreuzberg because I was already in love with the creative process photography had to offer. One of the two photographers I was working for was an architectural photographer and I was definitely influenced by his great works at that time and I have a hang for architectural panoramics until today. After that, in 2009, things became quite serious already as I started a professional education at Lette-Verein, a technical college here in Berlin.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
PG: That is a tough one for sure because I think things like that change and evolve so fast, because you are constantly improving your work-flow as well as your creative vision with every single day you grow as an artist. My main business today is architecture and commercial photography so I will start with that.
Architectural assignments as well as other commercial works that I do frequently, have to sell something and they have to convince the beholder in the first place, so the visual language and the overall idea of the image must be very clear and kind of more direct than when I create a free series for example. I do not try to document the “reality” here at all, instead I try to create a unique and aesthetic piece of art out of my personal experience I have on location and mix it with subjective feelings and thoughts.
I love to work in a series and often I even think in a short sequence of pictures when I try to visualize something. A single image can be strong too, but in my opinion a sequence of several images only accomplishes to tell the whole story and reveals secrets that otherwise would have remained undiscovered. I am an optimistic and positive thinking person, which helped me to create my personal signature style over time that is often highlighted by precise and strong color contrasts. Of course, I strive to perfectionism and super high quality in my artistic vision on location as well as in post-processing afterwards.
PK: Who are some of the influences to your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
PG: Photographic influences are a very difficult issue to discuss because one of my main premises in general would be to not get influenced by other works, which allows me to create and evolve an own personal style in the first place. Nevertheless you will always be influenced, most of the times even subconscious, and that can also be a good thing for sure. I better call it inspiration because I simply learned to look at other works with some distance over the time.
However, as I started photography I admired for example Ansel Adams or Sebastiao Salgado and I still follow a lot of other friendly photographers these days and get inspired by them day by day. Even though I work in color most of the times, I love to look at a descent black and white image I have to say. Salgado’s recent project “Genesis” for example is in my opinion an incredible strong and self-sacrificing body of work, especially his sublime landscapes reveal a real story line all together in the book.
PK: One of your main photographic focus is in architecture. Could you tell us why you gravitate towards this subject?
PG: Sure, if you shoot architecture it is that amount of freedom and serenity. I really appreciate that in contrast to, for example working with models, stylists etc. on a fashion shoot. First and most important, you have to explore what the architect wants to express with his overall concept. When you get yourself into that and begin to understand the main thoughts, the architectural space itself will explain to you and direct you to the right perspective, and if you are patient enough, finally to the right shots. I also enjoy it when I simply cannot control everything on location. In times, people try to control or manipulate almost anything afterwards in post-production that even seemed impossible a decade ago. I do really enjoy these final lasting aspects of photography and when the light shines not in the perfect angle or you may have an annoying crowd of tourists in front of your subject you simply have to come back in the next morning at 5.30 O’clock.
PK: Could you tell us a few more words about your projects ‘Leonardo Glass Cube and the more recent ‘Phaeno Science Center’?
PG: I asked the company Leonardo to get a permission to shoot it for my portfolio buildup because I loved the simple, yet appealing natural overall design 3DM managed to execute on the facade, as well as on the interior design. The flowing artless forms and reduced structures together with the huge glass surfaces creates a unique and modern, almost futuristic atmosphere that speaks to me in some way, and of course is very tempting to photograph.
I created this series of the Phaeno Science Center, that was built in Wolfsburg, Germany in 2005 in memory of one of the most inspiring architects of our time, Zaha Hadid. I always wanted to shoot one of her buildings and it was simply awesome to do so finally. I love the overall concept of this building with its raw and almost bulky concrete structure, that nevertheless has a quite dynamic and almost lightweight look because it is built on large pillars and seems to hover slightly above the city. In contrast to most other concrete buildings we see daily, the extravagant forms and cut out elements of the Phaeno, especially on the inside, give it a very modern, almost futuristic look that is totally appealing to photograph. The building integrates really well into the center of Wolfsburg and especially the underpass which opens the main train station to the center underlines impressively that the urban planning of the building was well thought too.
PK: What photographic gear do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process? Could you also tell us about your post-processing work-flow?
PG: That is actually a really good question because in my opinion todays people care about the technical aspects way too much and almost seem to dismiss the creative process more and more. With the technical revolution we live in today, photographic students are blended by high megapixels etc. and they seem to care less about some basic creative aspects like for example a clean and working composition with strong leading lines that is rather reduced and focused on your main subject. Composition for example is key, but I barely get questions about these important things on social networks most of the time. They all just want to know, which model I use, which settings I shot with and where the subjects exact location is, so that they can go there to often enough simply reproduce other photographs instead of getting creative for themselves and produce something new and appealing, which is by the way the most interesting part of photography for sure.
When I don’t have to rent a current high end camera model because that is needed for a specific job, I still shoot with my Canon 5D Mark II today together with a 17-40mm EF Lens, most of the times free hand or if I have to with a small Sirui 1204X traveler tripod to be able to shoot as free and as spontaneous as I can. In architectural and commercial photography a good and clean post processing is mandatory to get the top jobs and I take that part very seriously and it takes at least the same amount of time as shooting. Whereas in landscape or in my personal photography I have a completely different work-flow that is a lot more footloose and free I think, where I try to express my personal feelings and describe me as a person through my pictures even more, and where I try to experiment a lot in post-processing and search for whole new approaches that will work for a specific free project.
To sum it all up, most of my pictures just do not come straight out of the camera as they are, which means to me post processing is at least equally important than taking the pictures itself and simply takes a great amount of time when you want to exploit all possibilities.
PK: Some photographers work both on assignments and on personal projects, which adds an artistic aspect to architectural photography and a freedom to expand the subject matter beyond work that functions only for specific clients. What are your thoughts about the value of personal projects for the photographers (and for the cultural role of architectural photography in general?)
PG: As I said above I think personal projects in general are extremely important to grow a more personal related visual language that includes the very own experiences, thoughts and feelings of the artist and also challenges the creative process without outer input and influences. Also it keeps the possibility to really concentrate on a single topic in a (more time consuming) way that would not be possible during a commercial project at all. The more you are really interested in something that you work on, the better the final outcome will be, simple as that.
This is the first piece of a conceptual fine art architecture project that I am working on. In this series I simply want to question our understanding of the relationship between architecture and nature. In my opinion, city and urban landscape planers should work more towards a co-existence of architecture and nature in places humans are going to settle in the near future because nature is where we all came from and where we belong in the long term. It is also fundamental to help to save our mother earth in days of rapidly rising engineering processes and global population growth rates.
PK: How was your experience photographing the City of Arts and Science in Valencia?
PG: It really was an interesting one, because the possibilities there for a photographic student, which I was at that time, are almost endless. I tried out quite a lot of different techniques and variations of compositions and I think I have learned a lot during that time. And it is for sure a good thing and happens not that often I have to say, but I am still satisfied with the interior shots I came back with from Valencia. Actually this was the final work for my graduation on Lette-Verein. One of the reasons I went there was also that the quality of the images I found in the internet were not really satisfying in my opinion, especially I did not find any good interior shots at all. Because I absolutely admire the interior work of Calatrava on the City of Arts and Science and elsewhere I had to go there and capture the amazing beauty of these rooms. All rooms/spaces inside are in my opinion a unique and amazing work of interior design. They all have a really elegant, quiet and peaceful atmosphere and are filled with daylight or awesome light design.
PK: How do you see the photography industry changing in the future by the Internet’s extensive dissemination?
PG: The change of the photo industry is immense indeed, even just over the past five years and most of my colleagues would concur with me when I say that it overall did a lot of harm to our industry. At the same time it brought us many amazing new possibilities. I think it is a matter of your personal mindset; if you are a positive person, or one that always complains about things that change over time. In my opinion, life is always changing and nothing ever stands still, so the best thing you can do, if you want to stay successful in your business, is to simply use all these new game changing capabilities to your advantage. Without them I think I would not be at all where I already am today. Many good things happened to me because I was able to take advantage of those new tools the web offers to us. The prices might have went down a lot and the competition might be a lot tougher than it was before, but if you stay confident with the specific skills you have and with your own reliable body of work, you will be able to enforce yourself against others (I speak for the architectural and commercial business, where you still need to be super qualified technically) because in the long run, pure quality and highly specialized craft will always be superior on the market.