By Pygmalion Karatzas
Thomas Mayer was born 1946 in Switzerland, and since 1969 he has been a freelance photographer based in Neuss, Germany. Before he started turning his lens towards architecture, Mayer did commercial work for car companies, editorial work for magazines like Zeit Magazin, GEO, Stern as well as corporate work for various industrial and institutional clients.
Between 1989 and 1999 he documented the Neue Zollhof Dusseldorf development from competition to completion and the images got published in numerous publications around the world, establishing him in the field of architectural photography and led to long-term collaborations with architects like Frank Gehry and others.
Between 2002 and 2007, he also documented the re-development of the world cultural heritage site Zeche Zollverein in Essen with projects by OMA and SANAA. He describes his work as architectural reportage photography with a journalistic approach to design and life within it.
With over 30 years of experience in the field he has an astonishing oevre of more than 100,000 images. In 2013, ArchDaily listed him as one of the top 13 architectural photographers.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Mayer thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. How did you start being involved in architectural photography?
Thomas Mayer: In fact, I always was addicted to architecture. Even during my three years apprenticeship with a fashion photographer, I strolled Zurich and took images of buildings, I liked. Later in the first part of my career, I was, for six years, a specialist in car photography in studio and on location. I often choose architecture as a background in this time, often playing with the architecture mirroring in the car finish. At a common car assignment, I met reportage photographer Horst Munzig, I did the technical part of the work with a big size camera on tripod and he shot – with a 35mm camera by hand – people using the cars.
Horst introduced me to the editorial photography world and from that moment, I knew that I didn’t want to stay with car advertising all life and he became my mentor and lifelong friend. Horst Munzig also connected me with famous graphic designer Otl Aicher that lead to a 10 years cooperation and brought me clients like Lufthansa, BMW, West-LB and ERCO lighting. With ERCO I’ve has an ongoing collaboration since 1977 in editorial architectural documentations. Otl Aicher had encouraged ERCO to show in the corporate magazine Lichtbericht human life going on under the light of ERCO instead of showing reference projects with classical architectural images. This was at the time a new and authentic way to approach architecture and it was my first experience in architectural photography.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
TM: Basically we can distinguish two different ways in photography: either the photographer has an image in his mind and puts the subject in stage with all his craftsmanship and styling, or the photographer watches the project, gets inspiration and waits for the right moments to shoot. I am this second type of hunter, very patient in waiting for the best light, best angles, best action around and more. The challenge is to document the site and building so that architect and users recognize and understand it.
No trickery, just beauty in light and shadow, only shown in available light with a strong sense for graphic design. I must understand the ideas behind the design of the architect, and show them in the photographs. It helps a lot to walk first the building and site with the architect. I also would like to point out that there is no mannerism in my photography, I want viewers to be attracted to the content, the message and emotion of the images.
PK: You describe yourself as a reportage architectural photographer with a journalistic approach to design and life in it. Noticing the interaction between architecture and people is something you have done extensively, and it is also at the heart of architects’ designs albeit varied. Could you share with us some of your observations about this interaction?
TM: The difference between classical architectural photography and reportage architectural photography was technically much more different in the analogue world, when I shot with 35mm cameras instead of middle or large size [cameras]. Since, almost 10 years digital technology in high resolution have smeared the frontiers between 35mm and large format cameras.
In the reportage, I show the building and site being used by people, in different lighting situations, analyzing the sense and function in emotional views. Since I worked a lot for editorial magazines, I put in my mind being assigned for example by GEO magazine instead of an architectural magazine. That means I want to show the building embedded in its surrounding and inhabited and used by the people it is made for. Not all architects like this, some prefer the pure architectural views still taken with large format cameras in highest photographic gear without people.
PK: How did the Neue Zollhof project in Dusseldorf came to you and what was your experience working on this development?
TM: Thomas Rempen at the time was sometimes called the ‘pope of advertising’ in Germany. We have had a long lasting collaboration since 1971 and when he succeeded in 1989 in getting a harbor site in Dusseldorf for development, he had asked me to document the project from competition to completion. At the end, 10 years later, it was the longest documentation I had worked on. It started with Zaha Hadid as winner of the competition, but it was not possible to realize her design.
So, three years later Frank Gehry came in and he designed the three buildings Neuer Zollhof Düsseldorf which are now iconic for Dusseldorf and modern Northrhine-Westphalia. It was an exciting experience to work with the international and local architects as well as with the construction workers on site, earning their respect gradually as they saw me climbing the 75 meter crane day and night, in sun and rain. After completion in 1999, my images of the Neue Zollhof were published all over the world in most of the leading architectural magazines and with this I started to become established in the world of international architectural photographers.
PK: From ’02 to ’07 you covered the regeneration of the Zeche Zollverein heritage site in Essen, including the coal washing plant by OMA and Zollverein School by SANAA. Could you tell us about your involvement in this project?
TM: Again this was a cooperation with Thomas Rempen, who was an adviser for the Zollverein developing project after obtaining the world cultural heritage status and he had recommended me for this assignment. This documentation gave me the chance to witness in meetings and events some of the most interesting people in design, architecture, art and politics in Germany and internationally.
First of two outstanding projects was the refurbishment of the cole-washing complex into the Ruhrmuseum by OMA and Heinrich Böll. To see the inseminating collaboration at eye-level between the German and Dutch architects was fascinating. And it was also amazing to see the transformation of a muddy cole-washing building into a visiting center and museum. Second was the competition and construction of the Zollverein School of Management and Design. To witness how Kazuyo Seshima and Ryue Nishizawa added a concrete cube contradicting in material but matching in design to the stunning brick architecture of Schupp Kremmer was the other highlight of the documentation. Other interesting moments were casual meetings with former colemine workers on the site who watched the transformation of the site rather sceptical.
PK: You documented the Museum MARTa in Herford and Fabrikstrasse 15 Novartis Campus in Basel designed by Frank Gehry. How was your collaboration with him?
TM: Since our encounter during the making of the Neue Zollhof Düsseldorf, I knew that Frank Gehry likes my way of approaching architecture with editorial reportage photography and of course I appreciated this. I met him occasionally on the sites and also in his LA studio during his daily practice. The most inspiring collaborations were with his design architects Edwin Chan, Kamran Ardalan and others.
PK: How has the transition from film to digital been for you and what are the pros and cons between the traditional and digital dark room?
TM: I was one of the first photographers switching completely to digital photography. Before 95% of my analogue work was on 35mm color slide and because in developing I was dependent on the labs, I now appreciate to control the whole process. Especially in my long time collaboration with ERCO lighting it is a great relief not to use any more filters for color-corrections in daylight – artificial lights. I was used to exposure almost one complete 35mm film with different filters and exposure times, now it is one shot in RAW format. Certainly, it was a long time experience in learning and improvement in the new techniques and I hate to see now some of the first digital images!
For about 5 years I have worked with Nikon D3X and this is higher quality than 35mm ever was, it is like former midsize camera quality. This yields an approach between reportage photography to classical architecture photography. With the help of photoshop one can reach high quality images without distortions with comparable 35mm equipment. On the one hand I like it, on the other I miss the stage fright before seeing the developed films and the visual difference in quality between reportage and large format photography. The mystery of the chemical process is missing – in b/w there is no alternative to analogue for me. Another lamentable difference is the missing of international standards in color profiles for print. I don’t think about possibilities of digital manipulation of images because I don’t use them except cleaning of dust, corrections of distorsions, color and density. And I also use image merge for panoramas and once in a while HDR.
PK: Who are some of your favorite photographers and how has their work affected your own? Are there other influences to your work outside of photography?
TM: The only one to name here is, again, my friend Horst Munzig who introduced me to the world of editorial photography and helped me selflessly to get established there. On the other hand, I don’t like name dropping but can tell you that there is a rather large number of reportage photographers, well known and unknown, who’s work I like to see and I am always curious to find new young colleagues trying to find new ways of expressions. Beside Horst Munzig there are also other photographer friends with whom I am in current exchange of ideas and discussions about the developing of photography and life and I am also influenced a lot by talks and discussions with artist friends. Contemporary art is a much needed inspiration for me.
PK: From your experience which are some key points about the business aspects of photography?
TM: Fortunately, I work alone and on location, so I have no costs for studio or lab. My wife takes care for the accounts. Highest costs are photographic and digital equipment and travel costs. Internet has become a key role in the daily photographic business. The last 10 years my website has become the base for my business. Here, I show and offer recent and earlier photo projects. The internet has allowed to gain worldwide clients with reasonable efforts. My assistant Nils-Hendrik Zündorf was a schoolfellow of my older son David , he is now a graphic designer and an expert in computers. Beside his own business he is the designer and webmaster of my website and represents me to clients, when I am traveling. Assignments are still a main pillar but personal projects become more and more important. In the beginning of my career, I used to visit possible clients and show my work.
Personal contacts are always the base of cooperation and sometimes coincidences help like this one: In 1976, GEO magazine was established in Germany and as all reportage photographers, I tried to get an assignment for them. It was common practice at the time to show for application a carousel with 80 slides to the picture editor, so I did, but failed. In 1978, the chief picture editor changed and I tried it once more with exactly the same carousel because I was convinced about my choice of images. When I arrived to my date I was told to wait because a colleague was showing the result of his assignment in Dublin with 18 carousels. One hour later a tired chief editor asked his assistant to look at my images. Now the coincidence was that the first 10 images of my carousel showed Dublin and after viewing the first five the assistant turned off the projector and fetched the chief-editor. He looked only the 10 Dublin images, was impressed and two weeks later, I was in Madagascar for the first of many GEO assignments over the following 10 years! So thanks to my colleague who bored the editors with 1440 images of Dublin.
PK: Could you describe some key moments that made you feel you honed your craft and were milestones in your learning curve?
TM: From my apprenticeship I have a good base for photographic techniques and I am able to use my tools in a self-evident way. This opens the possibilities to indulge my passion for image contents which are born mostly spontaneously. For improvement critical comments on my work by clients and friends are essential.
PK: What are your thoughts about the shift from print to online media? Has it affected the way photographers work and the dissemination of architecture?
TM: I cannot see a shift from print to online, online is more an additional media with an easy worldwide dissemination of architecture and photography, but cannot compete and replace good print media. For an architect a publication in a regarded international architectural magazine is the true highlight, also for the architectural photographer. At the moment unfortunately some very good magazines are forced to abandon the market. As long as most online media don’t pay for publications they do not have an income value for photographers and online images without watermarks can be too easy copied and published without permission.
PK: As many photographers have pointed out, the photographic act, beyond its utilitarian aspect, is also a transformative experience in the sense that our awareness of the environment – both natural and man made – becomes more astute. How has this awareness changed/develop for you over the years?
TM: Both, during assignments and on my own projects, I don’t feel like working while taking images, it is part of my passion of observing the environment and I am thankful to have a profession which allows me to closely witness changes and developments in natural and man made environments.
PK: Álvaro Siza once said “to copy one architect is not good, to copy many, though, is essential”. Do you think this also applies to photography?
TM: Copying is out of the question but we are all influenced at least unconsciously by images around us.
PK: Alongside your commissioned work, you have done autonomous projects like the ‘Wohnportraits’ exhibited in Ornis A. Gallery in Amsterdam. Could you tell us about this personal project?
TM: It was in 1972 when I was a car photographer and in the free time between assignments, I started to be a story teller with images in editorial photography. The ‘Wohnportraits’ are the result of an idea to document persons not in portraits but in showing their apartments. For this I visited friends and other people unannounced with my camera and took pictures of their living environment. For my first exhibition in an art gallery we have selected this work due to it’s authenticity and explanatory power. Since the beginning in 1972, I followed up this idea in a lot of editorial and commercial assignments up to the present, for example when I document now for Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek his objects in private environments.
See Thomas Mayer’s documentation of Sophie Calle’s 2007 exhibition ‘Exquisite Pain’.