Born of a sense of classical romanticism, always with an eye for the ephemeral portrayal of beauty in its most natural form, Ulrich Lindenthal talks to Predrag Pajdic about his inspirations, his passions and his perceptions surrounding him both as a person and as a great artist. This sensitive and in-depth interview takes a peek into the gentle space that defines equally time and beauty inside the mind of this creative talent.
PP. Were you always interested in photography?
UL. I have been taking pictures since I was a teenager. Back then, I would always carry an old agfa camera with me that belonged to my father and take pictures when we were on vacation. I remember no one really fancied my photography though, because I would see some tiny little butterfly on a marble ground in Italy and shoot it, and everyone would ask me: “why the hell did you take a picture of THAT?” I didn’t really care though, because to me, that butterfly would tell more about my trip than any repeatedly taken photograph of any church or a city view ever could. I think this is a tendency one can still see in my pictures today. To me it is about the image in my head more than the actual real life situation.
Apart from taking pictures myself, I was always browsing through books featuring works from photographers like Scavullo, Man Ray, or Mapplethorpe. I didn’t realise it back then, but today I think what attracted me was the symbolism in those photographs, the ‘not obvious’ part, and the feeling captured in a picture.
When I think of the pictures that I took in earlier years, they were predominantly about moments, smells, wind blowing through a curtain, light falling through a window. It was like putting every sensual reception into a box, and opening it again by looking at the picture again later. In this way, photography was with me throughout my life, even though I was employed in the travel industry back in the 1990’s until early 2000. At some point I realised how unhappy I was in my job, and spent more and more time working on the pictures I had taken than on my ‘real’ job. Then one day the company I worked for was sold to a Swiss company, and in the process they were to fire some of the employees. One of them was me. I was more than happy because I knew it was the kick in my ass that I had needed to start anew. So, I found myself jobless in my mid thirties, but it wasn’t hard for me to cope with it. I said to myself – it is time to do what I always wanted to do… become a photographer. And that is what I did, despite all those around me trying to tell me it would never work, because I didn’t have any education or experience in the field. I took part in a contest, I won the 1st prize, flew to Paris, picked up the prize money, and started.
PP. How did you get involved with fashion?
UL. In a way, I always have been involved with it. After school, I started to study fashion design in Berlin, my hometown. I was all enthusiastic about it, but cooled down rather quickly when I realised that fashion is not only about having great ideas and visions, but about long nights sewing pieces together, draping and all that. I felt it was not me, because although I was very good at sketching and designing, I was very bad at going all the way from the idea to the final product. It didn’t interest me at all. I just wanted to make the sketch, to deliver the idea. The process itself following the idea was a bore to me, as was the question of whether a trouser leg should be wide or tight, or a skirt should be short or long. I wasn’t enthusiastic enough to follow a career in the fashion industry. Without that enthusiasm I knew it would be a waste of time and I stopped going to fashion school after two years. But throughout the following years, I always knew I would come back to it somehow.
Berlin in the eighties was not the growing capital as it is now, a fashion industry. It had been extinguished after the war, companies had left the city… but you would find an enormously creative bunch of people coming to live in Berlin. I lived in condos for a while in Kreuzberg, meeting so many wild and crazy people, all creating their own fashion statements. At that time I went to the clubs like The Jungle or the Cri du chat, and was hypnotized by Jean Paul Goude and his videos for Grace Jones. Somehow I continued to make sketches for dresses; my first boyfriend was an artist, painting, drawing, sewing. I think it is those years back in Berlin, and trips to London and Paris in the early 90s, that influenced me a lot. Most things in my life have just happened, they simply came to me or maybe it was me searching for them really without knowing it. Perhaps in the end, everything always just happens by coincidence.
Speaking now, I would not even consider myself as a pure fashion photographer. I don’t think I see myself as that. Fashion comes kind of second in my pictures. It still is the moment, the face, the special look in the eyes, a movement of an arm or a slight twist of the head. The clothes are not the main actors. I still prefer to just put on a piece of fabric onto a girl’s head and play around with the shadows it throws upon her face than to concentrate on the dress she might be wearing. Another thing is, I have never been very contemporary in my view of fashion. I always feel that it is about beauty, the illusion, more than about the kind of photography that has been “in” for many years now, shooting people with a hotshoe flash and hard light jumping on a sofa. This kind of perception of fashion is so far from me. My fashion is what some might call old fashioned, and it took me a while to learn and accept that. It is about allure, a pose, a look. Not about the hip factor.
PP. You are a romantic, aren’t you?
UL. You know the answer, don’t you? And yet, somehow I seem to make a much less romantic impression on people when they see me… which is a good thing. Of course I am romantic when it comes to my work, I guess, where you will find romantic subjects i.e. from the romantic period of art such as longing, dreaming, fear, death, nature…
PP. Where do you get ideas for your work? What inspires you?
UL. It depends. I can never really tell. I do have some ideas in mind sometimes before I start a project. Like… with the ‘Stabat Mater’ series I had a clear vision of how the pictures should be, with two boys fighting each other until one of them is dead. Yet a lot of times, I just start and let myself get inspired by the person I work with, by the surroundings, the atmosphere. Sometimes I change my plans dramatically and end up with a totally different story. Music can be a great inspiration. I see music more than I hear it, and unlike other people who listen to music in order to help them to go to sleep, which is something that never works with me because there is always a film in my head when I listen to music that keeps me from falling asleep. Apart from that I guess photography – free work I mean – is a way to deal with one’s own thoughts, longings, cravings, fears, dreams. Just like any form of artistic expression. Faces inspire me. Eyes, bodies, lips, details…. Francis Bacon is an inspiration to me. I just have to go a long way until I am able to really express my visions when it comes to such drastic pictures.
A lot of old paintings inspire me as well, from the Renaissance period in particular, also movies from the late 30s – early 70s. I love the style of George Cukor films, or the French Tati movies. From contemporary photographers, I admire Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, Tim Walker, for their very own style, as well as Bruce Weber for his arranged spontaneity.
PP. What makes you excited? You know, to the point of hair standing on your arms or a shiver in your body?
UL. When I realise how much of my own self is in a piece of art, when I can actually sense what moved the artist when he did his work. It can be very saddening sometimes in a way of having an emotional breakdown because you see so much truth in a photograph or a sculpture, or in a piece of music. This is a very intimate and subjective moment I guess, and it will not affect everyone in the same way. I think trigger points are touched that make one react to a piece of art. The art must evoke some special feeling or long forgotten things that happened to you, or that you have been involved with emotionally. And sometimes it is just the shear beauty that gives me goose bumps. I surrender to that, for the sake of beauty. And I mean solid, true beauty. The one you find in a face without make up. And, although I consider myself a rather nonreligious person, domes and big churches give me that shiver. They have an impact on me I cannot really explain. But then again, I guess that is why they were built that way, they were supposed to give you that feeling. And again, the paintings of Francis Bacon, even though they are so frightening sometimes. It is something I can’t explain, and maybe I don’t even want to be able to explain.
PP. Your images are breathtakingly beautiful. Does it take a lot to get that perfect shot?
UL. Thank you. The most beautiful pictures usually seem to take the least time to be shot. In my opinion, there either is beauty to be seen and captured, or there simply is not. In the latter case, there is no use in trying to get something out of it. The longer you try, the less you will get. Usually, I know instantly when I see a person in front of my camera if – to me that is – whether beauty lies within the man or woman, or not. I let them move a bit, just to reassure myself of what I think or might be seeing. And then I know what their beauty is to me, and just start shooting.
I know very well that not everyone shares my point of view when it comes to the definition of “beautiful”. My own perception has changed so much over the years, and I am glad it did. If I have learned one thing for myself, then it is that perfection is by no means beauty. There has to be more than mere perfection. Also beauty without brain is the biggest turn off that can happen. In the end I depend on the person I photograph. I am not the type of a photographer who shouts at people in order to get his picture, which is a bad thing sometimes. I wish I could yell at someone so he or she would realise how beautiful they really are. The very best pictures are the ones where you can sense the total trust someone gives me. If that happens, I am done within ten minutes.
PP. If you could start your life all over again, would you change anything?
UL. You should ask me that when I start all over again. But I know this is not the answer to your question. So… all in all… not really. Even all the bad things that have happened to me turned out to bring something good. I am just very happy at where I am now in my life. Yes, you can always have more money, more luxury. I am certainly not someone who says he does not either of these things, but the older I become, the more I appreciate the things that no money on earth can buy: someone beside me whom I love and who loves me, health, happiness too. Still I have my family with me, healthy and happy.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live as a woman, but only for curiosity. I am a very happy and content man in all aspects. More than wanting to change anything I often just wonder how my life would be if I was born somewhere else, in another country, a poor country, under different circumstances or even in another time, like in the Dark Ages. But I am not sure I want to start all over again. I often joke about my worst fear: one where I am old, I had a good life, I am happy and more than ready to die, and then I die and think: yes, all is good, I can just go off now and lay down and rest. Then this voice comes out of nowhere telling me “get up young man. No time for rest! New life begins now!
PP. Can you remember your dreams?
UL. Sometimes I can, sometimes not. Some dreams I had as a kid I can still remember very clearly, more clearly than who was my classmate for example in elementary school. But remembering dreams is not the fun part to me. I don’t care much about it. I know that my brain tries to sort out certain things. Much more fun and interesting is when you realise you are dreaming while you are dreaming. I don’t have that very often, but when I do, I just love it. You can direct your own dream… try it when you get the chance to do so!
PP. Do you believe in destiny?
UL. How long do you want this interview to be? Yes and no. I do and I don’t. Perhaps more, I do. I believe things happen for a reason, and I do believe that sometimes you have to go through deep shit just to realise what is wrong, and how to get over it. A lot of the people I have met in my life turned out to play an important role, in what ever way… even if I didn’t know it at first sight. Sometimes it took years, before I met them again. Sometimes it was just for a second that I knew them but this very second was an important one. What I definitely believe in is that you are responsible for your own destiny. You can change it, if not all, then at least a major part, be it by thoughts or deeds.
But more then anything else I believe in love. It stays forever in your heart, it makes you strong, it comforts you through death and sickness. I believe you can feel the love of loved ones even when they are gone. There is no bigger reason to life than to find love… and give love… the true kind.