German photographer Kristine Thiemann (38) is interested in small towns and neighborhoods that typically attract little attention because they are located at the periphery of large cities. With creativity, loving irony and ZEISS lenses, she translates the daily life of small-town inhabitants into their ‘language’, taking her subjects to the boundaries of the burlesque.
Ms. Thiemann, your portraits of small towns and neighborhoods are full of contradictions and absurd scenes. Where did you get the idea of depicting unknown places that are outside the spotlight in such a surprising way?
It started about ten years ago in my hometown of Norderstedt near Hamburg. Norderstedt has 70,000 inhabitants, so it’s no small town. But beyond the town boundaries, no one has heard of it. So whenever I was abroad and people asked me where I was from, I started to automatically say I came from Hamburg. I still do so today. With my photo series Metropolises, I wanted to partly make up for the blatant injustice (she laughs) that these small towns suffer. From the start, my objective was not to make fun of small towns and their residents, but to let them become actors themselves in small-scale aesthetic productions.
And it works every time in a really striking way, as your two introductory photos show. Tell us more about them.
I took both shots in La Benauge, a typical working class neighborhood in Bordeaux. In 2011, I produced a series of pictures together with the artistic and architectural collective called ‘bruit du frigo’. It documented the vibe of the people living in Benauge, what residents think about Benauge, what makes it an attractive place, and the inspiration and ideas they get from their neighborhood. The youngsters in the first photo want to have their own fitness studio, but not just any fitness studio. They want one that’s outside, overlooking the roofs of their neighborhood. The second photo is about the residents’ dream of having their own yard. So we transformed the former railway station into a small green oasis for this particular shot.
What is your approach when taking such photo portraits?
It takes a lot of time, good planning, detailed knowledge of the location, and above all plenty of sensitivity. Before the actual shootings, I spend many weeks and months developing ideas and selecting the right characters for each scene. I also have lots of interesting conversations, which help me to gradually form certain images in my head. Whenever I meet someone and inspect a location, I take lots of pictures and notes. I also ask the people I speak with to fill out a form listing their hobbies and I ask whether they or their friends have any unusual objects that can be photographed. When the actual shooting takes place, everything comes together like a puzzle.
You also photograph with ZEISS lenses, for example the Distagon T* 1,4/35 and the Planar T* 1,4/50. What do you like in particular about these lenses?
I like using the high-speed Distagon T* 1,4/35 so that I can consciously apply focus and out-of-focus as well as the special bokeh. The high image performance of the lens allows me to very nicely accentuate the tiny details in my photographs. This is really important for my work because it enables me to emphasize interesting picture elements. The Planar T* 1,4/50 complements the Distagon T* 1,4/35 perfectly as it is also very fast and allows you to create great, contrast-rich images with your own unique visual language. My pictures live from their expressive characters and interesting settings, and this versatile standard focal length allows me to stage both wonderfully.
Which project are you working on right now?
The next city portrait project I will do with the Distagon T* 1,4/35 and the Planar T* 1,4/50 will focus on Vitrolles, a suburb of Marseille. Next year, the Mediterranean metropolis of Marseille is going to be the European Cultural Capital. “Marseille Provence 2013” is unique for its wide variety of original small projects, and one of them is my picture series. Bruit du frigo established contact with the city of Vitrolles. Starting March 2013, a total of 16 of my photos will be shown in Vitrolles and the surrounding region on large billboards on the highway and in downtown Vitrolles. I already took the first three photos in July; the rest will follow in early 2013. Our main objective with this project is to show the Vitrolles residents’ pride in their town and how they actively shape their lives there. In my pictures the people of Vitrolles will be able to show that and to step out of the shadow of the neighboring metropolis of Marseille for a moment.
Can you give us a hint of some of the visual ideas you have in mind for this project?
What I can already tell you is this: There are a lot of interesting people and locations in Vitrolles. One of the pictures will show a priest coming out of the sea. Why, remains my secret. Then, for example, I met some men who take part in international arm-wrestling competitions. There will be a canine agility trainer who promised to show me some of his tricks. I was also moved by my visit to a club that teaches the blind how to ride horses. I plan to shoot some pictures together with the local fire station and post office because it is always important to capture everyday things in pictures. Visual treasures like mailboxes and telephone cells will probably disappear sometime in the future. And, of course, there will be an image that addresses the theme of the Mistral. Some of the locals told me that this special wind drives people crazy. In winter it can blow for days on end with speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour. Then the streets are practically empty. I already have an idea of how I want to visualize that: half-naked people wandering through the alleys, trying to pick their blown-away clothes from the trees.
Here are a few ‘Making of’ images that Kristine Thiemann sent us from Vitrolles. The actual series with its 16 images will be exhibited along highways and in downtown Vitrolles starting spring 2013 as part of the European cultural capital project “Marseille Provence 2013”. Thiemann will also show her pictures on this blog.
About Kristine Thiemann
Kristine Thiemann lives and works in Hamburg, Paris and Milan. In addition to her art projects, she also photographs for fashion and advertising. Her clients include magazines such as Vogue Bambini, Luna and Japanese Vogue as well as the labels L’Oreal, Bikkemberg and Givenchy. Her portfolio includes such well-known faces as model Kristen McMenamy, actor George Clooney and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, as well as children playing in Armani jeans and babies sleeping in Fendi sleeping bags.