Interview

with Oliver Mark

Oliver Mark

Oliver Mark
Photographer

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Oliver Mark

Oliver Mark
Portraits

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ISBN 978-3-7757-2484-5
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Red Box Interview with Photographer Oliver Mark

Mark is known for his portraits of artists and celebrities, as well as for fashion spreads and architectural photographs, among other things.

Mr. Mark, how do you prepare for a shoot? For example, do you do extensive research beforehand about the celebrities you photograph?

Absolutely. First, I search the Internet for information about them, about what they do. Some clients send me an exposé, with pictures and a brief resumé. Then I try to create a context. That's not always successful, unfortunately, but at least I have a good idea of the person in front of my camera.

Do you mean that you try to find a context that fits both the person in the portrait and the place where you do the shoot?

I'll give you an example. Last year, I photographed Thomas Harlan for Vanity Fair. He's the son of Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süss. At the time, Thomas Harlan was a patient in a chest clinic, since he had only eighteen percent lung capacity. I asked him how much I could expect of him. He replied, "You can expect everything of me." So he and I went to Obersalzberg, because his father had made this Nazi film, and the son had confronted the father's past. Later, he sent me an e-mail, in which he thanked me for the wonderful portraits.

When you photograph well-known personalities or artists, are there sometimes conflicts, because you have two artists in a situation where one might try to interfere with the other's work?

That very rarely happens. As a rule, we see eye-to-eye, and people trust me. But I would never allow anyone to look bad. A couple of years ago, however, I did meet some people for whom I had too much respect. Harry Belafonte, for instance - I was so impressed by him that the photo didn't turn out as well as I would've liked it to.

Could you tell us why it didn't turn out so well?

I was so impressed by him - by what he has done, by his personality and aura - that I couldn't think clearly. The result was boring: it was just a picture of Harry Belafonte.

During your shoots, do you ever have to encourage the subject a little - for instance, to do something in particular, or to put aside their vanity? Key word: retouching.

Sometimes, afterward, people ask if this or that can be retouched, and I'll be glad to remove a little pimple. It depends on the assignment. The advertising world barely functions without retouching, whereas in journalism, the boundaries are very fluid. But I don't care for pictures that have been heavily retouched. I think it's good when you can see the lives people have led in their portraits.

In which branch do you prefer to work, then - journalism or advertising?

It's like food: if I only ate hot dogs and French fries, it would eventually get boring. That's the way it is with photography, too. My roots are in fashion photography, and I'm getting back to them again, doing more productions in that area. Last week I photographed the painter Jonathan Meese for a book. Next week I'll start working on a big portrait story for Stern magazine, and then, after that, on a fashion spread for Elle . It's just as much fun to work on an ad for, say, an insurance company or a bank.

Could you briefly identify what distinguishes the three areas of portrait, advertising, and journalism?

Due to the bigger budgets, you can work more professionally in advertising. One example: I recently shot a fashion spread in several locations, with a variety of rehearsals. One of the photographs was supposed to feature a purebred Great Dane, while another was going to be shot on a roof in Berlin, with a view of the city. The costs for the dog and the roof were about the same. We used the make-up artist's roof and cross-breed. The crews on a magazine production are often smaller; so because there are fewer people on the set, the pictures have a different sense of intimacy.

What do you expect from a portrait, or what is important to you?

The external effect, of course. And having someone else deal with the tiresome paperwork. Whenever possible, I just want to do the photography.

At your level of renown, how many clients do you still have to work to acquire?

Well, the higher you go on the career ladder, the harder it is to stay there. So it's very important that you present yourself properly. I always aim for a mixture of assignments, so that means big campaigns, as well as spreads for independent magazines. That way, you're present everywhere on the market.

You began with a classic apprenticeship in photography, and then you were an assistant for two years. Would you say that that kind of education still makes sense today?

I think an apprenticeship gives you a good foundation, but you can only work for a few years as an assistant. The only way to find out if someone's good is when things occasionally don't go well. Then it can be helpful to be able to rely on experience or education or assistance. I often hear, "that can be done with Photoshop." It can be, I say, but you can also frequently do the same thing with light. Back to education: I think you have to start out being clear about whether you want to go into applied or fine arts photography. Then it's easy to decide if you need to get an apprenticeship or study at an art school.

To finish up: What sort of changes in the market have you noticed over the years?

The quality is clearly much better, in every branch. When I started as an assistant, there were only a handful of well-known fashion photographers. Today, there are lots of photographers who specialize. Naturally, that makes everyone's slice of the pie smaller.

September 30, 2009

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