J. Konrad Schmidt and “The Polaroid Project 55”
J. Konrad Schmidt1, a German photographer original from Thuringia, born in 1984, which, by chance, is also the title of the book written by George Orwell in 1949. After completing his studies, he moved to Hamburg where he could finally follow his three great passions: photography, music, and fashion. In 2009, he completed his photographic education and began to work as a freelance photographer for various fashion magazines and important brands.
He is a member of the AOP, Association of Photographers in London and Professional Member of the BFF - Berufsverband Freie Fotografen und Filmgestalter - the German Association of the best freelance photographers. In October 2015, he won the AOP Photography Award for a photo of his work “Suitess – Goddess” as a non-commissioned Fashion & Beauty Single in London, and he is selected among the 200 Best Ad Photographers worldwide 2016/17 by “Lürzer’s Archive”.
About a year ago, I had the chance to meet Konrad and see some of his photographs. On that occasion, I was really struck by one in particular, which was part of the series “The Elevator Pitch. 45 Seconds of Sin”. That single shot enclosed a story, fleeting and intense like the sighs of lovers, and at the same time melancholic and sensual. This sense of storytelling is present in almost all of his works, but what strikes more is that when you observe one of his images you remain entrapped in it; you don’t know exactly why, but you keep on looking at it and plunge into it. Then I got it… it is small details that the human eye cannot catch but that, instinctively, it perceives…
Recently, I got back in touch with Konrad because I knew that he was working on a project on Polaroid, which I wanted to know and study, called “Project 55”. An extremely demanding and unique project that comprises 55 unique portraits developed on a rare classic silver gelatin paper manufactured by the producer for this work only.
Floz Visions: I can only start with a sufficiently trivial question that will allow us to know better the “Project 55” by Konrad Schmidt.
How did you get the idea for this ambitious work? And did you specifically choose the portrait format?
J.Konrad Schmidt: At the start, it was an experiment on how the old film works and what it will look like. I took the first polaroid in my studio with a girl named “Asha” and after this first day (and a couple of mistakes), I felt like I wanted to proceed on this path. Not much later, we booked six models on the same day at a studio and took 6 shots that day. Everything you have seen from the project so far happened a long time later.
At that point, I just liked the fact that all the portraits were so different and in the same way so strangely similar. Same Camera, same angle, same size, same theme. That brought me to the idea to show the differences in the similarities. At that time, I had no idea about the printing stuff. So, I started collecting beautiful faces with the Polaroid film.
The first printing experiments were done in February 2013 to prepare one print example for the big BFF exhibition in Hamburg in May 2013. At the end, I believe the printing process turns a photo into an art piece. So it should have been something special. This first print was sold not much later at a charity auction by CHRISTIE’s in Hamburg for the highest price of the auction and for the same price as a photo of Sir Ben Kingsley shot by Bryan Adams. That was the point of no return for the project. Since that day, the prints are still very rare but in the same way very much requested.
Thinking back in life, I always took the path with the strongest resistance. In many personal things, but also in the project with the film, the print size, the costs, the camera and so on. When we startet printing, I decided to size the print 100cm x 130cm, which made it even harder because we needed the bigger and incredibly rare paper rolls of 142cm width. But working on this size with the technical background of Lillian Bassman in 2013, and framing that massive fiber-based print later, was thrilling and very unique. My colleagues in the BFF exhibition just asked: “Konrad, is that fiber-based paper?” and I said “Yes?!”. The aswer was: “Freak!” and I like that! I don’t want to tell HOW I do it because the magic moment is when you see the print, and you saw the print. So…
Floz Visions: You selected 55 women; each of them has worked with you since 2011, and among them we find the model Eva Padberg, Marie Nasemann and the pianist Olga Scheps. Why did you choose only famous or popular women?
J.Konrad Schmidt: I started with non famous models that I liked a lot. Then it changed a bit and I was able to mix some women in, who are well known by the public. But you can’t do it from the start, because, as you know, you have to see the prints to get a feeling of what I want to achieve. Now, after having “some” names on the list, I start looking for women who are either even more famous or more of a special kind of beauty, to get a good mix at the end. It’s not easy and it’s getting more and more difficult at the end, because this mix must work as a book and as an exhibition with one portrait side by side to the other. But the process is very exciting since a long-term project always looks way different than a short-term one, I think. And, sometimes, popular people have a different sense for special things. When you have been modelling for nearly 20 years, then it’s easier to see what I’m doing in this project I think. But I also love to shoot women who have no idea of what I’m doing there. It’s a project about stunning faces and not about stunning names of techniques.
Floz Visions: I won’t ask you why you photograph only women… I know the answer. You’re known for creating a very pleasant atmosphere on set, you’re able to create a sort of personal connection with your models that somebody has defined “Humanistic Eyes”. Could you better explain us what it means?
J.Konrad Schmidt: Hmm… To be honest. I don’t really know how I create this environment and I think I don’t want to know because maybe then the magic is gone. The great opportunity at this point in my career is that only a few people say “No”. The work I did in the past gave my requests a kind of aura that makes people trust my eye and my work, and especially my ideas. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what I want to achieve before, but at the end, people just trust me and let go. Being known for my “humanistic eye” is a breath-taking compliment by Steve Caddy, but at the same time the best moment is when, at the Louvre exhibition, women stand before the prints and their faces are haunted by a gentle smile. That’s the best compliment you can get, because women are the toughest audience for a photo showing a goodlooking girl.
Floz Visions: For these shots, you have selected a Polaroid film that’s been out of production for 10 years, a camera that certainly wasn’t designed for portraits, a special rare classic gelatin silver paper, and a 100x130 cm format for the photos. I guess that the reason for this is not only related to the fact of creating something unique and unrepeatable, but there’s much more at stake.
J.Konrad Schmidt: I truly believe that, at the end, a really great project, and especially an astonishing photo, is always more than the sum of its parts. In this case, I combined many things that, on paper, should be a combination of trouble. But, at the end, thinking of the picture in the big frames you just stand there without words, and that’s what I love so much about this work. It’s like great cooking, I guess. There’s more to it…
Floz Visions: Even your choice of print is very particular. I know that for this kind of technique you took your inspiration from Lillian Bassman, the famous fashion photographer who used it in the early ‘50s, a technique disregarded by anybody else. Could you explain us some step? What does this technique give you compared to others?
J.Konrad Schmidt: The problem with fully analog printing is that the time you can “interpret” the print by dodging out certain areas is very short in comparison with what you may want to do within the exposure time. So, I use this old technique to “paint” the lighter areas into the slightly darker print afterwards. It takes so much longer than the exposure process, so there is plenty of time to finish the print the way I want it to be. Just the “painting” alone took me a hole day, the first time I did it. And the handling of these massive wet sheets of paper is far from being easy, but, as I said: The final result is breath-taking and that’s what I do it for.
Floz Visions: In your work, you give a great importance to light. How do you proceed when you set up a photographic set? What kind of lights did you use in this particular work?
J.Konrad Schmidt: At first, there is a big difference between studio and location. On Location, I mostly prefer the light the location is giving me. You can take perfect photos using no artificial light at all. Some photographers think it looks much more professional and important to have 20 lights on set. That’s true, but that won’t save you from being a bad photographer that day. So, in the studio, and especially with this film, I need a flash light. The very low ISO of the film and the filters I use need quite a massive amount of light. The idea of the project is that every shooting needs to be different. Different model, different styling and light and so on. So, every set is different. The light needs to be great for the skin, but in the same way, great for a contrasting negative. So, it’s not an easy path again.
Floz Visions: At present, you have shot the first 26 images, 4 of which have been printed, “painted” and framed. Two of them were displayed at the Louvre in Paris in 2014.
How does it feel having a work on display in one of the most important museums of the world?
J.Konrad Schmidt: That is a really good question because you also could have asked me: Do you recognize a feeling of success or is it a feeling of “being on the run” with a lack of reflection? Showing my work in this museum last year, being just 30 years of age, was breath-taking and surreal in the same way. A friend from the business in Hamburg asked me quite some time ago why I didn’t become an asshole, yet. And I think really deeply, recognizing the fact, that showing my work at the Musée du Louvre would mean to be a bit too proud about it.
I was always grateful for the possibilities in my personal and professional life. I will stay on that path. Taking things for guaranteed is dangerous. So, let’s hope Louvre 2015 will be a success and I can keep on doing things my way.
Floz Visions: Besides being an ambitious and important work, what does “Project 55” mean to you?
J.Konrad Schmidt: The project is a test on how good I manage to keep something from people I can’t keep with a technique I can’t keep. Complicated sentence, but give me a second:
It’s about succeeding over serendipity. I can never be sure that the film will work when I arrange a shoot with an A-List actor or a model. So, I give it the chance to be a great photo and I hope to get it done. It means a lot to me, when I hold the contact sheets in my hands and there is this one photo of the few I was able to do that is so good even on the small size. It’s stunning to be able to catch this moment and this look in her eyes. I just love doing this. And I always have to fight against everything that could go wrong. It’s a project about “overcoming”. Overcoming technical problems and a bit a project about overcoming myself.
Floz Visions: Thank you for letting us enter into this fantastic project. Now, we just have to wait for the exhibition, the documentary, and the book.
© Floz Visions 2015