When I first saw the photographs of Reinfried Marass I was instantly drawn to them. Reinfried’s images have a certain gravitas, presence and intensity. His images pull you into them and make you wonder and think and create a world within the photograph. In this interview, Reinfried describes his life and how he came to photography. It really is the story of a thinking man who loves to find out what is around the next corner – whether that entails a journey to Egypt and The Sudan as a young man or exploring the realms of gender and history. The body of work created by Reinfried is varied yet distinctive with a style that is classic yet passionate and beautiful. Like fine wine or wonderful poetry.
Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you begin as a photographer?
I was born in Vienna, Austria, back in 1960 and brought up in a nearby town, Neulengbach, which is most famous (or infamous) for jailing the painter Egon Schiele who lived there with his wife and muse, Wally. The primary school I attended was next to the courthouse and I remember very well a time when the class was brought over to the small ‘Schiele Cell’ – a cell that still exists and today it serves as a tiny Schiele museum. If you like you can call this my first contact with the arts. Although I’ve to confess that at the age of 7 years or so I had no idea what our teacher was talking about. I just noted in my brain: well, picture some nudes and you can become famous – it seems that easy. I guess many painters, sculptors, writers – also photographers – have this ‘no nudes no fame’ thinking in mind. Why else are there so many undressed females around in artworks?
Shortly afterwards I tried out painting. A watercolor. No, not a nude. Just London Jack’s wolf. By looking at the finished work I assured myself that only I’d be able to recognize the subject. Not good. No talent. Let’s skip painting. At the age of seven there is still some time to head for something else? Back then I wasn’t aware of abstract modernism, who knows. Maybe I could have made it?
The following teen years I spent at some sort of high school where engineers were made. On the side I always tried to find something fancier to waste my life. Actually I was always looking out for some activity that wasn’t labeled as a 9 to 5 job; something that wouldn’t really be seen as ‘work’ – just fun to bring you over the day. Where you do your thing when you feel inspired and during the breaks, when Mrs. Muse doesn’t kiss you, well, you are just drinking Whiskey like Hemingway. Once I also had the idea of becoming a poker gambler on a Mississippi steamboat. The Missouri also would have done it. Chasing innocent shanty boat girls on the Bayou and playing lil’ games with Cajun Queens. Probably I just have seen the wrong movies.
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Next, around the age of 14, I wanted to become a musician, a guitar hero, of course. You know – ‘money for nothing and chicks for free’. So I asked my mother to buy me a guitar and the rest will come. Can’t be THAT complicated. There are only 6 little strings on such a thing. But Mum didn’t want to ‘waste money for nothing’ and at first put me with a guitar teacher who finally attested that I had absolutely NO talent for music & rhythm. Again, the dream was gone with the wind. Poor me. Poor Reini Little.
Later, around the age of 17, I discovered writing. Well, I guess I could have had some talent for it. Probably I wouldn’t have been the greatest word-slinger but perhaps a good storyteller. At least some people still attest to that. But parents usually try to get you into some bread-and-butter job; something safer so that you can earn some serious money. So my writing wasn’t supported as an idea for a career.
Now, school finally was finished and I had to cover three months until the army would call me in. I found myself hitchhiking down to Egypt and The Sudan. It was just because I liked the idea of the hot climate and the African continent sounded very adventurous to me. I had no camera with me to document the thrilling trip. What a mess. So upon my return my interest in photography immediately started. For me it enables me to tell stories. Not in words, but with photos. Visual storytelling. So, here we are.
For the first few years photography just was a hobby and I was mainly focused on my career as an engineer. In the end my early amateurish work didn’t survive; years later all my dia-positives were flamed by my ex-wife.
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You are also a lover of words. How does your written work influence your photography? Or does it at all?
I am a photographer first; not that much a writer. So written words have never influenced my photographic work. It is quite the contrary; the other way around. The photo is done first; words are added later. But I strongly believe that both work very well together.
The interpretation of a photograph is mainly up to the person who invests time to watch it and therefore enables a story to develop in the mind. I also think that the interpretation depends on a viewer’s age, cultural heritage, education, and finally, sex. In general I don’t care how one reads and interprets the story in a particular photograph as long as the work helps to spark some interaction or reaction.
Sometimes I love to make it more complicated and I love to encode a work. Love to tease. Love to challenge the viewer. But to be able to decipher a particular work one needs to have some background information to go along with it and without the written word attending it – to guide the viewer in the right direction – it would be impossible, even for the most knowledgeable person, to catch the meaning or the metaphor included. Sometimes my mind can be very weird. In general I use a title and a subtitle along with a longer narration. All three together make up my personal caption for a photographic work.
I guess it is important to add a caption to any image. Whenever an image is viewed some questions might come up that should be answered therein. Nothing is more loveless than a loosely arranged flow of images where not even some basic facts are mentioned. If the image taker doesn’t honor the work, why should others do it?
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You are very selective in your work with several well-defined themes. What can you tell us about your photography?
Well recognized. I love to cover several themes and genres, to show various styles. To have NO particular and recognizable, always repeating style, is very important for me. This approach is contrary to the usual belief that any creative person must develop his/her own style to become recognizable. Good. Maybe. But too simple. Very boring – for myself, as well as for the viewers. Having a recognizable style, by repeating and covering the same theme over and over again, mainly showing just a slight variation, ends in one deadly result: you have seen one work – you also have seen the others!
Many creatives of any genre stick to this golden one-style rule. Often it’s not the artist’s fault; they have contracts and there are other parties involved that are mainly interested in milking money out of the artist as long as the ‘recognizable style’ works rather than to have him or her to advance and evolve. That’s why I think that any creative person should think twice before signing (especially long-term) contracts. In the short-term it might help them, but, in my humble opinion, over the long run, it will hurt or kill them.
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In your photographs you capture many sides of women: the classy woman with confidence, the young woman full of dreams, the beaten down woman of domestic violence, and many other facets including adventurous and fun women. Yet the images remain timeless. Can you explain your thoughts on your photographs of women.
Women Inc. are the greatest storytellers around at all. They are born that way. As we all know, women have countless faces and facets. They are very narrative. So why not use them and let them tell the (or their own) stories in storytelling photography? For me one of the greatest unanswered questions in life is: “What do women want?” Maybe I just try to let them be themselves and find an answer in my photographs by featuring them? Qien sabe? Of course, I will not succeed ’cause none would be able to nail an appropriate answer for this questionnaire. But, hey, at least I try. Due to their beauty, God’s most fancy creatures also are very decorative and therefore are always good make-up for all and everything; photography and the arts included. The very best one’s became muses.
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Why do you love cars?
Well, because I am a man and men love cars. Additionally my technical career put me on that track and I also became specialized in repairing classic cars; mainly the American ‘Heavy Metal’ cars. Having a background in cars enables you to see them in a different photographic light. You, the photographer, are now familiar with the saga of the company, the make, the brand, the model, and most important, the era it comes from and stands for. And so on. For sure this inspires, and also influences, the way you freeze-frame the rolling toys. But meanwhile I’ve taken plenty of car photographs off my portfolio because many people had the (wrong) impression that I’m an automotive photographer (only).
Women and cars – both dictate a man’s life and especially from a male’s point of view they go together very well. It’s quite logical to assemble them in photographs. But I always try to avoid to picture them as ‘car girls’ – you know, the usual ‘nude on the hood’ or ‘backseat saint’ or more or less dressed silicon androids crawling around the car on their fours by licking shiny chrome wheels. I prefer the ‘ladies by cars’ genre where women add a touch of style and beauty or drive the viewer back in time.
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Can you tell us about your contributions to stop human trafficking?
I guess you refer to the ‘4 Children For Sale’ photograph – a remake of a very well known image. An iconic press photo done in Chicago back in 1948. I once stumbled upon the original photo and was impressed by the power of the image. But I had no knowledge of the tragic story behind it. I just fell in love with the idea that I could redo it with a family that I had befriended who have a similar staircase in front of their wooden house and the matching number of children. I mainly saw it as a way to do a funny family portrait. I wanted to stick as much as possible to the original but added the little dog as a personal note and as a clear sign that it is a remake.
Only afterwards, a few days later, I investigated the background story and learned more about the really tragic circumstances of that time and photograph. Although it was not that easy to unfold the real story because it is covered in many confusing articles. At the end I spent days researching the story behind the image and I also did my own comprehensive post on it. I have since taken it down because there was not that much interest in the story. Perhaps too much to read.
So, this was how the photograph came to be. Seriously though, at the beginning I didn’t see it as a contribution to stop human trafficking. But it may serve as a good example to prove my ‘photo first – text later’ statement above. But the theme was more purposefully handled and outlined in some other photographic work.
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Children are one of the constants in your images. Can you tell us about your projects with children?
Well, there are some subjects people never get tired of looking at over and over again: women (dressed, undressed, and anything in between), animals (especially cute kittens), landscapes, etc., AND children, of course! To some extent I use children to over-express visual stories. To overdo it willfully to have a better understanding of what I’d like to state. Combine little children with adult themes and the story to tell might unfold in a more understandable way.
I have only had one particular ‘project’ with children when I was once asked to add two prints for a charity auction where the revenues were forwarded to children suffering from cancer. To add already existing work sounded too simple to me and so I took the challenge to create something with a children’s theme in it. Back then I used a friend’s son to model for the scene. He had fun and he was tougher than and more professional than any female model I had used so far. He could freeze the pose for three hours even in a blizzard and he doesn’t torture a smart phone all the time during the shoot.
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Vision of course is the most important thing, and our readers might like to know about your way of finding your images.
For me there exists two different ways to do photographs. Visualization, where something develops in your head and you go out to assemble all the necessary bits and pieces and nuts and bolts and then you CREATE it. These photographs are staged of course, and usually there is more effort put into it, but hence the photograph reflects 100 percent the photographer’s ‘vision’ – if you wanna call it that.
The other way is just to be on alert and to let the image catch you. You don’t create, you photograph what you see. Actually you should photograph what is there; not what you see. For example, in landscape photography you can’t create. You can’t move around the lakes and mountains and command the weather. You are there and the picture is there, and you take it (away). It just has found you. Street photography might serve as another good example to explain it.
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What inspires you?
Well, mostly I inspire myself. More seriously, I guess I am especially inspired by the great movie makers. Mainly art house movies, by all the great European directors. And some Russian directors. And by the Japanese master Kurosawa. Usually I prefer the classic silver screen but there are also some contemporary highlights; although only a few. Unfortunately I have to remember the classics in my mind ’cause they are no longer shown on public TV. OK, meanwhile I don’t even have a TV anymore.
Should I ever make a fortune from the lottery (unlikely, because I don’t rely on luck) I would reopen a vintage cinema to silver-screen all the classic movies to a small interested group of people. Just to discuss them afterwards on a patio while drinking a beer. Could be two beers also ’cause the night is dark, the night is long, the night belongs to art lovers. The cinema should be located in a southern European country where people honor the arts just for the passion and where art isn’t primarily seen as a commodity. So, France, Italy, Spain, Greek, etc. A Latin or South American country also would work.
For me movies and still photographs share the same neighborhood. Well, that’s not really a big science and one need not be Einstein to recognize this fact. First, still photography was invented. Later movies were born. Usually the better kills the good but the fact that still photography is still around after such a long period proves that, although they have something in common, they also must differ in a way. As a filmmaker you have 25 frames a second and several minutes, or hours, to tell a story. As a photographer you have one single frame only. A photographer can’t write a dialogue. No talking actors. You have to trust the image to tell the story. For me, as a visual storyteller, that’s it!
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What kind of equipment do you use in your photographic work?
I don’t want to make it too gear-heavy. Short and sweet: most men are gear heads, so are male photographers, so was I. Over the years I have used many cams and numerous lenses. I guess it is a necessary process one must walk through just to find out that all this gear doesn’t really assist one in taking (good) photographs. Quite the contrary, it distracts you. I still use DSLR equipment – which might be the most versatile camera type – but today I prefer to work with a simple rangefinder camera with a single 35mm lens only. As less buttons, as less lenses – as less equipment at all – as more one can focus on the most important thing: to box this damned little picture.
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How has your photography evolved over time?
You force me to analyze myself. Let’s see. First I had to overcome the dominating gear question. As already outlined just above men put too much focus on the equipment. Less is (very often) more. Another evolution was to switch from D/SLR to rangefinder. It’s mainly another – a different – way of ‘seeing’.
When I started in photography I did color photos only. I had no interest in black and white. Back then B&W seemed outdated to me. Why use it when color has so much more ‘information’ in it? Over time I put more and more focus on image composition. From point to line to plane, Fibonacci, etc. By reducing a photograph to B&W the eye can easier catch the composition – it is not distracted by color and therefore by too much information at the same time. Nowadays I stick with color only when the colors involved are the main subject in a photograph.
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At the beginning I also was not very selective. Of course I pictured all and everything that came along and that wasn’t quick enough to escape. Reini, the greedy sniper. But I assume everybody who has some interest in taking pictures starts that way. And I framed only what was there while later I also started to create the subjects willfully. I see this as a major, essential step. Combine both, and photography can be most rewarding.
I became more and more selective in what to picture and in what to publish. I label my work in marks ranging from 0 to 10, where ‘zero’ marks a useless shot – a ‘black cat in the night’, or a shot where you forgot to remove the lens cap (yes, this still can happen with a rangefinder camera), while ’10’ marks the opposite level. It stands for the once-in-a-lifetime shot. Something special – something nobody can force or stage – must happen in front of the lens and you must be able to capture it. But this also reflects a mark you never can, or never should, reach. Ever been able to take it, well, at the same second the camera can be thrown away. Gone is the challenge, anything captured later will just range below it. Like a Templer Knight, a photographer might be out for the Holy Grail in photography. But is it really crucial if it does exist at all? What to do once it’s nailed down? Isn’t just the search for it the really challenge?
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Nowadays I try to capture, and publish, work only that I would flag higher, or at least to be on par with my recent best work. It also serves as a pretty good way to discipline myself. Surely, now you don’t take as many photographs as before but the results are more rewarding. And why should I bore the world – and myself too – with bad or just mediocre work?
An upcoming future challenge might be to switch the format. I found out that Hasselblad & Co were right and that the square might be the more adequate format to transport images (compared to landscape and portrait format). But so far there are no usable square-cut solutions around for digital cameras.
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Are there any great stories you can tell us about your photography or life in general?
Well, let’s close the interview with an anecdote highlighting one of the greatest mistakes I probably did in photography. Back in 1981, at age 21, I went onto a trip into the Philippines. I started my researches in Manila’s nightlife, dialing in new settings into my camera for an adapted ‘zone system’ to match the chocolate skin of the domiciled female population. After one week I found myself heading to the northern mountain region of Luzon – that’s the main island, where Manila is on – for new challenges. I survived some adventurous bus travels (God bless the driver) and finally arrived at Bontoc – a small village buried deep into the Valley. With its dominating main-street and wooden storefronts with faded bills on them it reminded me on a classic Western town. I felt right at home.
There I was told about some headhunting tribes living in the surroundings. Sounded pretty thrilling to picture them. But this session wasn’t on my master plan so I was looking out to buy some extra film rolls and I was forwarded to a local photographer who did run a studio there. In the small, vintage store I had a small talk with the photographer who already was pretty high at age. Unfortunately he didn’t have the film brands I was familiar with on stock and the few packs resting on a shelf behind him were heavenly covered in dust. Well, I didn’t want to rely on outdated film when photo-hunting the headhunters and just was leaving the store again when I spotted a display rack featuring black and white only postcards. Seemed to be the photographer’s own work on sale.
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I was checking them out, spinning around the carousel, over and over again, reading the notes on the back of the cards – some captions were dating back to the early beginning of the past century. I was thrilled, amazing stuff, and I immediately recognized that this is the work of a master photographer. Not to mention the historical importance because most photographs did document the life of the headhunting tribes. Just incredible work although many of them featured pretty cruel scenes. A lot of beheaded people in them. Well, OK, hence the name of these tribes. Edgar Rice Burroughs novels came alive in my mind. A cruel version of Edward S. Curtis’ North American Indians, but for sure on par.
I’d have liked to buy some – best all of them – but I was just at the beginning of a long trip and I always travel lightly and I was convinced that the postcards will not survive. And I left.
Today I’d consider this as one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in ‘photography’. I should have stayed there, for hours or days, buying all his prints. Back than I earned a lot of money in my day job as an engineer and I probably could have helped him to get his work out to the world. It was just in front of me – but I was too stupid to grasp it.
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Well, as to my excuse I can only say that I was just 21 years old (translation: young & stupid) and that my mind was already focused on the work I could do with the tribes. And the night before I had spent with a bottle of Whiskey and a girl. You know, you buy a bottle of Whiskey and they give you a girl for free. The girl was nice, the Rye was not – a cheap blend that left me with a sour head for the next day. Maybe it was the other way around; can’t remember that well. Paroles, paroles … I know.
A few years ago I remembered my visit there and I did a lot of research on the Internet. I found out that some years later the photographer had an successful exhibition in Manila and from then on he – Eduardo Masferre – was known as the ‘Father of Philippine Photography’. Cool, he made it. But unfortunately he died shortly afterwards. As far as I know most of his work was acquired by ‘The Smithsonian’ where it seems to be buried in the archives; deeply down in the dark dungeons. Even on the Internet, where one usually can find every bullshit, I could only find a few of his photographs, just 5 or so, which – as I can assure you – in no way do they reflect his mastery nor the incredible historical images I was allowed to see there. What a shame. I am a bit disappointed. But it was my own fault. Back then it could have been some ‘Vivian Maier Story’ but with the photographer still alive …
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No, don’t ask me about the photos I did about the headhunters. There are none. God’s penalty just followed the very next day when – after an hours-long cross-country trip in a shady Jeepney clone and extensive walking – I was faced with crossed sticks. A sign that they had some sort of religious ceremonies going on there for a few days and no strangers were allowed to enter. Well, would you start to discuss with former headhunters – although now a bit civilized and pacified – but who just five years before had beheaded some construction workers in their camp because they wanted to build a dam and move them? I decided to fold and left Bontoc with not a little useful picture.
Even if I would have been able to capture some nice photos there, they would have been flamed by my ex-wife later (see above). Eduardo Masferre’s curse came upon me! And the cam’s mirror crack’d from side to side…
Note: This is a personal interview sharing my own view on photography. Of course one’s mileage may vary and not all statements should be seen as too serious.
More about Reinfried Marass: reinfriedmarass.com
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