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Q: What do you see as your greatest success from your eight years of personal work?
Dietmar Busse: The most important thing that came out of that time was that I found my own language as a photographer. There was so much I had to learn about who I am as an artist and as a human being. For example, I don’t like to be in a crowded place with a lot of people I don’t know — and I like it even less if I have to take pictures there. It makes me completely nervous and I just want to leave. On the other hand, I really enjoy being with just one person in the room and taking their picture. I learned how to create the right atmosphere for my shoots, and consequently my work has become much more focused.
MJ: What has your experience been now that you are moving back into fashion and commercial photography?
DB: In many ways it’s much easier now. Getting some distance has helped a lot. I think I am much humbler now, and I appreciate every opportunity to do my work.
The most difficult thing has been to get access to the “right” people. So much of this business is social networking, and it’s a real challenge to rebuild a support system. But once I sit down with an art director or editor, I feel really comfortable. I think my work has a definite point of view, and people either like it or they don’t — it’s pretty straightforward. I am almost a bit embarrassed to say it, but I absolutely love showing my work now, and I am sure clients notice that.
MJ: Do you have advice for young photographers who are in a similar situation to you when you started out?
DB: I think it is very important to know what you want. Be honest with yourself. Why do you want to be a photographer? Why do you take pictures? Are you interested in the money, the models, self-expression?
At least for me it took quite some time to figure this out in my head, and later to build a body of work that corresponded to that. But I believe it was totally worth it. As we know, so much of our culture is about being richer, more beautiful, more famous, and all of that. People are divided into winners and losers. It’s important not buy into that. I think building a strong sense of self helps you to be immune to that and will hopefully lead you to create something unique and photographs that are meaningful to you.
Q: What was it like working entirely on your own?
A: It was both very exciting and very scary. Exciting because I felt free to create and explore whatever I wanted. There was no one in the room other than me. No one with any expectations or agenda. I played around with flowers and painted all night long, and it was really very exhilarating at times. Many nights I didn’t even want to go to sleep and just worked and worked.
At the same time it was very frightening. No client, no editor, no agent for feedback or guidance. And then, though I lived in a small, cheap place in Brooklyn, I still had to pay the rent. This was not the ’60s and my savings were running out fast, since I was spending lots of money on flowers and photo supplies. But somehow I always managed to get by and I saw my work evolving.
Even though I was working on my own, I did stay in touch with a few people in the commercial world who liked my work. One art director had my flower photographs all over his office, and one day this lady who was a book publisher saw them and within a matter of days I was working on my first book.
Q: What was the book publishing process like for you?
A: It was exhilarating to think that the work I was doing would end up in a book. The difficulty was that when I was approached by the publisher, they wanted all the material immediately in order to make the deadline for the spring market. One moment I was just minding my business figuring out what images I wanted to make, and the next I was on a rushing to deliver my first book. That was quite stressful, especially since I tried to make more new photos while the creative director was already working on the layout.
Everything was being rushed and finally sent off to the printer for the first proof — then suddenly everything was put on ice. Why? Because it was early 2003 and it was evident that George Bush was going to start a war. Consequently the companies involved with the book project were suddenly not sure if it was the right time. This went on for awhile and then, again suddenly, the publisher decided to just go ahead, which was great. Unfortunately there was absolutely no time for any corrections and the raw layout became the book.
It was not the ideal scenario, and I was quite unhappy about that. It took me some time to be able to appreciate all the good things that came from the book. I think the experience will serve me very well for my second book, which is in the making. After the first book was published, I also got some nice write ups, and, through that exposure, I was contacted by a gallery, and offered a group show, which later turned into a 2-person show.
When I started getting hired as a photographer, I really was not very well prepared. I was far from clear about what I wanted. I had not created a vision nor had I developed a clear photographic language. In some instances, everything would fall into place: the right subject, the right stylist, the right creative direction. There were moments of real magic.
Often, however, it was much less perfect. When I did not like what I saw in front of me, I did not know what to do with it, and often other people would take charge because I was not able to. For example, the stylist would impose his or her ideas on me, or the hairdresser, or even the model. Needless to say, I was not very happy with that, and it often showed in the results. All this was a lot of stress and I wasn’t getting rich, so there came a point after a few years when I got really fed up. One day I was trying to make a beautiful photograph of flowers for my mom and send it to her on her birthday. I bought a bouquet of flowers, put it in a vase on a table in my studio, and began photographing it. Because it was for my mom, it had to be super special and gorgeous. Nothing I could come up with met my standards at the time, and I got so frustrated that I just took the entire bouquet and ripped it apart.
What a drama! However, as I sat there ready to put the whole thing into the trash, I started playing with the bits and pieces. On the floor I reassembled the petals and stems and just sort of played around. Then I took the camera and photographed my creations. This looked new and fresh to me, and it reminded me of the drawings I used to make for my mom when I was little.
Out of this incident grew an entire body of work. I would lock myself in my studio at the end of the day and make up flowers that don’t exist. I recreated scenes from my childhood and glued hundreds of flower petals and leaves on my body, then photographed myself. I loved just creating things without anybody around — nobody making any demands or having expectations.
At that time, when my agent sent me to meetings with clients, I showed my commercial portfolio and I either got the job or not. But at the end of the meeting I would show my little flower creations and often people would ask me if I would sell them, so I did. Encouraged by this, and somewhat frustrated by my fashion and commercial work, I decided to take a break. I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and glued flower petals on myself and on all the walls of my railroad apartment. I think I learned a lot about myself during that time. I had to.
After high school, I was just traveling. I was going to go to university, but I was really too busy hanging out in Spain, Morocco, Turkey. I registered at Berlin University to become a lawyer. That was the only thing where you didn’t have to have a certain kind of average; they would let anyone become a lawyer at that time. And since my grades were very mediocre, they were just good enough to become a lawyer without being on a waiting list. The day I was supposed to start school, I got a little job offer taking care of a farm in Spain for German people. I went there, realized the job was not for me, and on my way back to Germany, I got stuck in Madrid. I was only 20 years old, and started going out and partying while university had started in Berlin. I was having a nice time being a club kid, and started to meet people there on the scene. Everyone was a model or designer or photographer. And this kind of sparked my imagination. Meeting people who were involved in that kind of business made it seem more possible for me to be part of the business, and I started to think I could become a photographer, too. I went with a model friend of mine to a photography studio to check things out and I just kept going back. The first assistant was a German guy, so I somehow got connected with him and the studio. And that’s how I started. I really didn’t know anything about photography; I never went to photography school or anything like that.
While I was going to that studio, I picked up books on photography and just taught myself. I went to the studio every day until I became an assistant, second assistant, and eventually first assistant. I worked at that studio for almost two years, from 1987 to 1989. After that, I freelanced. Well, I was also working as a bartender, night jobs. Just sort of getting by. The freelancing wasn’t going very well in Spain. There was not enough of a market. I planned to move to Italy, since I wanted to stay in photography and I wanted to stay on the Mediterranean. Me being German, I liked the idea of living where all the rest of the Germans had to go on vacation. I was getting ready to go to Italy, and then somehow, through fate, I met someone who had moved to New York City, and he gave me his business card. A month before I planned to go from Madrid to Milan, I talked to a friend, and he said, “You’re crazy, you shouldn’t go to Milan, you belong in New York.” And when he said that, I knew I was doing that.
So I came to New York in 1991. I knew one person, the guy who had given me his card. I called him to see if I could stay at his apartment. He said yes so I just packed my stuff in two bags and bought a ticket to New York. I’d never been there before. I rather quickly found a job at Industria Super Studio, a big studio down on Washington Street in Greenwich Village that had just opened. I was very naive, and very nice, and Germans have a good reputation for work ethic. So I got the job I think just by my nationality. I worked there for few years on a freelance basis as a photo assistant. One of the perks of being so closely associated with Industria was that you could use their equipment and studio. They were very friendly and supportive. The payback was not so much in the kind of money they would give you, it was very much in the access one had to the other photographers, assistants, and their equipment. So I ended up working with different people. It was very open. It was a good place to become part of a network.
I worked like this until 1995 when I started getting my first gigs as a photographer. When I look back on it now, my transition from being an assistant to becoming a working photographer went really quickly. Within a very short period of time I was working for magazines, like the New York Times Magazine, Visionaire, Interview, and Paper Magazine. It was great. This is how I became a photographer.