My first introduction to Severin Koller's work was a great Photography Film 'Street Photography: Documenting the Human Condition' by fellow Photographer Chris Weeks. The documentary featured several Street Photographers such as Frank Jackson, Mario Anzuoni and Severin. It really is a great documentary and I really suggest having a look if you have not already. Suffice to say I started following Severin about this time and was excited to pin him down for an interview about life photography and his newly self-published Photomag VIENNA features 88 scanned fiber prints on 128 pages.
There have been a couple of "first times" in my career as a photographer. The first photos I took when I was about 13, but these are not really relevant to what I am doing today. I grew up with a father who took black and white photos of me, family and friends. So I was used to see these kind of images quite often.
I started film photography in 2005, because it was fun to just walk around and take photos in an “old-school way”. I liked the process of developing and printing in the darkroom with my friends. I also wanted to find a way to document my life, so that I don't forget everything. That's when I started to document my life on a daily basis. Today I have more than 60.000 negatives in my archive and it is constantly growing.
How has your photography changed in the last few years?
I had reached a stagnation about 2-3 years ago, where I looked at my work and felt quite unsatisfied. I thought that all I'm doing is trying to do everything "right", as a photographer. Although I liked the quality of my work, I felt it lacked some freedom, imperfection, some dirt.
I remember one day, in the darkroom when I dropped a negative. I wanted to print some weird contact prints for a band called “zhlub”. Instead of freaking out that I had scratched my negative, I did the opposite and started to scratch all the negatives from that shoot on purpose. Since then I don't fear "imperfections" anymore – although I still keep most my negatives clean and well developed usually. If it fits the concept or look, I like to manipulate my negatives to make it look unlike a normal photograph. It feels like taking my work to another level but not by just fooling around in photoshop, I'm doing most still in the darkroom. I have learned to accept that art is always mix of control and letting go, a fusion of your skill and the randomness of beautiful and ugly that is there already.
How do you take your pictures?
I shoot street with a Hexar AF, Konica Pop or a Leica M6 with (currently) 21/4 Voigtlander. I shoot portraits with a Rolleiflex 2.8f. I shoot stills, or however you want to call it with the Fuji 690GSWII or Rolleiflex. For B&W I use Tri-X, Acros or APX100 and for colour 99% are Portras. I shoot jobs with all of it, depending on the task. I use to call my canon 5DmkII, my oberpriced light meter.. but still use it mostly for videos. I develop with XTOL and I print on fiber papers only. I often tone my prints..
What and who inspires you?
Inspiration could be just by visiting a new country or place, or any form of art usually. I don't find inspiration in the field of classic photography only. I like to look at these iconic photographs, to see where the bar was set in their time. My last kicking in inspiration I had in New York, looking at a book of Marina Abramovic. It hit me like a hammer, without warning.
Dropping names here feels awkward but some of these artists really inspired me in all sorts of ways I can't always explain: Kenneth Josephson, Kazimir Malevich, Masbedo, Vivian Maier, Michael Haneke, Wes Anderson, Sebastiao Salgado, Herb Ritts, David Bowie, Käthe Kollwitz, Robert Ballen, Grace Jones and many many more.
What are you currently working on?
Working on surviving as an artist.
What do you like the most about this work or process?
I like most about photography to be able to create something with my hands, light and chemicals. In a world that is dominated by digital devices, it feels great to work with mechanical cameras and the darkroom.
Documenting small things of daily life is also something that feels good, especially when you managed to put everything in a frame that tells a story and follows certain rules of aesthetics. I also like to experiment and create something that I don't have full control about. This is still a new approach, of which I haven't published a lot so far.
As a professional photographer, what are your thoughts on the industry where you live?
Vienna is a quite small city, when it comes to jobs for photographers. It is becoming more and more difficult to find clients that support my workflow and style. Most magazines or agencies want to select out of hundreds of photographs, crop, sequence and manipulate your work. The way I shoot, I focus on what is needed and if I feel that the shot was good, I don't take 5 more “alibi” versions. I often get that question if I have other versions of a particular photo and I often don't have one. I think the question should be, do you like the photo and can you accept that it is unique and isn't that the real beauty of it?
I want a photograph to be finished out of the camera with slight contrast and color fine tuning afterwards. I prefer my style to dominate my work and not the clients cooperate identity.
What, if anything, is coming next for you?
I will start working on a new website. After VIENNA mag, there could be a next one about New York, at least it is on my mind. In 2016 I plan to have an exhibition about my more experimental color work, mostly portraits.
What is a piece of advice you would give to aspiring photographers in your field?
In the business so many people talk bullshit. Especially when you are young, there are many that just want to use your nativity and talent. In the end you will probably not get around it, because you need these jobs to get to better ones (except you're born into a scene). Try to surround yourself with like minded people, so you don't feel all alone with your ideas. The best support you can get is from these people. Try not to do everything on your own all the time, accept help and assistance. Teamwork is important, so you don't burn out at some point. Save money for traveling, not a big TV-screen.. your life is the sum of your experiences.
I first heard of you while watching Chris Weeks' documentary "The Human Condition".
How did appearing in this documentary affect you as a photographer?
It definitely got me more popularity in the street photography scene. I think that Jesus shot was mainly responsible for that. First I didn't know about the project, but when I visited Chris in summer 2009, he just asked me to join and we had a great time creating some footage back then.
Was your book "Vienna" a planned project or was it simply the result of having a body of work that could be drawn from?
I wanted to make a book about New York and when I found a publisher to work with me, he decided that I should first start with photos from Vienna. In the end, I think it was a good idea to publish something that nobody has done like this about my hometown. The magazine shows a part of my work about Vienna and definitely not everything. I have more ideas and concepts for my body of work of street in general. I see this project as a first try and I'm really happy to have found so many supporters around the world that purchased it!
How long did you work on the book itself and did you involve any other people in the editing process?
It took about 1½ years from the first chat with my publisher to the print. Against the agency's suggestions, I decided to print all the negatives on fiber and scanned the prints, instead of using negative scans that were available from the start. This was a lot more work but it had to be done to fulfill my personal quality standards. The edit was a long process, where both parties, the agency and me had many discussions about. There were dozens of versions. In the end, I know that if I had total freedom, it would have been a completely different book but sometimes it is good to have other opinions on board, because there are situations where you're unable to decide on your own.
Is there a Berlin and a Paris book sitting in your body of work? Was it an obvious choice to use only Vienna photographs, leading to the book's name?
Beside Vienna, I think I only have enough good material of New York yet. Berlin, Kigali and Milan have been on my mind as well.. But that's all just dreams of the future at the moment.
How did you decide on the size and layout of the book?
That wasn't really my decision. I wanted to make a book and the agency thought a magazine would suit me as a young photographer and the theme street photography better. I could see where they are coming from and I like the product. As said before, I see it as a start and first publication of many more to come. The size had to be quite big, because it is about photos only - so we gave them enough space.
Why not scan the negatives themselves?
I have compared negative scans to print-scans since about 10 years. The prints always satisfied me more in terms of tones and grain. The darkroom print is the best form to present this work. From my perspective as an artist, It comes in handy to have originals to all the images in the magazine as well.
Have you ever been to Australia and/or are you planning to visit?
I have never been to Australia, but I will visit for sure!
One final question. If you only had one camera and one roll of film, what would they be?
Oh, I love these questions... My Rolleiflex 2.8f loaded with Tri-X. Mainly because I prefer having 12 frames that will look fantastic, no matter if it is a portrait, still life or a street shot to 36 frames that will never reach that look and feel of the old zeiss lens on 6x6.