Narrative Photography, and Lost Opportunities

Last night I attended Eugenio Recuenco’s gallery opening at the respected and influential Galerie Camera Work in Berlin. The show is hanging at the CWC Galerie, their space at the Alte Mädchenschule on August Strasse. It’s a marvelous space, and an appropriate venue for Recuenco’s work. Camera Work represents some of the best-known photographic artists in the world, but also fosters a growing roster of emerging artists. I am one of these emerging artists, as is Eugenio. He is a well-known and much-loved commercial photographer, and has created some of the most memorable campaigns. Often compared to Tim Walker, I find his editorials to be less whimsical, but with a nice nod to a certain darkness, not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen or even his City of Lost Children. Even though Eugenio Recuenco is a well-known photographer, he is only now emerging into the world of fine art photography.

Eugenio and I work in the same style. We come up with an idea, and then we stage and construct it. Sets get built, clothing is created, and make-up is matched to the story. None of the images are serendipitous shots that are stumbled upon, we create carefully composed pictures. This particular show was a sort of retrospective, a compilation of greatest hits. Although I usually prefer to see photographic art in a cohesive series, it made sense in this case; Recuenco has an incredibly large body of work to draw from.

I’m not going to pretend. When I am looking at the work of a fellow photo artist in the same genre, I cannot help but look at every aspect of the work, and critique it. This isn’t a question of being snarky or jealous. As an artist I make creative choices, and I see where a fellow artist made the same choices, or different ones.

One deserved compliment must be made for Eugenio’s overall technical excellence, especially the detail to set design and props. His images are wonderfully staged, and the colors and lighting are perfect. You can see years of editorial and commercial photography as a base. It is a powerful tool-set being wielded by competent hands.

fairy tale pea

fairy tale snow white

The gallery invited some collectors and artists to dinner afterwards, and following a truly Bacchanalian amount of wine the conversation invariably turned to the work. I was asked by a small group of friends what I really thought, and I must admit I had some comments. One important creative choice that I would have definitely made differently is about the presentation of the work. A lot of people look at images on the web, or in magazines, so the question of appropriate presentation never arises. If you look at these two images from his fairytale series all you see are two beautiful photographs. But when you create art to hang on a wall, certain choices can make or break a piece. You need to consider the framing, the materials, and the size. Eugenio used different ways to show his work, much of which was printed photo paper behind glass. I don’t think that works, and it does the images a disservice. The glass is too reflective, and a lot of the darker images lose their impact because the glass becomes a mirror.

A small series inspired by the sinking Titanic was printed directly onto aluminum, and those pieces worked extremely well. There’s a brushed texture to the metal that makes it almost look like canvas. But these dark images reveal their metal surface in the highlights, and it is a pleasure to see the light reflect from the models’ faces or the white caps of the waves washing around the action.

Like a painter looking at another artist’s painting, I see the brush strokes. These are creative choices, there is no wrong or right to these decisions. I am intrigued by the slight softness around the faces of the subjects. A closer look at the prints shows they are razor-sharp in certain areas, but the faces aren’t. That’s a choice I quite admire. There’s a human instinct to seek eye-contact, and by softening the faces it sends the viewer back into the image to explore the rest of it. His prints are quite large, and there is a lot to explore.

There is one fundamental difference though. I have always sought to include a narrative element in my images. Even in my early work, my series called Hopper’s Americans, my goal was to create pictures that triggered a story in the viewer. My content criticism is that many of Recuenco’s images in this show are extremely beautiful, but the chance to re-envision the story was not taken. I love the classic fairy tales, but why not add a new twist? I like the Princess on the Pea and Cinderella, these are perfect pictures… but why not go one step further? Take the characters and add to the story. It seems like such a lost opportunity. Much of the work being exhibited in this retrospective of his work shows perfect execution, but only one image that I saw made a genuine attempt at re-imagining a situation. It is a visual quotation of Vermeer’s style.


It’s hard to tell how much of the work on display is pulled from fashion editorials and commercial campaigns. I mention it because it is unclear to me why the woman kneading the dough is wearing a couture dress and fine jewelry. Is it part of a fashion editorial, or is it an artistic choice he made for purely creative reasons? Vermeer was very specific in his depiction of the working people in his household. He was one of the first painters to show ordinary working people performing everyday activities, so seeing this well-dressed woman while a couple is having sex right behind her back leaves room for a lot of narrative interpretation. I like that. I did not have a chance to ask Eugenio why he staged the image like this. I saw the rest of the series on his website, and I love his version of the Death of Marat, though once again I don’t learn anything new about that story. It is purely a citation, not a jumping-off point.

I don’t want to criticize Eugenio Recuenco. He is a great photographer, a skilled craftsman, a colleague, and a genuinely creative person. I reflect on his work only because it makes me question my own choices. I look at this work in terms of what I might do different, and revisit my own creative decisions. His work is selling very well, which makes me happy for him, for this small genre of staged & constructed photography in which we both work, and it also makes me happy for Camera Work. People underestimate how much risk galleries take when championing an emerging artist – it would always be easier for them to show artists that already have committed collectors.

The reason I explore these differences is to point out how my work differs. My Sacred & Profane series is an on-going project. In it I explore my relationship with religion through the language of Baroque light. I try to look at it in a contemporary way, and I allow it to wander into uncomfortable territory.


Not all the images in this series are reinterpretations of classic depictions. There are plenty of image that work purely as aesthetic exercises, so I’m not about to fault Eugenio Recuenco’s work for being simply beautiful, or for people wanting to own it. I’ve got a few images that are primarily pretty rather than narrative. But you’ll got a chance to comment on my work April 2014, I look forward to hearing what you’ll think. I’m not showing much from the new series until then.

Untitled Session9520_web_sRGB smaller



Tokyo Photo Art Fair

After three years, my HANJO Project will finally debut. Galerie CAMERA WORK is presenting the final work at Tokyo Photo 2013 starting September 27th.

TOKYO PHOTO has become the most prestigious photographic art fair in Asia. The exhibitor list is small, but but includes some of the most important galleries in the world. Tate Modern curator Simon Baker will return to curate a special exhibition exploring the theme of road travel in mid-century American and Japanese photography, while photography curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have also been invited to mount a showcase of landmark works.

This year the fair moves to Zojo-ji Temple, a large Shinto shrine in the heart of Tokyo, not far from Ginza, pretty much right under Tokyo Tower. If you are in Tokyo please contact me if you want to learn more about Hanjo, Camera Work, or simply to chat about art, photography and life in the Floating World.

tokyophoto smaller

Interview – Yellowtrace

An interview with me was published by Yellowtrace today. I talk about Hanjo, and how the pictures were created.


Berlin based fine art photographer, Yoram Roth, takes a strong conceptual approach with his multilayered and visually arresting work. His style extends beyond the fleeting nature of spontaneous snapshots – his images require conscious planning, conceptual development and careful orchestration of a number of elements that play a significant role in his image making. Recently picked up by the respected GALERIE CAMERA WORK in Berlin, Roth will soon be exhibiting his work at several upcoming art fairs throughout Europe and Australasia, including Tokyo Photo (27th – 30th September) where he will present his highly exclusive limited edition photo book. And you’ve seen it here first.

Featured Project // Hanjo series – a modern day interpretation of a Japanese Nôh Opera. Amazing!

Why Yoram Rocks // His fine arts images rely on an intricate production process, elaborate film sets, props, decorative elements, make up and hairstyling. Any man that manages to unite elements of design, fashion, photography and narrative is a bit of a legend if you ask me.

Below is a little Q&A with the artist. Oh and by the way, I believe this is our first international interview. Can we please have a round a HOORAYS for that? Thanks, you guys are awesome.

_U1J9356 print_web_sRGB

+ Hello Yoram! Welcome to Yellowtrace. Could you please give us a quick introduction on yourself.

I’m born and raised in Berlin, but as an adult I lived in London, New York, and Los Angeles for an aggregated 24 years. I recently moved back to Berlin, because I want my three sons to grow up there. I am a photographic artist, and I create images in the studio. I build the sets, choose or design the clothes, and work collaboratively with a small team of stylists, hair & make-up people, assistants and fellow artists. I use the language and tools of fashion photography to create narrative images.

+ What are you seeking to portray in your work? What is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process?

Every project of mine has a different feel, a distinct reason why I embark on it. I don’t approach my work in terms of single images, but rather as overall series. Of course each image must be representative, an integral part of a project. My Hopper’s American Series reflects that moment just before or after something happened, and it is unclear whether that is a good or a bad thing. It’s how I was feeling at the time, and it is clearly visible in that series. The Forest was about my quest for the Feminine in its pure form, freed from bourgouis constraints. Hanjo was about people who lack either the opportunity or the courage to commit to real love.

+ There is a very strong narrative behind the Hanjo series. How did this project came about and what was the story you set out to capture?

The story isn’t mine, it’s a 15th Century Nôh play that was one of several adapted by Yukio Mishima in the 1950s. But I fell in love with the characters, and wanted to retell it as a photographic novel. Everything other than the story was conceived by me. I was really into Japanese culture for a while, not so much the modern Anime stuff, but the whole concept of the Floating World. I was fascinated by hand-colored photography, and looking at the Meiji era reveals that transition between feudal, traditional Japan and the modern world. I wanted to capture that in Hanjo. They live traditional lives: Hanako is a geisha and Jitsuko is a painter. but modern elements such as the train station or a newspaper drive the story. I like the idea that media can interrupt a perfectly arranged life. It becomes the Deus ex Machina.

+ The images in the Hanjo series are absolutely exquisite and almost surreal. Could you reveal some of the things that go into creating these photographs, from building sets to post production?

I designed the sets to incorporate all these traditional elements like furniture, translucent windows, or floral arrangements. But I shot it digitally, and then went through a very specific layering of the images to create the feel of albumen colors on collotypes. If you look carefully, there’s even motion blur… but not where you expect it. My stylist and I also made most of the clothing. One of the great advantages of living in a creative city like Berlin is that I can tap into the large prop shops that cater to theatre and the film industry. I can get everything from whole rooms, uniforms and instruments all the way down to jewelery for any narrative project, regardless how outlandish the idea.

+ Any interesting/ funny/ quirky facts you could share with us about this project?

My mother really loves Asian furniture, and owns some authentic and rather expensive pieces, so most of what you see was actually raided from her place.

+ Best piece of advice I’ve been given…

“If you don’t know, ask.” That sounds sort of stupid and really obvious, but it wasn’t. When I was a young man I thought I better not admit weakness, better not show ignorance, and pretend I know everything. But of course people see through that, and the learning process is super-slow. At some point I just had this “A-ha” moment that if I ask someone, they will gladly tell me. I realised people love to share information, and most people will even teach or mentor. I still do this all the time… It’s probably the greatest tool I have, because pretty much anything can be learned, and there is no limit to that scale. Go ahead… try it. Ask people what they do. Keep asking, they’re usually quite proud of what they do, pleased that someone is actually interested, and happy to teach you.

+ My most treasured belonging is…

Nothing. I’m pretty unsentimental when it comes to objects. I had a watch that I treasured but it was lost. If anything, I’m like a child because I really like new things, especially gadgets and camera gear. Beyond that I prefer my memories, and the people in my life. That isn’t supposed to sound greeting-card corny, I’m just really happy with the people around me. I have great friends, and it’s the time with them that matters most. I really love endless wine-fueled dinners with people willing to talk about art, life, or those endless spiralling conversations that happen with people who are intelligent and aware. I put substantial effort into maintaining friendships made throughout life, in all the places I’ve lived, and am quite proud of this extended family I’ve been able to build.

+ It’s not very cool, but I really like…

Motion-activated light switches. I have them in my basement, and it still makes me feel very futuristic… but then I’ll be working on something, and the on-cycle is too short, so suddenly I’m sitting in the dark, waving my arms around, assuming that I’m surrounded by monsters…

+ Most people don’t know that I…

… am a pretty decent cook.

Red, Arri, and the Daylight adventure

Typically I either write about the creative part of my photography, or I quote poems… so fair warning given up front: this is one of those rare technical posts.

For the last five years I have relied on ProFoto flash gear and digital SLR cameras to capture my images. I like using my lighting gear, I know how it works, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. About a year ago I moved from shooting with the full-frame Canon sensors to the Phase One system. It’s a digital Medium Format SLR camera, and isn’t particularly different from my previous system except for the sensor size.

My struggle is usually depth of field. I shoot flash, so freezing action isn’t problem. Just to avoid any motion blur I tend to lock in at 1/200th of a second, unless I want to bleed in some ambient light as I did in my Hopper’s American series. I typically use a tripod, which helps me frame my shots. But when shooting a staged set I tend to be relatively close, and capturing a bigger scene means my focal depth is comparatively shallow. The Phase One is a bigger camera, and that means f/8 gives me barely 30cm (one foot) of decent focus when I’m three or four meters (15 feet) away. I’m always dismayed by how much light wattage I need to capture a sharp picture with sufficient depth of field.

One of the frustrations of using flash is that I don’t really see what I’ll be capturing. There’s modeling light of course, but it never struck me as proportional and correct. I end up shooting a few test frames. That’s what’s wonderful about digital photography…  Real-time feedback but no wasted film and no need for Polaroids. I shoot tethered, meaning there’s a cable that runs from my camera into my laptop, where the  screen is big enough to see the light balance. I make the necessary adjustments, and pretty soon I’m ready to shoot. I don’t use light meters, I don’t see the point. I have a histogram on the camera as well as in the software, so I have a pretty good idea of what part of my image needs more light.

The Sacred & Profane series is a long-term project that I’ve been shooting for over a year now. If you scroll through this blog you’ll see some teaser images. It’s very dark and baroque. In the near future I will be shooting some action moments within this series, and I’m concerned about nailing the perfect shot. It’s hard to capture the right frame when it is pretty dark. Also, the Phase One has a very large sensor, but can only shoot at one frame every 1.5 seconds… that’s an eternity when shooting a quick, highly time-sensitive moment. So I decided to test shoot high resolution video. The technology is growing quickly. In a nutshell, you shoot a few seconds of video, let’s say at 30 frames per second. Before you know it, you’ve shot several thousand frames, and then you simply pick the best one. No fear of losing the perfect moment.

That brings up two problems… Different lights, and a different camera. You see where this is going…

A photographer needs to know the gear intimately. Operating the camera or adjusting the lights needs to be completely second nature, or the technical issues begin affecting the creative process. If you’re fumbling for simple things like focus or f-stops, the creative flow stops dead. That’s why new gear needs to be tested and practiced with before a major shoot.

I opted for the Epic Red camera system. It’s being touted as the newest coolest thing. Highly modular, its being used to shoot big budget Hollywood movies, expensive advertisements, and fashion videos. I’ve also heard about some fashion shooters using the Red system to freeze frames for magazine still images… exactly what I was hoping to do. You can use different kinds of lenses on that system, so I took the Canon EF mount, because I still have all the good L-Series primes from my Canon days.

The problem with shooting video is that you need continuous light. You can’t flash thirty times a second… or maybe you can, but ten minutes later everyone is either on the studio floor in epileptic conniptions, or dancing to the B-52’s “Strobelight.”  It’s not going to work.

So ProFoto provided me with their new HMI continuous light system called ProDaylight for a few days of tests. First I tested it with my existing system, shooting with Phase One and the new lights.

It didn’t work. It’s not even close to bright enough. And it’s very difficult to control and fine-tune. Few of the light shapers from my flash system worked, even though ProFoto promises in their advertising that everything is cross-platform. But it isn’t. The lights get so hot that they would melt or incinerate most of the gear. It requires a lot of special light shapers, especially softboxes. The light is hard outside of the boxes. ProFoto’s (really cool-looking) CineReflector comes with all kinds of lenses and scrims, but it’s still a small light source that makes a hard light. and it is incredibly hot. Our system actually came with a set of gloves in case you need to add a scrim or change out a lens… but be prepared to wait. This is a very different way of setting up your lights, not just simply asking your assistant to dial in another half a stop on the keylight via the little twistknob on the Pro8.

It was a lot of light… but not enough. The Phase One needs a lot of light, and the four 800-watt heads could not deliver. Even at ISO 400, 1/60th of a second and f/7.1 I was at least two stops underexposed. The image was dark!

I didn’t want to give up, I was determined to push on. I called my friend Philip who owns Germany’s biggest film light rental company. He set me up with a “tiny” system of 3x 1800 watt Arri lights, and one 4000 watt Arri to use with a big softbox for fill. The situation is the same as the ProFoto gear. It’s very difficult to adjust, requires all kinds of specialized scrims and boxes, a LOT of electricity, and hot gloves.

Well, there was enough light. Barely. But there’s no way that you can “see what you shoot” because everything is brightly lit! Light is bouncing around the entire space, and to the human eye it looks like the inside of an Emergency Room. So once again I’m forced to look at the tethered computer, and finding a relatively dark image… but now my crew is walking around the studio with sunglasses, and everyone feels like they’re getting a tan in the bright heat.

Next we deployed the Epic Red Mysterium-X camera. I know everyone gets weak-kneed at the thought of the Red, and there’s a gear-head lurking inside of every photographer… but I didn’t like it. Its unwieldy, counter-intuitive, and not very good. The sensor is actually quite small compared to my monster Phase One (APS-C vs almost double a Full-Frame). Holding the camera is almost impossible, it has no real handle and was really designed as a component video camera that sits in a rig. There are no knobs, so everything needs to be controlled through a touch-panel. There is no way to adjust aperture or time or ISO without stopping what you’re doing. It’s got a pretty high native ISO, so shooting at 800 is not a problem. But the images are very flat, with little contrast or saturation in the RAW file. That can be adjusted, obviously. But the biggest problem is motion blur. Even at 1/100th of second, there is a softness that isn’t acceptable to me. Of course, at f/8, I was shooting at 1/50th… Everything was blurred. Simply put, there is no way I can print a final file at 140 x 100 cm (60 x 40 inch).

So that’s it. I’ve returned all the gear, and am using what I know. I like my camera, I like my flash system, and I will rely on my abilities as a photographer, as someone who can read movement, and as an artist to direct my models. I have gotten the shot in the past, and I will use my tools. The new gear is not for me.

Hanjo: Part 3 – The Book

The story of Hanjo was always intended as a graphic novel. When I planned the shoot, I had created storyboards for the entire script. I knew which main shots I needed, how many looks, and the various framings. I knew I needed establishing shots, two-shots, over-the-shoulders, close-ups… I needed textures, cutaways, and empty spaces. My plan was always to let the photographic story unfold like a movie.

I had envisioned Hanjo to be a graphic novel. I’ve read a lot of sophisticated comic books targeted at adult readers, so I knew the genre worked well for story-telling. But I tried to create a conventional book with Hanjo, and it wasn’t perfect. The story is too complex, and requires a more subtle approach. Everything about the project was hand-made, everything was deliberate, and so I didn’t want a simple book. It had to be special.

A good gallery can make or break an emerging artist, and fortunately I signed with GALERIE CAMERA WORK. One of the first things they did after the various project reviews was to introduce to me a number of publishers. One of them was GALERIE VEVAIS, a very high-end publishers of limited edition fine art photobooks. Both Camera Work and Vevais understood exactly what was needed. The final version of Hanjo had to continue the sense of Nippon Floating World beauty, but retain its modern viusal language. I am extremely impressed by Japanese aesthetics, but there is a difference between being influenced by something, and emulating it.

Alexander Scholz is the founder of the Galerie Vevais, and he has created some marvelous projects. To call them books is really doing them an injustice. They are objet d’art in their own right. Once we decided to work together, Camera Work called me into a meeting in February, and issued a deadline: there was a chance to present Hanjo at Tokyo Photo 2013… but that meant getting everything ready by September.

We began kicking around various ideas, materials, and pictures, and decided on the idea of a precious box. We had seen so many beautiful Japanese lacquered and paper-backed boxes. But the idea that finally made Hanjo perfect was presenting the story as leporellos… those endless pages that are folded in a zig-zag design, but can still be flipped through like a book.

This was no small undertaking. The minute we decided to pursue this, we realized it would take a number of highly skilled artisans to print, to bind, and to execute the wooden construction exactly, based on architectural plans and renderings. Alex began making sketches, and they soon became plans as we explored the idea of using every element of the box. Not only were there three distinct leporellos, each bound into their own wooden bookends, but the box itself could be used as a sort of theatrical backdrop.

This is what some of the early back-of-napkin sketches looked like…

In the mean time, we were fine-tuning the graphic layout. Suddenly the images flowed, but when your page is 24cm high, but 4 meters long, you begin thinking about pages in a very different way. We kept printing these long strips of paper, and playing with variations. There were many meetings, but Susanne Weigelt is an extremely talented lay-outer and knew how to move the story through its paces.

Obviously, there  was also a lot of wood-working, sawing, lacquering, and gluing of different woods in various thickness and size. I am not going to pretend I’m any good at using these kinds of precision tools. Alexander has a great team of craftsmen that help him execute these very precise designs.

…and yesterday, I finally got to see the first working prototype. It’s been over three years since I started this project. I am very proud of the photography, but the images alone do not make this project what it was intended to be.

Here are some close-ups of various details. The edges, the printing, and the finishes are all going to change… but we know the dimensions, the process, and what it will take to complete it.

Hanjo – A Gallery

A small selection of images from my photographic novel Hanjo, which will be presented for the first time in its final version at Tokyo Photo 2013.

Constant State of “Not Good Enough”

I saw one of those clever little graphic design exercises on Tumblr today. It was just a simple image that said:

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now, but I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it.

That – in a nutshell – summarizes exactly how I have felt for the last forty years. It goes hand-in-hand with feeling slightly guilty. It also usually feels like I’m missing something and not getting it right… and that I’m not working hard enough.

I envy the people who get to bask in a sense of accomplishment. Usually I tend to be ass-deep into the next project by the time something finally comes to fruition. So instead of being pleased with what I’ve accomplished in the past, I feel inadequate about what I’m focused on now.

Stoopid, I know.

If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to your self, they’d beat the crap out of you.

Point well taken. There are so many people around me who make me compliments, show me love, and encourage me in my work. I’ve had to learn to accept compliments, and take pride in my work. Admittedly its gotten better as I have grown older, because there’s a wide path of creative destruction behind me, and I can see that I’ve done a number of things right. But that doesn’t make me feel any better or more successful, it just makes it easier to ignore the demons of doubt.

What really helps is having a decent sense of humor about the whole thing. If you take any of this too seriously it will suck the fun right out of life.


There’s also a good thing about all of this… it keeps me working. And trying. And pushing. I may not sleep much, but it sure keeps me up at night worrying about getting it right the next chance I have.

I don't know small

And I don’t mean any of this to sound like I’m filled with self-pity. I’ve accepted this about me, and have learned to use it to my advantage. And it gave me a chance to make a cool little poster of my own.