Portraits of Artists in their studios, with their art, musicians in their studios, curators in exhibitions. Spaces tell stories. Portraying creative people is my passion. In my freelance projects I deal with alternative life concepts, sustainable topics and tell people’s stories. I also support freelancers and self-employed people with expressive business portraits.
“All my heart goes into artist portraiture” – Interview with Saskia Uppenkamp
by YOU PIC
In this interview, we get to meet Saskia Uppenkamp, a brilliant portraiture photographer who is based in Berlin, Germany. In this interview we get to read about her journey of becoming a photographer, how she view her art and career, and how she works with the subjects in her photos!
What influenced you to become a photographer?
Since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by pictures, but I didn’t take to photography straight away. When I graduated from school, my plan was to study cinematography in order to become a documentary filmmaker. A traineeship was mandatory to apply to a film school, so I worked in Cologne for a year, for a film rental company that equipped big commercial productions. Afterwards, I secured my first job as a second assistant camera on a German film production. Over the next ten years I worked my way up, becoming a first assistant camera/focus puller and camera operator. I somehow lost track of my plans to study because I was so occupied working. The idea to switch to photography came up because I became bored by my job. Being mostly responsible for all the technical camera stuff on a movie, and during the last years sometimes operating cameras, according to the ideas of the director of photography, I really wanted to take my own pictures.
At 27, I bought an old digital DSLR from a stills’ photographer on set and started taking photographs again. Turning 30 I decided to switch to photography and study something I was really interested in for once in my life. Cinematography was no longer an option for me, because of different reasons, but mainly as I was not interested in regard to the content.
I applied to a photography school in Berlin. The two tutors I had to show my portfolio to at the interview told me, that all the pictures I had inside could have been taken by ten different photographers. I wasn’t focused on portraiture then and had no particular style. I had a diverse collection of everything from landscapes to portraits. They took me anyway. I was at first interested in photojournalism when I applied, but I realized in my first two years of studying that it wasn’t my thing. I started to focus on portraiture more and more, and for my graduation I produced a portfolio with mostly artist portraits that lay the base for the work I am doing today.
What part of your profession do you find most rewarding?
What I find most rewarding is the chance to meet so many kinds of people, and the fact that portraits have a wide range of uses allows me to be in contact with many groups. In Berlin, I work with artists as well as for startups, companies and business owners or magazines. Every assignment gives me the chance to explore new places and faces.
How would you describe your art?
In regard to portraiture, I have two main approaches. I love to do clean studio portraits that are very focused on the person. The second, and my favourite, is taking photographs in locations using the world around the person to tell a story. When working on reportages I do for magazines I realized that my background, coming from the movies, has helped me a lot with telling stories in different settings, using wide shots, details, close-ups to make a story complete… Also, I learned a lot about lighting, being next to the camera over the years, especially how to use daylight as well as setting studio lights. All my heart goes into artist portraiture. Being the main photographer for the LA/Berlin based online creative magazine witness-this.com gives me the amazing opportunity to get in touch with musicians and artists. We do features and reportages about their work. I have absolute creative freedom with this work, plus it allows me to produce new work for my portfolio.
What inspires you creatively?
Whilst studying, I discovered the photography of Arnold Newman and was quite fascinated by it. He has done a lot of artist and celebrity portraits. Looking at his work, I first got the idea to use the surrounding room of a person to tell something about them. His style of environmental portraiture inspired me a lot. I love his quote: “We do not take pictures with our cameras, but with our hearts and minds.”
How do you work with the subject of your photos? How do you make them feel comfortable?
I can’t generalize about how I work on shootings, as that always depends very much on the situation and on the person. I think you have to be flexible as a portrait photographer to be able to adjust to someone you’re taking pictures of. When working on location, the space around is important, I tend to stage the person in the room. In those pictures, I plan ahead in my mind and try to achieve the photo I want during the shoot, by finding the right spot for the person in the room.
On a studio portrait shoot that is more focused on a person, I am always engaging in a conversation to make them forget about being photographed, because 99% of the people I work with are not used to photo shoots. I first show them the setting that I am planning to take the pictures in, talk about what they are wearing, and maybe suggesting a change to another outfit. The first round of pictures taken, is mostly to relax the person. I then show them the pics, to talk about posture and facial expression, so the person can get a feeling how they look in the picture. Also, to find the ‘chocolate side’ of a person’s face. I consider that a very personal thing. Not everybody likes their face from every angle. Deciding together for a side you can work on in a more detailed direction in the following shoot is very helpful to have a happy customer in the end, that recognizes himself in the picture.
On reportages, I am mostly observing, letting the people do whatever they do, without giving too much advice or doing too much staging. In general, I tell the people I photograph, that they should find poses that they feel good and relaxed in. I have experienced that to be the best way. I don’t like giving people poses that look unnatural in the end. Important is the balance between giving them advice about what they can do better to make them look good in the picture, and not telling them too much. To push them into poses that they don’t feel comfortable in and that are not them, wouldn’t be a portrait any more.