The Photography Monthly Interview  March 2004

Virtual Reality Interview by David Corfield

Edmund Nägele crosses the boundaries of digital and traditional to create photographs with real impact. But it’s not been without its pitfalls, as he reveals in this major retrospective

Some people say there’s no such thing as a good idea any more. They obviously haven’t met Edmund Nägele. Whatever his secret is for creating extraordinary images, it seems to be working.

The former advertising photographer from Munich in Germany came to the UK over forty years ago to offer his unique vision of the world to a wider audience, and in that time he has been quietly pushing forward the creative boundaries, first with Cokin filters and more recently Adobe PhotoShop.

He’s a softly spoken, intriguing man who speaks impeccable English with a clipped German accent. A tireless campaigner for photographers rights, he is one of the industry’s unsung heroes. Until now.

You have a picture library of some 50,000 images. That’s quite a collection. But do you remember your first picture?

Indeed, I do! I played around with a box camera ever since I learnt to walk. On my 15th birthday my parents gave me a Voigtländer-B in the hope of seeing less blurry pictures. It wasn’t meant as an inducement to become a photographer; indeed, accountancy was my foreseen destiny. I was on my way from school when I noticed a terrible commotion in the centre of Munich, not far from where I lived. There was a burst water pipe disastrously playing with motorcars and pedestrians alike, it was simply spectacular. I rushed back to my parents’ house to pick up my camera and went back to the scene to take a few photographs. Instinctively I got on my bike and rushed round to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a major German daily, and offered them the unprocessed film. While I was there, news of the incident came through on the ticker tape. A ticker tape for Christ sake! Now I have given my age away! All the journalists in the office looked at me as if I had just fallen off another planet. The next day four of my pictures were featured with my name below them in small letters. It was the most fantastic feeling and I was 40 marks the richer: 4 quid in those days, but 4 quid would have probably bought you a cottage in the English countryside at the time. My parents wisely dropped the bean-counting idea and got used to the smell of developer and fixing lotions.

So what happened next?

After leaving school I became a photographer’s apprentice at a Munich Studio and learnt all the techniques of day-to-day advertising photography. I did my exams, spent one year in Munich and soon left for Austria where I worked as a photographer for a postcard company. I was 18, had my own company car – a Volkswagen Beetle – and was in the very lucky position of being able to get out and about taking pretty pictures. I lived in Salzburg and the company was on the far end of the Republic. I had total freedom. More fun too, than shooting bottles of Bavarian beer for days on end! That’s how I got into landscape photography.

You clearly thrive on the outdoors, as much of your work is landscape-based.

Living in Bavaria or Austria, unless you are an escapee from a lunatic asylum or a tourist, you don't waste time in smoky bars and noisy discos, there is a great scenery facing you right outside your front door! You got better things to do: You ski, you walk and you climb every mountain. I was the equivalent of Julie Andrews with a camera and a tripod.

So what made you come to the UK?

A colleague of mine, Elmar Ludwig, from the same Munich advertising studio went to work for an Irish postcard company the same year I started working in Austria. A year later he wrote saying that they were looking for another photographer. I packed my stuff and went. When you are young you make these decisions without a second thought! Besides, I had itchy feet and wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world and an island somewhere up North seemed like a good start. I dreamed of cheap whisky, hot geysers and a little adventure. Wrong, very wrong indeed: The whisky was expensive, the hot springs were in Iceland and the little adventure developed into a rather big adventure!

So what was life as a photographer in Ireland?

The company (John Hinde Limited)  I worked for, churned out happy colourful postcards. I would be given a photo list of about 80 subjects and six months in which to take the pictures. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but believe me, it was: the company produced "the finest postcards in the world" as it proudly pronounced on the yellow packing-boxes. I took 1 to 2 sheets of 4x5 film on each subject, stored the film for processing back at our own lab on the Emerald Isle at the end of the season. No motordrive, no bracketing, no excuses – film was too expensive in those days. PhotoShop wasn’t there to help out either. You waited for the right clouds, the right sunshine, the right tides and make sure you had your trousers on when it all came together. I remember waiting three weeks in Northern Ireland for just one shot, rain p...... (precipitating) down on me relentlessly day after day. Finally I phoned the boss and told him of my despair. He simply told me to wait and that the sun would come out for sure. Of course, he was right. The following week the sun came out, I got the shot and the good people of Co. Antrim were blessed with an other pretty postcard. It taught me a lot. It taught me patience and it made me realise the importance of good landscape photography. Playing the waiting game always pays off.

That restriction of creativity must have got to you after a while, surely?

Very much. I wanted to develop my own style and I wanted to experiment with different subjects and crazy approaches. I didn’t want to get into the trap of shooting chocolate box images of cottages. Just after I became self-employed Cokin filters launched onto the market and with the extra bit of colour at hand my work started to take off. That really was the first timid step towards a PhotoShop mentality - PhotoShop of course did not exist at the time. These filters were the most incredible things to happen to photographers since cut film. I think people forget how important and disastrous these little resin marvels could be to the creative photographer of the day. It was revelation and ruination all in one. My personal motto "semper in excretia sumus solum profundum variat" (We are always in the manure; only the depth varies) found its origins during this creative period.

You are well known for your double exposures. How did you go about creating these amazing images of moons in landscapes?

I started experimenting with double exposures pretty early on and I think I was virtually the very first person to put a moon into a picture by double exposure. Ok, Ansel Adams (Moonrise, Hernandez,  New Mexico, 1941) may have beaten me to it, we’ll never know… I had plenty of disasters trying to get the technique right, but it’s only through making mistakes one learns. I was shooting with the Pentax 67, a great junk of metal! For double exposures I started rewinding the film and running it through again, but it  was always a bit hit and miss. I read somewhere of a special metal take-up spool made by a small Swiss company, which cost about £100 at the time. It had a little button on the base of the spool which would release the film and allow you to cock the shutter again, keeping the film in perfect registration. I bought one and chucked it out when PhotoShop came along.

You’ve always been a bit of a photo-pioneer. Is that important to you, to be the first to try out something?

There was always a desire within me to do something that would differ to what my colleagues were doing. I produced the very first ‘moody’ - not my definition - calendar in the UK. At the time I was already supplying calendar companies with ‘normal’ pictures but the Cokin filters changed all that. I remember going to a company in Bristol to show them my very first calendar concepts employing these filters in a crazy sort of way. The reaction was ".... very nice, but not for us. Our clients like pretty cottages, fluffy clouds and little pink daisies in the foreground". It all sounded more like a Teddybear's Picnic than something one hangs on the wall. Frustrated and disappointed I returned home. I produced an atmospheric calendar for Marks and Spencer the following year (1975) and never had to look back.

When did it all start to pay off for you?

It started well before the Teddybears Picnic, when I placed my photography with the now defunct Colour Library International. My work was successful and I quickly began to see which pictures sold the best. I looked at the sales reports every month and could analyse market trends. Book productions, specialising in the United States and Canada followed. I bought a large motorhome and toured the States for months on end. It was great because the research and daily life was firmly under my control and expenses were paid on time. I really did enjoy this period in North America.

Your business brain is as strong as your creative brain. Is this the secret of your success?

One needs to be aware of the commercial aspects, but the most important thing is one's ideas and creativity. I feel sorry for young people leaving college and going into commercial photography because there is little freedom left. There is very little room for personal expression. Time is money! There is little inspiration nor encouragement. Without inspiration and encouragement you get images without soul, sad copies of other peoples work and worst of all, endless pictures of banal everyday objects described as "generic", as if to offer an excuse.

Certainly the way in which we take pictures has changed. And it’s principally the imaging programs that have been at the forefront of that change, don’t you think?

Definitely. Though to me PhotoShop is a valuable tool, I get just as much satisfaction from shooting conventionally with the medium-format Pentax or the handy Olympus E20 digital camera, PhotoShop has been a revelation. I remember the very first time I saw someone cloning bits out of a picture. I knew there and then that I had to have it. So I went out and bought my first Power Mac, costing some £9,000 back in 1985. A high-capacity external Syquest disc drive set me back a couple of hundred quid, and the CD writer which was essential for storage, cost a whopping £1,300 on top of it all. It was, at the time, the latest technology and I felt happy to have it. I remember mentioning to the guy delivering and installing the gear "....hope, that’s the last cheque I'll have to write out!", nor will I forget his answer: "You're bloody joking, that’s just the beginning!" Bloody right he was too. The next thing I needed was a supply of high quality scans. To get them, I had to send the original transparencies for drum-scanning which cost about £30 a whirl. I decided to buy a drum scanner myself, along with a film recorder for good measure. The film recorder, ironically, is the very machine with which I output my digital files onto traditional film. You’ll never get rid of film altogether – though the digital evangelists may score a few point here.

Has your business brain influenced the way you view the world?

I take pictures these days knowing that I can pick certain elements from the shot. I admit, I look at the world around me through PhotoShop eyes. Even when I’m watching television, in my mind I am  retouching any untidy backgrounds! Still, you need to take a decent picture in the first place. PhotoShop may be fantastic, but it’s no excuse to let standards drop. I would have paid big money in those early days to anyone who would have spent an hour or two guiding me through the basic techniques of PhotoShop. Thankfully, these days there are a few good books on PhotoShop subjects, the best one in my opinion is 'PhotoShop for Photographers' by Martin Evening. It took me many days to learn the minutest itsy-bitsy basics of PhotoShop. These were long days: morning, noon and night sort of days! And let’s not forget, that during all the time I was learning the software, I wasn’t making any money shooting other material. I got to grips with poxy pixels eventually!

Do you look back at your first forays into PhotoShop with affection?

God no! I remember the very first thing I did in PhotoShop. It is picture numbered 000001 and total madness multiplied by the prevailing VAT-rate. I had taken a picture of Leeds Castle in Kent and added lots and lots of hot air balloons to the scene. That was easy, I thought and put it proudly onto film. I would have long binned the picture had it not sold twice; once for a jigsaw picture and the other time for a travel guide cover. Though I am a bit embarrassed by it, I have kept it for sentimental reasons!

Is PhotoShop all you ever use?

No. I experiment with many different digital styles. The painted effects I achieve through Painter software and they give a new meaning to ‘painting with light’. Here, photography drifts into virtual painting and with each controlled brushstroke new ideas open up.

In this digital age, what are the pitfalls photographers need to be aware of?

This is a difficult age for photographers, especially as far as the copyright is concerned. It is a subject that is very dear to me and as a working photographer I try hard to protect myself. Copyright has not been helped by the large players in the picture library field. It is absurd to think that photographers will assign all rights to a stock library in order to have them published on Royalty Free CD’s. If photographers accept the terms and conditions that are dictated to them then so be it, but it’s also the reason why I have built-up my own library of some 50,000 images. Long before all the big new libraries came into play, my sales were much higher. I used to work for a New York based company called FPG and in one month I might be making something in the region of $11,000. Then the library was taken over by one of the big shots and within 60 days my monthly sales had dropped to $300. Progressive marketing, I think they called it, but it was still one hell of a drop to explain to the taxman. Although no rocket science, it will cost you time and money to set up on your own, it’s also the only way to protect one’s work and keep 100% of the sales in the process. The last few years have been disastrous for stock photography. The Internet has helped a bit, but the real good old days will never return. There are now just too many photographs out there in the market place. When a single picture agency boasts 10.35 million images and counting, you know its time to pick up a good book instead. I was fortunate enough to establish myself when the going was good.

Like the industry, the cameras are changing all the time. Do you still use the Pentax 67?

Of course, but I also use the Olympus E20. It is a well-made unit. It's appeal lays in the integral zoom lens. The interchangeable lens is more or less the downfall of the digital camera because of the risk of dust getting onto the chip. Olympus went the other way and designed a lens matching the chip and sealed it onto the camera. It’s a good little box of tricks and suits my way of working. All the people I know using digital cameras seem to have endless nightmares with dust on the sensitive chip. The only camera with an interchangeable lens I would presently consider buying is the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, simply because of its 16.6-megapixel sensitivity and the image quality that goes with it. Or, I may just buy an other good book instead.

They say that the best way of perfecting your art is to make lots of mistakes and learn from them. What do you think are the biggest mistakes photographers make today?

PhotoShop practically invites misuse of its facilities because there are so many incredible tools. People over-saturate and over-sharpen way too much and I have done it all myself of course! Layers are something that a lot of people are scared of, because they do not understand how layers work. I couldn’t live without layers and one picture that I have been working on recently consisted of about 40 layers. Turned out a 950Mb file! Of course the problem is that the more megabytes you accumulate, the slower the computer calculates the pixels and it might even get grand ideas of withdrawing its service altogether. 1 GB of memory is certainly a good investment! If you are serious about your imaging, then you need images, and lots of them. Be organised, catalogue your work. The beauty of having my own transparency archive is that I pull out pictures that I took many years ago and improve the original quality. The UK is not the most ideal place for taking pictures every day of the week, the weather can be a bit iffy, which is why being able to draw upon old resources in my library is very valuable and more productive than watching "Big Brother" on Channel 4.

In your career you have seen and done so much. Do you think you will ever tire of making pictures?

I would like to slow down a bit. I’d love to put my entire library on the Internet and let it run 24/7, sit back and collect the money on a Friday afternoon. This would leave me with the time to work on ideas, which may or may not be commercial, but which would give me the enjoyment photography can offer. After a lifetime of taking images for Joe Bloggs & Co. it’s about time I did my own thing.

Copyright © Edmund Nagele F.R.P.S. All rights reserved.