Transform Through Your Art with Birgit Kleber

Today I have a very special guest for you. Her name is Birgit Kleber and she’s a professional portrait photographer based in Berlin, Germany. During her long photography career, Birgit got a chance to work with many celebrities, including Monica Belucci, Rachel Weisz, Liam Neeson, Charlotte Rampling, Juliette Binoche, and many others. She also has a number of deeply psychological portrait series of women, exploring the changes that a female character can undergo in new circumstances. Birgit has a very interesting way of working with models, which she will be sharing with us in this interview along with other very useful tips, like working with photo agencies, printing your own work, what do you do, if your model doesn’t like your images. Please enjoy!


Show notes

Things we talked about:


  • How to shoot portraits of people who you don’t know;
  • Why printing your work is important
  • How should you react, when a model doesn’t like your work
  • Working with photo agencies
  • How your art can change you



Brigit’s Instagram

Brigit’s website

Portrait of Monica Bellucci

German Film Museum

Series “Eva”

Series “Clara”

Series “Women in Hotel”

Brigit’s photobook

Video about Brigit from Berlinale

Portrait of Michael Ballhaus

Portrait of Charlotte Rampling

Brigit’s camera with covered display


Portrait of Wolfgang Tillmans

Berenice Abbott, American photographer


Interview script

- You come up to the models very close, how do you feel about it? And how people/models react to it?


- I’m very shy and sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do this, but at the same time I’m actually looking forward to it. But very often people say that I know what I want and it’s perfect. But you do that too, you direct your models.


- Yes, I direct them, I tell them what to do, so they don’t have much freedom in it. But what I capture is my emotions. I think when you capture people’s personalities, your works are deeply psychological, you dive into the person.


- Yes, but sometimes I think I can’t do one and only portrait of Monica Bellucci. It’s impossible. It can only be a portrait of this moment.


- All of the celebrity portraits were an assignment from a magazine you worked for or?


- No, this portraits from Film Festival in Berlin I did for the German Film Museum in Frankfurt. Every year they buy series for their collection. And i’m really free and could decide whom I want to photograph.



- So you’re a freelancer?


- Yes.


- Do you also work with clients that are regular people, not only photography museums?


- Yes. sometimes, but not very often.


- Do you select your clients?


- I don’t select. If you ask me I’ll do it.


- How do you choose models you work with? Like for the series with Clara and Eva, how did you find them?


- Eva was really amazing but she died some years ago. I worked for a film production in Germany and I worked for production of Tatort , famous german crime series, and Eva was the assistant of the director. We meet and became friends for many many years. She was very nice and sympathetic person, a woman that lived in a very special way, she did everything. And this photo where she has no hair, she got a small job in  a movie and cut them for it. The next day I went to her and took the pictures.


- How did you end up with an idea of following her through several years?


- It’s not easy to say, I think you know it too, inspiration, how it works. You can’t just sit on your computer and wait, it doesn’t work. The only thing I can do is to live, to see, I go to the streets, I see movies, exhibitions, meet people and sometimes it happens. Suddenly, you have an idea. But then is it the true idea or one of those many ideas you have over the day. I feel if it’s a real idea.  The series “Women in Hotel” started with one photo, I knew then that I have to do more of this. I asked many people, some friends, but also women on the streets that I didn’t know before. I’m really shy, it was a big thing for me to ask someone.


- What about the first time you asked someone on the street for a photo, what was the reaction?


- Surprised as it doesn’t happen often. But then, many of them said yes. And I asked only women and I’m a woman.


- What’s the story you tried to tell with this series?


- I think I used a hotel as a stage. It wasn’t their home or my studio, it was a place where they could play roles. I wanted to take pictures of women that are angry or don’t smile. All of those that you don’t see in advertising or Instagram.


- What about Clara?


- Clara is a daughter of friend of mine. I took photo of her once a year every year since she was a baby. The last picture was taken when she 15 or 16 years old, then she moved to Canada with her mother. Now she’s about 30 years old and I want to photograph her again.


- Do you publish a photo book for all your projects?


- Yes. I have fun with doing the layout, I’m interested in design and graphics. And a book is better than a phone or an iPad. What about you?


- No, I haven’t published a book. But right now it’s so easy to print your own book, so I have one, I did it for me.


- I know you have many exhibitions, is something on right now?


- In Frankfurt and it’s extended until 12 May. There’s a cinema in the museum so they will show the video Deutsche Welle did of me and 2 other women last year at Berlinale.


- What projects are shown there?


- It’s 91 portraits of celebrities from Berlinale and portraits which I did this year in February, in a video loop.



- What was your most memorable photoshoot?


- I think with Michael Ballhaus, the cinematographer, really good one. He was so nice and so kind. I photographed him 2 years ago. He lost his vision, he can’t see. I realised he can’t see me but I directed him with my voice, I spoke loudly. He used to work with his eyes, he was a cinematographer, it’s impressive.


- Do you have any tips on how to build a connection between a photographer and model?


- I say hello, tell them I’ll shoot from up close, I tell them how to sit and that both sides will focus, and I see what happens. It doesn’t always work but often. I’m so focused in the situation that you could rebuild everything around me and I wouldn’t notice.


- You’re also very confident when you do this.


- Maybe. And you know, I only do 5-6 photos. I was the only photographer this year at Berlin Film Festival who had 5 minutes with Charlotte Rampling, and i only took 6 pictures, she was great. When I saw the first picture I thought I’d only do 2, but I did some more. But 6, not 600.


- Do you use film camera?


- No, it’s digital, i use digital Canon as analog. I don’t look at the display, no automatic, I focus myself. The only difference is that is not on the film, but on a card.


- How do you choose one photo?


- It’s not easy, I think you know it. Well, sometimes it is, you look at 6 pictures and you just know it. But sometimes I look at them, i open them on my computer, I do other things and look at them again, I small print them, put them on the wall. I decide it’s this one and the next day it’s another one. It’s a process. How do you do it?


- Well, i have much more photos, about 200 from a shoot. I choose 5-6 and post process them, then I shut my screen, go look at something else. Then i come back and view them in full screen and then I decide.


- And another idea is to bring images into another rooms.


- Do you ask about other people’s opinion on which photo you should choose?


- Of course, it’s important. I have friends that are not artists but have good eyes, I show them my new works and ask them for their opinion.


- My friend told me it’s good to show your pictures to someone that’s completely far away from art, somebody that doesn’t know which photograph is good or not, and see their reaction because that’s the true reaction.


- You work with photo agency, how’s the work with an agency organized?


- I send them photos if I did new ones, some portraits and photos from my travels and people can buy it.


- Do you sign model release? What if a model doesn't like the photo?


- Sometimes yes, sometimes no. in this Photographers series, it’s a big series, at the moment it’s 98 portraits, and 3 women said no. 2 of them I photographed and during the shoot they said they don’t want me to use those photos, so I have to agree, the 3rd one didn’t want me to take the photos. But it’s just 3.


- How do you react when something like this happens?


- In this case it’s a wonderful portrait and I can’t understand. But some people want to look  like they’re 20 even if they’re not. I don’t portray this way. If you know my work you’ll know in advance what will happen.


- Do you ever retouch your portraits?


- No. Of course the contrast etc, but no retouch.


- When you shoot do you shoot straight in black and white?


- Yes, I love black and white very much.


- Tell us about the series “Photographers”.


- I started when I worked for a newspaper in Berlin for culture department, I did few portraits of photographers there. When I stopped working there I thought I’ll continue with the portraits, because you know their work, but you don’t know the person and I wonder how they look privately.


- You meet so many people, do they change you somehow, do you learn from them?


- I always work the same way but it’s different with different people. I photographed Wolfgang Tillmans, the wonderful german photographer, and it was interesting. At that time he had an exhibition in London, when I came back home I booked the flight to London just to see his exhibition. These meetings with those people change my life.


- What does you typical day look like?


- Ok, I’ll tell you but the you’ll tell me about yours. I start very early, at 7am., my friend goes to work at 9 till 19 so I’m lonely. I turn on my computer, I look at the internet and then it’s different for each day. Yesterday, I took portrait of a photographer, so after this interview I’ll work on those photos. Then I’ll go and see and exhibition of a friend of mine in Berlin. After this I go to my yoga classes. But there are other series I’m working on too.


- About my day, first when I wake up I get my kids ready for kindergarten and school, then I go for a jog or exercise a little. Then I turn on my computer and work since I have lots of unprocessed material. I also do a lot of Instagram. I usually sit on my computer a whole day.


- How do you print your photos?


- I choose the paper, at the moment bamboo is my favorite, and I have a big Epson printer at home. I love printing, it’s the same process as in the dark room. I can print 50x60 images, but often I do larger prints so I need to order them. I use paper, I don’t think canvas is good for my photographs.


- How many photoshoot you have per month?


- If there are no film festivals then 3-4 shoots.


- What are your biggest dreams as an artist?


- To live in New York, I love the city. I’ve been there 30 times or more, I go there every year. I love the atmosphere, the energy, it’s really creative, it’s right for me. But there are many photographers, it’s not very easy to live there. And what’s your dream?


- I have many dreams, but I’d love to have a solo exhibition.


- What makes a good work of art?


- I think it’s impossible to answer, but for me it’s when the picture speaks to you, when you feel something when you look at it, when something happens with you. Very difficult question.


- It is, because there are gazillion pictures out there in the world and very often people can’t say if it’s a good picture or not. Especially when you go to the gallery and they tell you it’s a good picture, but you don’t feel it. Have you ever been in a situation like this?


- Of course. Every big exhibition, you see wonderful art, but you also see art work where you think why, I don’t understand, I don’t feel it. At the workshop in San Francisco with Berenice Abbott, a very famous photographer, she told us to go out and take pictures, but take the picture only if you look through your camera and the thing that you see will change your life. If you don’t see it don’t take the photo, come back.

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