ISSUE N° 005 / HONG KONG
How did you decide to start working with a Leica? And which equipment do you use?
I have always been a huge fan of “The Greats” like Robert Frank, Clemens Kalischer, and Wim Wenders just to name a few. For me they are true Leica photographers, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was influenced by their use of the 50mm focal length.
When I had the chance to meet Wim Wenders, a few years ago, he was using a Leica M6 and a 50mm Summilux. He encouraged me to work with one camera and one lens. He said ideally, “One should use the 50mm because of its neutrality.” It all made sense and since I am lazy it was an easy piece of advice to follow. Also I liked the idea of not carrying around a bag of equipment. The 50mm Summilux has proven itself to be a perfect tool.
Right now I have a Leica MP and an M9. I keep dedicated 50mm’s on each camera. It is very rare for me to envision a shot with a wider lens. The 50mm appeals to my sensibilities.
Are you doing more film or digital work these days?
These days I am using the Leica M9 more than the Leica MP. Its simply a matter of convenience. But I always carry the MP just in case. For the last couple of weeks the MP has been getting more use. It forces me to work slowly, which it good. It seems, though I can’t say this for sure, to sharpen the way I see, if that makes any sense.
Ultimately, its not so much about the camera, but more about my mood. With the MP I can dive into the images and tend to produce stronger work. The M9 is a perfect camera in many ways, maybe too perfect.
But the film game is time consuming and expensive. Here in Hamburg the average prices for developing ($8), contact sheets ($11) and ($10 each) for small print outs can really add up. When I take a week long trip to a place, I usually come back with about (15) rolls of film.
When I first saw your City Issues ( No. 001), I thought it was a really creative way to assemble a small
body of work. Where did you get the idea to put together your Issues?
My experience as a graphic designer has taught me how to combine images. I used to design a lot of books for photographers. The goal of a book is to combine images in a way that makes them stronger than any single frame.
All my work in graphic design, photography, or other fields searches for layers and combinations where the sum is stronger than the parts. The context always matters. A pretty face is just a pretty face, but placed in the right context it can tell a story that might be more meaningful than a single frame.
When you visit a new city, what do you like to photograph?
My rule about shooting in cities is “Never shoot on the first day. Why? Because I am too nervous and would take too many pictures.”
I am a shy photographer. I find it hard to hold a camera in someone’s face, so I start with the details of an urban environment. I look around corners, smell the city, and feel the speed.
( On Hong Kong )
In a city like Hong Kong you find these little worlds off of the main drags. The backstreets are very small, have these awkward air conditioning installations above the doors, but in these cramped quarters life is so vivid. I found myself looking at the plants, trying to fight for sun light or the kitchens that spill out into the alleys. I don’t look for provocative subjects. I think my work is about modesty.
After a few days I will start to photograph people. Since I work with only a 50mm lens I need to be quite close for a good portrait. The approach can be hard for me because the subject and I need to share the same personal space.
( On Los Angeles and New York City )
While I am in Los Angeles, I shoot from the car. Its really a car culture out there, so it makes sense. New York is really special. When I am there I let myself go. Walking on the streets pictures seem to jump out at me. People, store fronts, bicycles, cars, you name it…New York is magical.
You have recently made the transition from working as a designer at Red Bull to opening your own
design studio, where you are incorporating your photography (well done!). What made you take
the leap and open your own business?
It was about time. Well actually I opened my firm I was still with Red Bull in 2001. I took a job with Red Bull, as their creative director, because I wanted to look behind the scenes of a marketing giant. It was fun and crazy, so I had to see it. After three years I was done. It got pretty repetitive and was more conservative than I expected because the regulations of a brand driven company are huge.
So it came time to set out on my own. Now I run a small studio, here in Hamburg, Germany. Things are crazy cool, but it seems to be working out. I have a few projects right now that allow me to incorporate my photography, and to my surprise some of the photos have led to more design work. Its becoming a self sustaining system. The balance is perfect for now.
Many amateur photographers would love to quit their day job and find a way to support themselves
with photography, any advice you would give someone who is hanging out on the fence?
I am on the fence myself. For me, passion is passion and a job is a job. The two are sometimes very similar. This is not an advantage at all. Eventually passion can turn into a job which means compromise.
In my case, the job is running a studio with two designers and two interns. I have clients, deadlines, turnover and responsibilities. Photography remains my passion, which I can use to make good money, but I can also refuse jobs if they are not my thing.
So I guess I would advise someone to be aware, totally aware of what might happen if they make their passion their job. And this does not really apply to those lucky individuals who skyrocket to photography stardom…thats a good deal, if you can find it.
Traveling can be in an intensely transformative experience, have you had any great epiphanies
on the road?
The speed of a city, the smell of the streets, the light between buildings, all of them play a role in the experience. They are all very powerful. In addition to the things I see, the people I meet can have a effect on me. Since I am pretty shy this does not happen often, but when it does is has a huge impact. Photography is all about encounters, the camera is sometimes a handicap.
As a graphic designer part of your job is to create images that people want to own. The feeling of
“wanting” is a powerful emotion, one that American artist Andy Warhol played with his entire life.
How do you feel about the way in which images can create desire for a viewer?
I believe desire is dangerous. The work you are referring to has way more power than the images created by advertising companies. I think graphic designers should work harder to interpret people or their desires instead of directly promoting the emotion of “wanting” because ultimately advertising can never satisfy desire. Never the less I do understand the point of your question and I think it can be dangerous.
As a population we do not need more…more products, more fashion. Everything seems to be new every four weeks. We all want way too much. On the other hand, used properly, desire can be a huge motivating factor to move things in a good direction. This is how I see the job of a designer.
People often think photographers are influenced by other photographers, but I find that most
photographers are influenced by writers. What do you read for inspiration?
I have to admit, I am a terrible with books. I read magazines, listen to piles of music, and love watching films. Great dialogue can be pure inspiration for me. I feel like movie can be great teachers. Where else can you dive into a world for two hours and the on screen experience can change your life?
The variety of films I watch ranges from adventure films like “Into The Wild” to police dramas like “Training Day.” The Wim Wenders film “don’t Come Knocking” is another great one. And I even enjoy bits of TV like “Mad Men.”
What is the best meal you have eaten while traveling?
Wow…that’s a tough one, there have been so many. I really enjoy the food in Hong Kong. There is this amazing Mongolian restaurant that blows my mind every time I visit. They allow you to choose fresh, raw ingredients and all of the spices. Then they take it to the back and the chef turns it into a meal, I love it. There are other iconic spots I enjoy like Katz’s Deli and Nobu in New York City.
Sven Hoffmann is a graphic designer and photographer who lives and works in Hamburg Germany. His design work has been commissioned by Helmut Lang, Head Snowboards, Levi’s Europe, MTV Europe, David Carson, and Ace Hotels. Nowadays he can be found combining his design skills and photographic charm while traveling throughout the world. All of the images in this post were taken with either a Leica MP or a Leica M9 and a 50mm Summilux.
To see more of Sven Hoffmann’s design and photowork work, check him out on:
Hoffmann’s Design Work
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