Oct 192015

Architecture, Purpose and Interaction

Note from Adam:

Anyone who reads the blog regularly knows that I am a huge advocate of mentors.  I’m not talking about slavish devotion or fan-boy admiration of someone.  That won’t do anything for your photography.  Mentorship is about working together to achieve your new goals, not just reinforcing the success of the mentor.

It is an approach I’ve used over the years.  It allowed my own work to take astronomical leaps forward because a mentor is there to push you. A good one should apply just the right amount of pressure to move you along without completely breaking your spirit.  There may be a few tears and bruises along the way, but that is just part of the game.

Having been on the receiving end of some very good, but very tough mentorship over the years gave me the idea to start the One on One program.  It lets us focus on the individual needs of a photographer and sets them up to be responsible to continue with their work.  There is a simple beauty in saying, “Yes, I’m going to do that,” and having someone in the background to keep you honest.  It prevents the temptation of excuses and procrastination that plagues almost every human on the planet.  It is natural, which is why a mentor is a great way to get you past the habit.  The letter below is from One on One photographer and Matera Workshop participant Michael Thiaener, and the story is about his shift in perspective.




Hi Adam,

Recently we discussed how my photography has been progressing and I took the opportunity to reflect on what was said. A lot will sound obvious to you, but the process has been revealing for me.  I can now understand, at a much deeper level, ideas we discussed but was not sure how to apply.

When we set out, my focus had been around architecture.  Pure form was my highest goal.  I was enthralled with the photographic interpretation of shapes and structures.  It was all very abstract, free of people, and all geometry.

Festmacher.  © Michael Thiaener

Festmacher. © Michael Thiaener

Over time, while being very attached to the subject, I felt something was missing yet I could not tell what.  The uneasiness grew; me wanting to add a layer to the pure form.  

Ultimately, this has been a very personal search.  I felt that taking photos like someone else would not bring me closer.  I was going to have to find my own way to understanding myself.  Similarly, when looking for themes to focus on I grabbed the concepts technically, but then could not really connect to them on a deeper level.  The feeling that I had an interest inside of me but could not access it was painful.  If I could not connect with the picture, no matter how clean it was technically, I felt like the photo would show its shortcoming.

Experimenting with what to “add”, you had sent me Movement in Architecture. This made me consider movement as lines, lights and direction, and it has greatly increased my attention to light. Also, movement could come from people in the image, so those entered the frame yet remained passive and small.  The people were a key element that I did not want to consider.  Approaching people was always intimidating.  If my next steps were going to include shooting people too, then it meant taking a very big leap off a very scary cliff.  But as you and I looked at the early attempts, like the image of the Kölner Dom (Cologne’s main cathedral), I saw that people could play a role that moved me. All of the sudden the picture became more about the role of the person in relationship to the massive scale of the building.  Something clicked.

Rheinterrassen, Düsseldorf.  Pure-Forms-©-Michael-Thiaener

Rheinterrassen, Düsseldorf. Pure-Forms-©-Michael-Thiaener

Säulengang, Kölner Dom.  © Michael Thiaener

Säulengang, Kölner Dom. © Michael Thiaener

My next step has been (and I regularly revert back to earlier phases, what is written here as a sequence is all but that) to aim at extracting what a place meant, both the intention from an architect’s perspective and what the visitor’s interpretation is and how this contrasts.  This gave me a frame to think about and search. I pushed myself to create a small book, called Places of Purpose, to bring this all together. This put me on the spot and regardless of the result, is a worthwhile exercise; it is something physical, not vanishing with a swipe on the screen.

Attending the Matera workshop this past May with a group of other photographers and trying to break self-inflicted limitations helped. By working side by side with you and the other photographers it let me experiment in real time and get immediate feedback.  Certainly, there is a lot of fascinating places within Matera, but I wanted to go beyond and do this differently: My idea, we discussed was to flip the theme around and show people in a place – what would be the worst that could happen if I tried, right?!

Matera, pure form © Michael Thiaener

Matera, pure form © Michael Thiaener

Matera, Cafe Central © Michael Thiaener

Matera, Cafe Central © Michael Thiaener

Matera, a new approach © Michael Thiaener

Matera, a new approach © Michael Thiaener

Two things happened

  1. I realized that people define a place equally.  It sounds obvious now, but it was a turning point for me. Capturing them and their interaction, sometimes with me (I am not that much into portrait), a small nod of approval to take the picture and the scene comes to life.   After seeing you approach people on the streets and break the ice it made the whole transition much easier.
  2. I used to feel that sneaking up on someone was like stealing a picture.  Now I try to interact more when the opportunity presents itself.  Much to my surprise it happens often.  When I get noticed with a camera it is no longer a big deal.  Sometimes we talk, other times there is a complicit nod, and other times they never see me at all.  This is a new element to master, but then it can be very rewarding.

To step into this new style of shooting, over the summer I went to a few vintage car events. An admittedly easy theme I can relate to and where many people and many cameras are around, bringing down the entry hurdle. The pictures are working out in a totally new way.  While I have not lost my architecture roots, I feel like the tree is growing a new branch.

Sir Stirling Moss.  © Michael Thiaener

Sir Stirling Moss. © Michael Thiaener

Thumbs Up.  © Michael Thiaener

Thumbs Up. © Michael Thiaener

I’m excited to see how it develops.  The nice thing is that I have more material, more options, and more ways to shoot.  Some days I still feel like spending quiet time in buildings, but it is nice to know that I now have a balance to that equation.  The days out meeting and photographing new faces opened up a new horizon for me.  It shifted my perspective on how to define a place.   I clearly feel that it is a stepping stone that enriched my photography.

Best regards,

Michael Thiaener


  5 Responses to “Photographer at Large: Michael Thiaener, A shift in perspective”

  1. Good for you Michael!

  2. Michael, good to read your letter and share your experience. With me it happened the other way around, I started with people and wanted to do more abstract photos. At the end of the day I concluded I needed to be able to do both at the same level of competence (see if you agree at http://www.chbertoni.com ). Adam has helped me a great deal as well. Keep at it.

    • Carlos,
      It is great to see this group of photographers come together and all progress. I could not be happier to be at the center of this convergence.

  3. @ Dirk – thank you
    @ Carlos – thank you for sharing your experience from the “other side”, I will certainly not let go of the form(alistic) approach, it is indeed complementary and I have really enjoyed the images on your site.


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