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Christoph Boecken: Finding Strangers

A Parallel Planets piece by Erin Nøir - old account
“I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre. 
I guess every girl goes through a photography phase. 
You know, horses... taking pictures of your feet.” 
– Charlotte in Lost in Translation, 2003

I’ve been into photography for more than half a decade now and I still like taking pictures of my feet, so I guess it’s fair to rule out that my inclination to the craft is not just a phase. I have to admit, though, that I had a phase where I used to find comfort in photographing strangers. I cannot pinpoint why, but there was something about my ephemeral encounters with random and unknown people that made me free to capture a part of them onto emulsified memories without the painstaking bits of knowing, understanding, and then losing anyone.

Taking photographs of strangers, usually stolen, is not that taxing. They’re everywhere all the time: across the vast streets, at the lonely terminals, along the dusty alleyways – night and day. The outside world is your playground every man is your subject. The stealthier you snap, the better. It’s like capturing, not only what they looked like or what they were doing at the moment but also, their souls. And that’s that. You don’t have to owe those strangers anything.

Taking portraits of strangers, while getting to know them, is another thing – and it is not that easy and will never be. There should be a chemistry to make something work and you have to hold on to it.

Christoph Boecken has a flair for the latter. I never knew that most of his portraits featured strangers whom he barely knew – not until he confirmed it through one of my questions for him. His best portraits, which are mostly in monochrome, shines a different kind of subdued light that ignites a spark between his camera’s lens and his subject’s eyes.

Even though his works are usually devoid of colour, his style remains consistent: pure, sophisticated, and transparent. Aside from his portraits, I also find the bodily contours of his female subjects mesmerizing. The way their collar bones pop out, how their back arches into a certain angle, and the occasional hints of extra skin – everything is just perfect chemistry, and Christoph should definitely never let it go.

But behind such stunning portraits, who is he, really? Thanks to my interview with him during the holidays, you all will have the chance to know him a little better. Without further ado, Christoph Boecken:

Hello, Christoph! It’s great to have you here on Parallel Planets. Tell us about yourself as a photographer, before you became one, and if you weren’t one.

Thanks for having me! I'm a part time photographer, kinda specializing in people photography and the occasional architecture or landscape work when I'm in the mood for it. Most of the time, I work with analogue cameras instead of digital and use traditional black and white films. Besides being a photographer, I'm also a software developer, which still provides my main income. If I weren't a photographer, hopefully I would have succeeded in some other creative field, music, perhaps.

When did your inclination with taking pictures begin? How did you manage to learn photography by yourself?

I used to have a blog called Jeriko, which around 2008 or 2009, was primarily focused on featuring other photographers whose work I liked, which at least sparked my interested in photography. And there two other photographers which indirectly were responsible: one made fine art architecture of places in Berlin, the city I live in. Places I'm passing by every day, places I have never seen like this, clean and colorful. And a friend of mine made this beautiful street photography, which was interesting as suddenly this mysterious thing called photographer had a name and a face, a person I actually knew. And if he could do it, maybe I could do it to? So I picked up a cheap entry-level DSLR and tried it for myself.

Learning photography is a little bit like chess, I guess. Easy to understand when it comes to the rules or the technique, hard to master when it comes to actually creating good photos. For me, it involved a lot of trials and errors, taking photos as often as possible, realizing where I want to go and how to get there.

As seen on your portfolio, most of your photo sets feature people. Are they close friends or mere strangers? How do you connect to your subjects so your shots would mirror their souls?

I guess you can call them strangers, as most of the time I haven't met them before or only once. But then again, I try to get to know them before or during a session. Analogue photography is slow, one roll of film is only ten frames, you have two switch films all the time, so there's a lot of talking in between. That's how I try to connect with the person in front of the camera, and most of the time it worked for me.

The soul part is interesting, though. A friend of mine recently asked on Facebook what others think portrait photography really is. She was questioning whether the pure depiction of a person can really capture her or his personality. And I guess she was right. I do have something in mind when I take a picture, a certain vibe, a certain atmosphere that I want to achieve, but then again it's really up to the viewer how he perceives it. Avedon was a master in doing this, but I would never compare my work to his!

You’ve mentioned on your website that you don’t care much about techniques. But I’m very curious to know: who are your idol photographers and how do their works influence & inspire yours?

I admire the work of Alexander Bergström. Nude photography is extremely difficult, I only tried it twice with mixed results and quickly realized that it isn't my cup of tea. Bergström, though, does nude photography in a way that it feels completely natural, absolutely calm, there is nothing sexual about it. Not many are able to do this.

Aside from your camera and films and good light, what other essentials must you have with you when you’re shooting portraits? What makes you say that “It’s a wrap!”?

My light meter I guess, but that's about it. I only shoot with available light, because to be honest I've never learned to work with artificial light. The advantage of course is that I my luggage is rather lightweight.

What made you stick to photographing people? To you, what makes a portrait powerful?

Because I love to get to know people. Film photography is slow, so there is a lot of talking in between involved, a chance to connect. Honestly, for me, it's more about the interaction than the photos. That everyone feels comfortable and welcome during a session is most important to me.

I think a portrait is powerful if it feels authentic. This would basically rule out pretty much every photo I ever made, though I'm not sad about that. It doesn't mean they're bad, it's just that they convey something different, like telling a story or displaying a certain emotion. At least is has to be believable, totally staged poses or putting a person in an unrealistic scenario doesn't work for me.

How does black and white analogue photography relate to your personal story? Why do you prefer monochrome over multi-colour?

Nothing personal, it's just easier for me to “see” in lights and shadows and visualize a photograph in my head before actually taking the picture. Most of the time, colour feels like a distraction to me respectively doesn't add something meaningful to a photo. As for film photography, I like the slowness, it's a good contrast to my job, a way for me to relax.

Is it possible that your day job as a software developer affects your creativity in a good/bad way? Aside from film photography, what other creative pursuits are you interested in?

Software development requires creativity too, just a different type. Well okay, some tasks are a little bit repetitive, but usually you are confronted with a request or a problem and have to find the most efficient way to solve it. It could be the obvious one, yes, but most of the time you have to think out of the box. This is why it's so interesting to me. I don't know if it really affects me, but if so, than certainly not in a bad way.

I used to play an instrument, but nowadays, my passion really is photography, the one I spend most of my free time with. I would love to be better at drawing, but I'm afraid this will never work out. :-)

If you were to pick 3 for each, what are your all-time favorite books, films (cinema), and songs?

I don't like lists of favourites. Though Mötley Crüe's “Kickstart My Heart” is a pretty good contestant for “song of my life.”

What’s the weirdest habit / strangest desires that you have, if any?

I can't pass people on their left side. Don't ask me why, I just can't.

In this planet that we're thriving in—
What is your power animal?

A sloth. Come one, everybody likes sloths!

Who is your alternate ego?

Probably Steve McQueen.

In an alternate universe where photography does not exist—
What would your name be? 

Vince. I like that name.

What would you be doing instead? 

Drawing. Because in this universe I pretty much suck at it.

Christoph is at the other side of the world as I am, but the longer I look at his photographs, the more I inch closer to “knowing” him through his subjects’ compelling stares and intimate aura. Suddenly, he doesn’t seem like a total stranger to me. Rather, he is now someone whom I would love to exchange portraits with someday.

And as for you, kind reader, never miss Christoph Boecken’s upcoming photo sets by bookmarking his website and following his updates on Facebook.


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