Hongkong Cityscape. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

A Moment in Time

An encounter with photographer Marcus Köppen

VBAT’s Creative Director Graham Sturt was intrigued by Marcus Köppen’s photo series ‘Drag Queen Olympians’ and suggested to work with him on the campaign for the Amsterdam Gay Pride (AGP) in 2015.

From the series ‘Drag Queen Olympians’. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

AGP agreed and the result is a pretty amazing 2015 campaign. Lucien Spee, CEO of Amsterdam Gay Pride said the following about Köppen in his recent interview with VBAT:

“That guy is not a photographer, he’s an artist”.

Reason enough to dig a little deeper and get to know the German photographer a bit better:

Please give a short introduction about yourself.
“Born and raised in the countryside of Northern Germany. Like to discover and explore the unknown.”

How did you come to become a photographer?
“The first contact I had with photography was through my dad who had an old Contax 35mm, and I remember we always went for a walk in the countryside and I was allowed to take a photo every now and then. Film was precious and it always was a special moment. As a teenager I took photography classes and printing in school, I really enjoyed the printing process. A decade late after been trained as a carpenter and paramedic I rediscovered photography again, it became a passion and it developed into an obsession with a black & white printer in my parents basement, testing and playing around with exposures and film. From there on I started working for a city magazine covering events and night-life, then I went to study photography full time.”

What was it that got you interested in becoming a photographer in the first place?

“The magic to capture a moment in time and
then have to wait until it appears on paper.

Today this feeling has faded because of digital technology, there is no more waiting for processing and printing, which totally changed the approach to photography. Now it’s more about capturing the past.”

How did you find your very own style, and how would you describe that style?

“To find your style I think it’s important to play around a lot, shoot different fields of photography and also try different tools. Also assisting established photographers in different fields. At some point it clicks and you will get a passion for a certain style. I was always interested in moody, colourful light. I used to be a real night owl and I loved ambient at night. That’s how I got into shooting cityscape and people in the living environment, preferably shot with twilight and artificial lighting.”

Cityscape. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

It seems like you cover a quite broad field, from people to travel to food. What’s your big love in photography?
“My big love is to discover new things through photography, I find it very hard to be put in one box. Like ‘he shoots stills’, or ‘people in the studio’, or ‘landscapes’. I really love to be able to shoot all kinds of areas within photography, preferably involving people. I understand it’s very hard for a client to trust a photographer for an assignment brief, selling a client’s product with e.g. models on the beach, when they see a website with all kinds of different images. For me, every brief is an exciting challenging journey I would not want to miss. I love to be able to shoot a model in the studio on one day and on the next day I am on a skyscraper rooftop shooting a cityscape. I would not say I am a food photographer but if I get a travel assignment for a magazine it’s kind of a must to shoot the local speciality before you eat it.”

You are based in the Netherlands right now. Have you also lived abroad, and if so, how did that influence your work?

“It all started out in Germany where I taught myself the basics. Then I had the chance to study photography in the UK where I spent 3 intensive years, learning everything from the history of photography to the latest tricks of the trade and to focus my interest in Portraiture.

During my studies. I took part in an Erasmus exchange and I went to Spain where I worked on a portrait project, but I enjoyed more of the beach and the nightlife to be honest. Not very productive but a great time.

When I finished my studies I moved back to Germany to assist a big commercial photographer. That was a real eye opener on how the big business works. The stuff they don’t tell you at school..

During that time, I had the chance to play around with large format cameras and also learn about the production side of the job. Two years after I finally settled in Amsterdam with a brand new portfolio under my arm and I started out as freelance photographer. I got to work for a majority of the Dutch magazines, which was great because they gave me a lot of freedom.

My Aim was to focus on portraiture, but somehow I slipped into travel photography and for about three to four years I could not resist the constant offers of travelling the world. That’s also the time when I really got into shooting cityscapes.

During that time, I also visited Thailand for the first time and I was amazed by the culture and the way Thai people treat the subject of gender issues. As a portrait photographer, I am always interested in subcultures, identity and interesting looking people. When I saw two lady boys in a bar, one dressed in a red dress, the other one in a black dress and they were twins, I could not believe my eyes. I have never really heard about it. I mean at some point these girls were boys and now both decided to be a woman and they carry it with confidence and pride. That sparked a high interest to find out what is the drive behind the life of a Katheoy and what does it mean.

After I returned to Amsterdam I made plans to return for a couple of months and portrait/interview lady boys in Thailand. This project really shaped me as a portrait photographer.
The Girl got Balls. Credits: Marcus Köppen

Just me, my camera and a flash travelling the country in search for serious stories.”

Describe how you work professionally. Do you prefer to work alone or in collaboration?
“That depends on the project. On big commissions I always enjoy working with a large team of assistants, styling, make up, art directors and clients. I always enjoy having the teams directly on set behind me, and getting them involved during the shoot. I am really open and welcoming to everybody’s input to achieve the final goal. When I shoot cityscapes I am all by myself and that is also amazing. Just you, the view and waiting for the moment of the perfect light.”

In your recent work with VBAT you captured the ambassadors of Amsterdam Gay Pride. Can you share your approach to this project and the idea behind this particular style?
“I was super excited the day VBAT called me to be this year’s photographer on this project. The past years I have seen the campaigns in town and it was my dream to work on this at some point. During our briefing, the ideas of Amsterdam Gay Pride and VBAT were pretty clear but they also gave me a lot of freedom.

Graham Sturt, Creative Director at VBAT, about the cooperation:
“How we came to work with Marcus for AGP is one of life’s happy coincidences.
He initially contacted me over a year ago to come and show his portfolio at VBAT.
We agreed on that and he came and gave a very nice presentation to our creatives.
One of the projects he showed was a set of amazing portraits of participants of the Amsterdam Gay Pride Drag Queen Olympics.
The way he captured the individuality and flamboyance of these larger than life characters was outstanding and led me to ask Marcus if he would be interested in working with us on the 2015 AGP campaign. Of course he was interested and we agreed to get back in contact when we kicked off the new campaign.
To cut a long story short we were actually asked by AGP to work with another photographer but he became ill and so we suggested Marcus again. AGP agreed and the rest is history. When we finally got to work together for the AGP ambassador portraits I found Marcus a man of many talents and a real pleasure to work with.

Not only has he got a great eye for aesthetics and colour but he is also an incredible diplomat.

This skill being demonstrated in particular by convincing some of the ambassadors that our great photography concept would not damage their credibility or image. He also proved to be super charming and a great director by making our non-model subjects comfortable and dynamic in front of the camera. I’m really happy with the results we achieved in the shoot and they’ve translated really well across all of this year’s comms when integrated with the AGP visual identity style.”

Marcus Köppen in action, shooting the AGP campaign.

We did a lot of research upfront and testing with the lighting set up, as we had to create the rainbow colours enlightening the ambassadors all around. In the end we had quite a large lighting set built, and it was really fun to work at this project.”

Dolly Bellefleur. Ambassador of Amsterdam Gay Pride 2015. Art Direction: Graham Sturt. Credits: Marcus Köppen.
Raymi Sambo. Ambassador of Amsterdam Gay Pride 2015. Art Direction: Graham Sturt. Credits: Marcus Köppen.
Emmaly Brown. Ambassador of Amsterdam Gay Pride 2015 and singer of the Gay Pride Anthem. Art Direction: Graham Sturt. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

Looking at your current body of work you seem to have worked with some amazing ‘avante garde’ characters, particularly in your Portrait series ‘Drag Queen Olympics’ and ‘The People of Wasteland’. Tell us something, if you can, of the attraction of working with such flamboyant subjects and also some of the challenges that come with these big personalities.
“As said before, I am very interested in subcultures and having a camera can give access, open doors to the scene and then you can be part of this for a brief moment without actually interacting.

From the series ‘Drag Queen Olympians’. Credits: Marcus Köppen.
From the series ‘People of Wasteland’. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

I find it very fascinating what people do to be different, transform themselves into a new identity to be apart form the norm and mingle with like minded people. As for challenges — the only one is to win their trust and allow me to take their portraits.”

What was your first paid commission?
In 1995, I went to Ibiza for about one month and started working for a photo laboratory shop in San Antonio, as a club photographer. That was pretty crazy! First night of my job was a Monday night and I had to go to the mega club Amnesia. The boss of the lab told me to be at the club at 1AM in the morning. When I got there I found out it was a hardcore SM/Bondage party.. Shocking for a little village boy like me, but fun, and the camera gave you special permission and distance from the action — free entrance — free drinks — 30 rolls of 35mm film, Rock ‘n Roll. My fee was next to nothing but the experience will stay forever.

Where do you find inspiration?
Almost everywhere, walking the streets, travelling, browsing the web — industry related, exhibitions, TV documentaries, music videos, etc.

What advice would you give to a budding photographer looking to make their name in the industry?
Never give up and make sure photography stays a passion and not a job.

Are you often surprised, amused or annoyed about where some of your photographs end up?
Yes, since the past decade everything is more or less digitized, it’s amazing how photos are reposted, reblogged and shared throughout the web — sadly the artist credit gets lost along the way. But I think it’s a great way for photographers to get noticed in these times.

Who is your favourite photographer and why?
“Mmm.. There are many many photographers I like and admire:

Helmut Newton — for the heroic powerful women.
Nadav Kander — his diversity and the way he can create visually exciting images, whatever the subject might be.
Sebastiao Salgado — for the determination of documenting nature and humanity in a breathtaking way.
Mert and Marcus — for creating amazing fashion photography and portraits.
Vincent Peters — for creating an amazing atmosphere and light in his portrait of famous people.
Phillip Toledano — for taking portraits of subcultures in a very intimate way.
Edward Burtynsky — for his über large -format photographs of industrial landscapes and the impact of humans on the planet.
Annie Leibovitz — for her great sets and lighting.
Richard Avedon — for the honest portraits.”

What was the most prestigious prize you have ever won? With which project?
“2011 Winner of the New York Photo Awards 2011 in the Category — Editorial — Series / — The Girl Got Balls.

2011 Nomination and 3rd place — Dutch Photography Prize — Zilveren Camera / — The Girl Got Balls”

Can we see your work exhibited anywhere?
“The recently shot ‘The Children of Vogue’ series will be exhibited during the Amsterdam Gay Pride at the V&D window display on the Rokin side 22 July — 7 August

‘The Children of Vogue’ series. Credits: Marcus Köppen

‘The People of Wasteland’ series will be exhibited in Kuala Lumpur at Whitebox Gallery, from 1–15 August.

The People of Wasteland. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

You also can see and purchase my Cityscape work in a limited edition at Foam editions in Amsterdam all year around.”

Cityscapes. Limited edition Posters available at Foam Amsterdam. Credits: Marcus Köppen.

What’s next?
Finishing ‘The Girl Got Balls’ project and unknown assignments.

And finally: Amsterdam, Kuala Lumpur or Berlin?
Amsterdam for now.

Thank you Marcus.

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