German Star Photographer Thomas Hoepker "I Photograph What's There"

People sunbathing on 9/11, Muhammad Ali's fist, celebrities enjoying intimate moments -- these are some of the famous images taken by German star photographer Thomas Hoepker. Two exhibitions currently running in Germany take a closer look at his work.

By Heiko Klaas and Heiko Klaas

A 1997 photograph shows Muhammad Ali, the world's most famous heavyweight boxer, sitting in front of a limousine with his eyes shut. In the picture, Ali, who was once an icon of African-American pride but who now suffers from Parkinson's disease, is holding an album of photographs by Thomas Hoepker, opened to the page showing Ali in 1966. In the black-and-white photo in the album, the young, bare-chested Ali leaps over the security rail of a bridge across the Chicago River. The Chicago skyline can be seen in the background.

Such dreamlike celebrity portraits can only be crafted during special moments -- all the more so when a special relationship has developed between the photographer and his model, as is the case with Hoepker and Ali. It's a relationship of mutual trust, sympathy and perhaps even budding friendship.

Born in 1936, German photo journalist Thomas Hoepker traveled to Chicago for several weeks in 1966. The German weekly Stern had asked him to accompany the boxing world's new cult personality. Racial segregation was still prevalent at the time, especially in the south of the United States. And Cassius Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, was showing his fist at least partly to protest the oppression and discrimination of other people of color in his country.

Thomas Hoepker engaged totally with the star -- even if Ali didn't always show up to their appointments and could be capricious at times. With his pronounced tendency to pose and create a certain image for himself, Ali repeatedly presented the German photographer with opportunities for unusual and sometimes intimate photos.

Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe is now paying homage to Hoepker, who has been living in New York City for almost 30 years, with a large retrospective showing works from the period between 1955 and 2005. In parallel, Hamburg's Robert Morat Gallery is showing selected photographs by Hoepker.

The photo journalist travelled the entire world, contracted by various magazines and able to work under superb conditions, with a generous expense account and plenty of time. Back then, in the golden age of photo journalism, he always had the room to maneuver which he needed to work freely -- one reason why he always also took his own photographs alongside those which had been commissioned. Hoepker calls these more personal photographs his "marginal pictures."

Carefree in the face of catastrophe

One of Hoepker's best-known photographs has a distinctly disturbing quality. It was taken on Sept. 11, 2001. The day before, the world-famous photo agency Magnum, which Hoepker belongs to, had held a meeting in New York. On the morning of the terrorist attacks, Hoepker received a phone call at his home on the Upper East Side, telling him the World Trade Center was in flames.

He got into his car and drove across the Queensboro Bridge in the direction of Brooklyn. He could already see the pillar of smoke rising from southern Manhattan across from him; the voice on the radio spoke of up to 20,000 deaths.

Then, in a small park on the Brookyn side of the East River, he saw five young people sitting and talking to each other in the morning sun, perfectly relaxed -- an image of normality in the face of terror. Thomas Hoepker stopped the car and photographed the moment without hesitating.

The situation is paradoxical -- people relaxed and carefree while the World Trade Center collapses just a few kilometers away. At first the image didn't seem relevant to the photographer. "It was too distant and ambiguous," he says. But of course the photo poses a question: What was the reality of Sept. 11, 2001?

After it was published, the photo sparked polemical discussion in the United States. Hoepker was the target of criticism from the political right, who branded his photo a banalization of terror. But he knew how to defend himself. "This image is situated in the nowhere land of realities," he says. "It's dazzling, and everyone sees something else."

Starved Christmas geese

Hoepker was always interested in politics, in the unknown world behind what meets the eye and in the reality of everyday life, complete with all its apparently negligible details. During the 1970s, he had the opportunity to live in East Berlin with his then-wife and take pictures there. His role was clearly defined, at least in technical terms: According to his visa, he was a "technical assistant" to Stern's correspondent in East Berlin. He used his camera to investigate the other, unknown Germany. Hoepker took pictures of drab concrete housing projects. His subjects included party functionaries looking unintentionally funny at public events, the inevitable Trabi cars and posters of Erich Honecker in front of uniform gray apartment blocks.

But he also visited dissidents such as Wolf Biermann and Robert Havemann. He photographed the cheerful-looking writer Stefan Heym in front of a socialist mural, and old-school communist Anna Seghers in front of her overcrowded bookshelf. One especially striking photograph from 1975 shows the proud proprietor of a privately-owned store. The merchant holds a starved-looking Christmas goose into the camera -- in East Germany, geese were considered a rarity at Christmas time. The picture is typical of Hoepker: Even a topic as serious as the constant food shortages in East Germany is packaged in an image full of humor and empathy.

These days, Hoepker explains, it's become normal for celebrities to be presented to the photographer for half an hour, already styled. "I don't envy my colleagues who have to do that kind of work today," Hoepker says. "When Bush decides to offer a photo session in the United States, they have a person responsible for color coordination who makes sure in advance that the president's tie matches the decoration on the table. Even the baby he's given to hold has been specially chosen."

Hoepker has always used the very latest technology. He began working with color photography as early as the late '60s, and for the past four years, he has used only digital technology.

For the last few years he has been making documentary films with his current wife Christine Kruchen during their travels together. The extinction of Maya culture in Guatemala is one of the issues that currently interest Hoepker, the humanitarian with a camera.

Nothing in Hoepker's pictures looks like it has been retouched, even though the truth is sometimes tough and cruel. "I am and always have been an advocate of spontaneous and realistic photo journalism," he says. "I photograph what's there."

Thomas Hoepher: Photography 1955-2005. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, until March 18, 2006. Selected works are also on show at the Robert Morat Gallery, until March 14, 2007.


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