[21 min read + 5 min media]
In the many interviews I have conducted by Skype in recent years, Katja Ruge was the first one that answered my call with her camera on. I was pleasantly surprised and promptly turned mine when she asked me to do the same. “It’s always nice when you have the opportunity to see the face of who you’re talking to”, she said, and I couldn’t agree more. During the following hour, I had the opportunity to meat her nosey black cat, catch a panoramic glimpse of her warm living room and, obviously, feel the echo of her charming voice. I also quickly figured out that this eagerness for human bonding must have been paramount not only in her work, but also in the way she approaches music, movies and probably any form of art. In the last three decades, Katja made a career in music photography and became known mostly for her intimate portraits of both renowned and emerging musicians. She is also the author of some striking photo reportages that gave birth to the fascinating book Fotoreportage23 – In Search of Ian Curtis (Lauschrausch, 2010) and some very successful and intriguing themed projects and exhibitions such as Can Love Be Synth? (a party series anchored in the look and sound of classic analog synthesizers), Warp 25 – A Musiclabel in Pictures, and, more recently, Ladyflash – Women in Music. Furthermore, she’s a DJ and musician with this huge crush on classic analog synthesizers and a fierce music lover that despises the word “fandom” and music streaming services. She has no prejudice towards technology and social media, though. She is just aware of its pitfalls and how both can sometimes separate us further from the things we cherish and the ones we care about.
How do you consume music nowadays?
I hate music streaming. I really don’t like Spotify’s interface, I hate those colours, and I find the sound to be crap. I suppose that there are streaming services with better audio quality, but being a music photographer and a DJ I feel inclined to buy music. I love Bandcamp, because nowadays most underground labels have a profile in it where you can buy their music. I also buy vinyl and luckily I have a friend that digitally rips them for me. Some years ago, I transferred to my computer most of my CDs and then I got rid of them.
Really? Wasn’t that painful?
Not at all. The thing is, I’m not the kind of person who needs to own things. We’re in 2016 and it doesn’t make sense to me to own music in a physical format.
And what about the artwork? Don’t you miss it?
Well, if we’re talking about special CDs, like my Warp Records collection, or the ones I did the artwork, then I keep them. But then again, I didn’t do a lot of album covers, so that’s why it’s probably something that I’m not attached to.
And could you name one piece of artwork that you feel particularly proud of?
I did the cover for Soap & Skin’s Lovetune for Vacuum (2009), she’s an amazing Austrian singer and artist. Actually, I made a photo shoot with her in my house. The photo on the cover was taken in my living room and then she did something that most photographers hate, but that I actually love, which was to darken it a lot, because she felt it would fit better her music.
I always try to get the picture right at the moment when I’m taking it, I don’t rely much in retouching.
When did music and photography start to intertwine in your life?
Probably, when I was seventeen. I did my apprenticeship in a photo lab for two years, developing films and brush retouching, and at the same time I would be always listening to radio, you know, back in the days when radio was still great. Actually, when I was ten, I was already pretty deep into popular music, buying my first albums and listening to records on headphones while my parents were watching TV. I remember that when I was eleven I bought what is still today the most important record of my life, The Human League’s Dare (1981). That album had a huge impact on me.
And when did you start to take music-related photographs?
I can’t say exactly. Around that same time I used to go to an indie club in Hamburg called Kir and that’s where I met a dear friend, Toni, who was doing interviews with bands for the Zillo magazine. One day, she asked me if I wanted to take pictures to illustrate her pieces. So, I wasn’t really looking for it, it kind of happened naturally.
And did that apprenticeship in a photo lab influence your work? Do you, for instance, do a lot of post-editing?
Well, I try not to. I’m from the old days of analog photography, and back in those days you didn’t do a lot of editing, unless you had some spots that needed retouching. Actually, the only kind of post-editing I do is to add an analog vibe to my digital photographs, adding a little bit of grain in order to obtain a vintage feel or look. I always try to get the picture right at the moment when I’m taking it, I don’t rely much in retouching. There are, of course, people who love doing it and are really dedicated to this side of photo production, but that’s really not my thing.
What attracts you in the photo reportage format?
I always work better when I have an idea, a concept or a name to anchor my approach on photography. I’m very focused when I work on a specific project. Though I’m probably most known for my portraits, I really enjoy the storytelling side of photo reportage.
You always think of Joy Division in black and white. All the iconic pictures and covers are in black and white. It’s a black and white band.
Can I assume that your book Fotoreportage23 – In search of Ian Curtis is a product of fandom?
No. I’m not a fan of Joy Division. Actually, I don’t think I’m a fan of anything.
You have a problem with the tag, then.
Yes. It comes from fanatic. And, nowadays, unfortunately, fanatics rule the world. I mean, I might enjoy a band, but if that band releases a bad record, I won’t buy it. That happened to me one time with New Order, for instance. When it comes to music, I’m very open-minded; I don’t like to be nostalgic or to let my tastes be guided by fandom.
But, nevertheless, you did publish a book about Ian Curtis. What fascinates you in him? What drove you to make that book in the first place?
I never had a plan. When I heard rumors that there was going to be a film about Joy Division directed by Anton Corbjin, I found a page on the Internet with a list of places you were supposed to visit as a Joy Division fan. Because I am very interested in history, I thought that next time I’ll go to Manchester, I’d visit some of these places. I lived in Manchester in the beginning of the nineties and coming back made me realized how much the city had changed. When I started to take some pictures with the Holga, which is a crazy camera I got from a friend in New York, I wasn’t even thinking of making a book. That camera choice ended up being appropriate, because Ian Curtis always stroke me as someone from out of this world for some reason, probably because he’s dead in the first place and I’ll never have the chance to meet him. The way the Holga captures light gives a gloomy or otherworldly character to the photographs that suits this perception I have of him. Plus, you always think of Joy Division in black and white. All the iconic pictures and covers are in black and white. It’s a black and white band. When I was taking pictures of those spooky places, I could feel such a weird vibe that sometimes I had to stop and wonder what was going on or happening to me. It was a pretty intense experience. A little bit like listening to their music, I guess.
So, I’m still supposed to believe that you are not a fan of Ian Curtis…
[Pause] Well, I do love him. [Laughs]
Did you enjoy the movie Control?
I went to the premiere in Berlin, but I left before the end, because I couldn’t bare that last crematorium scene. I saw it again some time later and I didn’t like it. [Laughs]
I like music that is intense and abstract. It also has to be a bit annoying at some point in order to interfere with your brain synapsis.
Moving on to your Can Love Be Synth? project. Analog synthesizers are historically way less glamourized than, say, electric guitars in popular music. Was that the reason that made you focus on them?
Not only do I own a Roland System 100 from 1978 as I am connected to the Synthesizer Studio in Hamburg, which has over 30 classic analog synthesizers, from the Minimoog to very old organs. Plus, I also use this kind of equipment when I create music with my friend Frank Husemann. About ten years ago, Groove magazine asked me to take some photographs of analog synthesizers for one of their issues. When I was looking at the stills on my computer, I thought, “Well, that’s not very interesting”. That’s when I came up with the idea of adding some spacey background patterns that were taken from my breakfast plate or some wrapping paper. The funny thing was that, in the following years, a lot of people told me that each of these backgrounds looked exactly how each synthesizer sounded like. And, mind you, at the time I made these collages I wasn’t even aware of the sonority of all of them.
The whole project then had a life of its own. I had the chance to make an exhibition together with over 80 analog synthesizers at Kunsthaus Graz, and other solo exhibitions in Berlin, A Synth Fest (St. Gallen), Fantastic Gondolas (Lech am Arlberg), SXSW Festival (Austin), Reeperbahnfestival (Hamburg) and Gottwood Festival (Wales). In 2010, I started the party series Kann denn Liebe Synthie sein? (Can Love Be Synth?) in Hamburg, which has been pretty successful (I also DJ in these). And then, of course, I had the fabulous opportunity in 2015 to project this synth series over snowy mountains, which was insane.
You already talked about the huge impact of The Human League in your musical tastes and you have had an acclaimed and awarded exhibition about Warp Records artists in 2014. What appeals to you in electronic music?
Well, I’m a child of the eighties. I grew up with Kraftwerk and The Human League. I DJ electronic music and, as a big hobby of mine, I create some electronic music as well. In general, I like music that is intense and abstract. It also has to be a bit annoying at some point in order to interfere with your brain synapsis.
I think that the success of some female artists give people a wrong impression about the difficulties of women to strive in the music business.
There has been a lot of press and media coverage of your latest exhibition Ladyflash – Women in Music. Do you think women have nowadays a bigger role in music business?
Not at all.
Well, Adele’s latest album has been one of the most successful of the last decade.
That’s just one woman. It does not mean anything. The success of women like Adele or Beyoncé might give you a distorted impression.
But it’s not only about sales. There has been quite a lot of critical appraisal and media coverage on female artists in 2016, and I’m talking about records that directly address the place of womanhood in either contemporary society or the music business. It’s the case of this year’s albums from Beyoncé, Solange, Angel Olsen, Jenny Hval, Dawn Richards, Mitski, Margaret Glaspy, Franki Cosmos, Tegan and Sara, or even Anohni.
I don’t know, I can’t tell. [Pause] I think that the success of some female artists give people a wrong impression about the difficulties of women to strive in the music business. Music is ran by men and there’s still a long way to go. I might agree that it’s slowly getting better, but even today there are women who are making great music and don’t get the same opportunities as men. The reason I worked so hard in Ladyflash over the last years is because I wanted to show talented women that, in spite of creating fabulous music, are still unknown to the mainstream. And that really pisses me off. The real reward of this exhibition is having people telling me that my portraits of female musicians and singers made them discover their music.
And what can you tell me about your forthcoming book with Andrew Prinz, Shoegaze: from Dreampop to Space Rock – and Beyond?
I have this huge photo archive of Shoegaze. Back in the days I was raving at the Haçienda in Manchester, I was also attending Shoegaze concerts. That kind of music is also very intense and loopy, it’s really up my alley. I’ve been very busy lately with other projects, but I think that the book is hopefully going to happen in 2017.
And what’s your take on the on-going democratization of photography? Today’s digital media landscape is definitely image-centric and it seems that everybody is having a chance to express themselves through photography.
I think it’s great that a lot of people are now able to take and share photographs. I take pictures with my iPhone all the same and I love it: it’s simple, easy and full of possibilities. But photography for me is also a process. I’ve been taking photographs for almost thirty years now and I learnt so much from my mistakes. As you grow as a person, so grows the quality of your photographs. In music photography, for instance, a lot of work has to be done in order to connect with the person you are about to portray. It’s a slow and intense process that does not rely only on technique or equipment. Just like music, there is a human side, a need of bonding in photography that is absolutely crucial for me. Then, of course, you’ve got to be always on and connected, you’ve got to be at the right place at the right time. It’s a permanent search, an enduring learning process. And it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a small or a big job: you always have to be committed one hundred percent.
Back in the mid-nineties, when my work was already getting some attention, I refused to give interviews, because I felt I wasn’t ready to talk about it, that I was still learning my craft. To be a real photographer, or to be any kind of artist, you really have to take your time, which is the absolute opposite of what Instagram or social media stands for. Don’t get me wrong, I love and use social media a lot, and it can be a great tool when used wisely. My point is, you always have to be honest with your work and dedicate yourself fully in developing your skills. That’s what being a photographer is all about for me.
Is it harder to be a music photographer today than it was, let’s say, twenty years ago?
I think that today, if you’re a musician, it’s more important than ever to work on your visual outgoing. You definitely need a creative person to work on it to make a difference. There are so many outlets today, both analog and digital, that when you are taking a picture, you have to think in advance about the possibility o it being incorporated in posters, merchandising and social media. Imagine you have ten bands having a gig this weekend, and there is only place for two in an online magazine: who is going to be chosen? The ones with the best pictures.
Both featured photographs in the snow by J Konrad Schmidt.
Read our BPI Q&A with Katja Ruge here.