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When I met her she wanted “glamorized,” “nice” looking pictures—no way, not with me.


Stefan Rohner

Stefan Rohner is an Ibiza, Spain-based photographer. He is a member of the photo agency Anarchy Images and a founder of Still-Dancing , a cooperative gallery. Stefan’s work has appeared at the Galerie Lichtpunkt in Munich. He has taught at the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) at the Petersburg Photo Workshops and The International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) in Latvia. His recent exhibits include “The King is Coming,” a journey through Morocco, and an exhibit on Latvia

Wayne: Can you talk about growing up in Germany. What was your childhood like?

Stefan: I grew up with my parents and siblings in a village outside the big cities, at the border of Lake Constance. The area has a beautiful landscape, but a rather conservative, closed environment. I very much enjoyed the journeys to Italy, where I went on holidays every summer—since my mother was born and raised in Italy, and I grew up bilingual. All the antique viewings, cathedrals, museums, sculptures and paintings. The feeling of the old cities with the warmth of the Italian people left an important mark in my youth.

Wayne: How did you get started in painting? What kind of exposure did you have to the arts, and when and where did your interest in the visual arts begin?

Stefan: At the end of my school studies I met a very interesting arts professor. He was a great inspiration to me. He opened my eyes to painting and sculpture, he also introduced me to the wonderful world of classical music. At the time I was around 17 to 19 years old. With him I made my first steps with brush, canvas and plaster. Later here on Ibiza I started working with wood, using a chainsaw and an axe, influenced by Georg Baselitz’s sculptures.

Wayne: How did you end up leaving the Lake Constance area? What kind of painting do you do these days?

Stefan: At the age of 21, I moved from southern Germany to Berlin, escaping from my conservative surroundings, escaping from the organized ‘everything has to have its order’ society, breaking out from my parents’ house, and going to see the ‘big world’ outside of the small, provincial town. Berlin was great: galleries, museums, independent arts, artists from all over the world. Everything I saw influenced me, sunk inside me. I started to paint a little more seriously. I loved the Junge Wilde movement: big, big canvases, big brushes, quick and wild paintings. I loved [Rainer] Fetting, [Helmut] Middendorf, Salome, they had a huge influence on me. Later I found Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.

Painting was a way to find my own way, to find the sense of life. Why do we live? There must be something more than only the conservative values that our society instills in us as we grow up—at least better than those I grew up with. After four grey and cold winters I left Berlin and Germany. I came here to Ibiza for work reasons, but I kept on painting, still looking for the sense of life. Painting was very important to me. I turned to it whenever I felt bad, whenever I was depressed or heartsick. Later on in Ibiza, I became influenced by Soutine, Miquel Barceló and Bernhard Heisig.

I am not painting anymore. I feel more at peace inside, an important reason for this is my wife Carina Berlingeri . ‘Thank you’ to her! I also felt that when I reached the point where I knew how to do certain things, how to form a picture, how to compose it, how to express myself, I stop, I want to go new ways. One of those was letting go of painting and taking photography seriously. I had taken pictures when I was in Berlin—I got an old Nikon FM2 at a flea market—but I never took photography seriously until some years ago. Back then, I never developed any film myself, nor printed pictures, just looked at them on the contact sheets that I got back from the shops.

Wayne: The Galerie Lichpunkt has said that you enjoy the encounter with the “living document.” How do painting and photography compare for you, especially for portraiture?

Stefan: I remember only painting two to three portraits ever. Most of the time I was lost in some abstract fantasy world inspired by music or by the work of other painters. For my human portraiture I need time: time to establish a relationship to the photographic subject, time to get to know her or him, time to build up reciprocal trust, get to feel secure, lose fears and shyness—on both sides.

Both the photographer and the one being photographed must feel good, feel free. It can also happen that at the first encounter no picture is made, that there have to be several meetings to establish the trust I am speaking of. Other times it happens quickly. Every person is different, has her or his own times, reacts differently to the camera. To me, as a photographer, the most important things are the emotions of the model; they have to be positive and open. If somebody doesn’t want to be photographed I respect that wish and don’t take pictures. No problem at all. So painting is a mere expression of myself and my feelings, photography on the other side is an interaction with the other human being in front of the lens.

Wayne: In explaining your photography, your fellow Ball Saal member Edward van Herk has said that painting taught you about “structure, grain and strong composition.” How exactly has each of those concepts translated into your photography?

Stefan: I love grain and structure. In some of my paintings I experimented with sand and plaster, giving more structure and making the surface more alive, more vivid. Strong composition to me has graphical order. With a well-ordered graphical composition you can create wonderful depth, space and room, have an interesting, three-dimensional photograph. This is one of the reasons I still do my black and white work with film, the end result on fiber paper is still an unique thing, structure, grain, gloss and depth, wonderful. It also is a beautiful feeling to hold in your hands a piece of art made all by yourself, from the beginning to the end, handcrafted, there’s no machine that can give you such a feeling. A strong character adds also a lot to a picture, we are all unique and beautiful human beings in our own way, I like to capture this uniqueness, one part of it, keeping that moment alive forever. 

Wayne: You say that you were able to put down your paint brushes because you came to feel more at peace. Why does photography reflect that inner peace better for you than painting does? What motivated your transition from inspirations such as the Junge Wilde movement–with its quick, decisive strokesto the more deliberate pace of something like portraiture, which requires you to be deliberate and get to know your subjects?

Stefan: As I said, painting was sort of a liberation for me: very self centered.There was no one else involved. It was something that came from inside me and had to be let out. Painting is a philosophical process, a process that goes on until the work is finished. Some paintings you never finish, since your ideas and feelings change constantly.

To me photography is different. I took it up in a different stage of my life, when I was ready to let go of myself and get in more profound contact with other human beings. It’s like a binary, two ways, from me to the one being portrayed, and from him to me. To me, photography is “easier.” It is less abstract. When you portray a human being with a camera, in most cases you create a reproduction of an image, whereas in painting you are influenced far more by your own feelings, way of view.

Wayne: In what ways do you collaborate artistically with your wife Carina?

Stefan: When I started in portraiture, Carina was my first model, she had to put up with both my negative and positive emotions, depending if things went wrong or right. I was training myself with her as my model, testing my patience and hers, trying to figure out composition, emotion, light. When we worked on taking pictures, we went through very strong emotions. I was never satisfied. Later, though, when I saw the negatives, I would become happy again.

Wayne: Many of your portraits are gritty and less glamorized, yet they are still beautiful, since you seem to capture the dignity of your subjects. How fair is that characterization? What do you do to capture that sense? How do you choose your subjects, and how do you reach that level of understanding with them? What must a photographer do to establish that kind of rapport?

Stefan: In our world we are surrounded by glamorized images, superficial advertisments in magazines, TV and so on, so there is no need to produce more of this stuff. I agree with you about the characterization. I like to show strong “characters,” fascinating people like Otix, a musician and DJ. Or Alice… when I met her she wanted “glamorized,” “nice” looking pictures—no way, not with me.

Most of my models are friends, neighbours, normal people. It is important to make your model comfortable. There has to be trust between the model and the photographer; the photographer has to have respect for the model. With some people you get to that in a short time; with others you need to communicate over a longer period to establish a relaxed and trusting relationship.

Juan was surprised when I told him that I wanted to photograph him, I made it clear that he was a very interesting personality, it took me some days to convince him. He thought that he was ugly and old. He owns a piece of land in the middle of the town, where he lives in a trailer and rents parking spaces—what a wonderful experience to sit there and hear him tell stories. You also learn a lot about life from these people.

Yanny, a Russian artist who grew up in New York, has lived in Ibiza for 35 years. Mora, another artist. Most of these people are existentialists, they live their own lives on the border of ordered society, that’s what I love, what I admire. When I edit the work I make, I try to show them as strong characters, as interesting personalities. I try to show what makes them interesting to me.

Wayne: Speaking of subjects, some of your most notable photographs are of your daughter Ariel. In some of your photos of her, she is this wonderful blur of activity. In others, she is still and angelic. How deliberate or systematic is your photography of herof your other family members? How much of it is simply capturing certain moments? And what advantages or disadvantages are there in knowing a subject that well? Since you wife Carina is also a photographer, she likewise spends time documenting Ariel’s life. How different, photographically, do you and Carina see Ariel?

Stefan: Thank you, Wayne. With Ariél there is nothing serious involved. Never. I think that around 95 percent of the pictures of her are quick snapshots, just snippets of daily life. She has known for a long time when she feels like being photographed: if she does not feel like it, she quickly tells us to fuck off. Everything is just normal, no advantages or disadvantages, it is just love! It flows alone….

I don’t know if there is a difference (stylistically) between Carina and me in taking pictures of our children. We are around them everyday. We spend a lot of time together, in different activities. We take pictures when we feel like it. The most important thing is to respect the children’s wish to be photographed or not. Other than that there’s no limitation or imposition.

Wayne: One of your latest series is “The King is Coming: A Journey through Morocco.” What inspired you to document Morocco?

Stefan: I have been traveling to Morocco for more than four years now. Every time I go, I spend time with people in their homes, becoming part—even if only for a short time—of their lives, events, such as weddings. Every time we go back I bring them prints of the pictures I’ve taken. We talk as well as we can, eat together, spend time together. Morocco is wonderful. The people, once you get to know them and respect their way of life, are warm and open. In this last series, though, I took a step back. I wanted to be less involved as a photographer. I wanted to be more of an observer, with less communication, less a dreamy and romantic mood than my work in India, just showing the place.

Wayne: What inspired the creation of Still Dancing? What do you see as its over-arching mission, and what kind of need was there for this kind of group?

Stefan: When I started to take photography more seriously, of course, I also started to have a look around, to see what others did, if there was a way to exchange experiences, ideas, points of view. What I found was disappointing—not because I didn’t find good photography, but because of the superficiality most photography sites were based on. The more nice comments you wrote, the better your own pictures supposedly became.

There are a lot of great photographers out there, our goal at Still-Dancing is to show their work, be it through the monthly exhibitions or through active membership and participation, exchange honest and open critiques, and share our knowledge in an open workshop forum in order to help those who want to learn and take their passion for photography one step further. We don’t care about style, so anybody who applies for membership is welcome, she or he just needs a strong portfolio.

Wayne: You have mentioned a number of painters who have inspired you, but which photographers have been your greatest inspirations, and in what ways?

Stefan: When I started seriously with my first portrait work I did it with a digital camera. Then I found the work of Mary Ellen Mark and Anton Corbijn and asked myself how they got that nice square format! That’s when I learned about 120mm film, bought a used Hasselblad and started to develop my own film. Before this I trained my eyes for a long time by photographing my portraits with a regular, digital 35mm camera, like I would use the square format; I simply cropped the pictures later in Photoshop. Just recently I found the work of the Spanish photographer Alberto Garcia Alix, I think he is a very interesting photographer.

When diving deeper into photography I found Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, I started to buy books, for example “The Italians” by Bruno Barbey. What impressed me most was “Gypsies” by Joseph Koudelka and “The Mennonites” by Larry Towell. I bought more books and a rangefinder camera, went out in the streets to catch daily life and decisive moments. I left portraiture aside and dove fully into street photography. Street is fun!  To briefly meet people, talk to them or just run around without communicating—catching emotion and moments. There is never repetition, the moments are always new.