European Street Photography Week: Stefan Lauterbach: Hidden Souls
I chanced upon the work of Stefan Lauterbach while researching the various street photography collectives that seem to proliferate in Europe lately. I was quite taken by his cinematic approach to street photography with shadows beheading his subjects or the eyes of doll-like creatures staring at or following shrouded subjects. In looking at his work, I felt immersed in a darker and sinister world with everyday reminders that snapped me back to the safety of reality. His is a playful photographic style that creates drama out of the ordinary. I was also struck by the fact that Lauterbach is self-taught and is just beginning to introduce his work to a broader audience. The portfolio he presents here, “Hidden Souls”, is a recent assemblage based on years of “fishing” for the decisive moment in his adopted urban setting of Frankfurt-am-Main in central Germany. These are much more than hidden souls as their shadows confuse and abuse the eye in an engaging manner. They also evoke thoughts of loneliness and anomie as life on the streets takes hold.
As Lauterbach describes his project, ““Hidden Souls” is a collection of a certain style of photos I made over the last 2–3 years. My main inspiration are photos that convey a certain mystery. Also, I like a “clean” look, shadows and silhouettes plus shades and layers. Additionally, I am inspired by my love for movies. Cinema always played an important role in my life. I always loved to watch movies, especially the kind which have more darker elements, like horror movies or the old Noir films. As a child, I had to watch them secretly on VHS tapes I got from my grandmother who was also a horror movie lover. Nowadays I also like a variety of this genre of “neo-Noir” films like “Blade Runner”, the first “Terminator”, “Alien”, “Donnie Darko” or “Drive” to name a few. My images are similar in their particular use of light and color and have clean but also complex and sometimes abstract visuals. These films all have characters, that are isolated, shady, or dubious yet also fragile, mysterious, and hidden in the shadows. The photos in this series are an experimental way to convey feelings which I had when I watched those movies in the past. I try instilling my own contemporary vision from daily life with candid situations, mostly in my immediate surroundings. The city of Frankfurt is the perfect set or realistic stage to find moments like that.”
Stefan Lauterbach was born in 1982 in a small village in Germany and moved to Frankfurt am Main in 2009 where he shoots most of his street photography. Stefan is self-taught and has been taking photos for many years. He started street photography in 2017 and has continued to develop since then. It has become a real passion for him. He loves the urban space, which serves as a big stage with endless possibilities. Stefan is happiest when he can combine candid situations with exciting light, shadows, and contrasts. He is therefore constantly on the lookout for moments from everyday life and likes to pack them into graphically appealing compositions with an artistic approach. Sometimes it’s just the small moments and details that we hardly notice in our hectic everyday life. For Stefan it’s also an important contrast to his work-life balance.
Michael Honegger: Your project focuses on strong contrasts, shadows, and isolated figures. What draws you to these elements in your photography?
Stefan Lauterbach: As I said before, on one hand this is the influence of film. On the other hand, many influences increasingly inspired me to use these elements. I study photo books a lot and books by Saul Leiter drew my attention immediately. He has had a major influence on my work. I only started to study Saul Leiter intensively about 2 years ago. I also think that it’s important to break away from your role models at some point or to go your own way when you realize that you’re getting too close to the work of a photographer whom you see as a major influence. That’s why I keep trying to develop my own style. Part of that is the elements mentioned in this question.
I also like to be inspired by current photographs on Instagram. Of course, the so-called “cinematic photography” also appeals to me here, which seems to be experiencing a trend now. I see my project between street photography with a cinematic approach and minimalistic and graphic scenes.
Basically, inspiration comes from many corners, and I absorb what I like and squeeze it out again in my photography.
MH: “Hidden Souls” often displays only parts or silhouettes of individuals. What motivated you to adopt this approach? What message do you hope viewers take away from this intentional portrayal?
SL: My aim is to leave questions unanswered in this series. The viewer should think about who or what these individuals are, where they come from or where they are going. What role do they play in the composition? I like it when things are somehow mysterious, or even spooky and telling a little story of maybe solitude and isolation. Admittedly, sometimes there are purely aesthetic requirements. According to the motto: “Less is more” – a well-known rule in photography is that you should extract all elements in a photo to the essential. Anything that disturbs does not have to be shown. This makes a photo look more interesting and possibly more meaningful. That doesn’t mean it can’t have a more complex composition. On the contrary, the more layers a photo has, and thus becomes “fuller”, the more important it is to pay attention to a good division of the elements at the same time. A photo should never look too overloaded.
MH: Many photographers prefer black and white in street photography. What made you choose to work with color in a genre often associated with monochrome imagery?
SL: I’m somewhat contradicting myself on this question because I said before that I like to work with the ‘less is more’ principle and subtract all the unimportant things from a photo. In addition, one might think that color is sometimes a superfluous element. But I see it differently.
Of course, color can also overload a photo, whenever there are too many different colored elements, or colors distract from the actual subject or topic. I always try to make sure that my photos have a certain color scheme or only a few colors that harmonize with each other. So, in a way I’m reducing here too and taking out disturbing color.
Someone once told me that I see like a black and white photographer and the photos look like colored black and white photos. This is probably because some of my photos often appear monochrome because they use so few colors or only one color. But I also like good black and white photographs and would not rule out working in black and white on another project. In my initial foray with street photography, I only photographed black and white without thinking about it. At some point, however, color simply appealed to me more.
MH: Compositionally, your images offer a blend of emptiness and presence. How do you decide on the placement and framing of your subjects within the urban environment?
SL: There are many different approaches to street photography. But with this project, I normally look for suitable “stages” in the city and wait a lot – often called the “fishing” method. I look for places with exciting light or where I can see that the shadows of people passing look interesting. I also look for reflections, through panes, alleys, and corridors where the light is falling well. I often shoot against the light to get silhouettes and more “cinematic” light. Sometimes it’s not that easy. But it gives exciting results.
There isn’t necessarily a best time of day for me. I often go out to take pictures in the afternoon after work. So I often get a slightly lower sun with long shadows. But light and shadow situations can be just as interesting at midday when the light is really harsh. If there is no sun, I also like to go out at night or stay in a subway station or go to a museum and check for light there as well. Neon signs, shop windows, illuminated buildings, escalators, staircases – the light magically attracts me. Basically, I almost always find suitable spots when I’m photographing in Frankfurt, and I also have a few spots that I keep coming back to because they have a lot to offer. Over time, you also know where and how the light falls somewhere in your own city.
MH: You are a member of an active photo collective in Germany. Can you explain what that membership entails and how useful the collective is to your photographic efforts?
SL: I am a member of “Collateral Eyes”, a local street photography collective in Frankfurt, which tries bringing the local community together, giving street photography a stage in our city and beyond, and making street photography in Germany better known and more tangibly close. We regularly organize free photo walks, and we were also co-founders of “Meet and Street” – a big gathering of the German street photography scene. Back in July 2021, it started small with around 50 participants in Frankfurt, but it has since grown enormously throughout Germany. In essence it is about mutual exchange and not a commercial event. We also call it our “family reunion” because you know some participants for a long time and are happy to see everyone again. Additionally, new acquaintances and friendships are formed
A highlight is an “open wall” where everyone can hang pictures in an area approved by the city and the public can purchase photos for a donation to a street magazine or other social agencies. We have received a lot of positive feedback and collected about 1500 Euros for good causes. The motto is: “From the street, for the street”. The “Meet and Street” gathering now takes place in a different city each year where there are collectives willing to host it. In 2024 it will happen in Hamburg. We are well networked with the various collectives in Germany. We know each other well, swap and exchange ideas regularly, and visit each other in different cities. We go on trips together, plan exhibitions and meet regularly, sometimes online, but preferably in person somewhere in the city to take pictures together and then gather together in a bar.
Regarding to my own photography, this means that I always have experienced photographers around me from whom I can request a critique of an image, for example, or anything else that has to do with photography.
MH: What is next on the horizon with your artistic endeavors?
SL: A good question… I’m constantly evolving and trying to find my own way. In the future, I would like to work more specifically in series and projects. Now, the single image often still dominates. Of course, certain aspects or focal points are also created which can also become a series at some point. That can happen later, as with the project “Hidden Souls”, which I am presenting here for the first time. Another goal for me is to have my own exhibition in the future.
In addition, I would also like to venture into other photographic areas, such as wedding documentary or portraiture but in my own urban style – no studio shots. Preferably out in the city. I have some experience in this area already which I want to expand and offer on my website. I also want to build up a workshop program for street photography. I already have experience with street photography workshops for youth (13-25y) which I give regularly in cooperation with a youth-work church supported by the city.
But one thing for sure, is that street photography will continue to be part of me, and I currently see no end to this passion. On the contrary, I need street photography, as it literally keeps me alive, and I still love going out on the streets and discovering new motifs. It’s getting more difficult over time because my own demands keep growing, but I’m happy to face this challenge and in the end, it drives me to keep going and not lose motivation.
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