Markus Lehr has an interest in how humans have changed the world. He says, “Wandering around I found out that human-altered landscapes can have a character. There is history engraved in them just like in the wrinkles and scars of an older person.” His photos are atmospheric and dramatic, and often have a dream-like quality. I love how he uses light and brings a sense of beauty to mundane scenes. Be sure to check out more of his work on his website, Flickr, and Instagram.
I asked him eight questions about his work and current projects. Our online conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I was born in Bayreuth, a small town in the south of Germany. A sleepy place with an opera house built solely for the music of Richard Wagner, and a few baroque castles. It was a time and an environment of relatively carefree adventures. With my parents’ big garden and the surrounding countryside, I had an intimate relationship with all things nature.
Besides that, I remember the impression my father’s job left on me. He was an engine driver for the German railway. When I was six or seven, I sometimes had the chance to pick him up from work. I remember the railway turntable and the big hall halfway around it full of old steam engines. Luckily his co-workers knew me and so – as often as I could – I would sneak into this hall admiring the huge black machines silently waiting there for the men to wake them up again. I remember the smell and the noise like it was yesterday. It was something very physical.
Today I live Berlin. I moved here in my early 20s to study communication at the University of Arts. At that time the Berlin wall was still around and I am happy that I witnessed the changes in this city during some quite disruptive times.
What projects are you working on these days?
I am following a few themes at the same time. One of them is the idea about man-made landscapes which look at the subject as a kind of living creature. The idea emerged when I was visiting Pavel Petros (a photographer from the Czech Republic you have interviewed before) in Ostrava this summer. I have always been fascinated by landscapes of all sorts but when he showed me a slag heap in his neighbourhood with all the steam coming out of the earth this struck a chord in me and later when I went through the material I realized the potential. My working title for this is “The passionate landscape”.
Another longer term project dates back to the time I spend last year in China. Travelling around there made me aware of the amazing speed in which things develop. A friend there told me they even have a word for it, they call it “Shenzhen speed”. Shenzhen was a fishermen’s village until 1979 with less than 30,000 inhabitants and today there are more than 12 million people living in the area.
At one point I went into something like I thought was a deserted factory. It looked dangerous and fascinating at the same time. And even more so after I found out that people still were working there.
It is interesting in this context to note that the Chinese today have some of the most restrictive environmentally preserving laws worldwide – no joke! These contrasts and what is visible about them intrigues me. Hopefully next year I can go back and dig deeper.
I am also currently exploring the differences between analog and digital photography. I am using various older 35mm and medium format cameras and comparing the outcome with the files of my digital camera. This whole thing has nothing to do with the idea of favouring one above the other. It is more like an exploration to inspire my digital workflow with a deeper understanding for colour, tones and light handling.
Your night photos are beautiful and atmospheric. What draws you to shooting at night?
This is very kind of you. I guess I am a slow shooter. There is very little distraction at night. I have all the time to find my position and compose it exactly the way I want to. The process feels a little bit like meditation.
And then there is the shadow. After a while I found the power of the shadows just as important for a good image as the light. The shadows swallow things I don’t want to show or intentionally keep in a mysterious state of half being.
I think it is equally important to decide what we show and what we don’t.
A sense I get from look at your work is that much of it is very deliberate—unlike some photographers who seem to be all about spontaneity. What role does balancing deliberation with shooting quickly play in your work?
I admire people who have that sense for the right timing, but I simply fail to be fast enough for the decisive moment. Maybe this sounds funny but my eyesight is not the best. I guess this is one of the reasons why I like to have more control over the environment of the places I choose as a location.
Actually I plan a lot before I go out. I use Google street maps to get a rough idea of where to shoot and sometimes even check out the Street View to see whether this or that location might be useful. On the other hand, some of my best shots happened on the way to these planned points or on the way back.
Your work seems mostly concerned with the human-altered landscape. How did you reach this focus? What themes are you exploring?
I think it all started in some industrial backyards of Berlin. The unexpected surprises there opened my eyes to a multitude of scenes which I had thought only existed in movies. Wandering around I found out that human-altered landscapes can have a character. There is history engraved in them just like in the wrinkles and scars of an older person.
At the same time, I discovered the work we now know as “New Topographics”. These photographers, and specifically Stephen Shore, made a deep impression on me.
You rarely include people in your work. Can you describe what interests you in landscapes without people?
I worked in a theatre for some time in my life. And that moment when everybody left and the stage was empty, was always the most precious one for me. The show was over, the things on the stage were still in the light, but nobody was watching them anymore. What I am looking for in landscapes is just like that. I would rather show what people leave behind and how they leave it instead of the moment when things are cooking. After the steam has settled I see the things a bit clearer.
The other thing is that I find it incredibly hard to take images of people without exposing them. I would like to be gentle with them and show them the same way as I do it with my landscapes but so far I believe I haven’t achieved this goal yet.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
I am not the person who takes the camera with me all the time. I do some planning, but I only go out with it when I am hungry for images and when that hunger is over I go home.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
I am not sure if you know Toshio Shibata. I adore him, especially his series called “Water Colors”. I love his colour palette and the way he frames his compositions. A friend of mine recently introduced me to the work of Jörn Vanhöfen, a German photographer who is currently based in Berlin and Johannesburg. I saw an exhibition with some images from his book “Aftermath” which was quite impressive. And finally Tim Kiser–a guy they call the Mark Twain of Flickr. As somebody said: “Tim Kiser’s photos are a laffriot.”
Many thanks to Markus for doing this interview. I’m so appreciative of his thoughtful answers that provide insight into his work. Be sure to check out more of his work on his website, Flickr, and Instagram.