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Dietmar Busse is (primarily) a fine-art photographer living in a one bedroom walk-up in that nondescript neighborhood around lower Lexington Avenue. His apartment has become the set of an amazing series of portraits that he calls “The Visitors”.

In the years that I have known Dietmar he has done some beautiful fashion work,

photographed NYC street-life,

hung out with barbershop beauties,

went full floral,

and documented where he grew up in northern Germany.

His work is intense and calm at the same time and always feels personal. Whenever I stopped by Dietmar’s place over the last few years he had rough prints of new mesmerizing portraits pinned up. I’m very happy that he agreed to be interviewed for The Heavy Light.

Dirk Anschütz: First things first, Dietmar. Why did you become a photographer?

Dietmar Busse: (Laughs) Well, after I finished high school I was not sure what to do. I signed up for Law School in Berlin and went for one day. At the same time I found out that I got accepted for a job in the south of Spain, that I had applied for earlier. I immediately hitchhiked to Badajoz only to find out that I really didn’t like my prospective employers. On my way back to Berlin I stopped in Madrid and met all these creative people, designers, artists, and so on and I became friends with a model and a photographer. I guess somehow I always wanted to be an artist but I never thought of photography as an accessible career and talking to my new friends changed that. I thought, I can do that. The model was friends with Michael Wray, an English photographer and I ended up being his assistant. We often had 2 or 3 shoots in a day. It was insane, but the great thing was that we did everything. Studio, runway, location, still life. I learned everything from 35mm to 4×5. I just received an amazing amount of knowledge in only two years.

DA: How did you decide to come to the US?

DB: After I finished working for Michael (I was exhausted), I felt that there was really not a lot to learn for me anymore in Madrid. I stayed for another two years mostly partying and building up my portfolio, but I knew I had to leave Spain and decided to go to Milan. Then a friend talked me out of it and convinced me to go to New York. I didn’t know anybody except one person who I had met a few weeks earlier in Madrid and who gave me his business card. I called him up and by coincidence his roommate had left and I had a room in New York.

DA: So, let’s talk about “the Visitors”. What made you start that series?

DB: I did so many different things from fashion, reportage, still life to glueing flowers on to myself for a few years. So here, I wanted to start a body of work that was cohesive and coherent. Something that was very focused. I wanted to work on something that I love. I wanted to work on something very simple. I love the intimacy of a studio as opposed to location and I figured, oh, I can do this in my apartment. I like being here and I like to invite people into my little world. I love being with people especially in a small setting and I love people that stand out in society especially visually. I love fashion and I asked people to dress up, so that gave me a chance to bring a fashion aspect into my work without dealing with magazines and agencies and all that.

DA: How did you get people to sit for you? Isabelle Toledo for instance?

DB: I worked with Isabelle Toledo before. I shot her for a magazine in the 90’s. I love her and love her work. It’s people like her that make it exciting to be in New York.

DA: How about Allanah Starr?

DB: Well, in the beginning of the project I would go out and ask people on the street, later I went clubbing to spots that are still pretty crazy. Allanah was referred to me through a friend at a nightclub. A lot of the casting was word of mouth. Or if I wanted to photograph somebody, I tried to find someone that knew that person, so they could make an introduction for me.

DA: Was there anything that surprised you during the project?

DB: No, not really. I guess sometimes I’m surprised by the results. During the shoots of this project I was working in a small studio, locked up almost, with people I really didn’t know. So, there’s an emotional response to that. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like a weird encounter. Sometimes it feels like it wasn’t a good shoot, and then I look at the contacts and they’re great. It’s very intense. I mean the work is intense, because I’m intense (laughs). Sometimes I look at work that I shot a few years ago and I’m amazed at how good it is and I can’t understand why I picked such a mediocre picture as my final selection or why I wasn’t happy with the photographs back then.

DA: What equipment do you use?

DB: (Rolls his eyes, laughs) I’m really not interested in the technical aspects of photography.

DA: Come on, you might not be a gear-head but you create a very specific and consistent look that could not be achieved with any old camera.

DB: Ok, I’m only interested in the technical part as far as it will help me get the results I want. With the set-up here I keep it to the minimum. I only thought about it in the beginning, now everything is always the same. I use a Hasselblad from the 500 series for the quality. I always work with one lens, an 80 mm. I use always strobe, never daylight. The light [an ancient “brown” Speedotron. DA] is always set up, I just have to push the on button and move the stand into position. I painted the background gray, it’s a wall in my apartment. I don’t think about it anymore. That way I can concentrate on the sitter. I don’t change the camera, the film, the light. During the shoot I don’t want to think about the technical part.

When I’m on assignment I always have to adapt to the given situations. Here it’s always the same. That said, I got a new lens recently for close-up work, a 120 mm Macro.

DA: Tell me about the double exposures.

DB: It basically started as an accident. I was printing in a rental lab and exposed a sheet of paper with two negs. First I threw it in the trash, but then I pulled it out again and took it home to look at it. I thought it looked a lot like photo school, but it also just looked right, then I went back to the lab and tried it with a few more negs.

The use of multiple negatives allows me to go past what you see through the viewfinder and explore a world of fantasy.

DA: How do you decide which images to combine?

DB: It has to feel right. I look. I play. What I have as landscapes in black & white is from my village in Northern Germany. So I have to see what’s there. Trees, or cows, or meadows. I look to combine images that have an integrity on their own, that don’t need help. I look at a portrait and I wonder what would he look like with an upside down tree in his face (laughs).

It combines two very strong and influential experiences of mine that are very far apart. My growing up on a small farm in Germany and my life in New York.

DA: You’ve shot some very different projects but there is a combining quality to all your work. How would describe your approach to photography?

DB: I see myself as a story teller. I like to show things that I feel. Photography for me is a way to communicate emotions. A photograph has to feel honest to me.

I’m always interested in showing beauty, even if it’s a fat man with pimples and only one eye (laughs).

DA: Thanks a lot for the interview.

Dietmar Busse’s website

You can also see for yourself where the magic happens, because Dietmar has an open studio this coming Saturday (Dec. 11th) and Sunday (Dec. 12th) from 2 PM to 8 PM
at
120 Lexington Avenue, Apt. 4E (@ 28th Street)
New York, NY 10016
(212)683-0865

All images in this post ©Dietmar Busse.

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A few months after 9/11 I received a phone call from Michele Fleury , the photo editor at The Advocate, a gay interests magazine based in L.A.. They wanted to publish a tribute to honor New York’s gay and lesbian police officers and firefighters and Michele wanted me to shoot a group portrait of some of these brave individuals. I was thrilled about the assignment to say the least.

I’ve known about this rooftop location with full view of The New Yorker Hotel for a while since an acquaintance had his studio in this building. I’ve always wanted to shoot there but held back until I needed the “ultimate” NY backdrop. Obviously now was the time. I called my buddy and asked if he could get me up on the roof. He hemmed and hawed a bit but finally agreed for a reasonable fee. Rooftop access wasn’t really in his studio lease, but I figured once I was up there with a bunch of cops I could talk my way into or out of anything.

The group shot went pretty smooth even though we had only one fireman. The FDNY was still so decimated from all their losses during the attacks that only one of the openly gay firefighters could make it to the shoot.

Some of the stories we heard that day were truly heartbreaking. One of the police officers, who was securing the area downtown during the attacks ran into his boyfriend, a firefighter on that September morning. They talked briefly and then went on to do their jobs. The cop survived, the fireman did not.

Everybody in this picture lost friends and colleagues that day.
It’s still hard to think back to all the grief that came to New York that day.

Beside the group shot there was another picture I wanted to do that day. Part of the inspiration came from a 1993 New Yorker Valentine’s Day cover by Art Spiegelman.

 

In the summer of 1991 a car that was part of a motorcade for a hasidic Rabbi, spun out of control in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and killed 7 year old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants.
The Jewish driver of the car was beaten by bystanders and taken from the scene by a Jewish ambulance while police and other EMT were still trying to free the child from underneath the car. Black locals perceived this as favoritism and became outraged. Rumors and allegations started flying, mixed with long held grievances, stewed in the August heat, and finally exploded in what became known as the Crown Heights Riots. A few hours after the deadly traffic accident a young hasidic scholar named Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed to death. The riots went on for a few days, partially because Mayor Dinkins couldn’t bring himself to act decisively against the violence. These events probably cost Dinkins his job and poisoned race relations in New York for years.

A while later the Valentine’s Cover appeared on newsstands and started a big controversy. People were outraged, outraged I tells ya. But when asked what was so outrageous about kissing a Jew or a black person, well, a few brave, confused souls contorted themselves in pseudo theological arguments but most just knew better and shut up at that point.

I had never read the New Yorker before, my English wasn’t up to snuff back then, but I had been a fan of Spiegelman ever since I’d read Maus, and I was totally amazed that a magazine would do a cover like that. To throw a nice little peace bomb into a hateful situation, to help a city return to civility, was just a fantastic piece of publishing. It also drove home the point that you can express certain things with a picture that cannot be expressed with words.

That cover drawing popped back into my mind when Michele called me with this assignment.
The rights of gays and lesbians represent probably the last major frontier in the long struggle for equality in the US and I thought photographing a kiss between a gay cop and a gay firefighter could be my modest contribution to the cause.

But when the shoot came I was extremely nervous about asking for the kiss. Obviously there was only one firefighter (so I knew who to pick from that camp) and I thought I should probably ask the friendliest cop, but they were not boyfriend and boyfriend and I was afraid that I would piss them off with my request. Plus, I didn’t want them to think that I’m turning the 9/11 tribute into a joke. So, first I made sure we got the group shot in case they would walk out on me, all the while I was thinking about the proper way for a man to ask a man to kiss another man. Then I took several deep breaths, counted to 10 and just as I was about to pop the big question the friendliest cop started telling me a story about how he and the fireman met a few days earlier in a subway station, both wearing uniforms and how they greeted each other with a big hug and a kiss, and how that was a total freaker-outer for a bunch of subway riders. At that point I just asked if they would recreate that scene in front of my camera and both were immediately into it. Easy as pie.

There was one kind of funny observation I had during the shoot concerning the gay men. By no means would I call my “gaydar” above average but on all the other Advocate shoots I’ve done, I would have known that the guys were gay even if I hadn’t known it already. Yet with these guys in uniform it was different. If I had met them while they issued me a traffic ticket (that’s how I normally hang out with cops), I wouldn’t have thought in a million years that they were gay.

I met some of them again a few months later to give them prints from the shoot and now in civilian clothes they were pretty clearly gay. When they were in uniform it was like they switched something on (or off for that matter).

Years later this is still one of my favorite pictures and as an added bonus it made it into American Photography 19.

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I’m thrilled that Amber Terranova and Amanda Mauro posted my little diabolical photo novella Louise Cypher’s Suitcase on “PDN Photo of the Day” blog.

You can check out the “making of” a little further down this blog.

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