In this conversation with Alumni Officer Belinda Milestone, Karen Fuchs looks back at her life and talks about her inspirations, fate and philosophy that surrounds her retrospective exhibition, Unscripted.
Karen Fuchs internationally renowned photographer and AUB Alumnus has been invited to exhibit at TheGallery. Karen, who graduated in 1992, is a portrait, celebrity and advertising Photographer who has been shooting internationally for the past 20 years. Her work has appeared on the covers of GQ, Sports Illustrated and the Guardian Weekend Magazine to name a few, and has been featured in The Sunday Times Magazine, Elle and FHM. She has also shot advertising campaigns for Puma and Redbull, and has created CD covers for companies including Virgin Records.
1. When did you first become interested in photography?
“I’ve been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. My father was an avid hobby photographer (and actually very good). My grandmother was an artist; she instilled a good eye in him and constantly photographed us on our family’s travels. When we returned to Germany, we’d often have slideshow/super8 projector nights, talking about and recalling our adventures, to keep the time we spent abroad alive for my brother and me. So I always loved looking at picture. I spent hours going through glossy magazines and in my teens often visited the Photography Museum in Frankfurt but I never picked up a camera. Back then everything was manual and I was intimidated by the technical aspect of it. It wasn’t until I started studying Fine Art that I had to do some research for a project and my tutor sat me down to explain how to use a camera properly – I was already 21 then! After 3 days in the field I came back with the results. When my tutor looked at the contact sheets he just said, ‘you better change subjects’. The rest is history…”
2. Born in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and raised in Germany, how has your international upbringing influenced your life?
“I grew up in a protestant household, filled with Hindu and Buddhist Art. In a Hindu Muslim country, with people from all walks of life, different nationalities and colour coming and going – diversity was the norm for me! Since then I’m still aware when there is a lack of said diversity; I love it and embrace it. It’s taught me so much as a person, broadened my horizons and most importantly, I take the person I am opposite of face value and make no judgements. It’s also made me a somewhat ‘fearless’ traveller. Not to say I’m not cautious when I know I’m in area where I need to look out but I have no problem flying to a country I’ve never been to and find my way.”
3. What made you want to come to England to study?
“I had a short mad passionate love affair with a British Musician whom I met while he was on tour in Germany. When I came to visit him in the UK, I befriended one of his neighbours. Through her I became aware of the Arts Studies in the UK, which in my opinion were so much better than anything offered in Germany at the time. Plus I’ve always been a bit of an anglophile; I first came to the UK when I was 12, to Swanage, for an English Language course and returned a couple of times – I fell in love with Dorset all the way back then! So it was multiple factors.”
4. Can you tell us about your time at AUB and how you progressed as a photographer?
“I completed two courses at AUB and had different experiences in each one. The first one from 1987-1989 was an HND and our group was handpicked by our tutors to somewhat clash (in their own words) and spark dialogues – that we certainly had! The tutoring sessions with Chris Fassnidge and Tony Maestra were heated debates that quite often would provoke arguments but because of that it was always thought provoking, stimulating, and inspiring, which of course had an effect on our work. Plus, it was one of the last years of the Benson and Hedges Awards and a couple of other big competitions that had been won by AUB for a number of years. It was expected of us to continue the legacy. We were definitely a wild group with a work hard play hard attitude. It was a time of artistic experimentation, quite intellectual and helped me find my direction in photography – one of the most important aspects of coming here! Once you leave, you’ll never get the time you have here to experiment in different fields. When I graduated in 1989 I assisted in London for 2 years. While working I didn’t have the time to shoot a folio with which I could break out on my own, so I decided to come back for a postgraduate year in 1991. This year was quite different; the group was selected to be a lot more mature, most of us with previous degrees, work experience and we were very small – I think 10 or 11. We got our own production office, were encouraged to work very independently and formed a group with which we managed to exhibit and travel to two Photography Festivals – Arles in France and Primavera in Barcelona, whilst also completing course work. It taught us a lot on so many different levels and was also the foundation to several friendships which have now been my photographic family for over 20 years. The relationships you form here can become invaluable as a photographer, when you need a second opinion/don’t know how something is done or in a shooting emergency – These people will help you! Out in the ‘real’ world, photographers tend to be fiercely competitive, as it is a tough industry.”
5. You have photographed many famous celebrities and athletes. What led you to that specialisation?
“During my first time at AUB I got selected for a small group of students to go up to the Grampian Mountains and document life in and around the distilleries. I think it was this trip that really decided it for me. Shooting people, a portrait in particular, was what I enjoyed most. Catching a glimpse of someone’s character/personality, showing a facet of who they are is a challenge I enjoy. My assisting years, mostly to fashion photographers but who all shot celebrity portraits confirmed this. I truly enjoy working with someone who is as passionate and enthusiastic about their field (be it science, writing, athletics, music…) as I am about photography. Quite often you end up walking away having learnt something new and it can be very inspiring! I take people for face value and treat them normally. This has helped me land those assignments.”
6. In your exhibition on Usain Bolt you photographed his life in more depth what were you hoping to capture?
“Just a side of his character; his life that you don’t get to see every day. By having started shooting him so early, I was given that access and it helps to this day because I’m not a stranger to him and know his immediate surroundings. Not many people get to see him in his natural environment, when he isn’t necessarily putting a show on (though he does have that side to him).”
7. How do you interact your with your subject in order for them to open up to your camera?
“First of all, if it’s someone I haven’t met before I do some research about their work, I try to find something they might not have been asked before, learn a little about them. If it’s an author I might read a book or article. If people feel there is a genuine curiosity, it can help to create an open atmosphere – the key is being open yourself – being genuine. People respond to that. Once I start shooting I tend to take control, I’m very precise to the degree; I will ask someone to look a little higher or lower to get the right angle of the pupil, feeling that they don’t have to do all the work by themselves relaxes people. And once in a while when I get stuck I try throwing a ‘curve-ball’, an element of surprise. Surprise is one time where most people will let their guard down even if just a split second and it’s made some memorable shots and moments!”
8. In your personal work we see you move away from colour by favouring black and white photography. Is that a way of separating your commercial work from your art?
“My first love has always been black and white and whenever I get a chance, I shoot commercial work in black and white too. So no, I don’t make that separation and ironically my last series (for which I also won an award) is in colour. Whatever suits the subject matter best.”
9. Now you are based in New York, how does it feel to be coming back to AUB to have an exhibition?
“Really amazing! I’m so glad I kept my ties with AUB because I feel more and more how much it gives me to share what I’ve learnt and also suddenly realize I’ve become what I used to look up to. Quite incredible!”
10. Tell us about the work you will be exhibiting in The Gallery?
“There will be 4 different groups, starting with work from my years in Bournemouth to show how I started out as a photographer. Then moving on to portraits, showing a selection of those images that for me have a story attached to it; The ones that left a lasting impression on me, or were a turning point in my career. Also work with Usain Bolt, showing a cross section from 2004-2012 when I worked with him annually and of course my personal work. I often say when I stop ‘working’ I start taking pictures. An incident in 2007 encouraged me to focus more on my own work again and creating these images rekindled my love affair with photography and re-confirmed why I became a photographer in the first place!”