Interview with photographer Jim Rakete
BY SANDY STRASSER
In a career of almost 50 years as a photographer, he captured the German elite of acting and music - Jim Rakete. Many great international personalities too, trust him and his sense for what truly makes a portrait. With us he spoke about the beginnings of his professional life and how important the matter of the right moment is to him.
Jim, what inspired you at a very early age to become a photographer?
1967/68 was a period of huge social change. However, I was interested in photography even as a small boy. In that sense, it was not really a major decision for me.
What skills are essential for a good photographer?
He or she must always be looking for a point of view. And: he or she must defend it.
When taking portraits of people, what role does the capacity for empathy play?
That is the most important trait of all. Cynical photography is absolutely worthless.
What fascinates you about people? How do they change in front of the camera?
Their personal weaknesses! Which can differ dramatically. Although they are ultimately invisible in a photo, photography nonetheless transports specific forms of encounters and hence reflects real life in a certain way.
Identifying and capturing the ‘singular moment’ of an encounter. How do you know when you’re there? How do you sense the split second when you see the person as they truly are?
There is no such thing as a singular moment in real life. It is more a case of lots of interesting moments. You just have to decide on the right one. A good photographer is also somebody who assumes responsibility for an image. And this, above all, includes leaving things out. We can find originality on every street corner. The question is more ‘what does the photographer’s idea say about a person?’
When are you particularly interested in a motif or a project?
Whenever I’m uncertain whether the outcome will be successful. When the idea is good and good people are involved.
Before starting a shoot, do you have a clear vision of the result?
I prefer not to. Although I do like, as far as possible, to know as much as I can in advance, but this always simply gets swept aside when I pick up my camera.
What details must you take in when creating the perfect composition?
All of them – without exception – because there are no unimportant details when it comes to an image.
You love reduction and have a passion for nostalgic imagery that dispenses with make-up, staging and props. What fascination does ‘the honest’ harbour for you?
I find the fact that I consider reality to be pretty exciting does not fill me with nostalgia.
When is an image perfect for you?
If it endures. I recently watched ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Ford. There is not a single camera angle that is not absolutely perfect. Although the movie is ancient, its cinematic composition is simply breath-taking.
You left school at 17 to learn your trade from a theatre photographer, a trade that you have continued to this very day – even though you have in the meantime also been a successful manager in the music industry. What common denominator do music and photography have?
Using the word ‘learning’ is something of a misnomer, I just jobbed there for a while. But there is a quote attributed to Ludwig Binder: as long as you can read a newspaper, you can also take a photograph. For me personally, music and photography have nothing in common, because if you decide to dedicate yourself to music, you already have one foot on stage. And that is not something for me. However, it is always good to know how a musician ticks when photographing them.
What positive influence can these forms of art have on society?
A greatly positive influence, I believe! Art is the result of freedom, courage, talent and confusion – so the result can only be hope.
What is your preferred modus operandi – analogue or digital?
Analogue. I love originals.
You once stated that you would probably opt to write, if you were to choose to enter a profession today. Why? What can be expressed differently using the written word than in the case of images?
Images can only narrate a single moment in time. Nothing before and nothing after the moment. In contrast, language can portray the entire narrative, including everything behind it, and it can explain thoughts. The narrative depth of language is fascinating. A photo, on the other hand, craves depth, but can unfortunately only scratch the surface. However, it can do something that language can but dream of: have an immediate impact on a person – between the eye and the soul. Strike them through the heart, in a manner of speaking.
What is the most important aspect of your work?
The opportunity to work in a theme-setting manner. For me, it is hugely important that my work piques my interest and curiosity. Here, the contrasts can be quite colossal – from the Bethel sheltered workshops for the disabled, to a book on Germany’s leading companies, all the way through to the new Deep Purple cover.
Jim Rakete was born in Berlin on 1 January 1951. He was given his first camera as a gift aged seven. Years later, he became Germany’s best-known photographer. He began working as a professional photo reporter for daily newspapers, magazines and agencies at the age of 17. Between 1977 and 1986, he ran ‘Die Fabrik’ (The Factory) in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, making a name for himself mainly as the manager of musicians Nina Hagen, Nena and Spliff. He was the driving force behind the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) music movement. However, film, theatre and music remain Rakete’s true passion. He photographs big brands and major stars, is awarded international commissions and on occasion also works in Los Angeles and Hamburg. His images of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Herbert Grönemeyer have become icons.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Jim Rakete