Holgar Maass – The Idea Comes First


German photographer Holger Maass is an artist whose surrealist images are firmly grounded in photographic and digital technique

One can’t merely look at a Holger Maass photograph; one is visually transported into a different place and time, not necessarily of this world, bringing to mind the quote, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Maass’ photographs are more like snapshots of the deepest fantasies and dreams one has while lost in thought in a magical world only existent in your imagination—or in his imagination.

Surreal people and places take the place of the mundane. Gorgeous women and men tease you from the pages of a Maass advertisement, beckoning you to enter their impenetrable world. You would go, if you could. Alas, this world of brick and mortar keeps your feet planted firmly on the ground, leaving the characters and situations in Maass’ photography alive only in the mind.

But as fanciful as Maass’ images are, his visual inspiration comes from much more grounded work. The likes of Rubens, Botticelli and Titian have all inspired Maass’ work. He’s an avid visitor of Renaissance art exhibits and a devotee of European traditional art. His unique fusion of classic work and modern digital manipulation lends itself to a style that’s solely his own.

Where many new photographers can edit and create images that might look contrived and overdone, Maass has turned the process into a bona fide work of art. There’s no mistaking Maass’ photography as relying heavily on postproduction work, but as he himself admits, “A terrible or boring image will never become a good one using digital techniques.”

Continues Maass, “Many people take picture after picture, hoping that you can correct everything with digital manipulation techniques, but this is not always true. Sure, you can give that picture this special kick, but only if the source picture already was a good shot.”

This philosophy leads Maass to be meticulous when planning an image. He leaves nothing to chance, from the lighting to the composition of various aspects of the photographs that will eventually be composited into a single finished image.

As a man whose entire career and professional image have been shaped by the color and beauty of digital photography and manipulation, his views on how they affect the industry are shades of gray. As a master of the art, he feels as though many young photographers, both pro and amateur, ignore the “photographic idea,” lacking shape and structure to their images. Says Maass, “These ideas are what should come first. They are the foundation of spectacular images. It’s the ‘photographic idea’ that creates ground-breaking photography.”

This is something that Maass should know about. He has the ability to breathe an air of individuality into each of his images, whether it’s an advertisement or a portrait of a famous celebrity. He treats each photograph as a work of art, fine-tuning and honing in on the psychology that makes a good advertisement or connecting with his subject beyond a superficial level. If you’re drawn to an image, you’ll inevitably be drawn to the advertisement. If you’re drawn into the portrait, you’ll be drawn into the people themselves.

As Maass describes it, “Today, the boundaries between art and commerce are melting. I think I am somewhere in between. My style of photography is a mixture. On one hand, my work looks like some of these advertising shots—perfect models with perfect bodies, always smiling faces, sex and commercial products; on the other hand, you get the feeling that this can’t possibly be an advertising shot—it’s too much, too artificial. With hints to European art and symbolism, you’ll never have this in a ‘real’ advertising shot!”

For a man with such a vivid and extraordinary knack for creative and risqué photography, it was a surprise to find out that this wasn’t an inherent trait. It was a happy accident that led Maass down the path of professional photography. After learning about the business through an editorial photographer, and after being encouraged by his parents, who obviously saw an immense creative talent, Maass started working as an assistant to various photographers in his native Germany, all the while submitting his personal work and photo essays to magazines and newspapers.

As is evident when you look at his work, Maass always has been drawn to the storytelling aspect of photography. His work is more than the provocative, dazzling two-dimensional image that first pops out of the page at you. In every shot, he plants his political and social view of the world into a cleverly landscaped single-frame tale. Says Maass, “I am trying to convert my personal understanding of the world we’re living in back into my photographs.”

Maass’ relationship with film is unlike that of many of his peers. Most photographers of his generation were raised shooting film, switching to digital only when the arguments for convenience and efficiency became overwhelming and the industry standard among advertising clients began to turn digital.

Maass, on the other hand, never found the quality of film up to par. “I started with simple Nikon 35mm equipment, the F4S, but learned that the quality wasn’t what I expected. It was fine enough for magazine format, but not for art exhibitions. I switched, then, to medium-format film, the Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, and sometimes large format. Actually, it depends on the job and the print sizes.”

With the current state of digital cameras, Maass has found image quality that meets his needs and expectations in the 35mm format. Today, he leans to the Nikon D2x for much of his fashion and standard celebrity work. But his passion remains with vibrant art photography, where he still uses a 6×7 format Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, both film and with a Phase One digital back.

As much as digital photography has shaped Maass’ personal career, he’s excited for the prospect and opportunities that it holds for the emerging generation of photographers as well. A commitment to new talent has led him to lend a considerable amount of time and effort to the development of young artists.

“I was invited in April of 2007 by Nikon to go to the NPCI [Nikon Photo Contest International] as a judge to help decide the winners from over 45,000 entries from photographers all over the world,” says Maass. “Most of the entries were made with digital equipment and the overall technical quality was impressive.”

Adds Maass, “It gives many more people the possibility to experiment with photography. There are no additional costs, i.e., E6 processing, expensive analog lab techniques. So the bandwidth of people photographing is getting bigger and the quality is getting better.”

Competition is something that Maass has risen above, however. There’s no question that he exhibits a visual style that simply stands apart from most other work, but another reason he has little competition for his particular brand of photography is because he’s constantly trying new techniques and experimenting with equipment. It’s not that no one else is imitating his style as much as no one else can keep up.

Maass’ Equipment

Cameras And Lenses
Nikon D2x and Nikkor lenses
Mamiya RZ67 Pro II medium-format camera

Lighting
Bowens Esprit Studio Flashlight System

Hardware
Several standard Pentium PC networks with local SAN

Software
Windows and Linux Operating System
Photoshop with additional plug-ins for some special effects

To see more of Holger Maass’ photography, visit www.holgermaass.com

Article written for Digital Photo Pro, www.digitalphotopro.com

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