By COLTER RULAND, August 2019
It is easy to get dazzled by the names. Names like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Iman, the names can go on and on. They are an unending meteor shower. And more often than not the man standing in front of these names, capturing them at their brightest, is the Swiss-born Markus Klinko.
While we can look at a magazine spread or an album cover or a billboard much like we look up at a meteor shower and think how easy, how seamless it all looks, no one stops to think about all the commotion that goes into such an astronomical performance. And it can be exactly that, astronomical, the performance of photographing all this fame and glamour.
Klinko, since the early 2000s, has quickly made his own name photographing celebrity royalty with an unflinching and sleek vision. His portraits have contributed to the zeitgeist of the aughts: Bowie for Heathen, Beyoncé for Dangerously in Love, Mariah Carey for The Emancipation of Mimi—it is tempting to unfurl another list. There have been retrospectives of his work, namely his “2000s” collection, which highlights a “very influential time of fashion, music, and entertainment.” Recently, his collaboration with photographer Koala has seen his work tap into our contemporaneous moment, capturing “gritty youth culture” and cult icons like Billie Eilish.
The responses to Klinko’s work, both as a solo photographer and collaborator with Koala, has been a kind of canonization within a new religion. At least, that is how Klinko sees it, wondering aloud if Kim Kardashian is the “new high priestess” of our times. His work, melding glossy reverence with fierce intimacy, is the result of a connection that can only happen in the moment between subject and artist. “There are some magic elements that just have to happen,” says Klinko. “I can’t really answer how I capture that moment. Everything else just melts away. It’s just her and the camera. Everything goes into silence. I don’t care where anyone else is.”
Watching some behind-the-scenes videos of his work, one wonders how Klinko can arrive at that silent moment. When watching the Hello Kitty photoshoot for Lady Gaga, for instance, one immediately hears all the talking, thinking aloud, machinery, the clinks and clanks of objects being shuffled around, even the heat seems to manifest itself as sound. At one point, Klinko asks to turn on the fans it is so hot, so many lights and human beings huddled together. He remembers another time being bored in a studio with artificial white light, photographing Naomi Campbell. He sensed she was bored, too. So they went outside to the parking lot, posing under natural daylight. It was almost “uncomfortable,” he recalls, the cars trying to get in and out, people honking and yelling occasionally. But Naomi Campbell was “killing it,” he says. It took all of three minutes to find the perfect cover amidst all the deviations of daily life. Klinko does not deride this commotion, he understands how it is often necessary, there are often many interests at play in such a confined space, but now he is interested in reining it in. “I am very much in a time when I’m trying to scale down that commotion,” he tells me. “This is like a new beginning.”
Klinko’s gallery career started three years ago. When Bowie died, Koala reminded him that very morning of the great archive of FUJIFILM Provia 100F color reversal film he still had from his seminal Bowie shoot for the album Heathen. Looking through them, it only felt right to share them. In collaboration with FUJIFILM North America, The Markowicz Fine Art Gallery in Miami, Florida, held a last minute show of the work. A month later, the show was held in galleries in Switzerland, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, Sidney, and Hong Kong, amongst others. Since then, he has seen his work change, essentially leaving right out of the camera to the gallery wall.
“I don’t distinguish between art and commerce,” he says. Of course, he is speaking about the literal connection between art and what art can afford, but he is also speaking toward the idea of what makes something like a portrait of Kate Winslet a piece of art to exhibit in a gallery. “Either it speaks to someone or it doesn’t,” he says. “If it moves people and they want to be close to it and to have it or collect it, I think that’s all it needs to be. Whatever you want to call it, if you want to collect it does that make it become art? I don’t care.” What Klinko does care about reaches beyond the ouroboros conversation that art criticism usually ends up becoming: a preoccupation with defining what makes something art. Klinko, rather, is interested in a much more natural question: “Is it generally working and communicating, or is it dead?” The names and the fashion labels fall to the wayside here. Klinko is looking for response the way one looks for a response, a pulse, of life.
Klinko, in many ways, has always been looking for a response no matter what course his work might take. Before photography, before any of the run-ins with stardom, he was a classically trained harp soloist. His father was a symphony orchestra member and classical music was his earliest love. He moved to Paris, he received the Grand Prix de Disque, he traveled the world. “It was very much an ivory tower existence,” he explains. Then a hand problem forced him to cancel tours and recordings and abandon classical music altogether. “I got the essence of what I dreamed of as a child,” he says, meaning he does not view this moment so much as a loss but rather as fulfillment that set him looking for other avenues.
Later, living in New York, he bought a book of Ansel Adams photographs and began to scour bookstores for other photography collections. He then bought—of all things—a store mannequin and took it to his apartment. He spent two weeks photographing the mannequin, learning, trying things out, constantly developing the photographs. “I drove the developers made,” he tells me. “I was photographed a lot as the subject. I was familiar with the process, but I had never done it.” Until that moment, he had never taken a photograph.
Now, Klinko has taken countless photographs. “I’ve learned to take things with a lot more appreciation,” he says. “Not just to expect things. In the end it is all up to me. I have to create work that speaks for itself. I can’t expect reputation or previous work to do the job. If it has to be that way, then what was shot yesterday needs to open the door for tomorrow.”
Klinko’s partnership with Koala, the appetite for his work from galleries, and this new sense of calm are all leading Klinko towards work that will no doubt define this decade and the next. “It has to do with independence,” he says. “It has to do with not waiting for that phone call, that assignment.” Klinko now has his lens set on incorporating large, metallic print sculptures as installations for his photography just as that photography also gets more intimate zooming in on eyes and lips, the parts that previously came together to form his most memorable portraits. These days, Klinko shoots everything with his ultra high resolution FUJIFILM GFX 100 mirrorless, medium format cameras. “I want to shoot the kind of photography that I love,” he says. He is taking the reins, so to speak. He is no longer waiting for the meteors to fall into the atmosphere on their own accord, he is seeking them out for himself. WM
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author