In his photo series, Golden Youth, Johannesburg based photographer Oliver Kruger draws on the tradition of African studio photography to capture the interesting faces and eminent street style of some of SA’s young urban dwellers. The photographs were exhibited as part of Whatiftheworld gallery’s Uncertain Terms group exhibition in November of last year. Struck by these exceptional images, we decided to talk to Oliver and find out more about his photography career, inspiration and taking the perfect portrait.
Please tell us more about your photography career, what inspired you to become a photographer and how did you go about doing so?
While at school I had borrowed my mother’s camera and started shooting my friends skating. Kevin Carter had come to our school to talk to us and show us his work. I don’t recall what he said to us, but that made me decide to take up photography. I’ve worked in fashion and advertising for years as an assistant and lighting technician, and continue to do so to pay the rent and raise money for equipment and projects. I do shoot some work for friends’ companies and magazines.
You work mainly in portraiture, what is it that drew you to portraits?
Essentially, I find that people, as they are, are the most interesting thing to photograph. Our experience of the world is governed by our interaction with the people around us, who shape it and change it, and make it interesting and richer. Their mutability is what makes it interesting, in that, a minute or a year or a decade from now they will be different and will have changed, and I like the idea of having made an image of them at a particular time and state of being or between states of being.
I worked with fashion photographers and started shooting thinking that that was what I’d like to do, but found that it could not hold my attention and that for me it was an exercise in photography, rather than an end in itself. I still enjoy interesting fashion photography, though
According to you, what elements are key to taking the perfect portrait?
A subject that interests you, taking the time to shoot calmly and quietly, and considering the elements of the picture.
The lighting in your photographs ranges from very natural to studio lighting. What is your advice on choosing and using light when shooting portraits?
Don’t try to complicate your lighting, or to lend mood or character to the subject through extreme lighting, unless it is essential. If there is abundant natural light, use that; if there is none, use studio lighting.
How do you go about choosing the subjects for your photographs?
It would have to be a combination of the theme of the series and physiognomy of the subject’s face, their character and bearing, their style, and a face that intimates an interior life. Very often it is seeing somebody at a particular time or place, which draws your attention, or seeing the same person repeatedly, that sticks in your mind. Conversely you can see the same person for years before you consider taking a picture of them.
Is there something specific about your subjects you hope to capture in their portraits and how do you go about doing so?
I think it would be that the selected or edited photograph is faithful to my experience or view of that person. It can’t be held to be a true representation of that person, but an interpretation of them.
What is it about the tradition of African studio photography that inspires you and how do you aim to change/challenge it in your Golden Youth series?
I’ve always enjoyed the formalism of it and it also allows you to form a serial view of a disparate group of people. It allows you to unify them. I don’t think there is much challenge to it in this series, except that my projects, mobile studios or selection of subjects is not a democratic space like a traditional photography studio. I choose to represent certain people a certain way, to achieve my own ends. It is not open to anyone not of my choosing.
Editing/filtering work is often a very difficult task for photographers. Do you have a specific way of choosing “the shot”
I would say that initially it is instinctive, and once you’ve selected your images, see how all the pictures tie together. Put them into a sequence instinctively and then remove those pictures which do not seem to fit in, or find an alternate version that is more in keeping with the body of work.
Settling on one colour treatment is the most difficult part for me. You should also give the editing process time, and rework it whenever you feel it necessary.
Does your process differ when shooting commercial or personal work? What do you enjoy about each?
Commercial work is always a more constructed process, with a particular desired outcome, whereas personal projects are a little more open and can be discarded if you do not feel that they are working. You don’t have that luxury with commercial work.
You have worked with influential South African artists such as Athi-Patra Ruga and Spoek Mathambo. How does working collaboratively influence your photography and what is the biggest lesson you have learnt through collaboration?
I will admit, that in those cases it was less a collaboration, than my doing work for other artists, to help them achieve their ends. Athi-Patra Ruga is definitely one of my favourite artists working today, and the complexity of his work is truly amazing. The pictures of Spoek were taken on the back of his Control video, while working for Pieter Hugo, whom I used to assist and who has been fundamental in my understanding the process of documentary and portrait photography, and who has taught me an enormous amount regarding the production, editing, printing, and exhibition process, as well as the intellectual processes involved.
Please tell us about any future plans and dreams.
Hopefully to get on the road for a month this year to go shoot and to be able to do what I enjoy most, full-time.