Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m coming to the end of my thirties now. I was born in Japan and grew up in Germany. I live in Freiburg, close to the border with France and Switzerland. From my home, I can see the Black Forest, from my favorite trails I can see the French Vosges mountains and from my local ski slopes I can see the high Alpes. I run the design office WHYEX with a team of 10 people, photographers, graphic designers, industrial designers and a couple of trainees. We are a group of bike enthusiasts and one of the reasons our clients choose us is this passion for cycling which strongly influences our work. My work is not 100% photography in the sense of holding the camera all the time, but photography has been and still is the key ingredient of my graphic design. I like dynamic and living images, which convey the preciousness of the decisive moment. I dislike HDR and other make-up tricks which distract from the absoluteness of the photographic composition based on light and shade.
How long have you been shooting photos and what was your first camera?
I started shooting in 2001. My first DSLR was the Canon D30. It was also my first professional camera. It was quite an investment for me back in the day and I knew I had to shoot at least above average photos not to starve.
How long have you been shooting mountain biking?
Since the beginning of 2001. My first gig was the MTB World Cup in Arai, Japan. I recently found my media accreditation badge.
Do you shoot anything else besides mountain biking?
My main clients are brands from the bike industry. I shoot factory and manufacturing photos as well as product photos for catalogs. Even though it’s about MTB, it’s a totally different world. It is rather a kind of man and machine photography if you shoot CNC tapping centers, magnesium casting machines and also craftsmanship like welding, painting, and assembling.
Although the scenery is totally different you use the same skills as you need for action shots. I always shoot during running productions, I let the workers do their job and allow them to ignore my presence. This way you’re shooting real life, unique moments and a very authentic production. I like fugitive moments and I like shooting on the run, no staging, no repetitions.
At the end of the racing season, I used to keep my cameras untouched for a few weeks over the winter. But at some point, my passion for backcountry snowboarding showed up in the business of photography. Even though I try to keep my time in the snow to myself, I couldn’t turn down requests from some magazines, brands, and resorts to join ski trips as a photographer. It’s tough to make time for oneself but in the end, any kind of photo shooting keeps your senses fresh. I won’t even reject wedding photography but those who ask me must know: I like dirt and action.
Your work encompasses more than just photography. What else do you do?
My origin is industrial design and graphic design. I consider photography as the missing link in the brand communication. A unique product needs a unique way of presentation, which means unique photos, elaborated angles, special lighting and a corresponding graphic layout. I discovered photography as an element to influence graphic design and vice versa. I take pictures with an idea how to use it in a graphic context. Pictures can create a brand identity and photography is a key element of marketing. That’s what I learned in my early days on world cup trips with the Nicolai team. Race results regardless whether they were bad or good were forgotten before the next race at the latest. A good image can make it into magazines or catalogs and will remain in the memory for a long time. Photography became mandatory to justify all the trips and races around the world. My main occupation meanwhile is managing the marketing of SrSuntour and photography helps me in many ways. It’s, on the one hand, a showcase to present all the unknown sides of SR Suntour to the people out there and on the other hand, it’s a mirror for the brand itself and the staff to learn about their own company and their own products being used in action.
Were you self-taught or have you had any formal training?
Self-taught sounds a bit arrogant. The only thing I’ve achieved on my own is countless failures. No, I was always lucky to meet people who opened my eyes, who told me their little secrets. I was lucky to get opportunities to practice and train my skills on trips around the world. Sometimes a new or different camera was the inducement to learn something new. When I started shooting analog black and white photos in 2007 I learned to see light and shade contrast patterns. I learned to translate spatial depth into “Chiaroscuro” light-dark compositions. When I started filming in 2010 I suddenly discovered many unknown moments within motion sequences I believed I knew as a photographer. I had to admit that a machine eye with 240 frames per second reveals moments a human eye is not able to capture.
How did you move from amateur to professional photographer?
Honestly? I still like being an amateur, breaking academic rules, working without routine, constantly discovering new skills, being surprised at every new location and feeling like a greenhorn amongst the pro photographers.
The moment I picked up the camera for the first time to take a specific image I had in mind for my graphic design work I only knew how to switch on and to push the shutter button. The chances of shooting a useful photo at that moment were maybe 1/10.000. It was a hopeless but an indescribably exciting moment. If becoming professional means achieving a success rate of better than 1/10 and losing this excitement I would prefer to stay amateur and capture moments that come along once in a blue moon.
Was there a point where you knew it was a job and not a hobby?
When I got paid for a photo that I personally didn’t like but showed the right people and the right sponsor logos. If hobby means shooting photos without a commercial target, here I am. My analog LEICA shots haven’t made one cent yet. A hobby can be closer than passion sometimes.
You spent a number of years following the World Cup circuit. What’s it like shooting an important race? Do you still focus on racing?
Shooting World Cups is the ultimate training for photography skills. You learn how to work quickly and efficiently, to observe accurately, to have fast reactions, to anticipate, to be tough and tenacious (especially when the weather is not on your side).
Race photography trains your skills and your mental constitution as things only happen once with no repetition. Racing will always stay on my agenda even though I also shoot quite a lot of road trips as well as travel and catalog productions.
What do you think makes your images unique?
This is something only other people can comment on.
You’re known for using a Leica to shoot analog images at events. What do you like about shooting on film?
I learned photography on a DSLR and I appreciate the digital technology. But I also see how easy it is to manipulate digital photos. Photos that were shot in an unsatisfactory way can be amended in post-production. Using my analog LEICA I wanted to go back to the purity of photography. I like the element of fate in photography. Once you hit the shutter the photo is done and there is nothing you can do to influence the result. Film especially black and white has a unique grainy structure. You understand that photography is a physical and a chemical process. The LEICA M6 has no electronic fuzz, no motor, no mirror. It’s all mechanic and that makes shooting so unbelievably silent and quick.
What other cameras do you use? What lenses? Is there any other gear that you use frequently?
My current workhorses are the Canon 1DX and the 5DsR with a range of lenses starting with an 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye, 24-70mm f/2.8L II, 70-200mm f/2.8L II and up to the 300mm f/2.8L II.
My LEICA M6 has only one lens, the Summilux with a 35mm fixed focal length and 1.4 aperture.
Who has influenced your work?
It’s easy to list some names but it’s harder to say what exactly has influenced my work. I was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson. His work looks like divine orchestration, unbelievable coincidences, despite shooting fugitive moments. How alert must you be to capture such moments? Certainly not on the desperate search, scavenging for anything and everything but rather awake, conscious and with your instinct tuned into the world around you. Expectant.
What advice would you pass on to aspiring photographers?
Know every corner of your viewfinder. Pay much more attention to the background than to the focus point. You see what you'll get but even things you don’t see will end up in your photo.
What photo are you most proud of? Why?
I can’t say I’m proud of my photos. For me, photography is a coincidence of space, time, and will. And there is a large element of chance. You’re lucky if you see the space and time aligned for a good shot. The question should be: Which photo are you most grateful for? I’m always happy to catch unexpected moments. Mick Hannah getting his hair cut. Or, discovering the number one number plate in the cut hole behind another number one number plate and Aaron Gwin hanging around by chance. I blew the finish line pan shot of Aaron Gwin’s winning run but my shot practicing on Blenki made it into the international media. Countless moments of fate and chance.
Who are some of the clients you’ve worked with?
My client from the beginning is the German frame manufacturer NICOLAI. They gave me the freedom to develop my view angle of industrial product photography. My biggest client now is the Japanese / Taiwanese suspension company SRSUNTOUR. They are encouraging me to use photography and graphic design as a tool to create and develop their brand identity.
Anything else we should know about you?
I don't think so, thanks for your patience to read the whole interview.Past Photographer Interviews: