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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gerd Ludwig: What Would Lenin Do?

Gerd Ludwig’s “Moscow Never Sleeps” project takes advantage of the latest digital technology to show a city that has completely changed from the days when the sickle and hammer flew above the Kremlin

This Article Features Photo Zoom

gerd ludwig
The view down the Garden Ring during Friday night rush hour.
When I interviewed Ludwig for Digital Photo Pro four years ago, the crux of that particular story was about his leap to digital and his requirement that digital had to look and feel just like film: “Historically, new technologies always change the aesthetics of photography,” he said then. “For example, [with] the invention of 35mm film, all of a sudden, the camera was mobile, there were shorter exposures, images weren’t staged, exposures were shorter—the decisive moment was born!”

Surprisingly, the early days of digital technology didn’t result in aesthetic innovations in documentary photography. Photojournalists tried to mimic the look of slide film. New, digitally based aesthetics
were mostly found in fine-art or commercial use. However, the recent high-ISO capabilities are fundamentally changing the look of photographs taken in the darker conditions. For the first time, we can shoot dimly lit situations while maintaining a sense of place. “It also made my assignments less stressful because I didn’t have the burden of carrying film,” adds Ludwig.

gerd ludwig
The dance floor heats up at Propaganda, one of hundreds of clubs throbbing until dawn in liberated Moscow. Using cameras like the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
and the new EOS 5D Mark II gives Gerd Ludwig the technology tools to make these images come alive.
Babysitting 800 rolls of unexposed and subsequently exposed film isn’t an easy task. “It weighs heavy on the psyche,” says Ludwig. He has been photographing and documenting Russia for nearly 30 years. “Travel in the ’90s in Russia was so difficult,” he points out.
Ludwig was basically out in the middle of nowhere without any modern forms of communication for three months at a time. “There was either no way to ship film, or depending on where I was, it was a lengthy process of paperwork and travel that would have taken too much time away from shooting—it was a nightmare,” he says.

On a side note, today Ludwig has hard drives to cart around. He travels with about two terabytes of hard-drive storage. “I have a bunch of SmartDisk FireLite and WiebeTech drives ranging from 80 GB to 200 GB, and double backups of LaCie drives at 500 GB each.”

Russia doesn’t allow hard drives to leave the country via mail either. “It’s a government thing,” explains Ludwig. “You have to have special permission to ship them, so I just hold on to them. Plus, I bring an extra laptop because if that goes down, you’re done.”

I ask which is more cumbersome? Without hesitation, Ludwig exclaims, “Oh, film, definitely! Film is heavier, and the fear of losing film outweighs any negative aspects of having to carry extra drives or an extra laptop.”

gerd ludwig
Strangers in a “flash mob” cued via the Internet show up to kiss amid the crowds near Red Square.
“All right,” I say, “tell me how your images have changed. ” “Well,” he begins, “first I can say that if there are any changes in my work, I hope that it is becoming more complex. However, technically there are some interesting developments. In predigital times, in order to achieve the best-quality night image, I shot mostly low ISOs, not only to avoid grain but to prevent extreme contrasts. At night, there are bright lights and very dark areas. ISO 800 film would have blown out the lights and cancelled any chance of revealing detail in the shadows. In the film days, I never had a picture published in the Geographic that was shot over ISO 500. The more challenging the lighting situation, the lower-ISO film I would use. The great changes we see now with a D-SLR easily going up to ISO 3200 without noise are images with shorter exposures, movement is frozen, the scene is lit from edge to edge—we now have a greater sense of place.”


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