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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
Artist German Vinogradov wields a blowtorch to season the look of his latest landscape. Says Vinogradov, “Nothing is taboo now.”
Ludwig turns on his laptop, and we view his images from “Moscow Never Sleeps,” published in the August 2008 issue of National Geographic. As the slideshow plays, he points out the technical differences and advancements visible in these latest photos. “See, here,” he says, pointing to an image in a dance club. “See, I still wanted the feeling of movement because people are dancing and the action in the club is alive, but you can see beyond what is in the foreground; you can see the crowd in the background, all the way up in the balconies, the go-go dancers far away—they aren’t totally blurred.”

He moves on to another image of congested traffic on a Moscow street: Small streaks of light emerge from some of the taillights suggesting the cars are moving slowly; the storefronts and houses are lit and visible on each side of the street; silhouettes of pedestrians are frozen, caught in a moment of chaos. “This is a typical example of what we can do today,” Ludwig continues. “I shot this image with a long lens.” The image is riddled with contrast—bright headlights and taillights and black streets. A short exposure with a high-ISO film would freeze the car lights, but eliminate any chance of capturing the detail in the houses or pedestrians.

gerd ludwig
In the opulent Turandot restaurant, Mozart is merely background to conspicuous consumption that has fueled Moscow’s abrupt ascent to the ranks of the world’s most expensive cities.
“There would have been no definition—just frozen lights showing street congestion. With film, in order to illuminate the entire scene, I would have had to shoot a longer exposure that would have streaked the traffic lights and eliminated the overcrowded feeling. It also would have ghosted the people so the streets would seem empty.”

When I look at this body of work, I mention to Ludwig that the images feel like movie stills, or as if he went to a scene with a lighting crew and lit its entirety. I find a strong correlation of visual similarities between his Moscow night images and Michael Mann’s “nighttime in L.A.” movie Collateral—the colorful contrasts of the night’s lights, ripe with green mercury vapor, incandescent yellow and fabricated neon signs. Skin tones are softened with a warm glow, hiding imperfections. A sinister and kinky danger lies beneath.

“I’m trying to get these layers,” Ludwig responds. “My photography is not easy to digest. I really want people to look at my images for a long period of time and discover.”

Ludwig is a big proponent of what he refers to as participatory photojournalism. “I’m right in there,” he notes. You can see in most of his compositions that he’s using a wide-angle lens and he doesn’t “voyeur.”

gerd ludwig
Call girls advertise their assets at Bordo, a private club frequented by Moscow’s business and political elite.
Says Ludwig, “I don’t want to step back, I want to give the viewer the feeling of being inside the scene.” I ask if using a high ISO allows him to do this more easily than if he had to use flash.

“Since I am generally very close to people, one less piece of equipment covering my face helps tremendously. However, I still use my flash, but minutely, and mostly off-camera, handheld by my assistants. Also, when I shot low-ISO film, they needed to stand close to my subjects in order to reduce recycling time. Now they can stand farther away, which is allowing me to become even more intimate with my subjects.”

Ludwig always was a master of fill-flash in his film days. I mention the image of “Three Ladies of the Evening” and ask if it was posed and if he used off-camera flash on the girl in the middle.

“I simply asked them to stand in the doorways of the rooms they generally work in,” he says. “When one girl didn’t separate from the background, my assistant quickly dropped the second flash on the floor behind the door. It was triggered by my Canon Speedlite transmitter. All was done in seconds, taking the photograph only lasted a couple of minutes. But for the majority of my work these days, I rarely use a second strobe. I don’t need to because of how clean the high-ISO quality is on my camera. [Ludwig uses the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and III and the EOS 5D Mark II.]


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