When you see Daisy Seilern-Aspang‘s death-defying portraits you might not believe they’re real. Or, at the very least, you could assume her shots of athletes and performers posing in what would appear to be extremely risky positions in her series “Body Control” were created mainly through the magic of Photoshop.
That’s not the case, Seilern-Aspang says. That basketball player you see leaping over an elephant or that dancer you see doing a splits while dangling from a paraglider were all shot in camera (though she notes retouching has been done later in some cases). In fact, there were times that Seilern-Aspang had to put aside her own fears to capture a Body Control photo.
“This project got me to overcome my anxieties and grow beyond my limits: dizzying heights, sweaty summit ascents, dangerous stunts and breathtaking locations shape my work,” she explains. “Despite of my fear of heights, I jumped down from a 2000m high cliff, just to get the perfect shot, while hanging on a paraglider. The realization of some ideas that I had in mind was very complex and some of them were pretty risky.”
To find out more about the photos, we recently interviewed Seilern-Aspang on the heights she had to go to capture her breathtaking Body Control series.
Q: Please give us some background on you as a photographer.
Daisy Seilern-Aspang: My Name is Daisy Seilern-Aspang and I am a photographer from Austria. Not Australia, this is often mistaken. We yodel, but we don’t have kangaroos. My interest in photography developed as a teenager. In 1999, I decided to get serious about it and went to Florence, Italy to study photography and video Production at the Instituto del Arte Lorenzo di Medici. That was basically the kick-off.
At the time, I was all into analog photography, spent hours and hours in the dark room, and loved shooting nudes and women’s portraits. In 2001, I moved to Munich and started as a journalist for BUNTE, the biggest European people magazine. I took advantage to also get some celebrities in front of my lens.
In 2009, my first child was born (I am now a mother of three) and my focus shifted to newborn-, family- and child photography. While raising a family, I could live out my passion; it was a flexible job and a nice income. I love to capture the beauty of the everyday and to freeze all these fleeting moments and preserve them forever.
But suddenly photographing kids wasn’t enough for me anymore. I looked for new projects, workshops, and challenges.
Q: How did you get the idea for “Body Control” and what are you trying to say with these photos?
DSA: By coincidence I did a nude/dance shoot with the Prima Ballerina Laetitia Bouffard-Roupe in a friend’s studio. And that was the moment when my idea for “Body Control” was born.
Her discipline, movement and flexibility were so esthetic and beautiful, it just blew my mind. I was enchanted and my personal view regarding the human body changed. Once my curiosity was piqued, I started to research more dancers, hand balancers, and contortionists.
Since then, Body Control has been my focus and I am more and more interested in capturing bodies in the extreme and at the edge of the possible. I want to create something extraordinary, live my dreams and grow beyond myself both physically and mentally. My big dream is to publish a book with what I created.
I think that the idea of Body Control is a very universal and popular these days. The narcissistic 21st century point of view has radically changed. The quote “My car, my house, my bank account” is antiquated. Sportiness and athleticism are the new status symbols. “My fitness, my nutrition, my body, my health” are all the way on top of the list now.
Q: Please describe the process for creating a Body Control image. How much of the image is shot in camera and how much, if anything, is created later in post-processing?
DSA: My mission is to capture the 1/1000th of a second, where the body reaches the maximum tension and is 100% under control. That’s my goal and for freezing this moment, we often have to redo the poses over and over again.
I am a perfectionist and crazy about lines and symmetry. My opinion is: “The less I have to edit, the better I photographed!” But of course, all of my pictures get some retouching, but I don’t fake them. Sharpening eyes, softening skin, playing with saturation and contrast, dodging and burning and eliminating distracting subjects is something I mostly do. I like to underexpose my pictures a little bit so that no information is getting lost, for example, in the sky.
Q: What type of gear do you shoot with, cameras, lenses etc., to create these images? Are they all shot in natural light or do you use artificial light too?
DSA: In the beginning I absolutely refused to switch to a digital gear. With digital, I had the feeling that the sense of art was getting lost and that everybody was suddenly trying to be a photographer. I eventually had to go through a huge change, because digital had nothing to do with what I had learned for years.
With the digital gear you didn’t need a light meter anymore, no Polaroid test shots; you could take thousands of pictures and check them on the display. But the change was inevitable, so I eventually switched to digital and just needed time. Now I know that the digital tools allow us to have control over what and how we can take and edit a picture that was unimaginable in times of analog photography.
Currently, I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Sony Alpha 9 II. Here is my lens list:
- 85mm f/1.2 (my favorite lens)
- 35mm f/1.4
- 24-70mm f/2.8
- 24-105mm f/4
- 70-200mm f/4
My outdoor pictures are all taken in natural light. I am an absolute light chaser! Before an important shoot I sometimes visit the location the day before and write down the time, angle and movement of the sun. And on other days I just like to be absolutely spontaneous: move around, find a light gap, turn over and shoot in the opposite direction of what was planned. I always try to get the most out of one location. In the studio I always use artificial light, sometimes mixed with natural light.
Q: How do you choose the performers – athletes, dancers, body builders etc. – for these images and what’s it like to work with them?
DSA: It was a lot of work to find and research all these amazing athletes. Some of them I found at the Cirque du Soleil, AGT (from different countries), Opera Ballet, Ninja Warrior, via Instagram, but as the project grew, some of them approached me. I always check their skills and see if we match interpersonally.
It was the most wonderful experience to work with such unique personalities! All of them were really easy going, full of energy, creative, brave and 100% disciplined. The whole process of creating together was spectacular. I could do it over and over again. There were only two shoots that I declined: one because of a lack of ambition and the other one because we just didn’t match.
In Hamburg I have been shooting the Cirque du Soleil artists in the middle of the city. They attracted so much attention, the viewers were fascinated, and we had a whole crowd of people following us around. In the beginning it was fun, but in the end it became annoying.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge with creating images in the Body Control series?
DSA: The biggest challenge was my physical condition and my fear of heights. It was quite demanding to get to some of our locations: climbing summits, dizzying heights, freezing temperatures, deep abysses, but it’s the breathtaking locations, the atmosphere, the light and the athletes that shape my work. And all of them have been so supportive: I was exhausted after half the route/climb, but these super jocks and sports aces always motivated me to not give up. And all the sweat was worth it.
Also, the winter weather conditions here in Austria were challenging. At the Dachstein (2995m) we had minus 17°C, it was extremely windy, foggy and because of the cold the batteries discharged. My viewfinder was completely frozen, so I just zoomed out, closed the aperture, held the camera next to my face and took lots of shots – hoping that at least one of them would be in frame and focus.
Q: What was the craziest experience you had while creating one of these photos?
DSA: Oh, there were so many crazy moments! We had a lot of nerve-racking experiences. We secretly climbed a shipyard, a lighthouse, a crane; had security chasing us and almost got arrested by the police. God, I had so many situations in 2020 that filled my veins with adrenalin.
But the craziest stunt was for sure our Paraglider Shooting. We did it three times. Deelia Jögi, an Estonian dancer, climbed down from the paraglider, doing a split in aerial silks. She trained without mercy for three months, to make this possible. Despite of my fear of heights, I also had to jump down from a 2000m high cliff, just to get the perfect shot, while hanging on a paraglider. The realization of some ideas that I had in mind was very complex and some of them were pretty risky.
Another highlight was the shooting with Rene Casselly, aka the Elephant Boy, and his massive elephant friends. Creating with humans and animals needs a lot of patience. But we had time and it was a blast. The elephants were really clever: when they had enough of being photographed, they always turned their back on us and looked away when we called them like a stubborn child.
Q: Do you have an idea for your next photographic project?
DSA: Yes, definitely – there are so many ideas spinning in my head that I don’t know where to start. I just have to find the time next to raising my kids, because being a mother is my number one job and has priority. I would love to tell you about further plans, but “a good photojournalist doesn’t reveal their secrets” beforehand and they not cut and dried until it’s a done deal.
You can see more of Daisy Seilern-Aspang’s photography on her website.