A city is draped in red silk, with gentle waves of fabric spilling over high-rises and trees, and covering the streets. A horde of elephants is marching single file across a precarious bridge. An Air Milan flight is being fueled with crisp, clean water. The images that come from the mind and studio of German photographer Thomas Herbrich defy logic and inspire imagination. Herbrich has created an astounding body of work full of magical imagery, working with small-scale models, stock imagery and studio photography to craft images that arrest the senses.
Herbrich’s fascination with creating imagery counter to reality started with his very first photograph. At the tender age of six, he took a photo of a firecracker exploding in a model plane. The plane caught fire, and Herbrich caught the image. Though his first photograph wasn’t in focus and “bad” according to Herbrich, it nonetheless started him on a road of creative interpretations through photography. When he grew up, Herbrich decided to study photography in a professional studio working under the guidance of a studio photographer, a common practice for education in Germany. During this time, he learned a great deal about lighting, still imagery and the craft of photography.
“I learned still-life photography there, and even today my photos are still-lifes,” Herbrich explains. “In a still-life, you arrange objects, and I now arrange photos to a final photo-composition.”
Though he gained essential skills in this environment, he wasn’t satisfied with the creative outlet.
When Herbrich was 24, he saw the film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater and his life was forever changed. The next day he told his mentor that he would no longer be coming to work, but rather pursue filmmaking and create effects like he had seen in Kubrick’s masterpiece. Seeking a project to work on, Herbrich met then-unknown German director Roland Emmerich who was putting together a film called Das Arche Noah Prinzip. The film opened at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1983 and was Emmerich’s first big success. One critique, in particular, compared the special effects to those in 2001.
I was in the film industry, but it wasn’t what I had expected, he explains. You are always only a little cog in that crowd of movie people. The final movie has only a little of your style. So I went back to photography.
“That was my work,” Herbrich says proudly. Working on the film was an important stepping stone for Herbrich because it allowed him to pursue his creative imaginings and ultimately resulted in the realization that he didn’t want to be involved in filmmaking.
“I was in the film industry, but it wasn’t what I had expected,” he explains. “You are always only a little cog in that crowd of movie people. The final movie has only a little of your style. So I went back to photography.”
Now on his own, Herbrich started to work professionally for advertising firms and magazines, creating his own work as concepts struck him and working on identifying his own unique style. Using the knowledge he gained working under his mentor in the studio, he began to craft composite images utilizing studio and stock photography and handcrafted models to create fantastical worlds where any idea could be brought to life. Soon he was working for advertising agencies and magazines in Europe, Asia and the United States where artistic concepts required his precision, imagination and dedication.
In 2004, Herbrich was asked to document German athletes headed to the Olympics in one of the largest European photo productions to date. “Olympic Heroes,” shot for STERN, one of Europe’s largest magazines, posed the German competitors as actors portraying a variety of Greek myths, from Apollo slaying Python to the mourning of a fallen Achilles, the arrow still penetrating the vulnerable tendon. Herbrich was given wide latitude to follow his creativity and produced vibrant images for the series.
Advertising and sponsoring has poisoned everything, Herbrich explains. No one can imagine doing something without it. Working for magazines is much better. I normally can do what I want, and they like it. In magazines, there are no art directors who want to be the photographers.
Despite his successes, Herbrich finds that art directors and ad agencies often hinder his personal expression, as they’re too focused on the initial layout or idea and not as open to his input. Other times, Herbrich is given a layout that has been nearly perfected in Photoshop and he wonders what it is that they need him for. There are some agencies, primarily in Asia, that Herbrich is still excited to work with; however, to fully explore his ideas, Herbrich works directly with magazines or funds his own projects to get away from the restrictions of the advertising world.
“Advertising and sponsoring has poisoned everything,” Herbrich explains. “No one can imagine doing something without it. Working for magazines is much better. I normally can do what I want, and they like it. In magazines, there are no art directors who want to be the photographers.”
As Herbrich moved away from the sterility of modern advertising, he also started to pursue his own fine-art projects with more vigor. The body of work “Smoke” used high-speed capture, scientific flashes and thousands of exposures to create simple, elegant images where the folds and tendrils of naturally manipulated smoke is the only subject. The final photographs were displayed at ART COLOGNE and in several galleries and art exhibitions.
And Herbrich hasn’t stopped there. Whereas he’s still establishing a name for himself in the advertising, magazine and art worlds, he also writes articles, teaches workshops and lectures on photography. He has put together several small books where the photography and the text share the story. He sees his future in book projects.
“On one hand, I am a photographer; on the other hand, I am an author, a writer,” Herbrich says. “I did some columns for a magazine and did some books, and I like public speaking. My dream is to become a professor of photography because I can speak interestingly about the work and I love to work with young people. I did some lectures, and it was fun for me to see how people learn.”
His first photo and text venture, a humorous alternate history titled The Truth about the Moon Landing is already well under way, and Herbrich put together another small book for a local sausage shop that was going out of business. The book was written up in the local news and, to Herbrich’s happy surprise, the shop was ultimately saved when interested tourists and locals boosted patronage. Though the print run for the book was very limited, Herbrich is proud of the result. “It’s the only sausage shop in the country with its own book!” he laughs gleefully.
Herbrich was more surprised, however, when his images and text were curated into the Visual Gallery exhibition at the 2010 Photokina convention. As it’s the largest photography trade fair in the world, being displayed at Photokina as one of only a handful of photographers in the gallery was a huge honor.
Herbrich always has been true to himself, from pursuing photography, to experimenting with film, to moving away from advertising when it didn’t fit his creative need. In this age of software manipulation, his dedication to his process and preference is even more evident by his continued use of handcrafted models in lieu of forging all effects digitally. Even though his images are composited with exquisite attention to detail and mastery of the digital tools he has created in his own digital manipulation software, Herbrich prides himself on utilizing real, three-dimensional places, persons and models to create the fantastic worlds in his photographs.
“You have synthesizers for music, you have fast food, you have artificial tastes, you have love by Internet, and all of these things that are so artificial,” he says with a more serious tone. “This is something I don’t want to follow.”
Instead, Herbrich and his team—his brother, Marcus, and Nils Carstensen, who builds the models—utilize knowledge of lighting, perspective, model-making, studio photography and stock imagery to work to create the most believable construction for imagined worlds. The craft that they create is something that Herbrich is eager to share. Every image on his website, www.herbrich.com, has a link simply titled “how it was done.”
“Secrets are unprofessional!” he exclaims. “I speak about everything! I often speak about my work, and I do it with enthusiasm and humor. These lectures last for over an hour, and they’re half hardcore information and half comedy.”
Herbrich works very hard to pursue his dreams and goals, and he always has. He studied photography with dedication, spends his own time and money working with new concepts and ideas, and approaches every challenge with a free spirit. Yet he also has a courageous quality that allows him to take leaps of faith and follow his creative spark wherever it may lead. In the end, his dedication not only to his craft, but also to his own ideas has brought about a body of work that’s enchanting, lovely and often hilarious. It seems perfectly reasonable that Herbrich would be able to bring us along into his imagination, as he has always had faith in the ability to reach out and touch the impossible.
You can see more of Thomas Herbrich’s photography at www.herbrich.com. Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler is a frequent DPP contributor and an accomplished fine-art photographer. See more of her work at www.amandaquintenz.com.