“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Gerd Ludwig studied photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany and started working for publications such as Geo, Stern, Spiegel, Fortune, Time, and LIFE. Upon moving to New York in the 1980s, he began photographing for National Geographic Magazine.
© Douglas Kirkland
His focus on environmental issues and the socioeconomic changes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in his exhibition and book, Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR, a ten-year retrospective published internationally by National Geographic in 2001. In 2014, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, his trilingual photo book based on 20 years documenting the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident was released by Edition Lammerhuber who will release his next monograph, “Sleeping Cars” in spring of 2016. Ludwig is the recipient of the Lucie Award for International Photographer of the Year in 2006, the 2014 German Society for Photography (DGPh)’s prestigious Dr. Erich-Salomon Award, and in 2015 he received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. Gerd Ludwig lives and works in Los Angeles.
Q: You have a long and illustrious career as a documentary photographer. How did you get started in photography?
A: Like many other photographers, I got into photography through traveling. I initially studied German literature, political science, and physical education to become a teacher. After 3 semesters at university, I ended my studies and started hitchhiking throughout Europe. I supported myself with odd jobs as a bricklayer in Denmark and as a dishwasher in Norway, before I worked as a mess boy on a freight ship. During this time I began to take photos to collect memories from my journeys. Very quickly, I realized that I liked working with a camera and decided to make a living with what I really enjoyed – photography. Subsequently I studied photography with Prof. Otto Steinert at the Folkwangschule (now Folkwang University of the Arts).
Q: You are mostly known for your photographs from the Former Soviet Union and Chernobyl. Was this the first time you tackled a subject at home?
A: “Sleeping Cars” is the first subject I’ve photographed in LA proper. However, off and on for nearly two decades, I have created a body of work at the Salton Sea, only a few hours drive from Los Angeles. It began as assignment work, but my ongoing interest in the area continued into a personal project. Now I take workshop students there (the next workshop is coming up in March) sharing years of my experience and knowledge of the area. Workshops allow me to see the ongoing changes near the Salton Sea first hand, particularly in light of California’s current extreme drought situation which exacerbates the environmental issues already inherent there. I tell my students that it makes sense to work on a personal project in your own community. No editor will send an inexperienced, young photographer into a warzone, but you can impress any editor with an interesting essay photographed in your own backyard.
Q: “Sleeping Cars” has a more conceptual feel to it. What inspired this essay and your approach to it?
A: Searching for a subject to photograph, I was struck by a simple question a visiting writer asked me years ago while we were stuck in one of LA’s famous traffic jams. “I wonder where all these cars go to rest at night.” I realized, here was my new goal – photograph these resting cars. It also suits my nature – I am a night owl. In what Kafka called his most productive hours, when dream and reality meet, I go out to photograph sleeping cars. I search ceaselessly for cars that speak to me.
In my documentary-journalistic photography I aim for images that touch the soul and broaden the mind. Carrying this goal over to the Sleeping Cars, I am searching for vehicles that spark emotions. Most of my cars are loners. They command their own space or enjoy showing off their presence. Like a devoted bird watcher I have learned to recognize their sleeping patterns. With voyeuristic pleasure I’ve spied on them in their nightgowns. I’ve watched some sleep in the nude; some take afternoon naps and a few lucky ones get to sleep together.
Nichols Canyon Road #2, 2013
Q: Did you have any strange encounters roaming around – sometimes very early in the morning – searching for cars to photograph?
A: A few times the police have stopped me in my work, wondering what I was doing out in the streets in the middle of the night. Was I a Peeping Tom or even worse, a paparazzo? After being shown a few of the car photographs on my iPad, they’ve even colluded with me and tipped me off about interesting cars to check out in the neighborhood.
Q: Did it feel liberating in a way photographing still life subjects instead of people?
A: As a concerned and conscientious photographer, I realize that every time I single out an underprivileged or suffering person by pointing my camera at them, I momentarily increase their pain. Subsequently I feel I have to treat suffering people more gently, more carefully and with even more respect than others. Additionally, I have to feel some of their suffering myself in order to create a compassionate photograph. For me, it is emotionally draining to document the suffering of others on a regular basis. In this respect, photographing Sleeping Cars was easier. Yes, liberating, if you will.
Q: How does this project connect to your earlier journalistic work?
A: Like much of my journalistic photographs, the car images are layered. I’m not only aiming to portray the personality of these cars, the way they are covered also reflects the attitudes and cares of their owners, and the surroundings speak to Los Angeles, undeniably a city of cars. These vehicles are the blood in the veins of Los Angeles. Middle-class families generally own more than one car, but their homes only have one-car garages. So many cars are left parked on the street for an extended period – lovingly covered, especially during holidays, when their owners treat them like crated pets. I document where these iconic Los Angeles inhabitants reside at night— tucked into driveways, proudly displayed in front of homes, glowing under street lamps, covered with tarps or simply left bare. The viewer is invited to become a voyeur, documenting alongside me where these cars go to rest at night.
The vehicles sleep against backgrounds of varying ambient light on the winding streets of the Hollywood Hills to the flat gridded suburbs of the Valley. Nestled in the low-lying fog of these distinctly Los Angeles neighborhoods, the vehicles begin to take on personalities of their own. Each car’s distinct surroundings create a different tableau and tempt the viewer to construct his own narrative behind each vehicle.
To me, the scenes of cars sitting alone on streets in the dead of night possess a mysterious quality, and almost bring to mind a forgotten movie set of a noir film, both so intrinsic to Los Angeles.
Q: Have you found a home for this work and how is it being received?
A: I’ve been working on this in between assignments for several years. Although I showed previews over the last couple of years in my lectures worldwide, the work is now exhibited for the first time, appropriately in Los Angeles, in a solo show at the Fahey/Klein Gallery. The exhibition with large format prints opens February 4 and will be on view through March 19. Within the next few months, a monograph containing 70 Sleeping Cars will be published by Edition Lammerhuber. However, this is not the end. I’m continuing to shoot Sleeping Cars and have established a dedicated Instagram account, @sleepingcars, where followers can see not only images from the exhibit, but additional cars as I continue to document them.
Appian Way #2, 2012
Q: Do you have any advice for photographers who are looking for ways to get their documentary projects funded and published?
A: Print publications are under a lot of pressure to make up for lost circulation, and subsequently many of them have turned to sensationalism and celebrity stories. But I think that many in print media underestimate their readers’ hunger for issue driven stories. Due to this disinterest, I twice turned to Kickstarter. Crowdfunding certainly presents a great chance to get projects funded, but one should not underestimate the amount of work involved and related costs that can accumulate quickly. At the outset, people often forget to calculate things like international shipping costs for awards such as books, Kickstarter and Amazon fees which will be deducted from your donations, even the fact that you are taxed for crowdfunding as income. The bottom line is often substantially less than the pledge amount. Its advantage lies often in that it gets the word out about your project and it can lead to increased interest from other venues. Without my Kickstarter campaigns, neither my iPad app nor book, both titled, “The Long Shadow of Chernobyl” would have been so successful.
Q: What is one of your most memorable adventures working as a National Geographic Photographer?
A: That was when I ventured deeper into the Chernobyl reactor than any western still photographer. After donning my protective gear, state-of-the-art Geiger counter, dosimeters and an extra layer of 3-4 mm thick plastic overalls, I followed a group of six workers into the belly of the beast. The workers, who were assigned to drill holes in the concrete to stabilize the roof, wore gas masks and oxygen tanks. We had to move fast. The radiation levels in this area are so high that, despite our protective gear, access was limited to a maximum of 15 minutes per day.
The space was dark, loud, and claustrophobic. We rushed through dimly lit tunnels strewn with wires, pieces of shredded metal and other debris. I struggled not to trip. While photographing, I needed to dodge the spray of sparks from the drillers in highly contaminated concrete dust. The adrenaline surge was extraordinary. To exacerbate the situation, just halfway through the allotted shift, our Geiger counters and dosimeters began beeping – an eerie concert reminding us that our time was up. Specially these challenging last few minutes, torn between my natural instincts to survive and my desire as a photographer to stay longer I will never forget.
Links for Gerd Ludwig: Website | Fahey/Klein Exhibition | Sleeping Cars Instagram | Workshop | Chernobyl Book