Interview with Sebastian Mayer

Sebastian Mayer is a photographer with an unruly, curious eye. He is well-known to magazine readers all over the world for his portraits of musicians. However, it was his RANDOM series that really caught my attention. A juxtaposition of two seemingly random photographs which attract and repel each other at the same time, causing a wonderfully provoking, eye-opening tension each time you look. A sublime visual blast of a two-verse haiku: anachronistically honest and disruptively up-to-date. I met Sebastian Mayer in his apartment in Wedding to talk not only about the concept behind the RANDOM series but also about his personal detours and the experience of time in his photographic oeuvre.

Sebastian Mayer. Photo: P.K.

Peter Koval: What was your most beautiful detour?

Sebastian Mayer: It was when I didn’t fly back from London to Berlin but instead, went to Rio de Janeiro and then stayed on the road for the next nine years.

PK: That’s almost an Odyssey!

SM: [Laughing.] I wouldn’t compare myself to Ulysses.

PK: How did it feel returning back?

SM: For a while, I felt like I was encountering echoes from my own past. I lived in Berlin from the beginning of the 1990s until 2005. That’s a relatively long period. I take many pictures on the streets and the city didn’t really change much during my nine-year absence.

PK: How was Tokyo different from Berlin?

SM: Tokyo is an enormously dynamic city. It’s almost like an autonomous organism that constantly changes. You step out of a subway station in a neighborhood you haven’t visited in three months and you don’t recognize the streets anymore because everything was demolished and newly rebuilt. As a photographer, that makes Tokyo much more interesting than Berlin. Berlin is very rigid in comparison. When houses are built in Berlin, they are supposed to stand for the next 300 years or even longer. In Tokyo, they may last 30 years. In Tokyo you see something new each day, there is almost no repetition or monotony in the cityscape. The city appears to me like an organism – incredibly fascinating but also quite monstrous and dangerous – not because of violence in the streets but because of the enormous dimensions. You are at the mercy of its dimensions. The city threatens to swallow you, it will literally absorb you. For me, Berlin was always a city of concrete, of cobblestones and unfettered growth. Tokyo is rather like quicksilver. It’s amazing to look at it, everything glitters, everything moves, nothing is inflexible and everything is surface. But if you get too close, it can be extremely toxic.

Tokyo. © Sebastian Mayer

PK: Photography records a moment of presence, which automatically makes looking at photography an act of retrospection. You worked a lot with your archive during the last year. What was that like?

SM: Of course, the moment you press the shutter release button, it becomes sentimental. You can go mad if you think of the past too much. It was for a good reason that Susan Sontag described photography as a melancholic medium. When I go through my pictures from 2006, I recall many situations I am personally attached to. When I look into my archive for too long, I lose contact with them now. You shouldn’t dig too deep into your archives, otherwise, the danger is that you will live only in a photographic copy of your own past without being able to perceive the present. It’s quite narcissistic to stick your nose only in your own past. That’s another problem with the essence of photography.

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

PK: In this regard, the archive seems to be very similar to all the selfies, which are hurrying ahead of us.

SM: In Beijing or Shanghai, I often observed people who are taking selfies all the time. But also in Venice, you often see people walking through the street with a selfie stick in their hand without really seeing anything from the town. Some of them carry their GoPro cameras or smartphones on a selfie stick in front of them like an antenna – the camera pointing back to them. They look all the time only in the camera, while the display is turned to them so they can watch themselves walking through Venice. They aren’t really present. They see only their own mirrored video image. Theoretically, they could walk in front of an empty projection wall and the images of Venice or any other random place could be copied into the background. It wouldn’t make any difference. For me, that’s absolutely crazy. It can’t be more narcissistic.

PK: During your last exhibition one of your pictures received quite a bit of interest.

SM: Oh, that one with the ass!

Golden Showers at Galerie BerlinTokyo, Berlin 1999. © Sebastian Mayer.

PK: Yes, that one. The longer I look at the picture, the clearer I see that it withholds something, that there is something I’m not permitted to see.

SM: Yes. There are only three visible faces, and their expressions allude to the reaction of those who are out of the frame. You can only guess what’s going on there at the moment. The photography leaves many questions unanswered, which makes it interesting. On the other hand, it’s totally pop and direct: a naked ass. I believe the picture was received that broadly because it’s at the same time very direct, almost obscene and yet it doesn’t show everything the viewer wants to see.

PK: And how do you create that allusion as a photographer? How do you show that you hide something?

SM: In my pictures, the concept of a gap plays an important role. My whole RANDOM series is based on the gap between the pictures. It’s not about what you can actually see in the photographs but rather about what happens between them. For me, that’s sometimes even more interesting than working directly with the images. But even when I’m working with the individual images, I would say that a good image always bears a secret – something you can’t immediately see or understand. It’s this secret – the inexplicable – that makes us want to look at the picture again and again. The image continues to interest us because you don’t really know what’s going on because you can’t really get to the bottom of the picture, because it remains at least partially inexplicable.

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

I have a portrait of a friend which I took on the street in Nakameguro Tokyo. He is standing with an umbrella, his eyes pointed to the right, to something out of the frame. In the background, a couple of people are crossing the street. For some reason, this image has a magic attraction to me. It’s a quite simple image, but I can’t get it out of my mind. The more I look at it, the more I try to understand why I’m so drawn to this image, why I’m so fascinated by it. Is it because of the lines, the colors, the look, or maybe the composition? I just can’t figure it out. That’s why it remains interesting for me. Some pictures contain this kind of magic. Even after you look at them thousands of times, they still want to be viewed and they will remain interesting.

PK: Where do these gaps come from?

SM: I can’t really tell. When I’m holding the camera, I’m not looking for the gaps. They emerge later while viewing the pictures. Here is one photograph, which I still consider to be one of my best portraits. It was taken from a bathroom wall from a 5-cm distance. It’s a little sticker, that somebody tried to tear off. That’s why the context is missing.

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

The facial expression of the man is distorted, one arm is pulled up, it looks like he is falling or about to lose consciousness. But because half of the picture is torn off, we can’t really see what’s going on there. Was the man just shot down? Is he on drugs at a rock concert and is about to flip out? This information is missing so we simply can’t know. At the same time, the tear has a form of wings, which gives the man in the photo an angelic appearance. For me, that’s something very interesting because it opens a meta-level for interpretation. But the image was just there and I took it with me. I took many pictures from books, magazines, or billboards. Actually, I don’t really care where the images are from. When I take a photo of them, then they also become my images. It’s the art of appropriation; Prince sends his regards.

PK: But the RANDOM series is based on a different concept.

SM: It’s a juxtaposition of two seemingly random photographs which, if upon closer inspection, have an associative relationship. That can happen either through the content or the form. But sometimes, two pictures just “click” without an explicit reason why the combination works or why the tension occurs. The individual pictures aren’t so important here, but the mere fact of the juxtaposition. Here is for example a combination with the photo we were already talking about:

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

In one picture it’s obviously raining, while on the other, there is a cut-off fish head. There is no obvious connection in content or form. However, something happens here. It’s like putting together two words. Each word is nice and can stand by itself, but already two words can produce tension that goes far beyond the meaning of each word. I am very fascinated by this poetic tension. [Lights a cigarette.] I like to work with sequences. Narratives were always very important to me. I believe it comes from the fact that I began my artistic career as a comic artist.

PK: Tell me more about your comic art.

SM: During my first years in Berlin, I spent almost all my time at the drawing board. I couldn’t really talk to people and I apparently suffered from a severe social phobia or a communication disturbance. I still know how it felt to get palpitations each time I wanted to buy cigarettes at Café Westphal at Kollwitzplatz because I couldn’t stand the looks of all the people there. I was so scared of them. Each time I entered the room, I felt all the eyes were staring at me, but I had to cross the room because the cigarette vending machine was at the opposite corner. That’s why I went out among people as rarely as possible and was only drawing for several hours a day for three or four years. But I didn’t really want to tell a story with the comics back then. It was more experimental – taking some fragments, putting them together, and watching if something would happen. It’s a little bit like William Burroughs’ Cut-Ups, even I wasn’t working with scissors. I like to think that I am strongly influenced by the Cut-Up idea, especially when I’m reviewing my RANDOM series.

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

PK: How do you take photographs?

SM: Quite simple. I take my camera, I go out and start making photographs. There are many photographers who have to make a plan first, who first try to develop an image in their head, let’s say of a person they want to portray. They think a lot about how they are going to take the picture, how they want the person on the picture look like, or which light should they use. These photographers often become very nervous during the photo shooting. They can’t control everything or the person doesn’t want to fit into their imagined picture. I try to be as open as possible. Especially while working on assignments where I have actually only a couple of minutes to shoot the photo – for example when I portrait musicians for Spex. In such situations, it’s almost impossible to implement your own idea. Then the best thing is to focus on the person from the first second on and to take what you get. I think it’s also more honest and direct. I have nothing against arranged or well-designed photos and I’m actually quite good at implementing planned pictures for commercial clients. However, in my artistic works, I’m interested in as direct and authentic a picture as possible.

Iggy Pop. © Sebastian Mayer.

SM: Yes, you leave things out. The framing cuts automatically everything else away.

PK: That’s a quite violent act, isn’t it?

SM: I wouldn’t call it “violent”, ideally it’s more like a chirurgic incision. But there are ways to be “violent” with photography. Last year I made an experimental installation. I took all the pictures that I made during my last trip to Japan and projected them all in one sequence at a brutal speed of 60-70 images per second. I consciously didn’t leave anything out. It was around seven thousand pictures, some of them just random snapshots of room ceilings or flash tests. Literally, everything I had. It was absolutely hypnotic to watch the “film”. The images weren’t planned as a stop-motion animation. They were all meant to be viewed as individual pictures. At the limited speed of perception of the human eye, by the time some pictures made an impression, they were already being overlapped by ten subsequent pictures.

PK: The duration of looking is related to the depth of the photography…

SM: I have to think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up when you say that. The longer you look at the picture, the more you can interpret into it. Photography is like a document. That’s what makes it so interesting. A two-dimensional reflection of the reality that took place. Photography is standing still. That makes it an object of investigation. The more you look, the more you will find.

RANDOM series. © Sebastian Mayer.

PK: You can decide not to take a picture. Sometimes you leave your camera deliberately at home. How about deleting pictures?

SM: I never delete a picture! I can’t do it. I would rather buy another four Terabytes of external storage to keep also all my black underexposed photographs in RAW format. I was on the road with just one suitcase for nine years. I really have no problems getting rid of things I don’t need or which aren’t functioning anymore. On the contrary. But when it comes to photographs, that’s different.

PK: What is so different about photography?

SM: Five years ago, I exhibited the RANDOM series in Tokyo for the first time. I went through 15 years of my photographs and I chose some pictures I liked at the moment when I reviewed them. I’m sure I would choose different pictures from the same archive today because my perspective has changed and will also change again in the future. Different time and different context allows us to see different images in the same photographs and also to discover new connections between them. I have so many blurred photographs or photographs that seem insignificant – with just a big toe on a beach or so – and I often ask myself if I should keep them or not. In the first moment, you might not be able to really see anything meaningful in the photograph, sometimes it’s just blurred or totally underexposed and black. But it could be that when we look at the picture for the 500th time, then we finally will find something we couldn’t see before.

Underexposed photography. © Sebastian Mayer.

It’s also a question of technology. Recently I read that it should be theoretically possible to reconstruct the sound of ancient spaces from the pottery found by archeologists. The bristles of the straws which formed a vase hundreds of years ago also made grooves, and as the straws were vibrating, excited by the sounds around them, they must have recorded the sounds just like on a vinyl record. With appropriate technology, the grooves could be played like a gramophone, allowing us to hear the sounds of the original environment. I’m not sure if it’s really possible to extract these sounds, but the idea itself is immensely fascinating to me! I see it similarly with my black underexposed photographs. Maybe one day, we will have techniques that we cannot imagine today, which can extract a properly exposed picture from an underexposed RAW file. That’s why I still keep all my completely black pictures. Maybe there is something interesting on them that I just can not see yet.

So I’m sitting on the whole mountain of pictures and I have to step down at a certain point to find the people because I have something to say to them. I don’t know exactly how many pictures I have by now. I guess around one million: 700,000 digital and 300,000 on negatives. And how many pictures do I need to tell a story? Three? Ten? A million? [Laughs.]

Interview & photo of Sebastian Mayer: © Peter Koval
All other photos © Sebastian Mayer (
English editor: Elle Peril

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