Writer Gerald Traufetter
is an editor with the
science department of German
newsmagazine ‘DER SPIEGEL’.
He interviewed photographer
Marc Steinmetz on his work.

Marc, you are widely known for your science photography. Where does your interest in science come from?
     I have always been a curious person, and my parents encouraged that. Even as a boy I had a small microscope and a telescope. With these I experimented and discovered the world. I gave up my initial goal to become a chemist or an astronomer quite early, though, when things started getting more and more theoretical. I quit chemistry when we hit electron convergence in class. I mean: that’s not even in my encyclopedia! I think I am rather the generalist type.

But you do try to understand the things you photograph?
     At all events! It is essential that you are able to grasp complex concepts yourself before you can even begin trying to explain them to others. That is what good science photography is all about.

How do you go about finding your images when you work on a subject?
     If I’m lucky I get enough time to research the subject in advance. Then, before I actually start out on the assignment, I make a list of all the images I need to illustrate the issue. In the field I follow this preliminary outline of my story and add any other images that may come up.
     This always takes a lot of thinking, so I don’t sleep too well on assignments because of my constant brooding on what might be missing or could be improved upon.

More often than not science isn’t all that photogenic. Are there still ways to turn profane lab reality into exciting images?
     Interesting angles and wide angle lenses might help. Sometimes I enhance smaller objects in the foreground by using extremely short focal lengths. Lighting of course is an integral part of my toolbox. It helps accentuate things, enhance or reduce space, or literally show things in a different light. Night shots or time exposures can also yield stunning results.

Most science pictures are staged. How far do you allow yourself to go there?
     The staging should remain realistic. You may also let the viewer know the image is staged if you feel better about that.
     But staging can easily be overdone: in the late eighties photographers started lighting science shots with color filters, mostly blue, so everybody who saw these pictures must have thought science labs looked like a disco. Doing images that way is easy, and I have to admit that they were an important step in the evolution of my own work, too.
     But today most people seem to have learned that you don’t need colorful lighting for an interesting picture. I prefer trying to create intelligent images, not loud or gaudy ones.

Staging a picture is time-consuming. How do you get people to go along and invest so much of their precious time?
     That can indeed be tough on everybody involved. But I try to minimize the impact of my work on theirs to a tolerable degree. First of all I talk with people and have them show me around and explain everything. Afterwards I mostly prepare my shots – choose angles, set up the lighting – for hours without much more help from anybody.
     When it finally comes to doing the actual pictures and somebody has to pose, it rarely costs people more than another half hour. People can easily accept that. And most of them are also able to see that though good photography may take a lot of time, it is worth the effort.

What are your favourite assignments? Which issues do you enjoy the most?
     I enjoy many issues, but I appreciate the kind of assignment that gives me a chance to work more spontaneously. Where I can stay agile and carry my equipment wherever I go. Photo bag, tripod, a few lenses, and GO!
     My picture story on Karakorum, the ancient Mongolian capital of Genghis Khan, worked that way most of the time. Schlepping three heavy aluminium cases and two tripod bags around with you can make you terribly constrained and inflexible. 

You always carry a notebook; what for?
     That is one of the most important pieces of equipment I have on me. In it I note all the necessary information on the things, or people, I photograph.
     But, except with complex shots, I don’t waste time recording technical photographic data like exposure or f-stop.

Does it also contain your ideas and your list of pictures you need to take?
     Yes. Every new job I start out on gets a few pages of lists: names, addresses, phone numbers. And, of course, my wish-list including space for additional entries...

Is the in-the-field kind of adventure an integral part of your work?
     Absolutely, that way you usually get images which are more vivid and authentic. With staged science photography you are in constant danger of staging a picture to death. I love working real, natural situations for a change. Besides it’s usually more fun.

How do these two go together: on the one hand your rather authentic picture stories from ‘in-the-field’, and on the other hand your staged lab photography?
     I think these two complement one another. I have a simple guideline whether to stage a picture with great pains of not: If I can do an exciting picture without further manipulation, I’ll do it. But especially in labs this may prove impossible without some kind of manipulation on the part of the photographer.
     You can experience pretty desperate situations in labs when all you see is computers and grey boxes with the odd dial.

Do you consider these situations a challenge?
     Certainly! But if I could do staged photography only, this would sooner or later take all the fun out of work. Besides I’d be prone to run in circles and fall into patterns. Change is always healthy, and versatility keeps me fresh.

But it seems as if you really liked doing fiddly things.
     Sure, when you want to do perfect science photography and you have a precise conception of the picture you want to do, you sometimes have to be quite inventive. There is, for instance, this photo from my GEO story on the testing of consumer goods. I had to shoot crash-testing of children’s safety seats and thought it would be great to capture the child’s dummy at the precise moment of the crash, but from inside the test car! The catch being that the test is performed at 50 km/h. You can’t be on board that car without risking your life and your equipment. That’s when you start messing with strobes and flashlights, nylon thread, elastic, and pulleys in order to simulate the dramatic effects of a real impact. In cases like this it is all about creating a picture that looks real instead of being real.
     When I have finally succeed in creating an image that looks more dramatic and better than reality, I have achieved my aim.

Are you a perfectionist?
     Yes, but not enough. I often get frustrated and angry with myself when I look at my pictures and detect faults that could easily have been avoided with a little more thoroughness and circumspection. Like your odd nylon thread that does show after all…

But isn’t it the very defining trait of the perfectionist, never to be satisfied?
     If that is true, then I must be one. I am indeed rarely satisfied with my own work.

Do you consider that a disadvantage?
     On the contrary, it keeps me on the go! Being satisfied too early means coming to a standstill. Whereas when I doubt myself and feel I’m not good enough, I am constantly forced to work and improve on myself. Oftentimes at the expense of sleepless nights in the field.

What was your most difficult assignment?
     That’s hard to say, because most science assignment are pretty tough. But I think I’d award the first prize to the turkeys: GEO assigned me to photograph turkeys. Real close and with a white backdrop, meaning in a studio. When I did research on how it could be done one breeder laughed at me outright. Knowing the animals’ temper he thought it absolutely impossible to get them to hold still and not go crazy from all this flashing from the studio strobes.

How did you solve that problem?
     I built a little studio in one breeder’s barn. At first I tried to photograph the birds separately. But the cocks did indeed get uneasy pretty soon and tried to escape. One of them even took the black border of my softbox for a branch and tried to light on it. Of course, everything collapsed under the weight of the 15-kg-bird. It just sat there among the ruins, scared motionless...
     My assistant finally saved the day with her idea of putting a hen in the pen along with the cock. The females had a calming effect on the males and even got them to perform their courtship displays.
     Prize-winning turkey ‘Kurt’ proved even more difficult. Due to his love of freedom he could only be photographed through the door of his cage. Plus Kurt was not inclined to courtship at all. We tried everything to make that funny thing on his nose grow, but Kurt stayed cool. For a whole two days…

And what was the most adventurous?
     I’m no daredevil, but sometimes adventure finds out even the cautious: Climbing the looming hull of a running container ship on a dancing rope ladder while taking pictures at the same time comes to mind. I did that for my picture story on pilots on the Elbe river.
     Or the pack of dogs I was attacked by in Mongolia while on assignment for GEO to do a story on ancient Karakorum: going berserk and fighting off five raging dogs certainly is an adventurous experience! Those moments afterwards make you wonder how the hell you managed the situation.
     I found the Greenland story which the two of us did together for ‘DER SPIEGEL’ pretty exciting, too: the ‘Hercules’ ride to the top of the inland ice, the incredible pressure of time there, the cold in the ice lab…

… which made your batteries leak and die…
     That didn’t really bother me. I only use cameras that work perfectly well without any batteries at all. All it takes is to unscrew the motor drive and continue.
     Breakdowns happen all the time. Right in the middle of a complicated night shot in Karakorum my radio transmitter died on me. I had to figure out another way to trigger my strobe then. It helps when you have a few aces up your sleeve plus some basic technical skills. You want to learn how to improvise in this profession.
     A certain amount of excitement is part of the fun. That is one of the reasons I became a photographer: you see and experience extraordinary things you usually wouldn’t, you go places you usually wouldn’t, and you meet interesting people you usually wouldn’t.

You used to be a graphic designer. Isn’t that the exact opposite to working as a photographer in the field?
     The desire to be a photographer was there first. Graphic design was rather a less-than-ideal solution then. With the change I finally came full circle.
     I don’t really see any contradiction in that. On the contrary: those two fields – again – complement one another wonderfully. As a photographer I profit greatly from my experience as an art director!

How did you go about that change?
      When you’re an unknown photographer who wants assignments, the first thing you need is at least one good picture story to convince picture editors of your abilities. For this the German Museum in Munich came as a natural choice. It was close, which kept expenses at a minimum, plus I could work there for months and always be able to repeat shots I didn’t get right the first time: after all, most of my models wouldn’t run away.
     I first had to learn how to use the studio flash equipment I had bought. Unavoidably, I made a lot of mistakes due to inexpertise with the equipment. Besides, I photographed far too much that was insignificant. Looking back, I would go about that story in a completely different way, but at the time I yet lacked the feel for what really matters.

But obviously the story was a success…
     Yes, it opened a door for me at German news magazine ‘Focus’. Carola Mink, who was picture editor with the science and technology department at the time, liked my work and gave me my first assignment as a professional photographer.

And what happened then?
     On the radio I heard a feature on the anatomist Gunther von Hagens, inventor of Plastination. I managed to convince ‘Focus’ to let me do a story on him.
     And then, by a lucky chance, this story got credited with two World Press Photo Awards. I’d been able to earn my living with photography by then, but only these awards were the breakthrough. After that I even got assignments and new clients without having to canvass from door to door. And after that even the picture editors of GEO magazine took me seriously.

Besides reportage and science photography there is a third side to your work. What is that about?
     Oh, that is all about fun, about good humour, about my sheer pleasure in drollery. That’s what I do for kicks when I’m feeling my oats.
     I did three of these droll pieces for the weekly magazine of ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’: Living Room, Escape Tools, and Holocene Witnesses. 

Do you have a distinctive photographic style?
     I used to always deny that, but there are some who don’t agree with me on that matter. I don’t know if you could call that a trade mark, but above all I try to do exciting photos, images that stand out from the rest, intelligent pictures.
     I also dropped doing all this gaudy, colorful lighting you see so often in science photography. For instance, in the first edit of my story on the German Museum there were dozens of pictures which were lighted in all colours of the rainbow but had little to do with the museum’s special character. The selection you now can see here on my website is a lot more authentic.

What do people find typical in your pictures?
     A certain clarity in composition and colour. If that is my personal style I never developed it intentionally, it rather evolved as a natural thing. I suppose it is a heritage from my former career as a graphic designer…

What bothers you about having your own distinctive style?
     I don’t have anything against it per se. Sometimes I am amazed how you are able to recognize the work of certain outstanding photographers, and I wonder why is that?
     But I myself prefer to remain open-minded enough to be able to create every picture the way I think right at that moment. I’m afraid that a distinctive personal style could become so rigid as to limit my photographic freedom and become a burden. With a too distinctive signature there is great danger you’ll be coming out of fashion after a couple of years. Timelessness might be your better bet.
     Especially in journalistic photography it is essential that the photographer’s personal style does not obscure the focus of attention.
     Which is more interesting: that what happens in front of the camera, or behind it?