Thomas Herbrich: Surprising Stories
Written by: Anthony Hagan Photography by: Thomas Herbrich

Thomas Herbrich is a photography mastermind and compositing wizard.  He has been compositing digitally since 1989 and he is fondly known in his home country of Germany as the “pope of compositing”.  Thomas approaches his photographic art like a movie director approaches a script that has multiple intricate layers.  His guru and hero is famed movie director Stanley Kubrick, and he does his symbolic teacher proud with every image he produces.  Thomas uses humor to disarm the audience, but humor is just a ploy to lure you in.  Once you are in, your task is to find the hidden miracle in his pictures.

Take a look into his photographic stories below …

“I am deeply inspired by my guru Stanley Kubrick. I saw “2001 – A Space Odyssey” and that was my personal culture shock …”

Please tell us a little about yourself – your childhood, siblings, where you grew up, what you liked as a child, strange thoughts as a child/now, unique attributes, where you live now, etc.?

I grew up in Düsseldorf, Germany with my two brothers, Markus and Detmar. I am the oldest of the siblings. My mother is an artist, she studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie (an art academy), and her professor was renowned artist, Joseph Beuys. She studied painting and stage design. My father left us when I was 6 years old.  We grew up very poor.  My mother is extremely creative (she still is) – without money for toys (and hardly any for food), we learned to use our imagination much more than other children. I was always dreamed as a child.  I made my own toys, thought up stories, created puppet theaters, etc. as a way to escape.  Creative thinking and performing on stage are traits shared by my brothers and me. We are story tellers, decorators, artists….  Our main tool is humor.

What does your art (photography) mean to you?

As a photographer, I am primarily a story teller. My theory is: “A photo is like the first sentence in a story”. The audience wants to escape into the photo. Art and photography is pure “inspiration” to me.  You (Style.No.Chaser) discovered me through my ‘SMOKE PLUME’ photos, but these are only one part of my work (and the smoke plumes really don’t tell a story).  I am deeply inspired by my guru Stanley Kubrick. I saw “2001 – A Space Odyssey” and that was my personal culture shock. I didn’t understand that movie (no one can understand it), but the movie asked the right questions. I was struck by the beauty and majesty of that film.

How do you describe your form of photography/art?

My photography is a product of studio work.  All my photographs are staged (see example of staging set and finished photograph below), similar to the staging of big movie scenes. It takes weeks to set up one photograph and the end product finally consists of several pictures (however, this was not the case for the SMOKE series). Regarding photographs that tell stories, I made a little book titled ‘THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MOON LANDING’ (see book cover below) – I wrote the text and took the photos in a unique burlesque way. The book is about humanity’s love for conspiracy theories and the “truth” in photography.  Another important aspect of my art/photography is my stage work. I love to do lectures about photography, but I also touch on other themes. For example, I am widely interested in 19th century literature and the history of science. People call me “the cabaret artist among the photographers”.

Example of staging

Finished product

The Truth About the Moon Landing book cover

Excerpt from book

What tools do you use for the creation of your work and how did you create your personal art/photography style?

My main tool is the photography itself.  I do a lot of photo‐compositing (in Germany they call me the “pope of compositing” because I have been compositing digitally since 1989.  Retouching, model making and stage work also play a big role in my work. I love team work, but prefer very small teams – I am always the boss! I want to surprise and sometimes overwhelm viewers with my work. I love spectacular pictures that evoke the sensation of Hollywood movies.

Many of your pictures have humorous connotations; do you purposefully try to be funny in your work?

I am from the area around River Rhine.  People from that area tend to be very funny. If you were to call me on the phone, I would have you laughing in a minute.  Humor is a very effective tool. I am not photographer who wants to show reality. Others can do much better than I can. I am the funny storyteller (but not in a superficial way). The problem is the art industry/business in Germany does not like humor.

Is there any particular emotion that you try to evoke from your audience with your work?

I try to evoke inspiration, surprise, and a general good feeling. Every photo has to have a ‘miracle’ embedded in it. The audience has to feel invited and welcome to search for this miracle. My audience will see the miracle but won’t find a final answer. There has to be something special in a picture that cannot be described.

Your “Smoke” series is very unique, how did this come about and how is it being received?

SMOKE was my attempt to be accepted by the art galleries. I first attempted this in 2005, but the concept was too new and galleries were not ready. It was not a big success at the time. My idea was to show something stunning that had not been seen before. I am non‐smoker, but I always noticed lovely SMOKE plumes coming emanating from smokers. The pictures are made from cigarette smoke – I took 100.000 shots of real cigarette smoke with a super fast flash, and in the end, I retrieved 20 “good” pictures. It took several months to identify images for the series.  The main goal of SMOKE was to show the beauty of turbulence.

What is the worst critique you have ever received about your work? What is the best compliment that you have received about your work?

The worst critique I received came from ladies who I photographed for portraits. I am not a good portrait photographer so I do not offer such photos anymore. The best compliment I ever received was in Athens/Greece some years ago. I had an exhibition at a big photo‐fair. The prints I showed were really large and 10.000 people saw my photos (which were located right at the entrance) every day. There was a little lady looking at me and the photos, I think she was a bit shy.  After some minutes she asked me, “Did you take these pictures?” I said “Yes Madam.”  She then said “May I kiss you?”

Who is you favorite artist and photographer?

My favorite director and guru is Stanley Kubrick. My favorite painter is portraitist John Singer Sargent.   My favorite photographers are Richard Avedon and Elliott Erwitt.

What is your favorite movie?

“2001 – A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick and “Richard III” by Richard Loncraine. I have seen each more than 30 times.

Since Style.No.Chaser is a men’s lifestyle magazine, what attributes/items/clothing /etc. do you think defines a man? What is your personal style?

The defining attributes of a man are: intelligence, charm, empathy, humor and style.  A defined personality is very important and it helps if your outfit expresses this. I live in Düsseldorf, a town known for fashion in Germany, but I am not much interested in fashion. I am usually very casual with what I wear.  I like to wear jeans, Chucks and a nice white shirt with cufflinks (women recognize cufflinks immediately). The one thing I wear every day (and feel naked without it) is my cologne, DRAKKAR NOIR. My daughter Veronice is 23, and is a designer very keen on fashion. She keeps me in check

What is your personal life philosophy?

My goal is: “Surprise yourself – and your audience!” If you cannot surprise yourself, you won’t succeed with your audience.

How can people learn more about your current and upcoming works?

My website is the best place to go.

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