Robert Mertens is a photo artist, author and trainer in photography and visual creativity. After a traditional education as a photographer, then working in studios for commercial photography and starting his own advertising agency, he became a freelance photographer in 1989. His knowledge of analogue technology and photo processing were the starting point for his shift towards individual art-based projects. Compared to his other work featured in this blog, this project mainly speaks for the creative universe that rises from the Salzburg Festival, where music, operas, plays and art collide. In cooperation with Leica, Mertens achieves the featured images that speak to the structure of this abstract and unique creativity and shares the process behind it. 

Please give us a brief overview of your professional background and experience with Leica cameras and equipment.

I studied photography – in my case analog, product and commercial photography – in the traditional way and then moved to Stuttgart after I had finished my training. There, I gained more experience working for various larger photo studios. Among other things we produced commercial photo shoots for Audi and Toyota. In 1989, I decided to open my own advertising agency.

If you work in the advertisement industry and are interested in conceptual photo projects, there are two things that are especially important to you: creativity and photography. Therefore, it was only a logical decision for me to sell my advertising agency in order to be able to devote more of my time to artistic and editorial projects.

Many of my thoughts and ideas on creative photography can be found in my first book “Kreative Fotopraxis” (Creative Photography Practice) which was published in 2011. Over the past couple of years I have also devoted increasingly more time on methods of developing a personal/signature photographic style. I have compiled my findings on this topic in my latest book “Der eigene Blick” (The Personal View) which was published in cooperation with the Rheinwerk publishing house at the end of 2015.

In order to not lose sight of the practical aspects of photography I started hosting workshops in 2010. The primary objective of these workshops was for participants to develop new ideas and their own signature style. One of the workshops I hosted was for the Leica Academy MasterClass in Wetzlar.

Working with Leica cameras is so fascinating to me because it gives me the opportunity to work with the best possible quality in the smallest possible space, which accommodates my minimalistic approach to photography perfectly.

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Tell us more about this project, what was your objective when creating these picturesque artworks?

This project came about as an artistic concept for the Salzburg Festival and in cooperation with Leica. The main goal here was to create abstract visualizations for the various different topics as well as for plays, operas and musicals to be performed during the 2016 season. Overall, we had to create 21 different pictures, among them classics such as the opera Faust by Charles Gounod, Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the musical West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein or the plays Jedermann (Everyman) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

The opera and theater-savvy audience at the Salzburg Festival is very familiar with those pieces. Additionally, I think most people automatically conjur up certain images in their minds when thinking about iconic pieces such as West Side Story. Therefore, it was a special kind of challenge to create images for the program catalogue which worked on an abstract level while simultaneously illustrating the key elements of the story. Accordingly, we spent a large amount of time developing a conceptual idea which did justice to each and every artistic piece and topic while also working in its entirety.

Tell us more about the creative (and technical) process behind creating these pieces. Did you take pictures first, followed by a digital post-production?

All of these pictures have one thing in common: photos of structures in panel format build their base and create the figurative stage for the finished artistic piece. Therefore, my first step was to look for a variety of suitable structures from which to choose the perfect bases for the pictures later on.

The next step was to delve deeper into the different plays, operas, musicals and topics. In order to do that, I went to Salzburg a couple of times to talk to the people organizing the festival, among them Sven-Eric Bechtolf, director of the Salzburg Festival. Only when I had done that and worked out a basic conceptual idea, I was able to start the creative process. Among other things, this process consisted of combining the aforementioned structures with behind the scenes images from the Salzburg Festival specifically photographed for this purpose as well as with material from my own photo archive. With all of those pictures it was essential to establish a clearly visible reference to the respective theatrical piece while still working with an interplay of abstract and tangible elements.

All of the pictures are exclusively based on photographs, may it be detail shots, cut-outs or structures. The actual realization of the artistic collages was done with Adobe Photoshop on a Mac. The various different possibilities of digital photo editing the program offers, accommodate my work perfectly and are completed by my creative (and playful) approach.

Overall my approach is rather associative. Most of the time I look at the structures first in order to start visualizing the completed artwork in my head. I work on composing these collages step by step and over long periods of time. They are heavily inspired by things I see or have already created and by the power of imagination. None of these pictures are created in one session and at the push of a button. Due to this approach to the project quite a lot of things came about randomly or on the spur of the moment. However, this particular principle of “creative accidents” is one of the key elements of my creative work.

How did you use your Leica camera in this project? What role did it have?

For this project I have worked with a Leica Q first and foremost. This particular camera is especially suited for photographing the needed structures in macro mode. The rest of the pictures used for the collages I mainly photographed with the Leica M or the Leica Q. One of the most important things for me is to have a camera which I can carry with me at all times – a camera which delivers the quality I need while not burdening me with additional weight. This is the only way I can keep photographing things spontaneously and capture inspiring scenes which I can later incorporate into my work.

Most of the images manage a humanistic element, whether it’s a single subject, or something that looks like a plaza with several people. What’s are your trying to convey here?

No matter if it is a person, architectural structure or landscape, each of the elements present in these pictures play an important role in visualizing the central idea of the piece and are crucial to projecting that central idea unto the theatrical piece it is based on.

The above images depict a single, feminine figure walking at a distance. What’s the story behind these images?

Both pictures cover the topic of Soloists at the Salzburg Festival. The picture on the right was a first draft but it wasn‘t chosen for the program due its clearly visible reference to Venice. The alternative which was eventually chosen for the program was the one on the left.

© Robert Mertens

This picture seems like a montage with an old newspaper and a set of stadium lights. Is there a particular reason to draw attention upon this composition?

Originally, this picture was designed to go along with the topic of “Contemporary.” My goal was to highlight this topic by choosing to depict something more modern. However, in one of my meetings with the organizers of the Salzburg Festival, the picture was removed from the final selection and was replaced.

This example lends itself perfectly to highlighting the challenges of this project. Artists always walk a fine line between abstraction and realism when developing pictures such as these. If the pictures become too tangible, as was the case with the pictures for Contemporary or for the Soloists with the Venice backdrop, the artist is influencing the imagination of the audience too much. Once that happens, the concept does no longer work.

© Robert Mertens

“Ignorant und Wahnsinniger”, on the left, shows an orchestra director, correct? How do you relate to music and to the music culture experience in the Salzburg festival?

The picture shows two actors on a stage which, in my opinion, suits the Thomas Bernhard play “The Ignoramus and the Madman” perfectly.

But to answer your question: My taste in music does not always overlap with the kind of music played at the Salzburg Festival. When I started working on this project I was worried that this discrepancy might become a problem at some point. However, I quickly realized that it might just as well be an advantage because despite extensive research and several briefings, my lack of knowledge about some of these topics allowed me to approach the visulization of these pieces with a certain amount of creative freedom.

Knowing too much or being too much of an expert on a certain topic means that most of the time the artist already has a fixed idea on what an art piece should look like. However, if the artist doesn’t know anything about the topic, they might find new and different ways of approaching it.

Please feel free to add anything you’d like for readers to know about.

Projects like this one always produce best results when the different people working on it are able to influence and inspire each other creatively. For this reason I would like to give special thanks to Heidi Simon for our creative exchange. Without her input and ideas this project would look completely different today.

Furthermore, I would like to thank Mrs. Karin Rehn-Kaufmann who was crucial in initiating and supporting this project.

To know more about Robert Mertens’ work and his books, please visit his official website