Hailed as a consummate master of live concert photography and renowned for his dynamic images of stage performances by iconic musical groups including U2, German photographer and lifelong musician Ralph Larmann works as a freelancer for artists, businesses, architects, lighting designers and countless magazines worldwide. In his two critically acclaimed picture books STAGE DESIGN and STAGE DESIGN EMOTIONS, Larmann documents a wide variety of national and international concerts, operas, musicals, TV shows and events in his signature brilliant style. He continues to be a leading innovator in showcasing staging and live production events in a way that exalts and eternalizes what is in front of his camera. In this interview with a Leica representative, which took place at the commodious Leica installation at photokina 2012, he reveals his compelling personal story and some of amazing details of his ongoing creative process.
Q: We don’t know much about how you got involved in shooting U2 to begin with so can you fill us in on how the project first began?
A: I’ve done two coffee table books before about stage design. And I’ve done around 60 shows, a lot of big acts, including the shows VERTIGO and 360° by U2.
Q: Is that because you love the music or the stage design, or something else?
A: I come from a musical background. I studied music. I’m a drummer. I studied popular music at Rotterdam’s Conservatory. That was 25 years ago. And I’ve played in bands for 25 years so these are my roots. Around 25 years ago to, I started to work in journalism and that entailed shooting photos for my stories. So that’s how I got into photography. And then I started working for musicians’ magazines, and specialized magazines covering lighting and sound. And I created stories for all these publications. Finally, in ‘93 I began doing coffee table books.
Q: Is there something about the format of the coffee table book that you prefer over exhibition prints to present your work?
A: Yes. I think that coffee table books are the most wonderful way to concentrate the work of photographers. Exhibitions are a different thing, which are also great in their own way, but when you’ve done a coffee table book, it’s there for all time. When it’s a good quality book nobody will put it away, so it’s accessible forever. My first “stage design” coffee table book came out in 2005. It was 400 pages long and it was published worldwide in more than one hundred countries and in five languages. I don’t believe there is any other photographer out in the world that has concentrated so much on photographing stage design, opera, musicals, theatre, concert touring, TV shows, and special events. I’m entrusted with telling these stories. The people of the business are so happy that there’s a book out showcasing their art. A lot of companies have my books on display in their offices, and a lot of artists have been inspired by my work. My second book was published in 2010, and Willie Williams, the renowned U2 set designer, wrote the foreword for it. Because of the beautiful things he wrote about my work in the foreword, I had tears in my eyes when I read it first. The U2 book has two hundred and sixty pages. In any case it’s a lot.
Q: How many images did you take in total?
A: I don’t even know; maybe thousands. But in the book I have more than one hundred eighty pictures. There are also other people’s pictures too, because I’m not around all the time. There was the camera operator Eoin McLoughlin doing great photos and Willie Williams and some other guys have done nice ones. But most of the photos were mine, and that’s why they put my name on the cover. That’s amazing, and also a big compliment on my work from the band.
Also there’s Dylan Jones, the British GQ guy who’s putting out the GQ magazine in the U.K., a very well known writer and author covering the U2 show that makes all the magazine covers. That’s a big number.
Q: Tell us about the rain in Minneapolis when you were shooting U2 for the special photo book project for their 360o Tour.
A: Well, after running through the stadium to check things at different angles, I went back down to the stage area to be close the band—and then the rain began. I never experienced a harder rain at a concert before. I have two Leica S2s, so I ran to the management office to get a big towel to protect and wipe off cameras—there’s no roof! And there I stood for the remainder of the show, shooting in the hard rain. Next day I had to fly home to Frankfurt from Minneapolis, which is why I kept my suitcase containing my clothes in the stadium. I had to change everything—clothes, shoes—I was totally drenched. I never had that happen before. But everyone else was standing in the hard rain too. Adam Clayton, the bass player, took off his t-shirt and was playing bare-chested.
Q: Didn’t the rain start right as Bono mentioned rain in the song that was playing? That’s kind of special too, isn’t it?
A: Yeah it’s really an incredible coincidence. And in the photos you can see how the rain bubbles up from the ground—it literally springs up.
Q: What an experience! Is the book being published with U2 or is it a self-publication?
A: It’s the official U2 360° Tour photo book and Random House is the publisher worldwide. Ed Victor is the literary agent from U2. He’s done for example Keith Richards’ LIVE and the biography of Eric Clapton—a wonderful man. U2 really has the right people on their side. Everything is organized 100% so they have the luxury to take the time they need. Every other band would have had the book out last year before Christmas.
Q: Was this the first time that you used the S System?
A: I started working with it some weeks before I shot the three U2 360° Shows in the U.S. Before U2, I shot the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest 2011, the opera André Chénier at the water stage in Bregenz, Austria and Kylie Minogue’s “Aphrodite” show at O2 London, for my next coffee-table-book STAGE EMOTIONS that will be out 2013/2014.
Q: What was the most important shoot you have done from the 360° Shows?
A: The one in Berlin at the Olympic Stadium. That’s also the cover of my book STAGE DESIGN EMOTIONS and it’s the cover of the official U2 360° Tour program 2010 & 2011. I did that photo in the first show in Berlin on the 18th of July 2009. That’s a very funny story. The star you see over the stage is there because there’s a mirror ball on top of the U2 stage stops– this mirror ball normally moves and creates moving stars. Because the ball stops the lighting is concentrated in that moment throughout the stage. And it looks like a star on top of the 360° stage.
Q: Did you plan that?
A: No. We realized it later because the technician told me that they had a problem with the mirror ball. And that’s why I have this picture. I was just in the right place at the right time. And that’s awesome and wonderful. I’m a lucky man because I’m working in a very positive part of the world and wonderful things just happen and I capture them for my books. And the U2 book is….Wow!
The second show was also in Germany in Gelsenkirchen. Most of the U2 crew people had this Berlin photo on their cell phones or notebooks for the screen background. That’s amazing! And in Gelsenkirchen was the first time I met the band personally. There I am on stage with the band to do a 360° full sphere shoot . Before the show Larry Mullen wants to meet and talk with me to know “Who’s this guy behind me?” And then Bono comes up to me and says, “Ralph, thank you for these great Berlin pictures.” What bigger compliment can I get?!
Q: What S lens did you mostly work with?
A: The 30mm wide angle. For the shows in the U.S. I had the big luck to have a prototype with me. And the lens worked perfect!
Q: When you work on productions like this, it ups the ante for every other production you see, doesn’t it?
A: Yeah, and when you see my books, brace yourself. There are some wonderful things that happen but we don’t realize it at the time. Most photographers concentrate on the artist so you see their faces but you don’t see the whole context. For my first book I asked Disney to let me photograph the Lion King. And that opened the door for me. One afternoon I had a special showing and they played five scenes, two times each, just for me. And I also had special access on a second afternoon where I alone could shoot all the details from the stage. This had never been done before.
Q: Where are those images now?
A: They’re in my first book STAGE DESIGN. And for my second stage design book I photographed Wicked. You can see all the details. Of course when you see the musical in the theatre you concentrate on the scene. I photograph a lot with wide angles and its part of my work to capture the whole scene. And on a double-page spread in the book you can really get into it. You can’t do this by viewing a show on a DVD. With the photos in the book you can go into the scenery and spend your time to discover all the wonderful little details. That’s the way my photography works—you’ve got to spend time with the scenery and say, “Wow, what a big moment!”
Q: So are you using the S system now for your work?
A: Yeah, I have my own S2 system to work with now. My philosophy is to move forward and try new things. Everything I can do with the S2 I will have more depth, more dynamism, more resolution and more visual power. When you shoot with the S2 you can really get into the pictures and have an adventure in discovering the details.
Q: When you’re talking about experiencing the full stage design with your images, it seems like there may be opportunities in how they are presented digitally. Do you agree?
A: Well what I’m doing now is making my stage design books available for the iPad.
I didn’t sell the rights to electronic books to the publisher, so now I can do it by myself. I started to think about how I could do it last year. I’ll definitely get into this soon because I want to do a special book on Stage Design Emotion that includes 360-degreee images. For example there is one 360° full sphere when I was on stage with U2 at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 people beside the song “Where the Streets Have No Name”. In this picture you can move around and zoom in. It’s amazing. In From The Ground Up – U2 360° Tour you have the print version on pages 236/237!
As you know I also love to do special effects, so six weeks ago I bought a portable radio-controlled mini helicopter with a housing for my 5D Mark III so now I can do aerial photos by myself. I don’t need to rent a full-size helicopter with a pilot. The system was very expensive, around 30,000 Euros, but that includes one controller for the pilot and one controller for the photographer. You have the picture on the screen so you can control that too. It’s amazing, and it lets me work in another new way
Q: Between your setup on stage with multiple cameras and the air… all you need now is a camera on the artist’s head and you’ll have everything!
A: Yeah, yeah. But photography is about discovering new things… I’m always thinking about “what can I do better? What can I do that’s special? Very special.” You have to invest because there are so many people that simply buy a camera and say, “I’m a photographer.” I’ve done some nice books, and I have some wonderful credits, but I have to ensure that I have enough work in the future too. So that’s my focus. People know and trust me based on my track record, but now I’ll start working on my third “stage design” book, and working out the details of iBooks. I’ve got a head start on my voyage but I still have to catch the wind.
Q: There’s a quote I read once that went something like, “When things are good, I have to work harder,” and that seems to encapsulate what you just said. Do you agree?
A: Yeah! Although on the other side I’ve begun to take some more private time for myself and that’s also very important. Six weeks ago I started playing golf, and here’s why. A friend I was shooting for recently said to me “When will you stop working for a few hours and stay away from everything? I sometimes close my computer and go play golf!” That was my final impulse. Before that friend, my wife multiple times says to me, “You have to play golf!” It’s great to be out in the fresh air for a while and it brings me down from everything, helps me to decompress. I realized I never had a “real” hobby besides photography and playing music. Everything I do has to do with my work – it’s been my hobby and passion.
I’ve also been a music teacher for over 30 years. One afternoon each week I teach children on drums at a music school. It keeps you grounded. It’s a different world with no celebrities! The small things matter like how to sit properly to play the drums. It’s a change. I work in different worlds and that’s what I love.
Q: So whether it’s teaching or playing golf, it helps refresh you and make you more productive when you’re working. Is that right?
A: Yeah. I came to the realization a few days ago, that I’ve been working for thirty years now. Thirty years! And next year I’ll be fifty. And that’s what I do. I work. And I never stop except for some short holidays and that’s it. So it’s good to have some private time for myself. My son Philipp is now sixteen and he also has a wonderful way with music. He’s in the church choir, a professional church choir, since he was 5. He was touring last year in South America, was in the States and this year in Finland. Next year he’s going to Turkey and Israel.
Q: So life is good?
A: Yeah but you’ve got to work on it. I have to look for the right balance. Because a lot of people my age have a mid-life crisis. It’s all about balancing your private life and your business life with everything else. I think I’ve found the right order, and I’m ready to work on what will probably be the biggest projects of my life.
Thank you for your time, Ralph!
-Leica Internet Team