There are only a few photographers who can look back over a life’s work spanning nearly seven decades. Walter Vogel is one of the greatest German photographers of the analogue era: the diversity of his repertoire of subjects shows that he is a careful observer and sensitive chronicler of his times; every single one of his prints reveals his precision and passion, as he works in the darkroom. The number of photo books of his work is substantial. In addition, his photographs appear regularly in German feature articles. Whether in the Ruhr district, at the circus, at travesty stages around the world, or in the coffee houses of Europe, Vogel has shown himself to be a sophisticated travel photographer. Using his Leica cameras to put together a multi-layered body of work, he has taken pictures among the most diverse milieus. We spoke with the photographer – who recently celebrated his 87th birthday – on the occasion of his induction into the Leica Hall of Fame.
Looking back, which of your series do you consider the most important?
It would be unfair of me to decide for one particular series, as I applied the same energy, strength and delight, or compassion, to all my most important subjects.
Speaking more in general, what do you find particularly important about photography?
I consider myself a person who looks backwards, and I see my photography as the ideal memoir. It is important to me that its value is not measured in relation to current or political issues, nor in relation to a prominent place, and much less a prominent person.
Looking back, what would you see as the biggest challenge in your work?
The biggest challenge always was earning a living with it. With regard to my personal projects, it was the battles with publishers, and to see each of my book drafts evolve into a discerning piece of work.
What are the most important things that you have understood through your work?
The understanding that it must be the photographer – him or herself – who develops the motifs in the darkroom, so as to create the desired outcome. No one can be looking over his or her shoulder during this process; it is only the photographer in the darkroom who can activate the feeling that induced him or her to photograph in the first place.
Did you become more patient with yourself over the years, or did the wish for perfection grow stronger?
Unfortunately, I have become more critical when I look at my prints. I say unfortunately, because the concentration and strength of the early years are now only achieved in exceptional cases.
Why do you have a preference for black and white photography?
To start with, in my way of thinking, colour doesn’t exist. In addition, it was exclusively the black and white work of my great role models – first Werner Bischof and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and later Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Eugène Atget and Brassaï – that fascinated and motivated me.
Which Leica cameras did you work with? What role does the camera play in your work?
I began photographing with the Leica IIf in 1954, followed by an M3, an M2, a Leicaflex SL, an M5 and an M6, up until now. The camera was always the driving force that swept me along.
What would you most like to photograph today?
Today, at 87 years of age and after nearly 70 years of photography, I allow myself the time to sit back and “sound out the market”. I would mostly like to return to the milieus and photograph the worlds of “little people”. But the strength is missing and there is the risk of repetition.
What does the honour of being inducted into the Leica Hall of Fame mean to you?
Everything! A swan song possibly, that could not have come at a more appropriate time or in another place. The honour goes, first of all, to my Leica, which I have to thank for everything. Since 1969, I have felt closely connected to the publicity department at the time and to the Leitz company. This still continues today; not least, thanks to the collaboration with the Leica Gallery Frankfurt.
We congratulate you and wish you all the best.
Walter Vogel was born in Düsseldorf on October 18, 1932. He first trained and worked as a Mechanical Engineer. In 1963, he began studying photography under Otto Steinert, at the Folkwangschule, and he took his finishing exams in 1968. After that, he worked as a freelance photojournalist in Düsseldorf. His work was first published in magazines in 1954, and in 1964 he received the World Press Photo Award. He had an atelier in Frankfurt from 1977 to 2002, but then returned to Düsseldorf. In 2016, Vogel made a premortem bequest of his work to the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, under the care of the bpk (Picture Agency for Art, Culture and History).
His most important publications:
Ewa Eva. Fotografien 1970–2014 (Kerber, Bielefeld 2016);
Deutschland. Die frühen Jahre 1951-1969 (Brandstätter, Vienna 2002);
Die Schönen der Nacht (Brandstätter, Vienna 1994);
Espresso (Brandstätter, Vienna 1993).
The exhibition on the occasion of Vogel’s induction to the Leica Hall of Fame, will run from November 15, 2019, to January 27, 2020, at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar.
In the current issue of LFI you can also find a portfolio with selected works by Walter Vogel from over five decades.