The latest findings in the fields of astronomy, biochemistry, quantum physics, stem cell research and artificial intelligence: in her latest project, Herlinde Koelbl finds an usual, yet very accessible, way into the world of science.

In a very literal sense, she captures the researchers’ most important findings and gives them tangible form in her portraits: the photographer asked each of those she portrayed to do a brief sketch directly on their hand, conveying the essence of their respective areas of research. A formula, a philosophy, a quote: combined with the clever minds behind them, they give rise to extremely lively portraits of these renowned scientists. We spoke with Herlinde Koelbl about her new project.

How did you prepare yourself, and how did you find the personalities you portrayed?
I started out by reading a lot about the different scientists – books about them, as well as their research. It was important to me to be very well prepared. I owed it out of respect to those I interviewed. Of course, I did a lot of online research; but I also spoke with many other scientists and asked them to recommend those they consider to be top scientists. And, of course, in turn these scientists recommended other award-winners I could contact.

Was it a long journey to complete this project?
Yes. I began with the first interview in 2015, and the last one was carried out this year. I travelled to Israel, America, Australia, England, China, France, Austria and Switzerland.

What meaning does the hand have in the portraits of the scientists?
I wanted to portray the scientists in an unusual manner. I wondered about how I might combine the science and the personality in one portrait. The wonderful things was that they all drew their formula or their philosophy on their hand themselves. So you can see their handwriting, as well as the shape of their hand and the lines on their hand. I was fascinated by how the scientists were able to compress the essential of their very comprehensive work into something that fit on their hand.

How easy was it to convince those portrayed to show their hand?
The scientists were delighted, as evidenced in the pictures, because it adds a playfulness that scientists shouldn’t lose if they want to be successful. This childlike curiosity is immensely important, as well as an openness for unusual ideas and ways of thinking. I didn’t give anyone instructions on how to hold their hand, but at first many just lifted it up up next to their face, so I asked them to play around a bit.

Leica SL

Fast. Direct. Mirrorless.

Did your encounters with these personalities go beyond simple portrait sittings?
The main emphasis was on the portraits. However, I also filmed them all, working two video cameras and recording, so that, in addition to the book, I can also reveal their essence through another medium. It was important for me to show not only the scientist, but the whole personality. The subjects in the interviews were: origins, upbringing, first experiences with science, role models, the journey to the top, as well as the hurdles they had to confront. Flexibility and persistence are essential aspects that distinguish scientists. Because it is still a very male-dominated world, I was also interested in hearing about how female Nobel prize-winners and female scientists found their way.

You took the photographs with a Leica SL. How was your experience with it?
Very good! I have the zoom lens, so I was able to approach each situation in a very individual manner; and, above all, the SL has a high resolution that produces sufficient data to be able to make very large prints.

Why did you opt for black and white?
I turned all the photos into black and white, because I wanted to reduce the face and the hand – where they had written with a black pen – to the essential; so that they eye of the viewer would not be distracted.

Herlinde Koelbl was born in Lindau, Germany, on October 31, 1939. She discovered photography in the mid seventies, and is now considered one Germany’s most renowned photo artists. Her very comprehensive work is largely defined by non-commissioned, long-term photographic projects, which are often complemented by in-depth conversations. She has published over a dozen photo books during the past decades. She often uses a Leica M and an R for her 35mm work, while her recent series was taken with a Leica SL. The photographer has received various awards, including the Leica Medal of Excellence (1987), the German Photographic Society’s (DGPh) Dr. Erich Salomon Award (2001), The Federal Cross of Merit (2009), and the Bavarian Order of Merit (2013). Herlinde Koelbl is represented by the Focus Agency. She lives and works in Munich.
Find out more about her photography on her homepage.

Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, October 5, 2020 to January 29, 2021