Nomi Baumgartl has long been considered one of the most renowned and multi-faceted photographers in Germany. She is a sensitive observer, and wonderful portraitist; but, above all, her work is dedicated to the fragile interaction between people and nature. The series at the Leica Gallery in Wetzlar deal with our responsibility towards the future, and the impact of our current lifestyles on coming generations. In our interview, the photographer offers insight into her series, explains her motivation, and speaks of her ambitions for her work.
The Eagle Wings project is at the centre of your presentation in Wetzlar; it is a project you continue to work on to this day and which has already been awarded the “Green Angel” for special environmental commitment by the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment. What is it about and what caused you to undertake this work?
Yes, the cause was the profound experiences I had during my previous project in the Arctic. Stella Polaris* Ulloriarsuaq became an international, artistic photo and film project, aiming to create awareness for the global correlations of climate change and the fragility of that world of ice. It was after the world premiere, in 2014, at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles – a city that consumes an enormous amount of energy – that I realised how much pioneer work is still needed, before we can reach people. I was looking for a change of perspective and, considering that I live with the Alps at my doorstep, it made sense to continue working here. The Alps are the wild heart and the water castle of Europe. The Alpine glaciers, which are disappearing at high speed, are like the thermometer for our planet.
The work for the Eagle Wings project is very complex…
Yes, it has three levels. My eye represents photographic art; and I represent the first level, with my limited human vision. There, I work with the Leica SL and the Leica SL2. At the second level, it’s an eagle that represents nature and deep emotions. He is equipped with a 360° camera. At the third level, I work with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as the Virtual Alpine Observatory (VAO). who supply the scientific background. They’re like the big eye that looks down on the Alps from outer space.
All in all, it seems like an enormous feat.
That’s right. And that applies in many respects. I finance the high expedition and production costs primarily through my own efforts. I use the income from my very limited editions of photographic art, to finance the expenses to be able to carry out further expeditions. I then create new motifs from those – and consequently new values. It’s a sustainable cycle. Each of the motifs exhibited in Wetzlar is for sale, of course; and every person who purchases one of my pictures has the assurance that they are not only acquiring a very limited edition of photographic art, but are also contributing towards the preservation of the Alpine habitat. My projects are always larger than I am! I need a large network and great teamwork, to be able to realise such visions, so that the mission can reach people. And each project is only as good as the spirit that emerges within the team. Another dream is being fulfilled right now: the Eagle Wings Foundation is being established.
Another group of pieces, within the exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Wetzlar, is titled Yin & Yang. What’s behind it?
Yin & Yang is a larger cycle, which also includes motifs from the Dolphin Aid and Elephant Man projects.
Dolphin Aid also has a close connection to an accident you had, which resulted in memory loss. How do you deal with that experience today, and what role did photography play in overcoming what happened?
Yes, it really did change a lot in my life, and even led to an identity crisis – but therapy dealt well with it all. In addition to the very challenging experience, there was also a positive aspect, however, which had to do with a change of awareness. When everything is deleted from a hard drive, then there’s room for lots of new things. Photography played a big role: I rediscovered the world; it was, and still remains, a big adventure.
Observing after many years, there is a particular aspect. I like to call myself an analogue fossil; and the technology at the time had analogue quality, which is also becoming increasingly valuable in the photo art world today. At the time, I worked primarily with the Leica M6 and the R7.
The Andreas Feininger portfolio is also being presented in Wetzlar. It represents the outcome of a long friendship you shared with the photographer. All the pictures were taken before your accident. Did the pictures help restore your memory?
Yes, the pictures did help, as emotional memory plays a big role for me. With a great amount of support, I was well able to reconstruct the most recent period – in other words, the ten years before the accident in 1996. Regarding the friendship with Andreas Feininger, he shared a guiding principle with me that connected us deeply, and that still stands for my work today: “We are all an integral part of Nature, a part of the Universe”.
Where do you get the energy to continuously set yourself new challenges?
From nature; from my passion and vision; and, of course, the homage to creation, a declaration of love for our planet; and my commitment, as a photographer, to give visual expression to the fragile balance between people and nature.
All my projects had guides, whom I allowed to lead me: in the Dolphin Aid project it was the dolphins and the whales, the great species of the oceans; in the Elephant Man project, it was the elephant, the largest creature on earth. For Stella Polaris, it was the Northern Star, which stands for orientation in the Northern Hemisphere; and for the Eagle Wings project, it was the eagle, the king of the air and the mountains. So, my second lease on life has seen my small evolution through the elements: I started with the ocean, and was able to work with dolphins and whales; then came the earth, and I worked with an elephant. After that, I was guided by a star, and now by an eagle. These are the good spirits on my long journey.
Many thanks for speaking with us.
Nomi Baumgartl was born in Donau-Ries in 1950. From 1973 to 1977, she studied Design and Visual Communications at college in Düsseldorf. Over the following years, she became a successful photojournalist who was published in all the major German and international magazines. In addition to assignments, she began, early on, to work on self-chosen, long-term projects. The Leica photographer’s oeuvre has been seen in numerous exhibitions and books. In June, 2016, she received the international B.A.U.M. Environmental Special Award for her life’s work. The laudatory speech was given by Dr. Auma Obama, sister to the former US President, with whom she enjoys a lively friendship. Nomi Baumgartl, who lived for a long time in New York and Munich, is based today in Murnau, Bavaria. Find out more about her photography on her website.