Robert Winter is a travel- and music photographer based in Cologne. For about a year now, he’s been doing photoshoots for ekn. In this interview, he tells us about his beginnings in the hip hop scene, working for big agencies, personal idols, and his indie magazine called Passing Me By.
You have been shooting photos for ekn for about a year. How did this collaboration come about? Pretty organically, to be honest. I met Marek and with my relatively large network of musicians, it wasn’t a big deal for me to go: “Hey, put on this shoe, while you’re at it”, whenever I’d do shootings. I do have quite a few contacts, especially here in Cologne. Record stores, bars, you name it. All of those are great spots and motives for the kind of everyday situations that I shoot for ekn.
Picture 1: Robert in LA at the video shoot for Masego & Ta-Ku, Picture 2: Donut store "Dilla's Delights" of Uncle Herm, the uncle of J Dilla
Your pictures have a very distinct vintage look. Do you shoot analog or digital? I come from analog photography, but for corporate shootings that’s just become too expensive. When you have a client saying: “We’d like another perspective for this one, can we get a couple more versions of that one?”, the numbers just don’t add up. Analog film has become so expensive, when you factor in development and everything you easily end up with one photo costing one euro to produce alone. That’s why I switched to digital a while ago. That said, I’m not a clean, high-end product photographer, my style isn’t polished like that of photos you’d find in some glossy catalog. Which is a good match for the people I photograph and also for ekn of course. Those pictures aren’t polished either. You can have a guy looking real weird in one shot, and someone else with a cigarette still in hand in the other – all that kinda stuff you normally wouldn’t want in advertising.
Not just ekn, a lot of brands have renounced that sort of catalog aesthetic. We live in an age where corporations don’t want to be perceived as such but rather as that cool friend living right across the street. Exactly. That’s why the whole music thing fits so well. What I’m good at is creating an atmosphere where people are cool and relaxed, where they behave naturally. That’s also what works best with musicians. Those guys aren’t models. And I speak their language, I move naturally in their world. I don’t know shit about fancy marketing- and IT slang. In that kind of context, I’d never be able to create that same, familiar vibe. That’s also why I think it’s pretty rad that the pictures I take for ekn are just kind of normal actually. The guys I have in front of my lens are pretty much just regular dudes. Just a little funky.
Picture 3: Cosplay festival in Osaka, Picture 4: Train ride to St. Petersburg, Picture 3: Anglers on the shore of the Bosporus
You started out as a musician yourself. What did you do back then? Rap. There’s this production company I have with two good buddies – we used to do a lot of those more corporate type jobs together. Back in the day, we spent a lot of time sitting in a basement making beats. Getting absurdly high and making beats (laughs).
An excellent wellness treatment in these trying times. Yes! Especially last year these gatherings took place a lot.
What was your segway into music photography, hip hop? How did you find that side of you? Pretty much. We were 16 or 18. Someone played a show, so you needed flyers. The question arose: “Who can take a picture for that?” Or you released a CD, burnt at home as one did back then. For that you needed a booklet and so on. That’s basically how I started designing covers, first for my own crew, then for other ones from the area. That kinda took on a life of its own. At some point, I wasn’t even all that hyped about making music myself anymore and started taking much more interest in this whole design aspect… Which I guess is due to the fact that I was into graffiti even before I started rapping (laughs). I’m so old, to me rap was still part of this triad consisting of graffiti, rap…
And breakdance. Exactly! We basically sat in our rooms all day and doodled all sorts of tags and pieces and whatnot. There was always this visual, artistic component to it. Looking back, I guess that’s just what manifested over all these years.
So you’re saying the transition to photography was an organic one that came with time. Or was that a conscious choice, you saying: “Yupp. That’s it. In reality, it was much worse than that (laughs). I started with photography because my ex-girlfriend found a camera at the bar she worked at back then. It was one of the first digital cameras of the time and apparently someone just left it there. I hope that guy is really mad now, but he kinda also never came back to ask for it. As for me, I was still drawing at that time. However, this was in an era where people would start digitizing their graffiti, creating fancy backgrounds in Photoshop and so on. I then started photographing structures, using them as fills for the letters and experimenting with that. At some point I switched to just taking pictures. That was something I fell in love with very early on: reality. As I said, I’m not exactly good at staging photos. People like Dave LaChapelle who creates these insanely huge, staged photos, I could never do stuff like that. I just can’t imagine things like that upfront. But when I’m outside, just strolling around, I get so excited in my head, I permanently go: “Wow, what’s that? Look at this, that corner looks sick.” Driving my present wife nuts of course because I take her out on walks so much but that’s just what comes naturally for me (laughs). It’s not that I particularly focused on photography, I just kinda stopped doing everything else, you know what I mean? I can’t even watch regular shows anymore, instead, I have some documentary on almost 24/7. Some travel documentary, Russia from above or what have you. It’s pretty much the same with photography: The only thing I can do is to just go out, see things, and then take pictures. That’s also how the idea for Passing Me By came to life. I just go someplace and simply capture what I see. And I go out looking for that kind of normality.
Picture 7: Subway station in Moscow, picture 8: old home of J Dilla. Among others he has produced there: Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def and Slum Village.
Passing Me By – what’s that all about? The whole thing started from within the hip hop cosmos again. I was in Detroit back then, in 2016. I had just shot a music video and designed a cover for Illa J, J Dilla’s little brother. I was there for a week. Illa didn’t have a whole lot of time, but I did. So I just started walking around and the city just blew my mind. You know, when General Motors was still there Detroit really embodied this American way of life we know from the movies. Then GM leaves and so do the people. Nowadays it’s just insane, the city looks like every second home is either abandoned or burnt down. That’s being crass of course. But then Detroit is also home to Motown, Eminem, Illa J, Detroit Techno later on. One can really tell that this blue collar context but also this lack of perspective have fuelled so much awesome stuff culturally. I instantly knew I wanted to stick around for longer. Most of the time I just walked around. It’s crazy how photogenic that country is. I mean if you look at it from above, the city looks like crap, but when you truly look, you’ll find a bazillion corners that’ll make you go: “Whoa, that just looks amazing, this place could be straight out of a movie.” That’s how I strolled around town like a crazy person for a week, then I came back and thought to myself: “Okay, cool. Got a couple pictures of Illa J. But I also have these 500 other photos that are pretty rad.” I then spoke to the people at Carhartt, who had financed the Illa J shooting. They really dug the photos and said to me: “Why don’t you go again, do a fashion shoot with Illa, but this time you stay for two weeks and just do your thing.” That trip produced so much material, I couldn’t possibly have left it to rot on my hard drive, so I just turned it into a magazine. Just photos, that’s it. A mini-vacation for at home, if you will. Shared apartment toilet reading material (laughs). The whole thing was so much fun and people liked it so much that I did it again next year. I went to Tokyo and Honshu and just did the same thing. Take walks, let yourself get carried away. I walk between ten and twenty kilometers a day that way. By now, I produce and distribute the magazine all by myself. For the next edition, we’re going to Istanbul with ekn.
Sounds like a dream job. Do you do anything else other than that? (laughs) Well, I can’t live off the magazine of course. It’s rather that I’m making money selling prints of photos from the magazine. People write to me saying they liked this and that picture and that they’d like to hang it up on a wall at home. The magazine itself is more of a catalog in that sense. That said, seeing as the magazine is doing so well, I did manage to turn down a few jobs from the agency world. In the end though, the problem is this: Everyone can be bought. There’s just so much freaking money in advertising, it’s straight up uncomfortable how much you can make. The flipside is that you end up with clients like Nestlé or Shell (laughs). I mean I’d never work for those guys, but you know what I mean! That’s where I feel very lucky to be able to stay independent to a degree and survive doing, let’s call it, craftwork.
Picture 9: POV Martin a.k.a. V Raeter is photographed by Robert. In the background a photo of Martha Cooper (Robert's idol) Picture 10: Illa J in the legendary Melodies & Memories - where Common, Eminem and J Dilla bought their sample records.
Sustainable fashion with ekn. Is that a workaround you can live with? An existence, not in complete asceticism, but in a way where you don’t feel like you have to sell your soul or even the entire planet? Absolutely. I mean of course the best case scenario would be everyone just buying my stroll photos and me being able to pay the rent from that. But then again, I’d probably think to myself: “You’re such a dick, Robert. Just because you saw some dude walking down the street that you thought looked funky, who, in reality, might have had a really shit day, you took a picture of him. Now he looks real sad in it. Someone reads something into it, wants it for his home, and orders a print, but in the end you’re still kind of making money on that guy’s back.” It’s sort of a holistic chain in the end. I’m fully aware that I need to do a little bit of work at some point. That I need to spend some time doing things I normally wouldn’t have. Looking at it like that, I think it’s pretty cool that I can do the new shirts with ekn, it has more of a message that way. I mean I’m not doing them with H&M.
You said that you were looking for normality, that your style is very documental. Do you think the success of Passing Me By has something to do with the fact that a lot of people are looking for something “real” in a world where everything can be accessed at all times and feels artificial a lot of the time? Funny you should say that. I certainly do. And this accessibility is also what feeds into a certain boundlessness. A lot of people don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore, what they like and what they don’t like. It’s the same thing even with trends: We don’t really have those anymore, globally speaking. Nowadays, we basically only get niche trends within specific bubbles.
Speaking of bubbles: Who are your biggest influences, artistically? Martha Cooper from the U.S. She basically invented hip hop photography, to exaggerate a bit. In terms of travel photography, I’m gonna go ahead and say Ara Güler, that’s a street photographer from Istanbul who really left his mark on black and white photography over there. And then I’d like to also mention a French guy – Jesus, let me look up the correct pronunciation real quick: Henri Cartier-Presson. When I transitioned from drawing to photography, I looked at a ton of old black and white photos and I completely lost myself in his works.
Your current favorite camera and lens? Street photos I do with a Leica and a 35mm lens. For everything I do for ekn, I work with a Hasselblad X1D, the first portable, digital, medium format camera. Also using a 35mm lens.
And your favorite ekn shoe? I really dig the Alder. And I have the Low Seed in black. Really sleek and very comfy, can’t go wrong with that one.
Max Röbel interviewed Robert for us. Thank you very much!