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Creative Drifting Leads Christian Heidebur to Better Photos

Creative Drifting Leads Christian Heidebur to Better Photos

“I get the best results when an experiment fails,” candidly responds German photographer Christian Heidebur when I ask him about the stories behind his favorite images. If you thought double exposures were tricky, Christian does triple exposures on film. The pièce de résistance – he took up photography only three years ago.

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It’s fun enough to take double exposures on digital cameras, but top marks to those who attempt and successfully do this with film. I guess shooting on film alone isn’t a challenge enough for many. I wouldn’t dare try this at the moment, given the way film stock prices are going. But if you’re someone who does this creatively and has a fascinating story behind it to share, do get in touch with us.

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Christian Heidebur

Christian told us:

I have a lot of small things to experiment with – Polarizing filters, 85B filters, tripods, remote triggers, prisms, iridescent foils, stencils, etc. As additional equipment for exposure I use fairy lights, wrapping paper, dried flowers and reflective objects and I am always looking for more utensils, and like to go to craft stores for that

The Phoblographer: Hi Christian. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Christian Heidebur: Hi Feroz, it’s a pleasure! I grew up in a rural area in the middle of Germany, quiet and sheltered. I am 40 years old and live in Munich. I learned and studied automotive mechanics and automotive engineering, so I am one of those typical German engineers, and I work in the automotive industry. As a child, I painted and drew a lot but put my interest in creative pursuits aside somewhat after school. I was never particularly interested in photography either. I always saw this as a trifle, an aid to capturing memories. I always thought that memories stay in my head and I wouldn’t need photos. I guess I underestimated how memories fade when you are no longer a child and also underestimated what you can do with a photo camera. I discovered this when I met my love Irene in 2019 – but not directly. At first, I was just amazed that on her shelf, there were no random useless decorations but more than 15 cameras. And when I saw that there was hardly any room for food in her fridge because everything was occupied with analog film, I knew that this was a true passion. I found it quite amusing, but now my apartment and fridge look the same. Through Irene, I quickly learned that, especially in analog photography, and depending on the film, not only snapshots of a vacation can be made, but a photo camera can be a means of artistic activity and artistic expression.

Irene put an analog camera with some Lomography film in my hands on our first hiking trip together and encouraged me to just take some photos. It didn’t take me long, and I quickly sensed that I was on to a great activity here. I then learned even more through Irene how to get really popping colors by cross-developing slide film and that you can double expose or soup film: this was all new to me. Then I got a lot of inspiration from social networks and quickly realized what I liked and was interested in: Fine Art photography, especially double exposures. I have been interested in the surreal paintings of Dali since I was a child, and these drawings by Escher with impossible perspectives. Especially with double exposures and films with false colors, I can now achieve surreal results myself, and in the meantime, photography is my favorite form of artistic activity.

The Phoblographer: Isn’t it tricky to dabble with double exposures in film photography, especially given the rising costs of film and developing?

Christian Heidebur: Roughly speaking, the cost (with film purchase and development and occasional repair of camera or lens) is about 1 Euro every time I press the shutter, or slightly more since the prices of films and cameras have recently increased steadily. But my motto is – one photo a day keeps the doctor away, so it’s a good investment! But all kidding aside, I’m really very grateful that I can afford my passion for photography. Especially for the kind of photography I like, I wouldn’t be able to manage with a digital camera at all because probably a lot would be shifted to editing on the PC. I don’t enjoy that, and I’m glad I don’t have to edit my scans from the lab. Cost or not, I’m sticking to my guns. I’m not becoming a friend of digital photography; neither the look of the photos nor the process of making a photo interests me.

Call me crazy: there’s something about every single photo being precious, the result finally becoming visible after weeks of waiting, and never knowing how much waste and what surprises might be in the form of happy accidents on the scan delivery day. It’s all an extra kick of analog photography and double exposures. And coming back to the creative process, I usually have a camera or two with me, and often, there is a pre-exposed film in it. The next upcoming frame is, for example, exactly the BMW R&D headquarters in Munich, or the administrative building of a slaughterhouse in Munich, and then I’m out hiking in the Dolomites, or I’m in a forest, and there are just often these coincidences in double exposures where I end up with wonderful results, and suddenly the BMW building is in a mountainous region, or the house finds itself as if in a fairytale forest. And would I photograph digitally: would I then have this fantasy in the mountains to remember this building that I photographed two months ago and that it now fits together exactly well for a double exposure? Maybe! Maybe I would have other ideas because of the other possibilities, but I don’t miss anything with exclusively analog photography.

The Phoblographer: But you don’t just stop at double; sometimes, you even do triple exposures. Aside from the technical challenges, what emotions or feelings guide your choice of subjects for these?

Christian Heidebur: Three years of photography is not really a long time, and I still photograph everything that comes in front of my lens. I always have at least one camera with me, sometimes even on the short way to the supermarket. Rarely do I have a very specific idea for a particular project or motif – that doesn’t suit my personality. I usually let myself drift, making only minor adjustments so as not to stray too far off course. I then take what I find when I like it. This runs through my whole life but also through my everyday life, or when I visit a place that I don’t know yet. Since I take photographs, I naturally provoke more to discover something interesting. I walk much more than I take the subway, I go hiking more regularly, and I have more motivation to see a city other than Munich.

I would like to use an example to describe how the fact of finding everything interesting and photographing it together with letting yourself drift in a creative process can lead to a strong photo. On my last vacation, I found this koi pond with lots of water lilies and all sorts of things around it. Between the water lilies, I always saw a koi here and there and exposed half a film there. A few months later, Irene organized a portrait shoot with Greta, and I accompanied her as I then help her carry the equipment, change the films, etc. I was able to take some portrait photos myself, and I went along for the pre-exposed film with these koi, mainly because there was still a lot of negative space for a portrait due to the dark water. From the exposure time, I still had leeway for a third exposure, but I didn’t want to wash out or disturb the portrait too much, so I decided to use a glitter foil just to give the photo a certain kick. After development, it turned out how wonderfully this fits together, and even later, it turned out that Greta has a special relationship with fish. I would never have been able to plan it in advance and was once again confirmed in my creative way of working with a lot of room for serendipity in my photography.

Editor’s Note: See the lead image for this article for reference.

The Phoblographer: It must be frustrating to sometimes end up with bad exposures during experiments. Tell our readers how you bounce back from these.

Christian Heidebur: I try and experiment a lot, and that includes producing a lot of rejects. That’s part of the process, and I learn from it in the end. I am compensated by the many happy accidents. The attraction for me lies precisely in this unavailability and unpredictability. I’ve dealt a lot with unavailability, and it sounds counterintuitive to find something good about it at first, especially since it doesn’t correspond to the zeitgeist at all. And unavailability is not good per se. Of course, the emergency doctor should come immediately when you need him. Every technical innovation also serves to make things more available, but we also tend to overdo it a bit. Why does my online grocery delivery service promise that my order will be at my home within 10 minutes? It’s not medicine! In relation to my photography: if everything always worked immediately and reliably without problems and everything was immediately available, never problems with the film, light, motif, everything, photography would quickly die for me. A good example is a film I soaked in mouthwash for a day. I let the film dry for over a month and ended up being a bit too impatient, so I pulled it out of the can while the film was still a little tacky. I also hopelessly overexposed the first frame. And the result is one of my all-time favorite photos, even though it’s not really a photo: it’s just a blank frame with a few broken spots. But it looks like a surreal landscape. To be fair, many others from that roll ended up being just a waste.

The Phoblographer: Tell us about this souping in mouthwash. Where did you find out about it, and how effective has it been for your style of photography?

Christian Heidebur: I’ve read about mouthwash as a recipe for film soups somewhere on Insta. But I’m not concerned with any specific ingredient. With soups, I pay attention to the color of the liquid because I think that the color can also tint the film. For nature motifs, I like to use green liquids, as in the example of my green mouthwash. I’m often a bit cautious when souping, especially if I don’t want to take the risk that the soup is too aggressive and the motif is no longer properly visible at the end. In the example with the blue gentian, the soup is only very subtly visible, and at most, there is a slight veil on the photo. But at the end of the day, the result is difficult to predict in this process.

The Phoblographer: I’m certain mouthwash isn’t the only non-conventional “chemical” you used for souping. What others have you used?

Christian Heidebur: I have not made much more than 10 film soups so far and have tried various household remedies, such as alcohol, wine, coffee, tea, vinegar, various cleaners, and mouthwash. Anything that is acidic or alkaline works. I just took everything I could find in my household. Sometimes I even change the liquid halfway through. I have never tried to reproduce a specific result, nor do I write down the recipes or the duration or temperature. I like to use film soup for floral motifs and hope for similar results as with the bumblebee approaching a lavender stalk: it seems really visible how the emanating scent of the lavender attracts the bumblebee. In the example, by the way, I soaked the film roll in urine for 24 hours.

The Phoblographer: Which of these experiments produced the best results? Please tell us the stories behind some of those images.

Christian Heidebur: With all experiments, I always come to the point that I get the best results when an experiment fails. I usually do double exposures with my Canons and always with a whole film, but I also once wanted to do a double exposure directly with several perspectives of the same subject. I was in this residential park in Munich, which is built like an octagon with a park in the middle. The residential buildings tower almost unreal around the park. I took my Nikon F3 and wanted to shoot the buildings at wide angles and at telephoto to get form and detail into one frame. I did something wrong with the small pin on the film advance lever and got confused with portrait and landscape format when changing the lens several times in a row. I just messed it up completely. To this day, I don’t know if it was a triple exposure and what exactly happened, but the result fascinates me to this day. I never tried a direct double exposure with the F3 and multiple lenses again.

The Phoblographer: Who or what are your biggest inspirations for these photos? Have any of your followers reached out to tell you that you inspire them?

Christian Heidebur: I get most of my inspiration from the Lomography community. With Ben Battaglia I noticed for the first time that he doesn’t just double expose single frames of a film, but a whole film. With this, he had the biggest influence on me. That made me want to try double exposures myself. Since then, I always double-expose an entire film myself and simply insert it twice into the camera.

Otherwise, my greatest role model is Hodaka Yamamoto. His double exposures are the strongest I know. Through him, I learned that you can expose the film from two sides, but I only do it once in a while because it is very tricky to take the film out of the canister, turn it over and rewind it (without a darkroom). On top of that, the first exposure is then upside down and/or mirrored. It’s also not easy for the second exposure to be exactly superimposed on the first without overlapping. I also always make a sketch of the first exposure with the frame number. This also shifts depending on how you rewind the film from side to side. Ultimately, it was Hodachrome that inspired me to take photos with a model, multiple exposures, with an exposure from both sides of the film. I took backlit shots of Katrin and Tanja with a wide-angle lens so that their silhouettes are clearly overlaid by the textures.

Hearing that I would inspire someone is the greatest compliment ever because for a while now, it’s all about inspiration for me when I look at other photographers’ work. For me, it’s not about good or bad photos or being better than someone else. I don’t compare myself anymore because life is not a competition. I see all the people making photos or arts in general as part of a larger community, and it’s all about what we achieve together as a community, so I try to offer advice and inspiration when I can. I don’t remember many situations where I’ve heard of being an inspiration, but I’ve been able to give a few small interviews to the Lomography community so far, and I trust that one or the other person will be inspired by my photos. At least that’s the only reason I share my photos.

The Phoblographer: When you photograph these multiple exposures, has there ever been a scenario where the subject that you intended to be the main one ended up being overshadowed by another exposure?

Christian Heidebur: I had this circumstance with a film swap, where I pre-expose the film and send it to someone else for the second exposure. Depending on the camera, it may well be that one of the two exposures goes down a bit. I’m thinking of the film swap that I did with Irene. I photographed a fountain but out of focus to give her more space for her subject, and I really just wanted to add something to the composition and throw in some glare effects. I didn’t see their exposure at first until I saw the small area with the moon above the fountain. Since I usually use the same camera and same settings for my double exposures, it rarely happens that one subject is overshadowed.

The Phoblographer: Is this just a hobby on the side for now? Any plans to monetize it in some ways? Or will monetizing kill the fun?

Christian Heidebur: The first thing I can state is that I am completely free from any monetization of my photos being related to the value of my work. The only value in my photos is how much I enjoy taking them. I emphasize it this way because I haven’t always had that attitude. It was difficult for me for a long time in this world, which is capitalized in every area, not always to gild everything or to assess the value of everything in money. I am very glad that I have overcome this thought. But still, in principle, all my photos are for sale, for example, in digital form for an album cover or as a print for wall decoration. I can hardly imagine another way than to make my fine art photography as I do, independent, and they find an interested party afterward. So far, this has only happened in the extended circle of acquaintances, gratuitously, as a friendly service. I’m honored when I think of this good friend of mine when he asked if I could make a sizable print for his apartment from one of my photos. Now every day, he looks at this beautiful collaboration from a film swap with Carina from Vienna, whom I had never met. We just agreed that we would shoot the whole film in portrait format, and we were both very excited when we saw this double exposure of this forest and trees at sunset.

All images by Christian Heidebur. Used with permission. Check out his Instagram page to see more of his work.

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