Thomas Kellner: A Dance to the Music of Time

© Thomas Kellner ‘London, Buckingham Palace’ [detail] 1999

Success does not come from exceptional intelligence so much as perseverance and discipline.


Saccades are a secret of the eye hid from us by the brain. The term describes the rapid flitting of focus from one point to another. This information passes to the brain where the saccades are masked by a temporal distortion that extends the information from the previous focal point until the eye has settled on the next. We perceive the visual field without a break as our perception of time is imperceptibly reshaped.

Our broader visual sense is itself a synthetic process which remains veiled from consciousness as the fragments flowing from the eyes are blended with memories and expectations to synthesise a perceptual whole. Research suggests that as little as twenty per cent of what we perceive visually from moment to moment is actually passing through the eye.

A photograph is very different. It shows us all that was in the field of view of the camera lens in a single plane – all there, all at once. It is one of the things that makes looking at photographs so beguiling. They have the familiarity of vision and yet we sense none of the mental reconstruction alive in human sight.

The German artist, Thomas Kellner, makes photographic images in an unusual way; one that has an uncanny resonance with the reality of our biological sight masked from consciousness by the brain’s game with the way we perceive time. The images for which he is now widely known are made up of strips of film laid out in the manner of an old-school contact sheet. Like the saccades of the biological eye, but with the rectilinear precision of the machine, each frame of the film records part of a larger whole depicting most usually a building, but sometimes a person. Changing the camera tilt between shots results in a final image in which the subject fragments and gyrates. While this adds a level of aesthetic confusion to the image, the structures themselves are iconic, their forms stored in the memory and retrieved as the templates through which to read each novel interpretation. In this way we recognise the subject even as we delight in the subversive way in which it is apparently flouting the rules of architecture, if not the laws of nature.

For Thomas Kellner, this reworking of the contact sheet on a grand scale has become both his modus and his artistic signature, instantly recognisable from New York to New Delhi. But how did it begin? What might it mean? And if, as Goethe and others have suggested, architecture is frozen music, what happens when it is unfrozen and begins to dance to the artist’s preternatural tune?

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?

Thomas: While I was given my first camera at the age of four, I would place the moment I began making photographs during my studies at art school. I was experimenting with pinhole cameras and alternative printing processes. It was then, at the age of twenty-seven, that I began to understand photography as visual language.

[Left] © Thomas Kellner ‘London, Big Ben’ 1999
[Right] © Thomas Kellner ‘Athens, Parthenon 1’ 2005

The work for which you are best known has a very distinctive mode of production and visual effect. How did this begin?

These are my contact sheets of architecture, in which buildings appear shattered, tumbling or dancing. People expressed wonder and sometimes amusement to see a building dance like a fat Santa Claus. Today, I believe that the most important characteristic is driven by a knowledge of the history of art: an understanding of materiality and process.

Many things came together; principally, an examination of narrative. How does narrative in art differ today from that of, say, a Gothic altarpiece or the reliefs on Trajan’s Column? Why is photography still misunderstood as simply a tool of documentation? These were some of the questions that I tried to answer in my early investigations using pinhole cameras.

Your primary focus is architecture. Why is this?

Simply put: it’s not going anywhere. The slightly longer answer is that what I do is probably closer to the idea of the subject in one’s mind rather than any single shot could be. Most of the subjects I photograph are already familiar from the media or through personal experience. The mental idea of the subject is not only composed of an aggregate of images, but also holistically linked to all our senses and emotions… But these days I am happy when an opportunity arises in which the notoriety of the subject is not in the foreground.

You have also used a similar approach to portraiture – that must be more of a challenge give the subject can move.

The difficulty with such photographs is that you have to get close to the subject to avoid repeating the same aspects of the face or figure. To approach a person in the same way as a building would require a head-and-neck brace. Lighting is a problem, as is depth of field. Next comes the question of serial completeness. Having defined the theme of a series, which subjects are still missing? Where must I travel to meet them? How much time and money will that involve? So, I need to find the appropriate occasion to make it worth investing in these images. And that takes time…

Have you been influenced by particular artists or art movements from the past, or is your work more personally intuitive?

In terms of narrative, I have already mentioned Gothic art and the frieze on Trahan’s Column. Structurally, of course, the Cubism of Picasso and Duchamp are important, but especially in the beginning, with works such as the Eiffel Tower, Robert Delaunay’s Orphism [a more abstracted offshoot of Cubism]. Later, the typologies of August Sander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher (who all came from the Siegerland, where I live) were to become at least as important.

Hegel, Goethe, and Schiller all described architecture as “frozen music”. In your work, you seem to liquify architecture, make it dance. Do you feel any affinity with music in your work?

In a text to my book, ‘Kontakt’, the musicologist Julia Kneppe compares my work to the music of John Cage:

“From the interaction between the compositional process, the facture, and the perception of the viewer, to whom the indissoluble connection of the images is revealed by the contact print, a temporal dimension emerges, such as one finds primarily in musical compositions … Just as the dimensions of a small pictorial motif in Kellner’s work ultimately determines those of the large picture, so in Cage’s work the overall composition is decided in the small structural points … behind the deconstruction of habits of seeing and hearing are the meaning and fragility of the moment.”

I think Julia Kneppe has answered this question excellently.

[Left] © Thomas Kellner Grid for Genova series 2005
[Centre] © Thomas Kellner Sketch for ‘Via Garibaldi 2’ 2005
[Right] © Thomas Kellner ‘Via Garibaldi 2’ 2005

Can you talk me through the process of planning and making one of your composite images?

It is actually as simple as it appears. Once I’ve decided on the subject, the point of view, and the best time of day, I’m ready to go. I make a small drawing overlaid with a grid which defines, among other things, how many films I will use and therefore the final size of the intended image. I then either make a storyboard, where I record each shot indicating the proposed camera tilt, or a concept drawing of the compositional rhythm as a whole.

I set my camera onto a tripod on which I have marked a graduated scale. Starting at the top left-hand corner of the subject, I press the camera shutter, then wind on the film and pan the camera right to the next point determined on the graduate scale. I may also tilt the camera’s horizon to right or left. Click. And so on across the top of the subject. Then I return the camera to the left and tilt it down by the precise amount to the next level of the subject. Again, I make a series of images from left to right. Again, back to the left and down one more stage… and so on until I reach the right side of the final row. In all, it can take anywhere from one to six hours, depending on the time of day or night, and the number of frames to be shot.

[Left] © Thomas Kellner ‘Paris, Eiffel Tower’ 1997
[Right] © Thomas Kellner ‘Washington, Capitol’ 2004

You have made work in many locations around the world. Do you plan your individual subjects in advance, or do you wait to be inspired by the things you find on arrival?

Today, you can plan many things quite well in advance using Google, Google Earth, Street View and so on. But, as always, if there is a Plan A, there must always be Plans B and C. For example, I can plan to photograph the US Capitol, deal with the legal complications, and obtain a permit. But, when I’m standing in front of it, nothing is as I anticipated. Then again, in some projects such as ‘Genius Loci’, where one is in a different culture and may not have an opportunity to research fully beforehand, one must rely on one’s local colleagues, deciding on a motif quickly and spontaneously on location. So there are both – research beforehand and inspiration on site – or sometimes the composition just asserts itself.

What ideas or feelings do you wish to communicate through your images?

Oh how I hate this question! Advertising has a message; works of art stand for themselves. I do not want to convey anything. I do research and I compose images.

Of course, viewers may make their own associations without my knowing about it. Little children who see my picture of Tower Bridge sometimes start to sing “London Bridge is falling down, falling down…”. Others make more associative connections. For example, I’ve been told that ‘Lisbon, Ponte de 25 Abril’ variously reminded viewers of a large insect, Star Wars, or perhaps Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’.

© Thomas Kellner ‘USA, Grand Canyon’ 2014

What has been your most challenging image to create of which you are most proud?

The one I made of Grand Canyon in 2014, which consists of sixty films with 2,160 individual frames.

I had originally planned to make this picture in 2006 but, the day before departure, my studio was burgled, and we had to cancel the trip. It was eight years before I had enough money again for such a project. In the intervening years, my experiences photographing the Great Wall of China, the Alhambra in Granada, and the Mexican pyramids, led me to refrain from tilting the camera when making a large work. At over four metres in length, it is a big work to ship and show, but it has already been exhibited twice and a book published with a fantastic essay by Freddy Langer.

[Left] © Thomas Kellner ‘Moscow, Saint Basil’s Cathedral’ 2014
[Right] © Thomas Kellner ‘Neuschwanstein Castle’ 2011

You seem to have managed your career with great success – many exhibitions, books, and print sales. How did you go about it?

Well, you’re only partly right. Of course, in the beginning you are almost alone. Still, you have parents, family, friends and very quickly a first fan base to follow and encourage you. This fan base can quickly grow. In my case, it was primarily thanks to the journalists who continue to give me space in their magazines. But, without doubt, the most important steps have been taken by gallery owners such as Burkhard Arnold in Cologne and Martha Schneider in Chicago, alongside Stephen Cohen in Los Angeles and Karla Osorio in Brasilia. They have presented my work in many exhibitions and art fairs, and have recommended me to very good collections. To date, I have shown my work in more than five hundred exhibitions, festivals and art fairs around the world.

Books, of course, are important. I am currently working on number thirty to be published later in the year. I could not have done that without a fan base, without a buying public.

So, you ask me how can this be done? In my experience, success does not come from exceptional intelligence so much as perseverance and discipline. You should have a vision, think big, ignore naysayers, work your ass off, and, importantly, think of your fellow artists and always give something back to them and to society. If you do all that, you will remain stimulated and new ideas will always flow. The rest (almost) takes care of itself.

© Thomas Kellner ‘Berlin, Brandenburg Gate at Night’ 2006

Of all the many ways in which you advance your artistic career, what strategies have worked best for you?

The most important step is to have an objective, set a strategy and give yourself a time limit. My first time limit was five years, at the end of which I went to the Meeting Place at the Houston Fotofest. I went from 2002 to 2009, and it gave me just about everything an artist dreams of: galleries, commissions, museum acquisitions, and publications, leading to much more, especially lots of travel.

At least as important is to understand that, as a professional artist, you are also a business where you run all departments: purchasing, sales, development, production, management, HR, marketing, PR, and so on. I have learned how to network and cultivate contacts.

Finally, one must persevere, go your own way. Advice is nice, but you only need the advice that gives you the right answer at the right moment. That said, one must always remain open to what comes one’s way.

You not only promote your own work, but also the work of emerging artists that you admire.

Travelling so much, one’s horizon quickly broadens, commonalities become visible across cultures, you make many friends. I have always been interested in networking and exchanging work with fellow artists. I began to run group exhibitions in my studio. These received a lot of media attention, and I was subsequently invited as a reviewer to portfolio meetings. I began to curate the work of other artists. For me, it is a way of giving back. I am happy to say that artists I have shown have won many awards, most recently Elaine Duigenan (who you interviewed earlier) who received the Jin Hou Niao Zun Award in China, and who I will exhibit later this year in my gallery in Siegen.

In the process of making your work over the past decades, what has making photographs taught you?

I have learned that there is always something new to see in an image, even after many years.

I have learned that the core of my work is not the object depicted, but the study of movement.

Photography has taught me that for an image to be artistically expressive it must retain something of my original experience that can be taken away by others.

And, as much as I dreamed as student of simply making pictures by myself, I know today that artmaking is also a gateway to meeting many very special people.

© Thomas Kellner ‘England, Stonehenge’ 2002

Biographical Notes

Thomas Kellner was born in Bonn, West Germany, in 1966. He has a Master of Art, Sociology, Politics, and Economics from the University of Siegen (1996). He was visiting professor at the Justus-Liebig University Gießen (2003–2004), lecturer at the University Paderborn (2007–2008) and ran studio classes at Justus-Liebig University Gießen and University Koblenz-Landau (2015). He has presented solo exhibitions in Australia, Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the USA, and his photographs have featured in many group exhibitions around the world.

His distinctive images are represented in prestigious public and private collections including the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey (UK), George Eastman Museum, Rochester (USA), the Library of Congress, Washington DC (USA), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (USA), Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), the Art Institute of Chicago (USA), Baltimore Museum of Art, (USA), and the Photography Museum of Lishui (China). In 2003, he was appointed to the German Society for Photography. Thomas Kellner’s work has been published in thirty monographs and photobooks, three self-published artist’s books and a dozen limited-edition portfolios. He lives and works in Siegen, Germany.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.