By Anita Malhotra
The photos of Austrian photographer Manfred Baumann have a kaleidoscopic range –from portraits of glamorous models and international celebrities to hard-hitting portraits of those at the margins of society; from animal and landscape photos to street photographs.
Beginning his career photographing models for books and calendars, he segued into celebrity photography, doing portraits of a long list of celebrities that includes Sir Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Lionel Richie and Natalie Portman, among others.
A desire to shine a light on unconventional subjects led to some ground-breaking projects, including Alive, featuring portraits of the homeless; End of Line, a photo essay on the last journey of death row prisoners in Texas; and Special, about developmentally disabled people.
An animal lover, Baumann is an Honorary Ambassador for Jane Goodall and an ambassador for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Baumann is also a frequent collaborator with National Geographic and an official Leica photographer.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Manfred Baumann, who had just returned to Vienna on the last flight from Los Angeles during the Covid-19 pandemic, by Skype on March 26, 2020.
AM: When did you first get interested in photography?
MB: I got my first camera when I was 10 years old from my grandfather – I think it was Christmas. My grandfather was a photographer and I was always looking at his pictures and was interested in his camera.
AM: What kinds of photos did you take when you were younger?
MB: Landscapes. My grandfather was a big fan of the mountains and grew up in the Austrian mountains, skiing and that kind of thing. So we took a lot of photos in the mountains when we were hiking and walking around.
AM: What kind of photography did your grandfather do professionally?
MB: He worked in a post office and did a lot of events like ice skating events and sports events, and he entered a lot of competitions. He worked for a couple of newspapers and he did a lot of landscapes too.
AM: Your first career was in something different from photography. Why did you not make photography a career in the first place?
MB: I think my parents – my mom – said I had to learn something real. So I thought that photography was a hobby, something you do in your free time.
I was 21 or 22 when I read a biography of another photographer, Helmut Newton, and then of Woody Allen. And I thought, “I have to do something of my own. I want to do something artistic as a job.”
AM: Was it hard to make the transition from what you were doing to photography?
MB: I was a salesperson, so I was working in shops where you buy food and this kind of thing. I worked there for five or six years.
At the beginning, when I said I want to do photography for a living, I had two or three jobs. I was always doing photography – going to modelling agencies, working with models, doing tiny photographic jobs. But I always had a second job.
For example, I was in the military because in Austria it’s the law that every young man has to go there for nine months. And I was a truck driver – like Elvis. Elvis was a truck driver before he became a famous singer. I was always taking pictures on the side, but I couldn’t make a living from it.
AM: I believe your earliest photography was of models. How did you get into that?
MB: Reading the biography of Helmut Newton was really inspiring for me, so I tried to work with different modelling agencies.
In Vienna, the fashion or modelling industry is not very big so we normally have to go to London or Rome or somewhere else in Europe. But I was in Austria so I did a lot of projects on my own – just booked models, then did some tests. It was a long, hard route.
AM: Some of your early work as well as your current work involves photographing nude models, which many men would consider a dream job. What is the job really like?
MB: I’ve been married to my wife for 23 years now, so for me it has always been about bringing out the nature and beauty of a woman in the photos to tell stories … to bring a softer version like Helmut Newton did, or Herb Ritts – this kind of artistic photography. I’m not that much into fashion; I was always interested in the person. Portraits or models – men or women – I like to show the real people.
AM: What are some of the tools you use to make models look more beautiful?
MB: I like natural light a lot. I work with Nelly, my wife, who does the makeup and is always on set. I like the models to feel comfortable on set – to have fun. We don’t have a lot of assistants around – it’s more like a family feeling.
The other point is, of course, a little bit of retouching, a little bit of perfect light, a little bit of perfect scenery like in the desert or somewhere in a national park, or in the big suite of a castle or hotel. To let them feel a little bit special and bring special moments or a special feeling on set.
AM: You have done a lot of celebrity photography. How did you get into that?
MB: I was just a minor photographer in Austria and then I got to know my wife. I said, “We have to leave Austria. I don’t think that we can do anything more here with photography.”
So we went to Canada – to Toronto. We stayed there for one year. The experience was cool – we worked with an agency and we met a lot of people and are still in contact with them.
But after one year we had no money left, so we went back to Austria. And then something strange happened because all the companies in Austria said, “There’s a photographer who was in Canada and the United States. Let’s book him, let’s work with him.” It was a bit weird, but it worked.
And then we had our first exhibition opening in Hamburg and Sir Roger Moore stepped in and bought one of my photographs.
So that was my first contact with an international celebrity. He gave me a lot of contacts and we became friends and we had two or three shoots together. And it opened the world for me a little bit more.
AM: Which photograph did he buy?
MB: He bought one of my National Geographic photos of New York. It is two metres high and he has it in his house in Switzerland.
AM: How do you approach your shoots with famous people. Do you get nervous?
MB: I was nervous with Sir Roger Moore because he was the first one. I had photographed many German and Austrian celebrities before, but he was the first big international celebrity.
We had our first photoshoot with him in Dubrovnik. He was a really nice guy, a lovely man.
I don’t know how many celebrities I have shot now, so I’m not nervous anymore. For me they’re normal people and I just have fun with them on set like I do with other people and try to do my job.
And I’m quick – so that’s maybe why a lot of publicists and managers keep coming back to me with new celebrities. Sometimes I just need 15, 20, 30 minutes for the shoot.
All the actors in Hollywood shoot a lot. If you work for a TV show, you shoot five or six days a week, so they don’t want to do an eight-hour photo shoot after that. That’s maybe why they come back – and the results are good.
AM: You’ve said that a good photographer is a good psychologist. What did you mean by that?
MB: As a good photographer you have to like people. You have to be like a director on set. When we shoot celebrities, we always build two, three, four sets beforehand.
We fix everything with the lighting so we feel comfortable. We just go from one set to the other like you do when you’re shooting movies.
And of course you also need to be a bit of a psychologist because you have to be on the same level. You have to think about what this celebrity likes, what they don’t like. It helps a lot that Nelly does the makeup. And when she does makeup she starts talking with them.
It’s like a warm-up for me too because a lot of celebrities are a little bit closed at first, but then they open up and are more relaxed. It’s like a family feeling on set and that’s the moment when I shoot them.
AM: Aside from your work with models and celebrities, you have worked on photo projects on a wide range of topics, some of them quite difficult. Your book Alive, for example, portrays homeless people. How did that project come about?
MB: It was actually Nelly’s idea. When we stay in Los Angeles, we always rent a cottage-house near Santa Monica and Venice.
So we had a walk on the pier, on the beach, and we saw a lot of homeless people. There are many homeless people living in tents on the street and on the beach. So Nelly’s idea was to do something to make people aware of the homeless in Europe.
It was a really intense and lovely project to meet all these people on the streets. We had some professional help from companies in Europe that help homeless people. They advised us on what to say, which people were easygoing, and what we could give them. We didn’t give them money – we gave them something to eat.
The photos look like I shot them in the studio but they were shot outside. Some were taken under a bridge; some were taken in the middle of the street, some in parks and some in train stations. I had an assistant with me and the assistant was holding a black or white background and a flash box.
Nelly did interviews too, so when we had the exhibitions, we always had text or recorded voice-overs next to the photos.
Each person had a completely different life. One of them – all their family passed away in an accident. Another other one had lost their house. Another was scared to be in an apartment because his grandmother was from the Second World War. And we are still connected with some.
Two years ago we got an email from a man who wrote to tell us that he saw his father in the book. He had not had contact with the father for 20 years and he had bought the book in a bookstore and saw that his father was living on the streets. And we connected them.
AM: Another challenging project you did was End of Line, about prisoners in Texas on death row – in fact, on their last journey. How did that come about?
MB: I saw a National Geographic TV show about death row and I thought that could make a really interesting project.
But it was not that easy because you cannot go in as a freelancer – you need to be associated with a company. So we worked with National Geographic and it took two years to arrange everything. You cannot write emails to the people inside the prison, so we wrote letters back and forth. We had, I think, 100 letters from different prisons. Even the smell, if you open a letter, is special. It smells like a long journey or like you’re in a damp house.
The weird thing was that five or six days before we had the photo shoot, I was photographing at the Golden Globes. And then we had the road trip to Texas. So before, there was all this glamour. You were in front of Angelina Jolie for a bit, you did a lot of photos with Natalie Portman. And then we drove to Huntsville in Texas and were in the middle of death row and it was a completely different world. When you go in you are really controlled – there were police and everything guarding us.
AM: On a lighter side, you’ve done a couple of books about horses. How did these come about?
MB: Nelly and I are big animal lovers. We support Jane Goodall and are friends with her. We travel around the world and when we meet celebrities we always talk about Jane and her mission.
I do a lot of photoshoots for PETA too. I have done shoots in Canada with celebrities and also in Australia and the United States. We care about and love animals.
I read an article about a woman who was looking after wild mustangs in Nevada and got in touch with her and this was how the project was launched.
AM: Had you taken photos of horses before?
MB: It was actually my first time photographing animals. I do a lot of National Geographic photography, so when you travel sometimes there’s a horse and you take a photo of it. But to actually focus on the horse and be in the middle of a herd of 300 horses was completely new.
AM: What were some of the challenges of photographing wild horses?
MB: To find them we had professional help from a cowboy – he was riding with us. Some of the horses were really shy – when they smell you they run away. Others were really interested – they came a little bit closer. And by the second or third day the horses felt a little bit more comfortable when you walked into the group.
I think the challenge was to catch the different characters, because they’re completely different like humans. One is smiling, another is fighting; one is shy, another comes close to you and looks in the camera. It was a really fun project.
And now we’re working on a project with white horses because here in Austria we have these white dancing horses – trained horses. It was a little easier because they stand trained in front of you. We brought two backgrounds to the stall – fixed everything with a black background. It looks like the horses are in a studio.
AM: You mentioned your wife – that you had been working and with her for 23 years. What role does she have in your work and your life?
MB: She is everything. If she had not been there, I’m sure I would still be driving a truck. She does my management, she writes emails, she does all the contracts, she arranges all the exhibitions, she handles the openings and the book signings. She’s much better in English than I am. She does makeup. We work together and we have never been separated in 23 years. We’re always together.
AM: How did you meet your wife?
MB: I was looking for assistants and advertised in the newspaper. And then she came and we worked three years together before anything happened.
AM: What projects are you working on right now?
MB: I am working on the project with the white horses. I’m lucky – we have already finished the shoot and I am working with the book publisher to get the book completed.
And at the end of this year a big new “best of” book will come out, so I am using this time to sit at home in front of the computer to select these photos because after 25, 30 years there are a lot of photographs. It’s really hard to decide which ones should be in the book.
AM: What is a normal schedule like for you?
MB: When the world is normal we spend only four or five months in Vienna and we are in Los Angeles for two or three months. We do a lot of stuff in Australia.
This summer, when everything is fine, we plan to go with a camper to Sweden, Norway and Finland for National Geographic. We love to travel. We do a lot of photoshoots in London, Berlin, so we’re always on tour. We’re planning to come to Canada next year, too – to Calgary.
For more information about Manfred Baumann and his work, please visit manfredbaumann.com