When he visited our agency for the first time in 2007, we all found him immediately likeable. Thomas Degen (60), who promotes his photos at our agency under the pseudonym “Tom Chance”, is a humorous man with a grip on reality. He’s been in his profession for a long time, and has seen many trends come and go – an old hand who perfectly executes his craft and whose visual imagery is timelessly modern.
In this interview, Thomas explains how his experience with stock photography aids his work, why he’s barely involved in fashion photography anymore and in what ways experimental photography existed before there were smartphone apps.
Thomas, you were a fashion photographer for a long time. Does that experience help you in stock photography?
Yes, of course. As a fashion photographer, you have to represent the models as attractively as possible, and keep your team in good spirits. So you need good lighting and a good mood on the set. Normally, you have a crew of five to ten people on the set, and they should all feel good, otherwise you won’t end up with good results.
I was once at a shoot where there was a beautiful female model that should do some acting. Happiness and elation were called for. It didn’t work out; the model said she couldn’t do it. She wasn’t a typical stock photography model; she was usually booked for fashion shoots. For fashion shoots, the models typically have a cool aura, but for stock photography, they should appear like the amiable, good looking person from next door. Was that something you had to adjust to when you started with stock photography?
The biggest adjustment was that the photo has to say more than “I’m pretty, my dress is beautiful.” The ‘cool aura’ in fashion shoots exists to a certain extent. Many fashion clients, whether for magazines or advertisements, want to specifically have laughing, radiant models. There are models whose expressive abilities are limited to looking beautiful, or what they interpret that to be. It gets harder when you want to portray negative emotions like disappointment, sadness, shock or anger. That really requires more acting talent.
How did you get involved with stock photography?
About 15 years ago, some of the magazines I worked for at the time started to use more and more photos from Getty Images for their lifestyle themes. The modern visual imagery differed significantly from the usually very tedious stock photo look that was common up until then. Along with that came the new development that photos could be located on the websites of agencies by using search fields. So photo editors no longer had to describe to the agency what subjects they’re looking for and have these as slides delivered to them by courier or by mail. I recognized immediately that this was a concept which belonged to the future. However, it took me a few years until I found in Westend 61 the right agency for me.
What do you like about stock photography? Is it the freedom of being your own art director?
Yes, but that’s not the only reason. I like working on a set without clients and being able to work without a deadline. And I often work without fixed expectations of the result, without the pressure of having to produce a particular image. With commissioned assignments, especially those in advertising, sometimes there’s already before production begins a specific layout which the image has to adhere to. In fashion photography there’s often the situation where a collection is delivered too late and in the best case scenario, the photos should have been delivered yesterday. Beyond a certain point, the booking of models becomes an art in itself, there’s the haggling over the good first option and the bad second one, fees, buyouts. And that often all happens within a matter of a few hours, sort of like floor trading at the stock exchange: over the telephone, verbally, without a contract. The spoken word goes. Weather conditions create other uncertainties – models that should be flown in from London or Milan or Paris, but then they’re held up because of fog or strikes. For many years, this kind of excitement was a lot of fun for me.
Nowadays I’m happy that I don’t have to work like that anymore. It’s a totally different life when you’re an independent as opposed to a commissioned photographer.
So you’ve given up fashion photography altogether?
That wasn’t a deliberate decision, it sort of developed gradually. It was simply because the freelance work for photo agencies is more enjoyable than commissioned photography. I still do it sometimes, if I really like the concept or I’m given a completely free hand on the project. Once in a while I find such clients, but they’re an exception.
You not only work with professional models, but also with amateurs. How do you recognize when someone is right for a shoot, how do you approach a model? I’d seem to think it’s not exactly easy, yet you seem to always have a knack for this.
My experience with fashion photography helps me here, too. In time you acquire an eye for good faces. Even as a fashion photographer, I worked with amateur models time and again, mostly for magazines, where not just superficial beauty, but a special face was called for. In the 80s I worked with Franca Sozzani, who’s now editor-in-chief at Vogue Italia, and per her request I worked exclusively with amateur models. I also worked with amateurs for Anna Piaggi, who is legendary in fashion circles, and Vanity Fair Italia. And of course, for i-D magazine in London, which in the beginning was solely a street fashion magazine.
Another question concerning amateur models. We once mentioned to you that small business is a good subject. Then you quickly presented us with impressive images of individual craftsmen who often work in professions which might soon die out. You don’t seem to have any reservations about coming in contact with others and representing the souls of the people which you photograph. Do you also consider that, as I do, as your special talent?
Thanks, that’s a really nice compliment. I haven’t thought about it that way. I try to adapt to each person, to find a common plane. In my travels I’ve really learned a lot about getting along with people from all kinds of cultures. My presence should convey: “I’m completely harmless. I’m not going to do anything to you; I’m not going to take anything away from you. I view you as a fellow human being and I’m interested in you and your life. I thank you for sharing your time with me. I’m not in a hurry.” In the past I used to be very shy, you have to push yourself a bit to overcome that. It doesn’t cost anything to ask, and the worst that can happen is you get turned down. Photography gives you a really nice reason to approach strangers. I come with an offer which each side can benefit from.
At the time we started featuring the SMART collection, we talked about it briefly and you said that this experimental photography was fantastic – it reminded you of the past, when there was a lot of experimentation with film going on. Since this might not say a great deal to the younger readers, please tell us a bit about these experiments in the past.
Most of the clients wanted slides. In the early 80s, magazines such as “Wiener”, “Max” or “Tempo” were appearing on the German market, and they got a lot of attention for- among other things- a new visual language. At that time I was working a lot with colored light and cross-processing, where slide film is developed like a color negative film or vice-versa. I also really wanted to underexpose a slide film up to two f-stops and let it develop longer. That was the only way to achieve higher contrast and more saturated colors. Then there was for a while Polapan and Polachrome, they were instant slide films which you bought together with a developing pack and you could develop them in a processing machine, either electronically or manually.That was extremely sensitive celluloid and both were, in their chemical make-up, totally different. You could compare it today with a new software that just a few hundred people around the world have and know how to use. But there will probably never be a software called “Scraping Polapan With Metallic Tips”, so it remains true to its time.
You sent me a few experimental self-portraits, which you created from 1976 until 1991, which I really think are terrific. Can you tell us about how these images came about?
The slide sandwich came about in 1976 during my first big trip in Herat, Afghanistan. A friend and I had done an auto transfer in Iran, and then we continued on, travelling by bus and train to India. For the sandwich technique, you put two slides together, one on top of the other and frame them. I simply used the color negative from 1977 as a slide. I used the light from my desk lamp for the image.
For the 1978 self-portrait, I cut out the image of a woman’s mouth from a magazine and held the cut-out in place on my mouth by sucking in air. In 1979, while I was in the clothing section of a Stuttgart department store, they were offering a service where you could have your own image put onto a T-shirt in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what the process was called. There were also people who made these kinds of images manually, using a typewriter. In 1982, I was photographed with a SX-70 Polaroid camera as I was walking into the fashion editorial department of the magazine “freundin”. The SX-70 was very popular back then and was often used for castings. The 1983 x-ray image of my skull was made after I was knocked unconscious during a rugby game by taking a blow from a heel to my chin.
In 1985, while I was photographing for a French lingerie company, I used Polapan black and white instant film and then I scratched the company’s name on the coated side of the film. Then in Paris, on the river Seine, the photographs were hung on a clothes line for an exhibit on a house boat.
The 1991 portrait was taken on slide film and printed as a photocopy. I cut out the head with a pair of scissors and glued it to yellow construction paper.
When I look at your images, they come across to me as being partially very modern, reflecting the visual sensibilities of recent years. I spend a lot of time on Instagram and see loads of experimental photographs there. Today they aren’t created with analog film in a photo lab, but with smart phones and photo editing software. You’ve experienced several generations of photography. Do you have the feeling that everything repeats itself again? That the current trends are actually the trends from the past, like in the fashion world.
A lot of things repeat themselves. Some techniques remain unique, because the material used in them will no longer be available at some point. There probably will never be an app which reproduces the scratches on celluloid film. Every material comes with its own possibilities: Coated glass plates, celluloid, Polaroid, digital. Let’s see what comes next.
Do you shoot photos using a smart phone?
Not very often. I still like to look through the finder of a SLR camera when photographing. It’s the best way for me to view what I’m mostly concentrating on.
You’ve been at it for some years now. One of your first photo series with us was from 2007, with isolated photographic images and a very good model. We’re still selling photos from that series today, however a lot has happened since then. For about three years now, the trend has been towards authentic images, emotions and the surroundings of the models should appear as real as possible. How’s that for you? Do you welcome this change?
Absolutely. I’m really happy that people are buying into illusions and sugar-coated realities less and less. But to come back to the beginning of your question: that wasn’t one of my first productions, but rather my first production with a model for you. This was really fortunate for Westend61 and for me. No other agency I knew at the time had taken so many of these images and has sold so many of them over such a long period of time. The success of these photographs was very critical for me, because I wasn’t sure if stock photography was right for me.
Are the briefings, which we provide to all our photographers, and the wealth of information available inside the community helpful for you?
Yes, Westend 61 does this in an ideal way. I don’t know of any other agency which invests more effort in this area and is always coming up with improvements. It’s a uniquely dynamic development, one that I appreciate very much.
Which of the images that you have with us is your favorite, and why?
I normally have a rough time with superlatives, but there’s a series from last year titled „Mother and Daughter“ which I’m especially fond of. It’s my favorite because of the way the production went, too. It was very easygoing, with really nice people in beautiful surroundings and perfect weather.
Yes, that’s also my favorite series of yours, it conveys such emotional beauty, and it’s really touching for me. Now to our final question: Why is Westend61 the proper place for your photographs?
It was and continues to be a stroke of luck for me to work with Westend61. I really liked Gerald and Stephan right from the start. The agency has developed in truly positive ways over the years, and it continues to do so. I still work with other agencies, but optimally I sell my photographs through Westend61.
Thank you Thomas, for speaking with us!