In the late twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, street art became a widely acclaimed international phenomenon. From tags in the New York subway to Berlin’s murals and Paris’ mosaics, street art enters every pore of the public domain. Still, the majority of the works creatied ourside remain ephemeral to this day. Most of them get white washed, cleaned up or otherwise removed, so many enthusiasts and photographers endeavor to document these glimpses of contemporary visual culture. Thomas von Wittich is a German photographer who devoted his career not only to preserving street art, but also to recording the process of their creation. With a keen eye of the camera, he depicts both the circumstances and the adrenaline of these usually illegal actions. His main focus is not the colorful and inventive graffiti piece or installation, but the very action it gave birth to it, as the people creating the work in the street. From this desire, this devoted street photographer shoots black and white images only, while his portfolio is already filled with impressive scenes of the “backstage” of outdoor arts.
From Graffiti to Photography
Born in 1983 in an upper-middle-class German family, Wittich started out as a graffiti artist himself. After school, he began a three-year apprenticeship in a local camera store, which included visiting a photography school in another city for twelve weeks per year. At that time, he went through a rebellious phase as a young man who was more interested in street art than in photography. Although he spent numerous nights on the streets making graffiti, he had one teacher who noticed his talent for photography and loaned him the good equipment to take photos after school. At first, he started documenting his own work, which led him into a career in photography. Documenting street art and graffiti in a broader urban context is the speciality of Thomas von Wittich, where he mainly depicts artists in action, accidental bystanders and curious details from the field.
Friendship with Jeffrey Delannoy
The artist’s astonishing photography of an average band caught the attention of the American pop-photographer, Jeffrey Delannoy, who quickly hired him as an assistant. Those were the days of analogue photography and they were mostly shooting concerts and festivals. This allowed young Thomas to spend countless nights in the darkroom learning and honing his craft. Under the guidance of Dellanoy, he studied the classical black and white photography of Parisian street photographers from 1940s to 1960s. After Jeffrey went back to the United States, Wittich moved to Berlin where he worked for several music magazines. Although he didn’t make grafﬁti anymore, he was still interested in the street art. After he met certain street artists in the capital of Germany he decided to go with them at night and to take photographs of their work.
Street Art Photography
For the past six years, he has been taking photographs of street artists and especially of the atmosphere surrounding their work. His oeuvre shows captivating and high-quality impressions from the streets found throughout Europe. Thomas usually finds the artist he wants to shoot by spotting the grafﬁti around the cities. After he makes contact and the collaboration is agreed, he also checks the lights, the surroundings, people passing by or interacting, trafﬁc, and everything else he ﬁnds interesting. A perfectionist and a slow, careful photographer, he prefers to achieve ten immaculate snapshots than hundreds of unexceptional images. Additionally, he makes selection and reworks the images in photoshop producing a sense of very classy black and white photography. Even if he does not work with analogue photography anymore, he doesn’t do corrections in photoshop which he could not have been done in a darkroom.
Unseen Series by Thomas von Wittich
Over the years, Thomas identified a wide range of influences including the works of Dennis Stock, Anton Corbijn, Jacob Aue Sobol, Robert Doisneau, Roger Ballen, as well as the movies of Shinya Tsukamoto and Kenneth Anger. He uses reporting, portraiture and directing as a means to authentically record the gentrification of the city. In one of his latest projects titled Unseen, the photographer followed such famed street artist as Riot, Vermibus, Alias, Lush and Miss Take on their tours. Photographing everything, he wanted to document the process of their work within its full context. The stunning black and white portraits of urban artists give a rare insight into the stirring world of graffiti making and street art interventions, and gives a better view on the temporary nature of the pieces.
The latest exhibition by Thomas von Wittich was justly titled Adrenaline. It was held at the OPEN WALLS Gallery in October 2016 opening a secret window into the life of daredevils known as the Berlin Kidz. This group of young Berliner rebels is best know around the street art circles for their notorious nightly actions. They are completely anonymous, unknown to the public and the police, which has been hunting them for a while. Their activities make part of various urban legends, but were largely obscure until Thomas von Wittich decided to point his camera lens in their direction. For the first time, graffiti lovers, art enthusiasts and the public were able to catch a glimpse of the underworld glamour through the photos of spray-painting, trainsurfing and parkour. Providing an entrance into the controversial and dangerous world of the Berlin Kidz, Thomas von Wittich showed that there is much more to their stunts than just performance. This collective of young people is perhaps one of the last remnants of the authentic subculture once known as graffiti. Nothing they do is mainstream, from repelling down the building with one rope to climbing the impossible walls. The result is often known to many, but the question “how did they do that?” is largely answered in the Adrenaline series. Stylistically, von Wittich’s black and white exude visual and conceptual qualities of both Brassai’s and Martha Cooper’s photos, continuing the path of recognizeed street photography. As for the audacious protagonists of this series, they seem to be a perfect fit for Thomas von Wittich. The entirety of the Berlin Kidz project was conducted in disguise and in dizzying heights. Photographs transfer these feelings of imminent danger and illegality perfectly, transforming a viewer from a voyeur into an active participant. There is indeed something irresistable in self-identification with these insurgents, something rebellious within every one of us, an emotion urging us to act in our cities, to propagate and ignite the change. This is a sentiment Thomas von Wittich’s photographs transfer, which elevates them from mere documentation into the domain of fine art.
Adrenaline show was presented as a part of the European Month of Photography, the largest and one of the most prestigious photo festivals of the Old Continent. This exhibition was a true landmark for both the festival and Thomas von Wittich. The artist was in a special position to present his imagery to countless viewers, while the European Month of Photography received one of it’s most exciting and rawest series to date.
- 2016 · Adrenaline · OPEN WALLS Gallery · Berlin (Germany)
- 2015 · Unseen · OPEN WALLS Gallery · Berlin (Germany)
- 2013 · Dissolving Europe, with Vermibus · Platoon Kunsthalle · Berlin (Germany)
- 2010 · My Belly is Mumbling, with ALIAS · West Berlin Gallery · Berlin (Germany)