FROM SHANGHAI TO PARIS TO LONDON
German-born photographer Amira Fritz wants you to wish you were in her images. She also wants you to take a moment to contemplate and wonder what’s just outside the frame. She produces fashion editorials for a number of commercial publications, but has never been one to fall in step with the style of the day –her analogue photographs are ethereal, enigmatic and true to her conceptual vision. Fritz just recently moved to London. She meets us to talk about her coincidental move into photography, holding back on information in an information age, her unforgettable Shanghai to Paris adventure and finding a place called home in the Big Smoke. Norma, her Italian greyhound pet dog, joins us too. After a quick detour to her favourite pet boutique, Purplebone, and with a tin of backup dog food at the ready, we get started with the interview, “otherwise she gets grumpy”. You’ve got to keep a growing girl fed.
Can you remember the very first time you picked up a camera?
I don’t actually remember. I was always drawing and painting when I was younger, though, I was really creative. It wasn’t that I’d always wanted to be a photographer. It was more of a coincidence, to tell you the truth.
Really? What happened?
I moved to Vienna and wanted to study. I think I applied for Fine Art but there was also a photography course. I had a photographer friend who encouraged me to apply because he knew how much I loved movies. Maybe it was actually movies that got me into photography! So my friend lent me his camera and told me to give it a try. I went to Prague for the weekend and I started shooting a reportage. I was given a place on the course.
What was your early work like?
At the very beginning, when you start to take pictures, or at least for me, I began to absorb absolutely everything around me and consistently kept my eyes open. I guess I started to see actively. When I look back at the type of photographs I was taking then and think of the photographs I create today, I realise they are so very different. Now I set everything up so meticulously and focus on each and every detail. My photographs are super planned in advance.
Do you think reportage was a good way to start?
Yes, I think it was; it’s almost like a personal way of seeing. I would look at aesthetics, proportions, colours and lines. But I think I was already seeing long before that as a child. In fact, I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer.
Are you a curious person?
Yes, I am. I’ve always been like that. If I can see there’s something going on nearby, I have to go over to see what’s happening and have a look for myself. I think I took lots of photographs with my eyes as a child. For me, the camera itself isn’t important. I take pictures; the camera is just a recording device. I use simple lighting for my images too, it’s a lot to do with composition and colour.
"I was already seeing long before that as a child. In fact, I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer".
So you tend to use natural light for your images. And you shoot everything analogue?
Yes. Sometimes I might use a bit of tungsten lighting, but never flash. So the outcome is always as close as it can be to what I see when I take the photograph. So far, I refuse to shoot digital. I also hand print everything myself.
Do you do that in your own lab?
I rent a lab in London. My dream would be to have my very own lab and cinema together in the same place.
I love the idea of that, I’d definitely visit! You used to work as a film projectionist at the cinema, didn’t you?
Yes, it was great. I’d absolutely love to work in an analogue cinema again –it really is the best thing to make you think and see.
What’s your favourite film?
I have quite a few! I always say The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky, but I’m not so sure anymore…
There are so many! A good movie doesn’t have to be intellectual. Take comedies, for example: if they’re good, they can be great films. I have a growing respect for things when they’re funny. In photography it’s so hard to be humorous. And my pictures are not the most comical! I do try, though.
Your photographs are like glimpses into magical worlds, they’re just stunning.
Oh, thank you! I think it’s because I put my all into it. I spend so much time in the dark room. When a print costs so much money –the paper, the lab, the time invested–, in some ways those aspects raise the value. I also try to put my own emotion into it. I’ll often think an image might look better at a different time of the day for example, so I don’t take the picture, purely because I don’t want to risk it not being the very best it can be. You have to make it worth the paper and the time. When it’s analogue, you care more. But what probably makes it magical is working really hard and just caring.
I have a lot of respect for people who feel so strongly about making something the very best it can be and will go to any lengths to make it work. Setting your standards high in these situations can never be a bad thing. It’s a bit like your trip from Shanghai to Paris, no? In 2013 you travelled between the two cities by land for a project featuring clothes by the Chinese fashion brand JNBY. You stopped off in different locations along the way to street-cast and shoot portraits of local people in beautiful and unexpected locations…
Yes, that project was great. There were just four of us for most of the journey, sometimes five. We all have a similar aesthetic and love our jobs, so there were some special moments.
How did it come about? Did they contact you? Or was it your idea?
I knew someone who was consulting for JNBY –a designer from Paris who I’d worked with a lot, basically a friend. I’m fascinated by Russia, I’ve been there a few times and was always thinking I’d love to do the Trans-Siberian rail journey. This friend of mine was flying to Shanghai regularly and I asked him why he didn’t ever drive back. That’s how the idea came about. It’s not really that much of a fashion project; it’s more about the faces. I presented the idea to the JNBY and they agreed. So we went ahead and did it. But it wasn’t a group of 30 people. It really was a tiny team.
I’m interested in the people you went with. How did your relationships develop? Did you become good friends? Turn into enemies? Or were you more like a bickering family?
I knew everyone before we embarked on the journey. The whole thing actually brought us closer together, particularly the people who were there the whole time. I spoke to one of the girls for four hours on the phone just the other day. We are really good friends now. We went through everything together. It’s like a relationship, you have ups and downs but those are the things that somehow bring you together. In the middle there was a moment when the crew almost broke up, it was really intense. I had underestimated the production aspect. Working in a team creatively and making creative decisions together is hard enough, but then you also have so many other things to consider such as the route to take, where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to eat and when you’re going to eat. That’s when it becomes really testing!
And everybody has different wants and needs…
Yes, exactly. You’re working together all day, every day. It would have been so much better if we’d had someone to arrange those kinds of things. Everybody is equal and no one had an assistant, so there were times of stress. But we managed to do it, in the end.
When you’re working to create something you believe in, you have a lot of successful moments together too: when you see someone so amazingly beautiful or an incredible landscape, for example. We’re all very visual people so it wasn’t all horrible, it was actually amazing!
Would you ever do anything like that again?
Oh yes, I’d do it ten more times if I could! I’d like to do the same journey via a different route because there are lots of ways of getting from Shanghai to Paris. I don’t want to say where we actually went because that’s not what the project was about, it’s about going where you think it’s right and seeing what you find. I’d definitely do it again, I’m sure it would be totally different.
Apart from the super stressful moments, from the sounds of things you became a bit like a family?
Yes. It was so weird when we suddenly said goodbye at the end. I remember one of the team members had a job two or three days after we got back… too soon really! She sent us pictures of a hotel room for one – we’d been sharing rooms for the two months prior so it was strange to readjust to living our lives alone when it was all over.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’d like to do an exhibition. I have a project in mind that I’m going to be working on this summer. I’m at the planning stage; it’s quite a slow process, especially for an exhibition. I’ll be travelling somewhere to work on it too.
Can you say where?
I don’t want to say because it shouldn’t really matter where I go. I always find that my photographs have more of an impact because I try not to explain them or give any information away. I think that’s so beneficial for the eye.
We’re constantly bombarded with information and when I’m given no information whatsoever, I feel that that gives you the freedom to decide for yourself.
Everyone can interpret what they see in their own way. I guess you don’t want to impose one interpretation on anyone?
Exactly, I want people to interpret them in their own way. The point is you have to see it for yourself. I hope that I can somehow deliver that with my art – a moment to pause, relax and rest.
Your photos certainly do that, they make you stop and contemplate.
That’s great. That’s all I want because then everybody is making the right decision.
You’ve referred to “my art” – do you consider yourself a photographer or an artist?
Definitely an artist - an artist who loves photography.
Do you take pictures on your smart phone?
I take lots of photographs - mostly of my dog Norma. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to take a good analogue portrait of her yet because she’s constantly moving around. She won’t sit still!
"I'm an artist who loves photography"
Do you have an Instagram account?
No, I should though. I think it also depends on the concept of a photographer. I don’t document so I don’t want the pictures on my phone to go public – they’re so bad! Oh look, some selfies too! People complain about how bad my pictures on my phone are. It’s the most embarrassing thing when someone gives me a digital camera and says; “here take some good pictures, you’re a photographer” - and I can’t!
What’s the best thing about your job?
The fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow - that’s actually also the worst…
Do you set yourself goals?
My current goal is quite a private one. I would like to find somewhere I can settle and call home. I’m always all over the place and that’s great for a while but not forever. Right now, I’m feeling at home in London and that’s what I am aiming for.
My other goal is to stop spoiling my dog Norma!