Talking to Gunnar Heilmann

Interview:

Gunnar Heilmann

I know Gunnar Heilmann for a year now. We met at Soho house during the very first edition of Photofuture and we immediately got along with each other. Back then he had a little presentation on how he paints a portrait with light. It was the first time that I’ve seen someone do that so I got curious. We stayed in touch and finally had a little session at his place where I could try light painting on him and he did some portraits with me. On October 5th this year his light painting festival LIGHT UP BERLIN took place at MONOPOL for the very first time and I was invited to come and see the workshops, talks, and exhibition. On this occasion, I’m meeting up with Gunnar a few days later for a retrospect and to listen to his funny stories and experiences with light painting. I just love to listen and see him talking very energetically and with sparkling eyes. Internationally his works are well known among light painters – one of the reasons why many big names showed up at LIGHT UP BERLIN. 

photo and light painting by Phill Fisher, Mart Barras, Tom Hill, Pala Teth, Diliz, Mass, Stabeu, LumenMan, Ulrich Tausend, Denis Smith, Rob Turney

 

Last Saturday your very first festival LIGHT UP BERLIN brought many light painters from all over the world together. Congrats on the event! Was this your goal – bringing people together – or what else inspired you to create this event? 

First of all, of course, it wasn’t only me creating the event. The idea came to life by me and some friends who I’ve been light painting with. Light painting is usually done by more than one person. I do it by myself as well and most of my Instagram photos I did on my own. But generally, a high percentage of light painting is created by a group of people. So it’s mostly a collaboration of some sort – e.g. with a model or with a second light painter who helps you, especially, when it’s a little bit more complicated to do it alone. Light painting is about bringing people together. So Sven Gerard and family, me and many other people organised this event. The goal was to have fun together because all the light painters love these collaborations. Someone comes up with a crazy idea and everyone can try it… and sometimes something new creative comes out. 

Very cool! About the planning: I heard you were planning it for almost three years. 

Hm, not exactly the actual planning, but three years ago we had a meet-up that evolved from a Spanish guy saying that he was going to be in Berlin for a wedding. So by this occasion, we totally wanted to do some light painting together. For that, we found a location to which we could just invite 20 people. So we decided to first invite those people who would come from far away because they would need more time for planning. What we didn’t expect was that everyone who we asked said yes! Within no time we had twenty international light painters confirming that they were going to come to Berlin. And we realised we couldn’t invite any more people from Germany (!) many of who would afterwards say that they would have liked to come too! It was hard for us to explain the situation because we would have loved them to come as well. So later my conclusion was that if we organise this again I would like to have a fixed date that is totally public. We already wanted to do this new event last year but it failed because somehow time was running so fast! So early this year we decided to fix the date and Sven suggested October 3rd because it would be a long weekend. So the date was there and we set a few small goals like finding a location etc. So the actual organisation just started this year. 

photo by Heidi Rondak – or: a miserable try of me light painting with Gunnar as a model

 

Yeah, I got your facebook invite very early this year.

Yes, and it was also funny that we wanted it to take place during the Berlin Festival of Lights and back then it was announced to be at the same time as LIGHT UP BERLIN. But then they postponed the festival by one week and by that time we couldn’t change our own date anymore. We were hoping to be in their programme because it would have fit perfectly topic-wise. But we had people from Australia and the UK who had already booked their flights. E.g. we asked Mart Barras: “we would like to do this event on October 3rd – can you come?” And his immediate reply was: “I’m booking my tickets right now! I’m coming and it’s going to be epic!”

It was a little bit chaotic though… (:

For the first event, it was very organic. We left a few things open on purpose and we wanted to see how people would react. I think to force the original plan wouldn’t have been great for the atmosphere. 

Why not?

Well, originally, the plan was that the workshop hosts would pick up their participants at the ‘Apparate’ house and bring them to different spots. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was just wandering everywhere. We just observed this and decided it was okay because they’re all explorers anyway. A few people would have liked to have a plan showing them where everything was. And in fact, there was one, but organically it didn’t work like that. We just showed everyone where to go and it was fine like that. I totally see what you mean though. Especially for security reasons, we didn’t want people to walk around by themselves and they really didn’t go where they shouldn’t. That was good! And next time we’ll know better and we’ll have more signs set up etc.

Yes, I was also meeting up with everyone in front of ‘Apparate’ house for a workshop with Denis Smith and he was missing many people on the list of participants –

– because they were already there in the bunker!

– exactly. And when we entered he was just so confused about the number of people and not sure whether he should have everyone for the workshop. 

And how did you like his workshop?

He’s super fun, so I loved his very entertaining humour! I mean, I wasn’t there with a camera so I just tried to take in the whole thing and capture a bit with my phone. I liked that he involved the people so I also got to paint a bit with light. He called me ‘Pinky’ because I had this pink tube. 

 

photo by Ralf Koplin capturing the workshop by Denis Smith where I created this pink ornament with a tube

 

Did you also model?

Well, no, I don’t think he’s working with models, he just did his signature neon ball in the middle of the bunker and I was doing some background ornament in pink. But talking about feedback, I understand that many people loved it and some were a bit confused. Did you get any other interesting feedback?

There was a group of people who hadn’t done any light painting before. I knew them from a facebook group about photography. With some of them, I’ve been doing some light painting before and they were getting more and more interested – that’s why they showed up. And they loved it. One guy told me that he really wanted to be in this location and do some light painting again. 

I guess, everyone who didn’t know light painting before finds it fascinating. Like you, probably. It’s very colourful and sometimes it can be a little bit too kitschy. Even for me, it’s still difficult to find the edge between tasteful and too colourful. I’m still finding the balance and sometimes my friends tell me that my pictures look better before I’m adding too many effects. Sometimes it’s good to just light the scene and maybe add a small effect. Denis Smith is so successful with that – he puts a very simple shape in a landscape where it doesn’t disturb. It’s an eye-catcher. The issue with always using the same thing in all pictures is the question about how often you can do it and still make it look interesting. Very few people can pull that off.

“Even for me, it’s still difficult to find the edge between tasteful and too colourful.”

Yeah, he uses different colours in different pictures.

That’s what he does, yes. 

What you say sounds like what I observed at LIGHT UP BERLIN a lot: the light painting community is very connected, they enjoy being together and everyone knows and admires the other one’s work. 

And sometimes you know the work but you don’t know the face. I had no clue what Tom Hill looks like. And then I see this humble human and I totally expected someone different. Well, for me, I actually show my face a lot. I don’t see it as an issue but some people don’t really want to show their faces.

I think that’s a thing of photographers in general, right?

Yeah, they’re behind the camera!

And about the relationship between light painters: is there ever any competition as well?

We had a time when there was even trolling. That happens. I think you can find this in every scene. Another reason why we wanted LIGHT UP BERLIN to happen was to have it accessible for anyone. Funny enough, there was no badmouthing, no shaming, etc. It was very harmonic and that’s the spirit that we wanted. On the internet, there’s always someone who’s jealous. You can’t prevent it. So there’s a little bit of politics here and there. I mean, for many people light painting is a hobby, so there’s less tension and less dependencies. But you as a photographer and I can see and understand this fear of someone taking your jobs or your customers. So the competition is more between those who live of it. But once you make your peace and start connecting – like you’re doing with your interviews – in my opinion, you can only win. I think this weekend was very much about that and it showed many people how cool it is to collaborate. We can all learn and network. Some people told me they didn’t take any picture, they just talked to others. 

“Once you (…) start connecting, in my opinion, you can only win.”

And finally, people know each other’s faces so it’s harder to get angry at someone. When you know someone personally and you like the person AND the work you can’t be jealous. Especially, when you also get great tips and advice from them.

Exactly, that’s a great way to see it. It’s actually what happened. Have you seen this guy Roland Brei? 

No.

A very tall Swiss guy, you should look up his work. He’s taking kaleidoscope pictures. That’s a known thing, but in his Swiss watch precision, his kaleidoscope photos started a renaissance lately. Out of nothing in the light painting scene, everyone was trying kaleidoscopes again. Now you meet this guy and you see how he works. And there’s actually play in it – it’s not about absolute perfection. For me, that was unexpected and really cool to see. 

Lovely, I will look him up! I’m wondering: who was the first light painter and what did he do?

I have no idea. It exists for a very long time already. I know light painted photos from the thirties. Also, Picasso painted with light and you see himself doing it in the pictures (see some here)! Some people in the scene collect these old pictures. I was in a record store in the US a few months ago when I was there on holiday and I found an old record of Barry White with a light painting on it. So someone just made one on him! It’s not a new thing and that’s why all the discussions about who invented it are bullshit. It’s an evolving niche of photography but rarely there’s a total revolution. While in other photography there are some inventions once in a while in light painting everyone just grabs some ideas and puts them together to create something new. It’s more like an evolution and not a new technology. So there’s no actual inventor, just some people who can maybe claim a certain technique. On the other hand, others might have done that before them but they didn’t focus on it so much. In the end, you associate the technique with the one who puts out more content of that kind. That’s when we try to figure out who was the first one to use a technique. It’s a bit tricky to tell sometimes. 

photo by Heidi Rondak with Gunnar as a model – a try for line art resp. Picasso style

 

Wow, I didn’t know about Picasso doing light paintings, I’m impressed! But nowadays I guess the internet and events like yours with workshops etc. also help to mix things up and teach everyone different techniques so new ideas evolve. 

Yes, and you know how it is: as an artist, you do 20 percent creating and the rest is social media these days. You just have to self-promote yourself if you want to live on it. That’s my luck – I don’t have to live of it because I have a day job.

But do you promote yourself as a light painter anyway?

Okay, I had a few people telling me to clean up my Instagram and be specialised on that – and that’s what I did. The light painted portraits which we both did together became ‘my thing’, people associate that with me even though I wasn’t the first one to do that. At first, I had other photography posted too for example regular portrait and people photography. But I really sucked at it. So I said: “I need to practice.” But even my close friends said I was really bad. I even tried nudes, and I love nudes but I just couldn’t make it work. It also just wasn’t what I really wanted to do, so obviously, you can see that in a work. But it helped my with the other thing. I was learning the techniques, like how to focus correctly and how to pay attention to details. Like you and your team probably do it too, I’m taking more care of how the hair looks like etc. 

photo of me by Gunnar Heilmann

 

Okay, but you said you’re doing YouTube videos as well, for example, tutorials. On which purpose do you make them?

Once, I was asked through Instagram by a guy from India: “how do you do this?” So I was writing it down for him. And then he was like: “What do you mean?” – and I was like: “I just wrote what I mean…” So I had to explain it again. It was about a tube light painting, so I took a photo of the tube and a flash light on my couch and I noted underneath: “You put the flash light into the tube, turn it on and then you move it.” – “What do you mean?” – So I was wondering how much more explanations I could give! So then I took a short video with my phone and he finally understood that part. But then he had further questions like how I choose the tubes etc. So I made this video for YouTube on the different tubes that I have and which kind of flash lights there are plus under which conditions I’m choosing one or the other tool. And boom! It had 40.000 hits. After that video, I made another one on flash lights and then another one on the fibre optics. That one got linked all over the place because I pretty much explain everything I do there and then it’s up to the people what to use the technique for. It’s almost my most popular YouTube video, it has about 42.000 views and it’s still going. Most of the time I actually also take behind the scenes footage just for me so then I decided to share that too and some people seem to be very interested in it. For the tutorials, it’s great to use the link as a reply to any requests about how I do things instead of typing it each time. I mean it’s not about how many clicks I get. If someone asks I can show the video and then I’m happy to have helped even just one person. 

Yeah, helping one is already like saving the world. 

I am a YouTube millionaire by the way. I have a video that has over 15 million hits. It has nothing to do with light painting tough…

What is it? Porn? (:

Well, they claimed it’s porn so I had to take it down. It was two giraffes fucking. 

Hahaha! So it went viral but it wasn’t okay for YouTube…?

It’s so funny because some people claimed that it was their content and I had many disputes all the time. But I always won them easily. I could prove it with a link to my facebook where you could see that it was my content that I created during my vacation. But then someone flagged it as explicit porn. 

Well, but if you go to the zoo you can see things like that and you won’t even hide your kids from it I think…

That’s just YouTube going crazy right now. It’s becoming a bit useless, but I can help a few people with my videos so I stick with it. I’m not making any money with that. I used to monetise it for a while but after they changed some algorithms there wasn’t any possibility for me left to make money with it. 

You mentioned light painting to be an art. When it comes to comparing it to regular photography, what makes light painting so special for you?

I usually say I’m an engineer. I engineer these photos because there’s not this ‘setting – push the button – done!’ What a photographer does in the post processing I do right there. There’s very little right up to no post. I have lots of photos on my memory cards that I still haven’t downloaded to the computer. Like today (takes out a SD card from his pocket), I HAVE TO TAKE DOWN THE DATA FROM THIS ONE! Which I haven’t done for ages (: Sometimes I just upload the photos to the phone and post them on Instagram. Maybe I do some colour correction sometimes but the engineering takes place right on the spot. I like that puzzle. It’s like doing dodge & burn in Photoshop. This is what you see on the camera. If I want to remove some shadow underneath the eyes I just take a flash light and shine at it. 

photo by Heidi Rondak with Gunnar as a model

 

Yeah, I was thinking about this aspect too the other day. I really love dodge & burn so I realised that’s the enthusiasm for light painting that you guys have. 

I met a great photographer in the US: Dean Fidelman. He does nudes and what I liked about him and this is what I relate to a lot is that there’s a process. He said, the really good photos come out when you establish a relationship to the person. So it’s a whole process that he goes through. It’s not just ‘setting – click’, cold and distant. But so often you don’t have the time as a normal photographer. Whereas when I go out sometimes it takes an hour to get that one photo. 

Yeah, actually, I had that yesterday. We had about one and a half hours to shoot Tim Bendzko in four outfits and one of them was meant to be the cover shot for a magazine. So I didn’t have the time to connect at all and I felt like I was just ordering him about and telling him what to do all the time. I felt rude somehow because I was under pressure and I just had to take those photos. And every time I adjusted my flash and I released it he was just looking right into it and I was so sorry for that. He was treated like an object and I hate to do that. Normally, even during busy days you can ask at least one personal question or make a joke and actually have the time to laugh at it.

Yeah, you have to see if there’s a sense of humour to makes someone smile if you want that smile. 

I was asking him to smile all the time but there was no time for the connection…

So you want your subjects to smile sometimes? In fashion there’s not much smiling, is there?

Usually not, but this was portraiture and for the cover of the ten-year anniversary issue they wanted a happy face. But mostly in fashion, there’s not much smiling. 

So sad… 

And he just wasn’t smiling very much. He actually said that on the inside he’s already laughing out loud and this is how it shows. On the outside it was just a tiny smile (:

It reminds me of another aspect of photography. There’s this commercial side where you have to deliver. If I can just create for fun and I can enjoy the things that really move me I can work differently. Sometimes I go to places and I’m wondering what to make. So, for example, I do a swirl, just a shape that I start with a lot and it always works for me. Then I look at it and I think I could add a twist, just something different. And when I do that on top and something else than usual comes out, I’m satisfied. Under pressure, you never know if light painting works out as you imagined it. I had this once when I asked a friend of mine from Portugal who had a horse if I could try something with horses. She said that they could arrange that. The next weekend they had blocked the city park and the lights were off, twelve people waiting there. Then this guy asked me: “how many horses do you need?” – And I was like: “what do you mean how many horses, do I have a choice?” And he said: “yeah, two, three, four,…?” I wanted to be humble so I said two. The next question was: “which colour?” – Again I asked: “what do you mean?” – I really didn’t know where this was going… In the end, they said that they wanted to use the photo for their horse festival if it turned out well. So there it was, the pressure also because they put so much effort into it. But then we went to the park and unfortunately none of my ideas worked! For example, I chose a white horse and I thought that it running and me lighting it would result in a nicely shaped trail. But horses run very constantly, I didn’t know that. So the lit up horse created a straight line, very boring. In the end, I found some solutions and they really used it for the festival. But you always have that risk with working under pressure. 

photo by Gunnar Heilmann, organisation by Natalia Cerqueira

 

Absolutely. Improvisation is key. But it’s a funny story with the horses. After all, every shooting mishap makes a great story for telling!

I have so many of these stories. When I was in Arizona with a friend we wanted to photograph ‘The Wave’. That’s this famous red curved rock formation. So we wanted to be there before sunrise and light it up for the photo. But we got lost in the dark landscape and we were carrying so much equipment. We lost a few hours wandering around and when we finally found it my friend Marcus was so exhausted he could just sit while I was lighting the scene. It wasn’t completely dark anymore and in the photo, you don’t realise immediately that it’s a light painting. But when you have a closer look the shadows look different. 

photo of “The Wave” by Gunnar Heilmann

 

Oh, right, I guess it can be pretty dangerous sometimes to be out there in the darkness. 

Yes, but actually nothing seriously bad ever happened. 

Fortunately! So your light painting subjects are oftentimes people and landscapes. And horses (: Is there anything special you’re dreaming of painting with light?

I want to do a light painting at Antarctica. It’s the only continent that I haven’t been to yet. Last year I almost made it there. I wanted to be on every continent in one year. That’s my thing, I like to have a number of things done. It helps me to collect memories. So I love to travel a lot and meet new people, find new places and try new things. And then I put them into my statistics.

“I want to do a light painting at Antarctica. It’s the only continent that I haven’t been to yet.”

Haha, very rational. That’s the engineer speaking (: And is there anything you would never photograph or light paint?

Well, yes, everything that’s unethical to photograph. For example, I was traveling with a friend to Serbia and we planned to make a light painting at this monument called ’Jasenovac’. We were looking forward to it so much, but when we arrived we learned the dark history of the place. We were so shocked as we didn’t know that before and of course we refused to do the happy and colourful light painting that we had planned. I just did one that was super simple and showing the place in a more serious way. However, it was very tempting because this place was very photogenic.

Yeah, but still I think it’s better to respect those places and rather take in the atmosphere. For me, it’s the Jewish monument in Berlin that I think is a genius construction telling you so much and giving you such an intense experience. And when I’m there and I see so many photographers taking happy portraits or even ‚sexy‘ images of people who’re posing like they have fun, you really need to hold me back… I also used to not photograph in churches but now I do as I don’t think it’s respectless as long as you behave. However, I wouldn’t shoot at a cemetery. Anyway, I know people who did that already… But don’t get me started (: I was wondering if you would like to say anything else at last. Now’s the time!

I just love light painting for the social aspect. I can work and connect with people and you never know what the result will be. It’s super unpredictable. I love it. 

Alright, thanks for sharing your passion and giving insights to the scene. I think there’s a lot of names to google now and maybe some paintings to be made with light.

Epilogue

Don’t forget to visit Gunnar’s website and also www.lightpainters.com. If you enjoyed reading this article, or you found it helpful in one way or the other, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries. Cheers!