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Interviews

Wildlife photographer Martin Eisenhawer on fine art and the ‘Winter Spirits of Hokkaido’

Wildlife photographer Martin Eisenhawer on fine art and the ‘Winter Spirits of Hokkaido’

© Martin Eisenhawer

April 2012

German-Swiss photographer Martin Eisenhawer was one of the first people to be interviewed by Canon Professional Network after it launched five years ago this month. CPN writer Mike Stanton talks to him again about some of his favourite pictures, his move towards art photography and how he takes inspiration from the wildlife and ancient traditions of northern Japan.

On the afternoon of Friday 11 March 2011, Martin Eisenhawer was sitting in a café in a museum in the small Japanese city of Kasama about 150 kilometres south of Fukushima. He was on his way back to his home in Switzerland after photographing the red-crowned cranes on the island of Hokkaido. “Suddenly, cups and glasses started to fall,” says Eisenhawer. “The people around me seemed paralysed. There were cracks in the road and phones were down. Kasama is renowned for pottery and there was a large vase at the entrance to the town that was in the Guinness Book of Records. It was now in pieces.”

He adds: “The first news about the tsunami and the Fukushima reactor accident was via radio. For myself, I only witnessed a small part of the disaster. I was relieved when I learned that my friends in Japan were safe. The rebuilding after this traumatic event is underway. The resilience of the Japanese people is tremendous.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer explains: “I created this picture on one of the most productive mornings of my photographic career. In the [Bern] exhibition there were five images from the same morning. The red-crowned cranes flew in before sunrise then the sun emerged, creating a mist that rose from the snow. The cranes’ activity suddenly increased for about five minutes and then they flew off. The photograph contains several scenes in one. It is as if the cranes are on a mystical stage and it is unknown whether and how these actors are communicating among themselves.”

It was a moment that had a major impact on his life, he says. Eisenhawer, the current president of the German Association for Wildlife Photographers (GDT), has been to Japan several times since 2005 to photograph the red-crowned cranes and whooper swans of Hokkaido, and these images have become his signature work. Since the earthquake he has attended charity events for its victims and staged a two artists’ exhibition of his Hokkaido work, entitled ‘Winter Spirits of Hokkaido’, at the Japanese embassy in Bern last year, for which he has received a wealth of goodwill.

There, Eisenhawer met several artists from Japan. “A particular golden moment was meeting the painter Teruko Yokoi,” he says. “She is an inspiration for me and we mutually appreciate each other’s works and motivations for art. We have become good friends.” The exhibition has been a springboard for his move into fine art and the publishing of a book focused on his images from Japan.

© Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer notes: “In photography, if you choose the shutter speed wisely you can create what you intend for the image, in that precisely defined length of time. This is something you can’t really do with any other art medium. With this image the sunlight had disappeared and I could have selected a higher ISO setting, but I chose to work with quite a long shutter speed (0.5 seconds). You can render the dynamic qualities of the scene in a way that says much more about the essence of the animals than if one had merely taken a casual snapshot.”

In recent years his approach has been as much that of an art photographer as it has been of a wildlife photographer. His works have sparked interest from art galleries and book publishers, both of which, he insists, do not see any conflict between art and wildlife image-making. He is about to stage another joint exhibition with the French artist Eric Alibert at the Saint-Maurice Castle in Valais, Switzerland, which will open on 4 May this year and will be on display for six months.

Eisenhawer is pleased his images are published in several nature and art magazines (most recently a portfolio in Fine Art Printer magazine). He is not keen to go down the traditional wildlife photographer’s route of stock photography or photojournalism. Having seen the emotional impact of his work on his audience, he is encouraged to pursue his own path.

© Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer reveals: “This image is unusual because normally you have a dark coloured foreground and the background would be lighter. But here is an inversion. The shutter speed was 1.3 seconds. In order to pan steadily for this extremely long shutter speed, I used a tripod equipped with a video head. Photography is so widespread now, but for me it’s not about snapshots. By using its potential in a very conscious way, I aim to reveal the essence of an animal, to go beyond the visible.”

“I develop a deep connection with my subjects and aim for my images to be complete, to tell an emotional story without requiring descriptive or explanatory text,” he says. Eisenhawer is hugely influenced by other art forms, especially the Japanese woodcuttings and drawings of Hokusai and Hiroshige, with their simple play of lines and purity of form. He also takes inspiration from the dancing and music of the Ainu people of northern Japan, from an ancient culture shaped by nature.

His photography is neither black and white, nor colour. He searches for near-monochromatic scenes that ideally contain one spot of colour, such as the red crest of a Japanese red-crowned crane. “I use a very simple language to bring out the graphic qualities within each scene and transpose a living moment into an emotive visual statement. Landscapes and animals are pre-selected for those graphic qualities,” he says. “I do not add or remove anything from the images. I only use natural light. I do not alter colours and I do not convert the images to black and white.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer explains: “This was taken in a field where there were a great number of cranes. Most photographers concentrated on the sedge. I noticed a small group of three cranes unobserved on the far right of the field. The image was created at f/5 so that only one of the cranes, the middle one, is in focus. Many people comment that the crane on the right looks like it is in the background but, of course, it is in the foreground. The image becomes more complex and interesting, it is not just an immediate affirmation of reality or what is obvious.”

Eisenhawer was impressed with the quality of the images printed by Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF8300 large format printer on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth paper, with support from Canon Switzerland. “I realised immediately that this was how my images ideally should be presented.”

In the end, he says, art photography must stir emotions. Quoting the Spanish photographer José Carlos Robles he says there is a technical ‘triangle of variables’: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. For Robles, he says, there is another triangle: intellect, emotions and humanism. “Obviously you have to master the first triangle, but then you must put it to good use,” says Eisenhawer.

Martin Eisenhawer’s equipment:

Cameras:
2x EOS-1D Mark IV

Lenses:
EF17-40mm f/4L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF500mm f/4L IS USM

Accessories:
EF1.4x II Extender
EF2x II Extender

Biography: Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer is a German-Swiss photographer, based in Switzerland, and is the current president of the German Association for Wildlife Photographers (GDT). His images have won several international awards, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition run by the Natural History Museum in London and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He concentrates on long-term projects, deepening his understanding of his subject by returning to the same locations with new ideas. He has also staged several exhibitions of his work across Europe and regularly sits on wildlife photography competition juries.



Showcase

Martin Eisenhawer explains: “I created this picture on one of the most productive mornings of my photographic career. In the [Bern] exhibition there were five images from the same morning. The red-crowned cranes flew in before sunrise then the sun emerged, creating a mist that rose from the snow. The cranes’ activity suddenly increased for about five minutes and then they flew off. The photograph contains several scenes in one. It is as if the cranes are on a mystical stage and it is unknown whether and how these actors are communicating among themselves.”