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Max Eicke: “I am searching for a contemporary version of sexuality”

All photos by: Max Eicke

Johnny Questions. Photo: Max Eicke

We catch up with Berlin based photographer Max Eicke, to speak about inspiration, what it means to him to shoot portraits and his project ‘Dominas’ where he met over 30 sex workers and portraits them.

How come you decided to move to Berlin?

I was born and grew up in Tübingen, a small university city in Southern Germany. There's a rumor that Goethe vomited there. It's considered the perfect place to stay if you dream of winning a Nobel Prize in medicine. However, it's less ideal if you aim for a career in the arts, which led me to be quite nomadic in my 20s.

I studied photography in Munich and then moved to London to work with the artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin before completing my Master's in Fine Arts at HFBK Hamburg. After years of living out of a suitcase and spending a fortune on a broom closet next to Brick Lane in London, I felt ready for a new base. Berlin seemed like the only option in Germany.

When did your interest in photography start?

From the beginning, my journey has been rooted in an interest in the world—a curiosity about encounters with people, objects, and diverse environments. During my teenage years, I discovered scuba diving and became captivated by the underwater world. It's a realm devoid of gravity, where light and sound adhere to different laws, creating a completely different universe.

This fascination prompted me to pick up a camera, initially with the intention of documenting my underwater observations. The essence of my approach has always been to look carefully, observe, get excited, and allow myself to be curious.

Later, when I participated in a youth circus project, my focus shifted towards photographing fellow artists, directing my lens more towards people. Since then, I've developed a profound fascination and empathy for various performers. Beneath it all lies an interest in identities, shifting roles, bodies, and their surfaces.

I often find myself revisiting the opening line of Herve Guibert's brilliant book, 'Ghost Image': "Photography is also an act of love."

Lj Marles. Photo: Max Eicke

What inspires you with your photography?

In the realm of photography and art, I've held a fascination for both the works displayed in museums and galleries and the photographic content found in pop-cultural magazines since my youth. I would occasionally embark on a 90-kilometer round trip from Tübingen to Stuttgart just to lay hands on specific magazines. Both worlds have played a crucial and formative role in my life, as my heart resonated with the "noble" art within the museum context as much as it did with the images on printed magazine pages.

I consistently make an effort to invest time in appreciating the work of fellow artists and, whenever possible, show my support by purchasing their books or prints. Generally, I find the most inspiration in the life paths of individuals who challenge norms, exuding passion and playfulness, irrespective of their connection to the art world. One notable example is the French acrobat Philippe Petit, who meticulously prepared for six years before walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Another is Lee Miller, whose life story and the evolution of her photographic work leave a profound impression on me. I also admire Stef Dickers, the archivist of the London Bishopsgate Library, who ardently built and continues to maintain the UK Leather & Fetish Archive—a repository chronicling both English and international history within the kink community.

These individuals serve as excellent examples of what can be achieved through passion and curiosity, demonstrating that creativity extends far beyond the realm of art alone. Such inspirational narratives are also explored in Playful Podcast.

Mistress Morrigan Mel from photobook "Dominas" by Max Eicke

What about Berlin inspires your art?

The straightforward answer would be that Berlin inspires me due to its rich history, diverse cultural and music scenes, and its vibrant club, kink, and subcultures. Ultimately, Berlin, in my view, thrives on a distinctive spirit of resistance, a touch of disobedience, and a deep appreciation for diversity. However, this atmosphere is dynamic, evolving alongside the entire city. For me, being a Berliner means embodying a continuous questioning of hierarchies and norms, refusing to obediently submit to them.

The spirit I'm referring to is aptly captured by Florian Opitz in his series "Capital B." It serves as a cinematic monument to the resilient resistance of Berliners—a quality that not only perplexes the Berlin Senate but also challenges the rest of Germany. Despite being a source of consternation, this spirit is the most precious asset of the city. I find this vibe incredibly valuable and inspiring, both from an artistic standpoint and in a broader human context. It encourages a continual introspection: Who truly owns the city? And who possesses the authority to dictate the right way of life?

Pauly. Photo: Max Eicke

In what way has your art changed since you moved here?

For me, the imperfect and improvisational nature of Berlin held a remarkably liberating quality. When reflecting on my photographic background, it becomes evident that it was predominantly focused on serious, documentary projects. This inclination likely originated from my upbringing in Tübingen – a bourgeois, sheltered environment with a somewhat serious tone. This predisposition was further reinforced by my experiences at art school, where seriousness prevailed. Consequently, for a considerable period, I found myself seeking documentary subjects as an outsider.

It was only upon arriving in Berlin and experiencing the onset of the pandemic that I gained the confidence to recognize the legitimacy of turning my camera more towards my own environment. Berlin granted, and continues to provide, a sense of playfulness that I had always been searching for.

You shoot a lot of portraits, what about people makes you want to photograph them?

In general, the people I photograph are dear to me. I believe I have to love, respect, somehow embrace everyone I photograph. I need a positive fascination for them, something that sparks my curiosity, my desire to pay attention to them. For me, the act of photography has a lot to do with vulnerability—making myself vulnerable and inviting my counterpart to do the same. Contradiction also attracts me, I think because I myself feel like I have more than one identity. Consequently, I certainly look for people with a similar outlook on life. I find individuals inspiring who dare to play with their self-image and perhaps expand, change, or shift it together. I consider my models as accomplices, not just as actors.

Anzhelika Ustymenko. Photo: Max Eicke

What are things you could discover through the process of photographing someone? 

It is important to me to create an atmosphere of openness where neither I nor the other person is merely reproducing images that were already in our minds, and where both of us can contribute wishes and ideas. We live in such an inundation of images, and cameras and sharing pictures are so ubiquitous that most people always have their own image in mind, constantly thinking about their representation. I find the fragility in this process intriguing—the effort to uncover the nuances that each person adopts in the moment in front of a camera. I believe that more profound and compelling images emerge when one embraces the nervousness and awkwardness inherent in a photographic encounter, rather than attempting to evade or mitigate them.

You made a photo book named ‘Dominas’ - what inspired you to focus on dominant women?

This book was created during a time when I was predominantly working on documentary projects. I had read the autobiography of a dominatrix and was fascinated by her reflections on society, culture, power, and sexuality. These were all topics that interested me as well, so I began to search, photograph, and interview the protagonists. I met over 30 sex workers for this project, and they couldn't have been more different. The women had diverse cultural and social backgrounds, the most varied motivations for their work, but they had one thing in common: they spoke so openly, seriously, but also humorously and liberally about human sexualities, unlike anyone else I had encountered. I am interested in unexpected encounters. I want to discover what I don't yet know. I am searching for a contemporary version of sexuality.

Did you learn anything from creating it?

During the portrait sessions, I quickly realized that my idea of how I wanted to portray these women differed significantly from their own ideas. This friction forced me to reflect carefully and question my own preconceptions, as well as the visual representation conventions that many of the women seemed to "offer" through their poses, which became the real challenge to break. I increasingly became aware that the subjects themselves seemed to have internalized a "male" gaze, actually feeling best represented when they precisely adhered to the representation conventions of a patriarchal gaze – conventions that I wanted to critically question and not reproduce through my photographic approach. Working on this project made me think about some of Roland Barthes' lines, which really became important for my future practise: „The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.“


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