Intimate Strangers : The Street Photography of Jürgen Bürgin.
There is a strange and compelling intimacy to the street photography of Jürgen Bürgin. An underlying intrigue that draws us in to his work, while at the same time questioning what we are seeing.
A person (we think is female but it might be a man or boy) lies face down on a grubby, tiled floor. We are puzzled, are they drunk, are they injured or ill, or just playing the fool?
Copyright ⓒ Jürgen Bürgin
“I’ve integrated my approach as a street photographer into my daily life,” He reveals. “I carry my camera with me – the smaller the better – everywhere I go. And, then I start to find funny or interesting situations. Or, I find situations that tell little stories. It is absolutely necessary to be curious, and to discover the everyday absurdity in our lives.”
We remain curious, however, we want to know the story. So, we absorb the visual clues and our minds automatically begin to build our own narrative. If it is a girl, then the large rip on the back of her top suggests she has been assaulted, though the way she is laid out makes me think she is intoxicated, and the torn shirt a fashion statement?
I prod him on the photograph, and he tells me he has been criticised by people who think it is a crime scene.
“So,” He starts up. “To tell you the secret about it, I took it on ‘Zombiewalk’ in Berlin – an annual event I really love!”
To take this photograph, Jürgen found himself in the right place at exactly the right moment, which, in turn, reflects the frustratingly miscalculated situational dynamics of many street photographers – when we miss out on a shot, or the planned photograph does not happen the way we imagined.
“I try to find situations where people are immersed in something,” He reveals his strategy, “Immersed in something, concentrated on something. Then I take photos, but I try to prevent the people from reacting to me – because then they start to pose for my photographs.”
He is, of course, outlining the candid imperative of the street photographer. The need for the street photographer to travel incognito and beneath the radar, hidden (as much as possible) from the people of the everywhere going about their everyday on the street.
I ask him about the lady in blue, a photograph of a woman, apparently in a hurry who has left a man behind to fetch her luggage or something she needs from the boot of the car.
Copyright ⓒ Jürgen Bürgin
“That’s a photo I’ve taken in front of Lincoln Center in Manhattan,” He reveals. “This lady was late to the opera and her driver brought her to Metropolitan Opera, in heavy rain. I took a few shots of her, she obviously came from shopping – and she didn’t realize me at all, at least she didn’t take any notice of me – which is quite often the case in heavy rain. People are concentrated on themselves and try not to become wet. By the way, this is one of my own favourite shots, as it comes closest to my idea of telling a story with one single shot, and to evoke emotions and create a mood.”
It works and using rain as a means of going under the radar? Genius.
“Not really,” He replies when I ask him if he makes plans before he goes out and shoots. “I try to let the world surprise me.”
He pauses, thinking, before immediately reacting to his own inner thoughts.
“Well…” He starts up again. “Sometimes yes – I love to hang around in front of the operas, for example, and watch all the interesting people who are completely dressed up and go to the opera. As a street photographer I am not really working on projects…that is not the way street photography usually works. It is very much about accidents, about encounters, about surprises – and about the ability of the photographer to see and discover exciting things.”
The Berlin-based street photographer studied German Literature at the University of Freiburg, a city in the south-west of Germany. He is self-taught and passionate about his photographic art.
“Funny thing, I started with nature photography,” He admits. “Later I discovered that there are exciting things to photograph in the city where I live. That is when I started to discover the work of all those amazing classic street photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz. I wasn’t really aware before, that there is a genre called street photography and what it really means.”
Jürgen leads us to the space most of us contemplate ‘what is street photography’, what does it mean to be a street photographer and what is the internal meaning of street photography as a genre? We push on.
“So, I started to photograph in Berlin and later I discovered that it is even more exciting to me to photograph in places and cities that are new to me. I travelled (to) a lot of big cities and tried to find out what everyday life in Shanghai, or Tokyo, or Hanoi, or Chicago looks like.”
We talk about that closeness and intimacy of his photographs, but I also feel that there is a great deal of sadness on the faces of the subjects in his work.
Copyright ⓒ Jürgen Bürgin
“Well, I think it’s not really sadness,” He corrects. “I would call it…melancholy. Indeed, I try to find people who are concentrated in something or who are somehow absent. Sometimes you can discover people daydreaming or obviously thinking about something. That is definitely my moment to take a photo. Some of those have become personal classic photographs, like the one where an old man looks upward in a New York night. It is… big city melancholy I try to discover in some of my photographs.”
Amidst the spectacular colour, glitz and glamour of a New York night scene, an old man propped on a stick beside a pedestrian crossing dressed in a drab raincoat becomes a metaphor. He contrasts immediately with his contemporary city surroundings, the neon lights, the young man in the background with splashes of blue, earphones connecting him to his smartphone and, potentially, the world, the young family coming off the crossing. Meanwhile the old grey haired man is looking Heavenward. A sign? Maybe thinking about the New York he once knew…or….thinking about the future? His own journey through time? His own mortality?
“Lot’s to do in the coming months,” Jürgen tells me about his own future. “I’ll publish my next book in 2019. The title will be ‘Punch – A tale from the boxing world’. I try to get really close into that world. After that I will publish a photobook about the circus world. I’m having a wonderful collaboration with a literature scholar, Anna-Sophie Jürgens, who is a real specialist in circus in literature. My next exhibition will be in Tübingen in Southern Germany, where I will show New York street photographs, together with my friend Jörg Rubbert. The show will be called ‘Intimate Strangers’, and will also be exhibited in Hamburg and Rotterdam in 2019.”
I, personally, like the title of the exhibitions : ‘Intimate Strangers’. It sums up in a couple of words the relationship between street photographers and their subjects.
There is also a cinematic feel to Jürgen’s work which is not surprising as he works in the movie industry, and tells me he is : “Influenced by famous directors and their work : Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Traffaut, Wong Kar-Wai.”
Intimacy, melancholy, cinematic insight, Jürgen Bürgin’s street photography bristles with all this, as well as colour and intrigue.
Copyright ⓒ Jürgen Bürgin
“That’s a more relaxed situation,” He says of the photograph he calls ‘The Tiger People’ “I love how it evokes a story as well, I love how she’s turned around and their clothes are amazing. So I – and I think most people who look at it – are thinking about who they are, if they are artists, musicians or whatever. Still: I do not know!”
To see more, visit Jürgen Bürgin
*Jürgen’s ‘Urban Fever – Scenes from city life’, is now available here
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