The Katja Chronicles

Posted by wayne | April 15th, 2009

Malgosia Bela | Photo: Katja Rahlwes for Self Service SS08

All photos courtesy of Katja Rahlwes | Katja Rahlwes is represented by Michele Filomeno in NY

The name Katja Rahlwes has come to signal a brand of glamour that is bright, beautiful and very lacquered as seen in the pages of ID, Self-Service and Vogue Paris. It is a world of commanding women in full control of that myth of glamour even as that imagery is twisted with a very sophisticated sense of play and wit. But where do these images come from? What is the taste point that informs the aesthetic? MDX caught up with the photographer and got a comprehensive history on the times and taste of the woman called Katja Rahlwes.

WS: Okay off goes the phone. During this interview nothing exists for the duration of our talk (laughs).  How do you cope with our current  American  culture of now now now?
KR: I am not here long enough … A big difference in the US is the way how people  communicate  mostly electronically… text message… email.  Rare are the days you actually speak over the phone.  In the beginning I was shocked not to be able to catch anybody on the phone. But if you leave a message on the answering machine, they ring back right away. It takes a moment to understand the dynamics.
In terms of culture yes it is a total different thing compared to Europe. You would think it’s similar with the people  in Europe but the vibe is so different of course.  It’s America!
When you live in Europe you think you know so much about the Americans, because of all the films you have seen, and the trips you’ve made to the U.S. on holidays or for work.
Once you actually live here a new journey begins, like going on a rusty Roller-coaster (laughs). It’s a thrill.
I love how fast people can connect on the streets.   People talk to each other without fear,  something impossible to find in Europe.
In cities like Paris or London people are reserved and overprotective. New Yorkers are curious and talkative, I think that’s funny and most of all very alive.  I love that.
In terms of working on set, I work a lot with the same people like in Europe.

WS: True, on-set people are like an international tribe that just goes from city to city.  Speaking of which where are you from originally?
KR: I was born in Germany. I’m from Frankfurt.

Claudia Schiffer | Photo: Katja Rahlwes

WS: And obviously you’ve been shooting since the late 90s?
KR: No, I came to Paris in ’87 and I started fashion at the Studio Bercot which is a fashion school.  From there I was very good in fashion illustration so I started out as a fashion illustrator.  And I worked also on the side for Thierry Mugler to do some accessory design…. you know in the beginning when you do like little parts in the bigger machine. When you start out and you’re young that’s how you learn. And then I met with Marc Ascoli who already knew my work from school because at Studio Bercot industry people would always come every week.  There would be either a designer or an art director who would go over your work. That was the concept of the school and they would judge your work or criticize your work in order to put a reality to it. It was very, very interesting. So Marc Ascoli liked what I did anyway. For some reason it turned out we started working together.  He took me in as an intern and later I worked more on his projects and research and layouts and that’s how I discovered styling. Because I loved illustration, but I felt really lonely. You’re at home all the time. It’s great to do but I needed more interaction. So that’s how I discovered that next dimension of how you could be part of the imagery and work with a group and develop the ideas together. He started by saying “What would you use? Maybe we should have some pillows in this campaign?”  So I’d do some research into different textiles and sew pillows together. That’s how I learned  the process. Then I took off in ’95.  I said, OK I’m a stylist. At least I knew that this was the thing I wanted to do then.  I was looking more or less for a family, for people I would be excited by in Paris. It felt like there was very little alternative culture apart for the magazine then called Purple Prose which was based on art and culture but I really loved the whole energy of it and the size of it. So I went to see them. But I didn’t have a styling book then so what I did is I photographed an entire styling book. I got one of my  friends …she carried the same name like me – Katja- and she was gorgeous …so I’d do on her several styling options with a set of clothes of mine in which I’d transform Katja by creating silhouettes.  I photographed it and said I had a styling book. Back then it was possible.  And so I went to see them and they liked the photos. They liked the ideas and they liked the styling as it was then not yet in their program.

WS: This was before the time of the star stylist.
KR: Plus at that time there were few freelance stylists out there. It was not so much of a profession yet. It was….  I think there was just like maybe…Venetia Scott, Jane How, Melanie Ward. Most of the fashion-editors were in-house stylists. It was a new thing. Actually it would be nice to research because maybe it started with i-D-magazine… the whole freelance thing. ..and the “The Face”; the English peoples that triggered the new movement… great.

Isabeli | Photo: Katja Rahlwes for L’Officiel Homme

WS: I guess after people like Edward Enninful and before that,  Ray Petri started to have their work in circulation, big design houses would want to hire their “look” out of those English magazines.
KR: So yes I started with Purple. They showed so much interest saying they wanted to break up the magazine and go into being a more creative fashion magazine. It was called Purple Fashion. It was at first called Purple Prose and had a sister called Purple Fiction. But they were all there already. Inez and Vinoodh shot already a cover for them. There was Sonic Youth. Everybody was already present and started out..but it was on a different level. In ’97 or ’98 there was the first Purple Fashion so I was collaborating with them since and working. Back then- more with them and than just contributing. During that time Olivier Zahm was the publisher. He would give me a camera so I did my first shoot for Purple Sexe No 1.  Ellen Fleiss who was back then his partner pointed out that we had no female erotic photographer… She was thinking…We’re bringing out Purple Sexe…There are no women…I don’t like that…. So they asked me. I was like …Great …Thank You. So I became more like …the erotic photographer on the side while still doing all the styling. I always took pictures but it was a different way of taking pictures. It was very relaxing for me to shoot one and one completely outside of the context of styling and  fashion. It  was always at home… my place. So I continued to work like that as a stylist. This was 8 years where I worked as a stylist for Dutch, ID, Purple.Self-Service, I was also chief Fashion Editor and Photo-Editor for a mainstream commercial fashion magazine in France called Biba. I didn’t have enough money so they approached me because they needed a new point of view. They proposed to me that job so I said OK. Because I wanted the stability though, I worked like mad…14 hrs a day and then I would still continue these things on the side because that was what I wanted to do. So Biba lasted 2 years and I said.. OK that’s it… And then things became a little bit more precise. When I walked out of Biba I said  “OK now I need to shoot”. I contacted Dutch and I asked them if they could publish some work and I showed them a little bit what I’ve been doing. So I proposed Emmanuelle Seigner because I was crazy about her when I was younger and I thought I’d really like shoot her in her stage clothes from “Frantic” at home. So I did that shoot and then a couple of months later Nadja Auermann for Purple. Same thing.  It was very much like …I’d like to meet her. That’s how I started. And when those shoots came out I wasn’t aware but it caused a lot of excitement around and questions about …what do you want to do now.  It felt like people were very… you need to make decision.  Back then you couldn’t be a stylist AND photographer at the same time. That’s…what do you call it? That’s getting into a…

WS: A conflict of interest?
KR: Voila! C’est ca. You’re on the on-set spy. And then you do the same thing at home. (laughs)

Hilary Rhoda | Photo: Katja Rahlwes for Purple Fashion

WS: “In other words … I don’t want you styling my shoots because you’re going to steal all my concepts  and use them yourself”.
KR: And I respect that. Not that I approached it that way because it wasn’t at all the way I would function. Plus I was very passionate about the photographers I worked with. And protective of it. So it wasn’t like ‘Oh God  I have to do the same thing tonight” I always thought the way I approached women actually was exactly the contrary of what I lived as a stylist. The way I felt like male photographers would approach women sometimes made me feel really uncomfortable. Or this whole thing …the way they would deal with each other on-set. It would be such a  cliche . The words …’Baby do this..Oh you’re so hot baby”…  So I thought maybe there was a different layer or something else to reveal from those women. I decided to stop styling. Really it was from one day to the other and I picked up the phone and said “I’m a photographer now”. And I was scared and I wasn’t sure because usually there is a lot of prejudice …when a stylist becomes a photographer.

Malgosia Bela | Photo: Katja Rahlwes for i-D Apr 09

WS: It seems creative evolution is very important to you.. from fashion-design student to stylist to photographer.
KR: And I never wanted to do all that. I never wanted to do fashion design. My mother had a fashion design house. She had a haute couture house in Germany. She was doing this full on 70’s hardcore glam hippie style. Amazing pieces. As a stylist I once did a feature in Dazed and Confused with half of her clothes. As a statement because at that time it was just when all those clothes came back into fashion. So I thought now I have to introduce all those pieces. They were really cool about credits and all that. They wouldn’t even moan about it. But I grew up in all this whole feeling of it. Working to make pocket money at the fashion-fairs in Paris, Milan and Germany.  And I just couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand fashion. I wanted to be an actress. That’s what I wanted. I left school really early. I stopped going when I was 15 but announced it to my parent at 16. (laughs) So I said I want to be an actress.  I was not getting along with the school system.  But the problem back then was  that everybody in Germany,  back then wanted to be creative.  We all came from … ’65… ’66…’67.  There was a whole wave of kids born in those years who then came of age in the late 70’s, who all wanted to be creative. The art schools were over-flooded so they couldn’t take on anymore people on. You needed a degree to get in. This was their way of making it harder and discouraging…and then they’d  said you apply on talent and then you’d have to wait for 2 or 3 years but I couldn’t wait. I wanted to get away from Germany.


Katja Rahlwes’s mother circa 1970’s

WS: How do you feel about Germany now?
KR: I miss it terribly. It’s funny that you ask me that because now it’s a real drama for me. I’ve been away now for 25 years and now I always think this is crazy.. Am I never going to go back?  If you were to put me in Germany now …you put me in an apartment I’d probably be a bum in three months because I don’t know anyone apart from my parents. I’m not really speaking the same language anymore in the way that you process or you access a language. Now sometimes I say to my husband..maybe we have to live one year in Frankfurt.. (laughs). Germany is very far away but more and more close in my heart.

WS: Going back to your photography…there’s always the conversation about “female”/photographers as if that is a phenomena.
KR: And also the common thing is to say, “So yes, we see the difference between this picture that has been taken by a woman and you as a woman how do you feel taking pictures of women and those women…How did they feel having their picture taken.? And I’m like… I don’t know. We’re just doing what we’re doing. I don’t want to be gender isolated and get a special  ticket. I don’t know if that is coming to terms with the reality, but I guess it does in the end.

WS: My reaction to your work… in coming to it late… was to try to fit it in the genre of Terry Richardson /Juergen Teller/ Mathias Vriens. And then I realized how incredibly lazy that thinking was.
KR: Trust me I hear that a lot …  I regret all this referencing because it is a phenomena today to refer quickly to another photographer, I believe in general people like to stay comfortable in what they know and jump to easy conclusions.  Of course if you take your time and you follow up on the work of photographers you see that all the difference is within the picture and the intentions it carries out.

Terry, Mathias, Juergen and myself…we don’t share the same desire for women and life. We come from different backgrounds as well as cultures.  I think we all tell a different story in our work. Fact is that we do approach and live fashion-photography on a very personal level.
It is interesting to see the photographers you mentioned are all men… like they are the one that rule the world { 🙂  }  and maybe they still do.
And yes, we have been sharing the same manner of shooting “Point and Shoot” film material.   It is true…  a Point and Shoot Camera comes in very handy if you work with your instinct, fast and very spontaneously, you have a lot of liberty to act. I started photography with that camera.  I needed nobody to help me to take pictures… just the model and me… a great set up!
But I like to say out of the photographers you mentioned I really appreciate Juergen Teller’s work, I can relate to his work.  I think he is a great artist.

WS: Well on the point-and shoot issue I iamgine there’s more to it than the technical details of the camera you’re using. It’s also the decisions you make. The cropping..when you choose to snap..
KR: It is only about that. It is completely about that. Anything that triggers you to take a picture is a creative and personal decision. That is the moment that you’re saying, I need that. I need to see more of that. This is what I’ve been looking for and no one else could give it to me. That’s what makes your work specific. That’s how people can recognize your work.

WS: How do you go about working with commercial clients in America while being perceived as hyper-European in your imagery?
KR: Can that be channeled into something commercial?  I would think yes because if you can trust the photographer and you collaborate with the photographer in interpreting the needs of your product in the style that this photographer is best at then you’ll get a powerful picture.


Still life by Katja Rahlwes

WS: Ultimately that is what makes a photograph work no?  The personal emotion inside the technique.
KR: You see a life line in strong work. You see a point of view that is repeatedly there and always insists on something and… that’s your handwriting. It is like you said… it is where you’re coming from, what has been triggering you, first instincts, impulses.. what you’re referring to. As much as I am German obviously I refer to a completely different kind of woman and that woman I remember from the 70’s when I grew up  This German woman who still fascinates me today for her strength, women I discovered on screen in my favorite films of Fassbinder.. I grew up in Frankfurt at that time where a lot of the Fassbinder scene were passing through the city, and one of my play friend’s mother was Elisabeth Trissenar (Fassbinder actress). My mother also was stunningly beautiful and strong.
And I’m always surprised that in my vision of woman I am led back to the roots.”
In terms of my own photography in  the beginning people would say  that it was very autobiographical what I did or that there would be a lot of reflecting myself when I was younger. I think it’s true… I just wasn’t aware of it. I just did it. Today I can look back with a sense of reflection and I see that. And also I think when I introduced still lifes that’s when I gave up the model as being my only vector. I became very very personal on my still lifes. There’s always related to things that happen to me…things that surround me.. that are a part of my life .


Still life by Katja Rahlwes

WS: Wow. This conversation has certainly given me a huge insight into where your work comes from and it’s creative power. Thank you so much for taking time Katja.
KR: Thank you Wayne. It’s nice to think about these things and trace these things. Thank you.

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10 Comments to “The Katja Chronicles”

  1. MK says:

    Love her work, very interesting interview.

  2. gise says:

    thanks for the interview. i really like her work; her aesthetic. women look truly beautiful, sensual, and alluring in a very specific, non-exploitative way. tres hot!

  3. Gustavo says:

    I loved the spread with Malgosia! Really auto biographic!
    Hope Katja will be on the scene for a long time, cause we do need people with her point of view, both in fashion and photography! But i wouldnt necessarily categorize her an autobiographic photographer. And i dont think her work can be compared to Jurgen Teller and Terry Richardson, though i like them.

  4. Miss Jeffrey says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE her work!!!

  5. shannon says:

    i think that the pics are a little too sexual with the womens boobs showing. what if the ads were put in magizines and children were reading there mothers mag and they saw that? other wise i love the jewerly in the pics as a fellow jewerly designer nicely done.

  6. betty says:

    I’m not sure where you are from, but I venture you are not from Europe. There is a freedom and comfort with women’s bodies that does not exist in a place like America. Just because a woman’s “boobs” are showing, does not make it automatically sexual, in their context. There is a puritanical view of women’s body that boobs=sex here in America. So what if a child read their mother’s magazines and saw breasts? Breasts were designed by nature to give nurture (breastfeeding) to infants. There is nothing wrong with children seeing breasts. On the beaches of Europe, women go topless all the time with children around.

    But just so you know, these were all European based magazines, so if you are in America, you won’t be seeing these pictures unless you specifically seek it out..


  7. Luke Carter says:

    I looked for this in Self Service S/S 08, but it wasn’t there…any help?

  8. Brandon says:

    About the Self Service S/S08, You cant miss it, this is the cover story !



  10. diamantino quintas says:

    Ola Katja,comme je n’arrive pas à te joindre j’espère que un jour tu vas regarder les commentaires sur ton travail et intervue et ainsi entrer en contact avec voulais te dire que j’ai enfin crée mon labo et que j’aurai un immense plaisir de travailler de nouveau pour toi.j’espère aussi que tu vas bien,que tout se passe pour le mieux pour toi.Diamantino Labo Photo,c’est le nom du labo,je suis en train de faire le site,je fais du 100/100 Argentique couleur et N/B.0157210758 et 0609631642;;à bientot peut-etre.