KAI VON RABENAU ROYAL IN HIS OWN RIGHT

As a photographer, Kai captures the most subtle of movements as rather telling expressions in time and soars effortlessly in his journey along the landscapes of architecture, fashion, and portraiture. He doesn’t fear plunging deep into worlds of duality as the choice of his subjects often demonstrate. He finds interest and photographs a migrant Chinese worker, part of the Olympics construction team in Beijing,  people at home listening to their favourite music in an attempt to visualize sound, and a sculptor at the helm of one of the few remaining bona fide ceramic studios in Germany. In his documenting of architectural landmarks as well as off-the-beaten track places of interest, Kai grabs the energy of space and light and projects it onto his viewers in striking detail. He treks to the outer edges to discover a World War II bunker in ruins, earth houses built into the ground out of organic, sustainable elements, and one of the newest public aquariums boasting eccentric exhibition design and architecture. As the publisher of mono.kultur magazine and passionate photographer, Kai is up to his nose in work but took some time to discuss his ambitions, present and past.


After studying graphic design at Central St. Martin's you went on to obtain your masters in visual communication. How much of what you learned during this time plays a part in your work? Would you say you learned vital skills or how to better channel your creativity at this time?


I think my studies were invaluable to my work, and I still draw from my experiences at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. I think everything that I am doing now is pretty much based on what I learnt at college. The two schools also proved to be the perfect mix: while CSM was a very chaotic and in many ways quite a frustrating experience – the equipment was poor, teachers rare, the course had just in our year more than 100 students – it was also a very vital and energetic school which functioned very much on a basis of trial and error. But we were really taught to explore all options, to think outside the frame and most importantly, to fight for what we wanted. The RCA was in many ways the opposite experience – working at a much slower pace and being dedicated to refining your thought process, learning to select and focus on the right ideas and finding the best possible way of realizing them. But if anything, we were imbued with a spirit of anything goes and nothing is impossible – as trite as that may sound, this optimism has been hugely influential not only in my work, but also every other aspect of my life. Even when the reality of being a photographer might not always be what one expected or would want it to be, it is this attitude that I've been taught in London that ultimately always keeps me going. It was a precious gift.


Do you think you could have done without going to uni?


No – for all the reasons above. Which is not to say that it's not possible without university – there are many great photographers that did not have any formal training. But for me personally, I really needed this experience.


Of the exhibitions you've had, which was the most intense and/or meaningful for you?


My last small show in London in 2008, which also marked the launch of our fashion womenswear label mono.gramm – it's been a personal highlight, but also marked a turn in my work towards a more natural, less constructed photography and a new interest in fashion photography in particular. I haven't given much attention to exhibiting work so far, but the experience was so enjoyable that I'm currently working on more personal projects again with the aim of exhibiting more regularly in the future.


How did you cultivate the idea for your Opacities project? In the photo of all the cigarettes, how many hours did it take, presumably hanging with your friends to smoke (and gather) all those?


Opacities was my final project at the RCA, and focused on the subject of cities or large agglomerations of people. I'd been living in London for 6 years by then and was still fascinated by the energy of the city – it's informed so much of my work and interests that I really felt I wanted to dedicate a large project to it. At the same time, it's hard to portray a city without falling into the usual clichés, so it took some time to arrive at a more abstract format that hadn't been done at the time. I think Opacities achieved this to a certain extent. All images are taken from real life, even though some I needed to 're-stage' to maintain the visual framework, as with the cigarette butts, which was the 'crop' of one regular evening at the college bar... The stink was actually pretty hard to bear.

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NAN GOLDIN - Berlin Work 1984 - 2009
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STEPHEN SHORE - Uncommon Places
 

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As the publisher of mono.kultur, what does that entail? How often do you lend your photographic talents to the mag?


Well, mono.kultur... has really changed my life on many levels. At the beginning, it was conceived more as a hobby – it's always been a dream of mine to publish an interview magazine and the result happened to be much better than I could have ever anticipated. So creatively, it's been extremely rewarding and we really cannot complain about its development. The only thing we still need to figure out is how to turn it profitable... The downside, I suppose, is that it's a hugely demanding project, in terms of time and energy – I'm basically doing two full-time jobs at the same time, which has its consequences, not only in my social life, but also my photography. But I'm immensely proud of what we've achieved so far, and it's an adventure that really keeps me sane. And of course, it gives me the opportunity every now and then to portray figures that I admire immensely, such as Tilda Swinton or Dries van Noten.


What is your main passion in life?


This might be a little obvious, but I'll have to admit that it's photography and printed matter – magazines, books, etc. I'm a complete publishing junkie. I'm not sure if it's a good thing to be professionally involved in the things that you love most, since that level of emotional engagement is not alwas healthy, but at the same time, I'm happy to be spending most of my time on the things I love the best.


What comes to mind when you think of the phrase 'Take the Reigns'?


I've mentioned it above, I think it's essential to take control – I work in an extremely competitive and popular industry, and one of the downsides of being a photographer is that one works always at a fairly low level of the chain of command. From the pictures that I will hand in for a commission to the printed result is a long way where a lot of things can and often will go wrong: the clients might choose the worst image, there will be terrible typography all over the place, bad printing... It can be quite frustrating sometimes. mono.kultur was in many ways a means to navigate around those issues by basically taking control of the entire project from beginning to end, and offer a finished product which conveys my vision of a magazine 100% – which doesn't mean that it's perfect, of course. And personally, it's taken a lot of the frustration out of the profession of photography for me. Luck is a big part of having a career in the creative industries, but if luck is not looking your way for a while, then you'll just have to nudge it a little. Jeder ist sein Glückes Schmied.


You are wrapped up in several projects at the moment, can you tell us about them?


There are so many plans... I've been quite involved in helping our fashion label mono.gramm to take a step forward; we're in the middle of developing quite a complex online store for the label and the magazine, which will also serve as a platform for future projects. mono.kultur will have its fifth anniversary this year, for which we're planning some festivities in Berlin in September. And in terms of photography, I am working on a small book release, as well as preparing a huge portrait series which is probably going to take quite a few months to realize.


Text: Yasmin Martinelli | All Photos Courtesy of Kai von Rabenau