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In Werner Herzog’s 2004 journal, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, photographer Beat Presser is described as a “long-time Herzog collaborator.” In view of the length of Herzog’s career and the sheer amount of films and documentaries he has produced it’s a significant statement. Spread across the books 300+ pages, in and amongst descriptions of the projects infamous day-to-day problems, including the frustrations of working with Klaus Kinski and grappling with almost every perceivable catastrophe one could imagine, Beat Presser crops up regularly. It’s clear he was an integral member of the Fitzcarraldo production team as well as the ensuing Herzog films he was associated with.
As with Peter Beard, the subject of a previous post, Beat Presser is a photographer less well known in the UK than he should be and like Beard once you become aware of him it’s surprising how often you see his images and hear his name mentioned. Born in Switzerland in 1952 he trained as a photographer and film cameraman in Basel, Paris, and New York and in the mid-seventies became editor of the magazines Palm Beach News and The Village Cry. In 1981 he began his collaboration with Herzog hooking up with him on three major films, two of which I include amongst my favourites of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, both starring the famous German actor and hothead Klaus Kinski. The author of more than ten photography monographs on diverse subjects he remains highly active as an international photographer producing and exhibiting almost constantly.
Via a long series of coincidences and events I first met Beat Presser in Cambodia during 2008 having been given the opportunity to work with him on photographic workshops for local students, which formed part of the educational program supporting his touring Oasis of Silence exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. We quickly became good friends though our shared love of photography and adventure, activities central to our independent beings, and have remained in regular contact. It’s true say he is a constant source of inspiration to me through my unfolding knowledge of his prior work and travels and also his continued striking out in search of new horizons. Approaching 60 years of age, he seems to be speeding up and it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of his various projects and activities.
He is perhaps best known for his work on Fitzcarraldo, acting as both assistant cameraman and still photographer, producing striking images of Herzog, Kinski, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, and Matsiguenka and Campa Indians that have become some of the most iconic in the history of cinema. In view of the projects grand scale the production unit and budget on Fitzcarraldo was only a fraction of what they should have been which occasionally shows in the films low key lighting. Not so with his images though which he consistently gets absolutely bang on. And what about THE seminal image at the start of this post? Few photographers would have had the courage to position the aggressive and egocentric Kinski in miniature to the bottom right of the frame.
But there’s much more to Beat Presser than his Herzog work, which within the context of his career equates to a small proportion of his output. The majority of his personal photography is grounded in travel and his experiences of heterogeneous culture and elemental nature. His Oasis of Silence project for example was produced in monasteries in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, and Korea where he travelled extensively over four years capturing the essence of Theravada Buddhism with his trusty Leica lenses. His ALPenTRAUM work (arguably his best book) is a documentation of the wild winter mountain landscapes of Switzerland. His most recent endeavour is an exploration of Dhow history and culture in East Africa, which involved six months sailing one of the ancient ships along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania.
Much of Beat Presser’s work is bound up in chance in so much that though he carefully chooses the places he travels to and carries with him outline ideas of the possibilities available to him (often as a result of extensive prior research) when he is insitu he lets fate/karma run their course embracing the opportunities that present themselves and developing them to the full, normally over extended timeframes. This is a method of working I mostly adopt myself (albeit less ambitiously) and is the primary method of almost all the great travel photographers and writers. Whilst his work is broad and varied he mostly considers himself a travel photographer, which I find refreshingly unpretentious in view of the cynical connotations often associated with the term.
The photobook is central to his output where through sophisticated design techniques, often in collaboration with his wife Vera Pechel who is herself a highly regarded book designer, he produces thematic monographs often shot over many years. He’s on book eleven and counting which is a fair return when one considers how much time he invests in obtaining the actual images.
I like Beat Presser. I like his books, I like his photos, I like his method of working, and I even like him as a person. I hope that through this post you’ve discovered something about a photographer you may previously have known little of but who has had the kind of rich and successful career all but the best photographers can really only dream of.
All images © Beat Presser.