Bowie to Gaga to Billie Eilish: Photographer Markus Klinko Launches New Exhibition Series in Munich

If one wanted to inspire envy, one could simply put aside a successful career in classical music, and decide to become a fashion photographer without any experience whatsoever – then end up shooting Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pharrell, Dita Von Teese, Anne Hathaway…(We won’t keep rubbing it in.) But by now legendary Swiss snapper Markus Klinko is looking back at his second act by celebrating two decades since his first collaboration with none other than David Bowie, which relationship came to very much define the essence of his inimitable aesthetic.

It was during a 2001 session for the book I Am Iman, that Bowie and Klinko agreed that the latter would shoot the cover for the former’s upcoming album Heathen (released in June of 2002). It sparked a creative partnership that would carry on all the way to their collab on the 2013 video for ‘Valentine’s Day.’

An upcoming series of exhibitions – the first of which opens in Munich October 14 at the Stephen Hoffman Gallery, and extends to the gallery space at the Bayerischer Hof hotel – will see Klinko take his photographs around the world, including never before seen images of Bowie. The show then travels to the Liss Gallery in Toronto (October 30), before stops in London, Vienna, Dubai and Los Angeles.

Curiously, despite his decision to get behind the lens seeming to have been an utterly spontaneous one, he now speaks of it as a kind of destiny. And perhaps he’s right, as his images are by now woven into the very fabric of our contemporary culture.

We caught up for a chat with him about how it all came to be.

Describe your music career before becoming a photographer.

In the late ’70s, around the age of 17, I moved to Paris to study harp at the Paris National Conservatory. By that time, my goal was very clear to me: I had to become the most famous harp soloist in the world. Hard work and ambition finally paid off, when in 1991 EMI Classics offered me an exclusive recording contract, and I started touring as a harp soloist around the world. In 1994, my EMI Classics recording with members of the Paris Opera Bastille won the Grand Prix De Disque in France. But soon thereafter, a hand problem forced me to cancel tours and new recording sessions, and left me quite panicked. However, quite quickly I came to realize that in many ways I had already achieved my childhood dream, and was now free to explore a new life. That’s when I decided to become a fashion photographer, despite having never even taken one picture in my life. I had no training, but didn’t want to go to any schools or assist a photographer. So I read a book by Ansel Adams, purchased a load of cameras and lighting equipment and just got started somehow.

You were “discovered” as a photographer by Isabella Blow. What was it like working with her?

I was introduced to Isabella around 1999. She was the fashion editor of the Sunday Times Style magazine, and she really gave me some great early opportunities. I ended up shooting several covers for her. She was so fun to be around, always in traffic-stopping attire, and just so encouraging as an early mentor. Around that time, Ingrid Sischy was the editor at Interview magazine, and she also started giving me regular assignments.

What were some of the things that initially shaped your style?

I would say that in a certain way I never abandoned the sort of classic aesthetic I grew up with, but managed to translate it from sound to image. I also was never interested in following trends, and just did what I wanted. Very early on I started working with digital post production, many years before it became popular and commonplace.

Describe that first meeting with Bowie.

I met Bowie just days before 9/11, at my New York studio, where he attended an editing session to help select images for [wife and supermodel] Iman; she had hired me to create the cover for her book I Am Iman. A few minutes into the session Bowie turned to me and offered me to shoot the cover art of his upcoming album Heathen. The tragic events of 9/11 delayed the scheduling, but David stayed true to his word, and the shoot took place at my studio October 10th, 2001.

Were you a fan at the time?

I actually was not that familiar with his incredible career at that time, but certainly caught up very quickly. He was very impressive, and his talent, intelligence and kindness remain unparalleled.

Were you surprised to be suddenly in demand by all of these top music artists?

I was not surprised really, because that was my plan, and I was working very hard to make it happen. But I certainly was very happy about it, and grateful to be given these opportunities – to be part of some of the most iconic projects of that time.

Who have been some of your favorite subjects?

Bowie for sure, but also Britney, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway, Will Smith…they really are all favorites.

Of those you’ve shot, who did the camera love most?

Bowie was incredibly photogenic, he looks great no matter what. Britney was so special too, and a sweetheart. And Beyoncé is also a dream to photograph.

What was the impetus for this series of exhibitions, and what should we expect?

As I am celebrating the 20th anniversary of working with Bowie, and because it is specifically this series of work that has opened the doors to my art gallery career, this anniversary has a very special meaning to me. The upcoming exhibitions in Munich and Toronto are therefore quite focused on Bowie; but at the same time I decided to also include other work. In addition to the shows in Germany and Canada, other galleries in Los Angeles, Vienna, London and Dubai also decided to give me new exhibitions, which will equally focus on the Bowie works.

Ultimately, what is your “manifesto” of photography?

I want to always create a timeless image…an image that actually gets better with time. When photographing an artist, I always desire to create a work that truly defines them, and sort of becomes a milestone in pop culture history. Those are ambitious and lofty goals, but it is what I am thinking about when picking up my camera.

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