Everything Is Déjà Vu For Hans Feurer

The 77-Year-Old Swiss Photographer on Women, Buddhism, and Being Captured by Rebels in Senegal

  • Interview: Timo Feldhaus
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Camera Work

“Mr. Feurer, do you think we humans will soon turn into machines?” Ah, but wait a minute, dear reader — it’s a still little early for that question.

Hans Feurer sits in the courtyard and orders a beer, an unfiltered Camel in his fingers. “Could I have one, too?” “Be my guest.” Smoke wafts through the sunny sky over our heads. Feurer is 77 years old, is wearing a beautiful shirt, and has been almost everywhere on the planet. Feurer is a fashion photographer. Today he has travelled from his home in a small, mountain village in Switzerland to Berlin, where he is showing key works from the 70s, 80s and 90s at Camera Work gallery.

“Why did you become a photographer, Mr. Feurer?”

“I love the women.”

Feurer is a rogue, and he looks it. He’s no tale-telling uncle. Instead, it’s as though everything this traveler has experienced comes through in his face: cheerful level-headedness, optimism, and a massive dose of genuine curiosity. Here sits a citizen of the world. It follows that words become something of a minor matter here. It’s more about presence.

Feurer never takes pictures in the studio, uses no artificial light, and does almost no post-processing. He works with sunlight, with people, in landscapes on every part of the globe. No help, no tricks. He switched to digital photography in 2002.

“But doesn’t analogue film have a unique, irreplaceable magic of its own?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. A very good photo is a very good photo, whether you take it with a phone or with a Hasselblad. Maybe not when it comes to quality. But I’m not interested in good quality alone. It has to be a strong photo. The important thing is the picture’s soul, not the technical quality.”

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, Eeva Ketola Pentax Calendar, Bird Island, Seychelles, 1976

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, ELLE France, 1980

Hans Feurer, Pirelli Calendar 1974

“So what’s a good photo?”

“First, I have a picture in my head, then I make a drawing of it, and then I photograph it. I’m a Zen Buddhist by philosophical conviction. That means reducing everything unnecessary until only the essence is left. The telephoto lens and using a certain depth of focus allows me to crystallize precisely what I want, right down to the point. All you see of the rest is just a fuzzy atmosphere, almost like a perfume. Photography is light and shadow. Shadow is just as crucial.”

Feurer studied art in Switzerland before working as a graphic designer, illustrator, and artistic director for several advertising agencies in London. In 1966, he bought a Land Rover and travelled from Southampton to South Africa—a 2-year trip that marked a turning point in his career, during which he decided to become a photographer. The young man returned to London and his career took off. Since then, he has produced thousands of fashion images and achieved legendary photographer status. He made a remarkable edition of the Pirelli calendar in 1974 and has worked with the most influential magazines in the world, immortalizing the model Iman in a groundbreaking Kenzo advertising campaign in 1983. Thirty years later, he has just finished shooting another campaign for Kenzo, now helmed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony.
But all that would have come to nothing had he not been quick on his feet when, in 1996, he was taken prisoner in Senegal.

“Rebels captured me while I was fishing. They thought I was an English spy and wanted to execute me. I sat tied up on a chair with a Kalashnikov pointed at my head, surrounded by severed heads impaled on piles. ‘I can prove to you that I am Swiss and not an Englishman,’ I cried. ‘How are you going to do that,’ they yelled back at me. Then they really loosened the fetters and I performed a Schuhplattler [a traditional-style folk dance]. Which is to say I smacked myself on the ass, yodeled and conducted myself like a regular European savage. All of them were rolling around on the ground, laughing. After that, everything was fine. They wanted me to take a picture of the commander and then I was free to go.”

Feurer is still telling the story as the large-format photographs I have just seen in his exhibition unfurl in my brain. I don’t know how he did it, but the women in them seem hyperreal, standing there in the incredible landscape and in the light. Even though there’s only reality and mechanics behind it.

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, Iman, Kenzo, Lanzarote,1983

Hans Feurer, Nova and Twen magazines, circa 1970s

Has the world changed, or have the pictures?

The colors, the incomprehensible immediacy, the fusion of cultural products and nature, the total worldliness of all cultures in these pictures. In them, I suddenly recognize a kind of visual hyperreality that I had always attributed to digitization, the ubiquitous magic of Photoshop, the artificial sharpness of HD screens, and a total-global integration of the worlds through the internet. Suddenly, as if in a dream, I see in Feurer’s pictures a preformation of our world today—developed decades before.

I’m think of my friend, artist Timur Si-Qin, who is convinced that technology, nature, and culture are becoming a new reality. He believes that commercial culture is deeply entwined in centuries-old, traditional modes of human culture. His exhibitions include contemporary commercial products integrated into various assemblages, in order to mark their status as natural objects. His conviction rests on the assumption that technology is as much a product of nature as culture is. Maybe the idea of ​​separating nature and culture is based on an idea that is flat-out wrong, Timur says. Machines, phones, cars—all the products we produce could be as natural as mussels in the ocean. We extract certain minerals and mold them into objects.

These forms, they come and go like fashion trends. Like waves striking the shore. Like the sun that sets in the evening and rises again in the morning. Like 38,000-year-old stone age paintings that have recently been rediscovered and, distinct for their use of the pointillist technique, anticipate the works of modern painters Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat.

Has the world changed, or have the pictures? A dizziness comes over me as I take this monumental, surreal form of commercial image-making in. Maybe the world was more hyperreal before the hypothesis of hyperreality came into being?

Feurer looks at me and smiles knowingly. As if he’s guessed his role in what’s happening behind my forehead, he says: “At a certain point I decided not to do reportages any more, but only my ‘dream projections.’ Mass communication, so that as many people as possible can see and react to it.”

“I feel like humanity is magnified in your pictures. Back to nature, and culture, with this technique photography. The women become super-humans. And the reality in your images is a hyperreality.”

Hans Feurer, Jil Magazine, 1983

The thoughts people come up with today are not original because we no longer sing and produce things on our own; all we do is click through things somewhere and look at devices.

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, Ingmari Johansson, Queen Magazine, London, 1969

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, ELLE France, 1988

Courtesy of Camera Work, Hans Feurer, Iman, Kenzo, Lanzarote,1983

“Look, Mr. Feldhaus. I try to show people’s sensuality. It’s important to me that you can feel it and that you can smell it. I have to believe the picture. I have to be able to believe that this person really exists. It doesn’t move me otherwise.”

“Could it be that we will eventually dissolve and take the form of robots and machines?”

“The thoughts people come up with today are not original because we no longer sing and produce things on our own; all we do is click through things somewhere and look at devices. We are becoming robots more and more. Soon we’ll probably able to go on years-long journeys through the stars.”

“Maybe that’s humanity’s intended purpose—to become robots.”

“Who knows. Probably something in that direction.”

“Is there any secret that hasn’t already been illuminated?”

“Everything is exposed.”

“Everything has already been captured in an image?”

“Everything is déjà vu.”

“Mr. Feurer, where is the best light in the world?”

"Everywhere, because it’s always the same sun. But the light changes, of course. In the middle of the day it’s snow-white and hard as a spotlight. Then it’s diffused, soft, and golden in early morning and in the evening, when the sun is low. It falls on faces in a particularly beautiful way. Backlight is unbelievable and that’s when it starts to get magical. That’s where my work begins. There are no lights without shadows.”

  • Interview: Timo Feldhaus
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Camera Work