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Planting Seeds

Photographer Mads Teglers travels to keep himself from going blind, shoots on film to stay in the moment, and drinks coffee to make sure he is able to think.

Stepping in from the busy streets and into Mads Teglers’ office space is like walking into one of those temples in a crowded Tokyo shopping street – the atmosphere suddenly shifts completely. Mads has invited me to his office in the middle of Copenhagen, located in an area the locals lovingly call Pisserenden, which more or less means pissoir. Apparently, people used to pee in these streets a lot, but now they are usually able to restrain themselves. It is a lively quarter, filled with people, bars, eateries and strange shops. Once inside the office, though, I am surrounded by peace and light and white walls.

Mads spends a lot of his time working abroad, but when he is in town he usually works from here. The space belongs to his agent, which he shares with a bunch of other Copenhagen creatives. He pours two generous cups of black coffee, whilst I sit down in a big, comfy, woollen sofa.

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– Normally I’ll always have a double cortado, but at the office I’m loving the Moccamaster. It makes a decent cup of coffee – especially since we grind the beans ourselves, he says and points to an electric coffee grinder.

Mads adds some milk to his cup, and joins me on the sofa. He just got back from Tel-Aviv, where he collaborated with the Israeli artist Jennifer Abessira, as well as doing a story on her for S Magazine. The two artists had never met before, but got in touch after being part of a group exhibition in Stockholm, after which she invited him to stay with her for a week. Each morning, Jennifer would make them cups of Nescafé, so that they could start their days slowly – drinking that “just-what-I-needed” instant coffee, throwing ideas around, zoning out.

– It takes me ages to wake up. I can’t think properly, or wake up at all, really, until I’ve had my morning coffee.

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Travelling to live with Jennifer was something of a risk, considering the fact that they had never met. However, Mads tells me that he got a good feeling when they spoke on the phone beforehand. Those instincts rarely fail at this age, he adds. At 40, he has been working as a photographer for half his lifetime.

Mads shoots fashion and portraits, capturing faces such as Mads Mikkelsen, Mø, Devendra Banhart, Jenny Hval and James Blake for a variety of music and fashion magazines. He is also the photo editor of the aforementioned S Magazine, a biannual he co-founded with a friend ten years ago.

But most of all, he loves diverting into personal projects – photo stories in which he gets to call all the shots. Mads doesn’t have any formal education (however, the years of building S Magazine from scratch has been a great, albeit non-formal one, he says), which might be why he is continuously making sure he keeps challenging himself. The personal projects help him do just that.

– I do these projects for my own sake, because it’s a lot of fun, but also to make sure I keep developing the personality in my photographs, so that I’ll stand out from all the other photographers out there. It’s like a continuing education, to prevent myself from doing the same stuff all the time. When I’m working with these projects I always try to push myself as far as I can, and really challenge the way I work. I like that a lot.

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I ask him to show me some of his photographs. He walks into the other room and over to his desk, singing an up-tempo tune to himself, filling the vast, quiet space with sound. He returns with a copy of his 2014 book Belgrade, a personal project in which he documented creative youth in the Serbian capital. I open the book on a double page featuring a blurry still life on the left hand side, opposite an image of a girl standing in a strange position, hidden behind her long hair.

– When I’m doing series like these, I focus on putting something concrete opposite something abstract – mixing moods. These two images are completely unrelated, but when they’re juxtaposed like this it suddenly makes sense.

– So you’ll discover a lot of the stories in your images during editing?

– Definitely, that’s an important part of how I work. It’s like a puzzle, where I’m constantly moving the pieces around. I’ll be shooting tons of pictures, knowing that if I get a shot of this, I’ll be able to use it as a part of the story later.

Mads seems satisfied, as if he has been looking for those sentences for a while. Collecting puzzle pieces with his camera, and carefully arranging and re-arranging the pieces afterwards to create the stories he wants to tell.

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– Tel Aviv and Belgrade are just a few of the places you’ve visited to do projects. How important is travelling to you?

– It’s so important. In your everyday life you tend to walk around with tunnel vision – you become blind to your surroundings. Travelling forces you to really use your senses. And since I travel alone, I always meet up with people along the way, like old contacts or friends of friends. It’s good to be around people who make you see things, you know? Who point things out to you, challenge you and help open your senses. I love hanging out with people like that.

When not travelling, however, he appreciates his home city. Of course he does.

It is hard not to love Copenhagen.

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Mads talks about finding peace in Glyptoteket, a beautiful old museum housing everything from mummies to Roman sculpture, and of wandering around in old cemeteries and great big parks. He prefers his coffee in a take-away-cup on a bench somewhere, as spending time in cafés is not really his thing. He does, however, have a few comforting places he likes to return to.

– My favourite place for coffee is Central Hotel & Café. It’s a tiny, tiny spot, really intimate. I come at odd times, when there’s not a lot of people. I’ll sit there alone for 15 minutes, while I eat an egg and drink my double macchiato and think about nothing. I also love coming to the cinema Vester Vov Vov, which I’ve been going to since I was a kid. When I’m in town I’ll go over and watch a movie and drink some coffee. They have really crappy coffee, but I drink loads of it.

We flip through the pages of Belgrade some more. I point out that someone has described his photography as “snapshot realism”, and he agrees that the label fits his style perfectly.

– That term definitely appeals to me. I seek out a lot of my inspiration from old pictures and snapshots – but then I’ll take that idea of snapshot realism and mix it with a lot of staging. I love to make new universes in order to create stories – to take elements from someone’s everyday life and make them weirder, so that when you look at the image you don’t necessarily realise that it’s staged.

– I like that, it reminds me of the hybrid trend that’s been going on in documentary movies for a few years. Like Ulrich Seidl and to some extent Joshua Oppenheimer, who’ll add fictional elements to reality and unveil truth, in a sense.

– That’s a lot of what I do, too. I guess I’ve been doing it subconsciously for a long time. Like with Jennifer, she’s Jewish, and she likes to challenge that, so we did a picture where she was lying on a Jewish tombstone in the middle of the night. Taking her story a step further, you know? That image is totally staged, but when you look at it, it might look as if she just walked past randomly.

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– A lot of your images have an analogue look to them, which really compliments the whole snapshot realism thing. Do you shoot a lot of your pictures on film?

– I do, I guess it’s 50-50 analogue and digital. Digital is always more convenient when working for clients, so I do that – but in my personal projects I always use analogue cameras. It’s not so much the fact that I’m shooting on film, but more a way of working. The analogue cameras are small, so I feel like I can work more spontaneously with them and be more interactive with the people I’m working with. You’re much more focused because you only have a limited number of frames, and you don’t have a screen to distract you. It makes you more present in the moment.

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– What are your plans for the future?

– I’m not big on planning things. I don’t have a plan for my life, as opposed to a lot of people who go around saying they want to do this and this and that. That’s not me. But I’m really good at planting seeds. So I’ll keep on planting lots of different idea-seeds, and then some of them will start growing, and turn into something bigger. I like the idea of that.