Chris Noltekuhlmann: Reduction to the Iconic

Photographer, director, but above all an exceptional visual talent: Chris Noltekuhlmann is considered one of the most sought-after German creatives in the automotive sector. But he is much more than a photographer and filmmaker with minimalist aesthetics. For example, he's a Star Wars fan. And then he's thinking about getting rid of his own car. Really? We'll have to dig a little deeper into that.
Text Marko Knab
Photo Chris Noltekuhlmann

Saturated colors, each image a story all of its own and the feeling of just being in a movie ourselves - that's how we feel when we see your shots. How would you describe your own style, Chris?
I'm very happy that you feel that way, that's exactly what I try to convey in my pictures. I always try to put a cinematic look into my imagery and convey a certain feeling. In doing so, I understand my images as a reduction to something iconic. My goal is to capture scenes that have a timeless core - although my motifs often pick up on contemporary trends.

You have two main motifs: people and vehicles. How did it come about?
I grew up in a small village in the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region. My father worked in a factory during the day, the evenings he spent in his hobby car workshop at home. We often tinkered together. Whether it was changing brakes, replacing transmissions, or trips to the junkyards in the area to get spare parts - we always had something to do. The cannibalized cars that stood in our yard became a playground for me and my friends. I have always documented what was happening around me in one way or another. I started as a teenager taking photos and movies with punk rock bands in small youth centers or at the skate park. I was always interested in everything different and the subcultures. The camera was the ticket to be there with everything and still is today.

"In doing so, I understand my images as a reduction to something iconic. My goal is to capture scenes that have a timeless core - although my motifs often pick up on contemporary trends."

Chris Noltekuhlmann

Your car photography is also never without people. What fascinates you about this combination?
When I was 15, I spent a year at an American high school as an exchange student. There I got to know the works of Mary Ellen Mark and the poetic-documentary photography of Robert Frank. I was a village kid who now understood, through his photography teacher Mister Thayer, that there was more to photography than passport photos. The step into advertising was an organic development. Through my connection to vehicles, I quickly realized: a car is a very large product, which gives the photographer a lot of freedom of representation. For example, you can put a person in the car, have them pose on the roof, or have it drive by in the background. A small object, like a clock, is much more restrictive in terms of staging and allows less creative freedom.

What is especially important to you in your pictures?
Only when everything - preparation, cast, lighting, styling and especially the flow on set with the protagonists but also the crew - fits together, then you make a good picture.

"I was a village kid who now understood, through his photography teacher Mister Thayer, that there was more to photography than passport photos. The step into advertising was an organic development."

Chris Noltekuhlmann

For you, is working in film is very different from working as a photographer?
As a photographer, I work like a director who wants to tell a story. That's why I put a lot of emphasis on casting and the charisma of the models and actors. I want the people in front of the camera to understand the mood of the photo and in the best case to bring in their own character. Photography is very intuitive for me: as a photographer you can go out alone with the camera around your neck and in a lucky moment take the best photo of your career. A film shoot works differently than a photo shoot. Here I sometimes work with 120 crew members: Lighting, cinematographer, grip, sound, sound design - it takes a lot of effort to coordinate all the components of a film, from planning to the final cut. I try to set up the team very precisely in my film projects. Paradoxically, only this perfection makes it possible to have as much flexibility as possible on set.

In my own film projects, I often try to rely on a small flexible team to get closer to the protagonists. For example, I was able to capture the story of the Vietnamese Nguyen Van Chuc: He lives under the bridges on the Saigon River. Powered by a small outboard motor, he goes out on the river every day. His mission: he fishes the bodies of suicides out of the water so they can be given a religious burial. With films, you can capture and convey a more intense emotionality than with photography.

A production you will never forget? And why?
For the launch of the new Volkswagen I.D. Buzz, I photographed Hollywood actor Ewan McGregor, at his home in Malibu. Together with his Volkswagen car collection. As a Star Wars fan a total highlight to photograph Obi Wan Kenobi.

Although you're one of the most sought-after automotive photographers in Germany, your images and films also feature automotive classics and ultra-modern vehicles in equal measure. How come you like to mix it up so much?
As the son of a car nerd, I understand how cars work and am interested in more than just their aesthetics. However, from a photographic perspective, an iconic look is helpful: current campaign images of cars have a certain half-life. Once the new model is out, you can't really show those things anymore. Photographs featuring a design classic like the Lamborghini Countach, a true icon of automotive history, I can probably still show on my site 15 years from now. If the design of the vehicle stands the test of time, so does the picture on which it can be seen.

Which came first: the filming or the photography?
Both came pretty much in parallel. MTV was the window to the world for me in my teeanger days in the provinces. I shot music videos early on for friends who played in bands. Film and skate culture are closely connected.

Your personal dream car? And above all: why this one?
Despite my passion for cars, I personally question more and more the concept of owning a car in a city like Berlin. I live in a city like Berlin, where public transportation is often faster. In addition, I travel abroad a lot for work, so my own car sits in the garage far too often. I'm currently interested in the approach of car companies like Lynk&Co: according to their vision, you can easily feed your own vehicle into a car-sharing system and make it available to others.
And while we're on the subject of personal taste: What is very typical for you
Curiosity. I always try to be up to date. In concrete terms, when Supreme collaborates with Louis Vuitton or Gucci with The North Face, I know about it immediately.

When was the last time you did something for the first time?
I recently photographed a Ferrari for the first time - and drove it afterwards.

Your current cell phone wallpaper?
The glacier Cotopaxi in Ecuador. A photo taken during a project that took me through South America for 40 days with a client. A crazy experience!

Last but not least: One piece of advice you can give to young photographers?
I think it's important for yourself to know what your taste is and what kind of photos you want to take. This has a lot to do with trial and error. You should shoot as much as possible to find your own voice.

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