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Best of 2011: Fred Mayer


Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a major influence on Swiss photographer Fred Mayer’s life and work over a six-decade photographic career. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hesse’s death, Mayer traveled with his wife Ilse to Varanasi, India, to retrace in images the life of Hesse’s protagonist in the time of Buddha. Their personal, spiritual response to the novel features local subjects acting out scenes for the camera. With an endorsement from Hesse’s grandson Silver Hesse adding cachet, in September 2011 a 280-page jubilee edition was published by Blurb. For full details, visit www.fred-mayer.com/blurb_EN.html.

Fred Mayer, Zurich, Switzerland

Web site: www.fred-mayer.eu

Project: A self published book on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, shot in Varanasi, India.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

FM: 65 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

FM: Member since 1979, member number 3545.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

FM: I am a “Storyteller with a camera.”

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

FM: A hell of a lot of good luck and even more charm.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

FM: 60 years of experience.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

FM: At close to 80 years old, I traveled to Varanasi, India, with my wife Ilse to produce an homage to Hermann Hesse and his book Siddhartha. We show in photographs how we understand and feel about this great novel, which deals with the spiritual journey of an Indian man named Siddhartha during the time of the Buddha.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: How long did you spend in India to shoot for Homage to Hermann Hesse and his Siddhartha? Did you travel extensively or need to do extensive scouting/securing of shoot locations for this project?

FM: The first trip was a two-week informational journey. We traveled about 4,000 miles to visit the most important places where Buddha lived. The second and third trips lasted three weeks each and we shot in the cities of Varanasi and Bodh Gaya.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Where did you find the subjects for your images in the Siddhartha project? Did you cast models to pose for these images or use a more informal route to you’re your subjects?

FM: The only professional model we used is for the love scene with Kamala, because in India a woman does not kiss in public, especially if he is a stranger. All the other subjects are just normal Indian people, picked from the street, including beggars, holy men and market women. Our guide took the role of Siddhartha in middle age and the young Siddhartha is his brother. The businessman is photographer Binay Rawal. We also used schoolboys from the village, as well as cousins and friends of our guide.

ASMP: How many different people are included in your images for this series and what kind (if any) direction did you give them in acting out scenes or posing? Were the subjects compensated for their work on this project and did you get model releases?

FM: We worked with about 60 people in total. Our guide read the text excerpts (scenes) from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which I wanted to photograph. Once the “actors” understood the story there was not so much for me to do besides wait for the right moment. I think all Indian people are big showmen, they feel what they have to do. All models were paid very, very well and we did get model releases, although sometimes only a fingerprint.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: During your shoot for Homage to Hermann Hesse and his Siddhartha, what surprised you the most or changed the way you thought about the project?

FM: After returning from the second trip, when looking at the images at home, I noticed some misinterpretations of the original text. In one very important image Siddhartha is very unhappy instead of showing happiness. From that moment it was clear that I needed to make a third trip. The only problem with this was, how do I explain it to my wife?

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Many of your images from this project have a very muted palette, which is far from the very colorful depictions of India prevalent in contemporary travel images. Please talk about your decision making in establishing a color palette for this project.

FM: Since my background is as a reportage-photographer, in the past I went to places and produced a story without arranging anything (this was before Photoshop) then went back to the magazine. They were always happy and I had a new assignment. Mama mia, what a life.

With Siddhartha everything was arranged. I just wanted to photograph what Hermann Hesse wrote. So I picked the text excerpts that impressed me the most and arranged the situations, then waited until the movements were worth photographing.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Please talk about your collaboration with your wife on the Siddhartha project. How did you share in the day-to-day work in India? Do you collaborate in similar ways on other projects?

FM: My wife and I have worked together for over forty years. With magazine stories I worked alone, because there was always a journalist with me. With Ilse, we have created more than 30 books all over the world, which are featured on the Web site http://Fred-Mayer.eu.

For Siddhartha, Ilse herself made a Blurb book The Making of Siddhartha (Siddhartha Tagebuch). In my book you see only arranged photographs that are strongly connected to the Hermann Hesse text. In Ilse’s book you see a lot of India. It helps one understand why I chose certain arrangements. I think I made a very good book, but Ilse (she is known as Switzerland’s first woman press photographer) made a very, very interesting documentary.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Please tell us about your very limited first edition of 12 books per language all over the world. What is included in this luxury edition and how do you secure the different translations of the text? Do you have to pay to license the text (and especially each different translated version) for the purposes of your book?

FM: You can buy a very well built automobile for a reasonable price and travel very comfortably from one place to another, but there are also people who buy Ferraris. The limited edition version of my Siddhartha comes in a luxury box and the book runs 280 pages, printed on A3 sized paper. Also included in this package will be Ilse’s book The Making of Siddhartha. For the first orders I will include the very rare, antique, original first edition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (from 1922 in Germany and 1951 in the US) plus six stamped and signed collector prints with my signature. Subsequent books get the normal printed paperback version.

According to Project Gutenberg, the text excerpts from Siddhartha are copyright free in the United States under fair use. I e-mailed Project Gutenberg an online PDF of my book and received confirmation that the use of this amount of text would pass as fair use. I also presented a copy of my book Siddhartha to the grandson of Hermann Hesse, Silver Hesse, who was very much impressed with my work and promised to help me with all his possible power. After talking to Suhrkamp Verlag, owner of the German language rights, Silver told me that I do have the right to use text excerpts for my project. Suhrkamp Publishers were also very much impressed with my book and gave permission to use the Herman Hesse text for nearly nothing. Hesse’s books are sold world wide more than 130 million times.

The following text is published inside one of the first US editions of Siddhartha, from 1956, which I own.

[Henry Miller] asked me if I’d ever read Hermann Hesse. I hadn’t, but I’d heard about him. Henry told me to read Siddhartha. He had found a translation of it in England, and sent it to me. I read it, and thought, well, this is pretty sugar-candied Buddhism. And I said, ‘Oh, gosh, Henry, do I have to?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you have to?’ And so I did it. The first year the novel sold 400 copies. The next year it was about 800. But within 10 years it was selling a quarter of a million a year.
—James Laughlin, Poets & Writers

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: How do you determine pricing for the book, and will this be a set fee or a staggered cost that goes up as the edition sells out? Will the price of the book be the same for, say, the Indian language edition and German or English language editions, or will the relative economic conditions of various countries be factored into the price point?

FM: Blurb USA is the printer and distributor. They have fixed prices for printing and their services, which are very good quality. I add what I need to Blurb’s fixed prices in order to cover my expenses. I have to sell more or less 5,000 copies worldwide in order to break even. In terms of the price for foreign language editions, during my stay in India I had to pay for my Varanasi hotel in US dollars and the cost for this was more or less the same as in Europe or the United States.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: You mention it has been more than 60 years since you first encountered Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. This is at least a decade before Eastern spiritualism took hold in the West (or at least in America). What did the book mean to you when you first read it, and how has its meaning evolved for you over time?

FM: Even though I was young at the time, after reading this book I learned that you have to be yourself and you have to do everything by yourself. After this, you know how to present yourself to the world. Siddhartha is the novel that young people should read before they are 30, especially in our money-minded times.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: When did you first photograph in India, and what do you make of that country’s economic advances? Do you feel now that you’re shooting a culture whose spirituality is in decline, or in transition?

FM: During my first trip I had a very beautiful time with Indira Gandhi, while on assignment to follow her on an election trip. I also made a book Polo around the World so I was a guest of the Maharadsha of Jaipur and others. For my book Shadow-Puppet-Theater I photographed in many different places in India. In India you will find everything. Deep hell and, if you are not careful, somebody might tell you “Sir, close your eyes and then you will see the promised heaven. Give me a dollar please.”

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: How is photojournalism changing around you? Please talk about the changes you find in Europe. Magnum was somewhat of a pioneer in crossing national boundaries. Is nationalism over now, or is transnationalism beginning to decline?

FM: The real photojournalism as I know it is dead. Names of so-called photo-stars are more important than a good result. Magnum’s big success happened in a different world and in a different time. If you went to Japan in the sixties you were a hero, because more or less nobody was there.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Is photojournalism a spiritual quest for you? If so, has the digital age made much of a difference in whatever quest you’re on?

FM: I still have my individual brain and my taste, and even at 80 years old I am able to use it.

ASMP: What equipment do you work with now and how has this changed in the past ten years? Assuming that you are shooting digitally, do you do your own digital post-production?

FM: Today I am free to move without many kilograms of equipment. I have two cameras, the Panasonic GF2 and DF2, and only work with the Four Thirds system. One camera is in my trouser-pocket as reserve and the other has a telezoom lens.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Please talk about your relationship with Magnum, which sent you on assignment and represented your images for many years. Approximately how many shoots did you do for them and how often did they send you out on assignment? Are your images still represented or licensed by Magnum today?

FM: When I received the first telephone call from Marc Riboud, asking if I’d like to make a story about the Indonesian president Sukarno, neither Ilse nor myself knew anything about Indonesia. We did not know where to find Indonesia on the Atlas and we had never heard of President Sukarno. I made the story in Indonesia and went to Paris. I met Magnum’s picture editor Russ Melcher for the first time when I delivered my Kodachrome slides, un-edited, in 23 original boxes. We had an excellent lunch and I went home to Zurich. After two weeks I received a phone call from the London Observer to do a story for them. I went to London, delivered the story myself to the editor in chief, collected the fee in cash and went home. After this story was published, Magnum Paris called to ask if I would mail this story to Paris, so I went there to deliver it. The story sold very well and I received 65 percent of all sales. This was paradise for me — to collect the entire fee from initial sales and 65 percent from the sales by Magnum.

I had a very happy and a super time with Magnum, but today I am no longer with them. After my heart operation I had to change my life. If you want to be with Magnum you are 100 percent married to them. You have to be present and you are engaged a lot of time. I am not that kind of super-talented photo personality. I like to photograph, but I do not like to photograph the misery of our planet all the time. I like to enjoy life with my wonderful wife in a way so that we are free to see the beauty of our world. We like to do what we want. Together.

© Fred Mayer
Magnum Annual Meeting Portrait, Bath, England, 1994   © Fred Mayer

ASMP: How has Magnum changed over the years, and what is your impression of the agency today?

FM: I was not a personality, nor rich, nor especially clever. But people, and especially publishers, loved me and my work. I never had to fight very hard in life to get something; more or less everything came to me. At that time, there were so many assignments for Magnum photographers that members exchanged stories with others who were interested. I profited from those circumstances many times. My life as a Magnum photographer was very unique. When I was allowed to take part in the annual meetings as an associate I felt like a bird of paradise. All the most important, big names in photography were there with the “little Swiss Fred Mayer.” To be Magnum photographer today means a hard life.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Of all the Magnum photographers you’ve known over the years, which is/was your favorite (or the photographer that made the most lasting impression on you) and why?

FM: Cartier Bresson, he had his very personal way of seeing the world, and Elliott Erwitt, so many fantastic photos with so much humor, over so many years.

ASMP: Along the lines of your Siddhartha project, can you imagine projects to assign to some of your former Magnum colleagues (living or dead) if you had the resources to do it, in 2012?

FM: In Magnum everyone is a personality. The only professional picture editor who could handle such photographers is James Fox.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Which of 36 different portfolio categories featured on your Web site represents your most memorable or favorite assignment or project and why? Is there an assignment or project not featured on your site that is particularly memorable or meaningful for you?

FM: I made so many portfolios I do not remember all of them. Siberia and the Forgotten Peoples might be the most important. This shows tribes living in terrible conditions and, because life was so hard, after some generations many of these tribes no longer exist.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: Please tell us about your most challenging assignment or project of all time and describe how, in spite of the difficulty, you managed to come back with “The Picture.”

FM: It was The Vatican, just imagine — one day I just went there. I said hello to the guard in the office at the entrance and told him that I wanted to make a book about the Vatican. The officer behind the desk did not speak German and I did not speak Italian, so he called a German-speaking priest, who was impressed with my plan. I immediately had the feeling that he was positive about my project. I invited him to lunch in one of the best restaurants in Trastevere and we dined from 1 to 4 pm. I made the first photograph inside the Vatican at 5 pm. The book was a great success. Finally, over the years I photographed four Popes.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

ASMP: You are an honorary member and Lifetime Award winner of the Swiss Professional Photographers Association (SPPA). Please compare and contrast your view of the work done in support of the industry by the SPPA with the work done by ASMP. Do you have any thoughts for ways that the two associations might work together in support of photography?

FM: I am very proud of this Lifetime Award. Switzerland is a very small country and you do not have to prove yourself all the time. As long as you are a lazy person and do not want to be something special, a more-or-less easy life was the guarantee. Not for me. The telephone call from Magnum changed my life from one minute to the next.

To be a member of an American press association was very helpful for international assignments. The United States has been the heaven and the leader, especially for members of the press, allowing them the possibility to publish their work.

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer

Addendum, from an e-mail to the Mayers from Magnum photo editor James Fox:
From: James Fox (Magnum) <fox.james@wanadoo.fr>
Subject: FW: siddhartha
Date: July 12, 2011 12:46:54
To: Fred Mayer <fredmayer@mac.com>

Dear Ilse and Fred:

Well I went slowly through the book pages from cover to cover, and you certainly did an enormous undertaking. As I knew Will McBride’s coverage having edited all his archives for Focus…Yours is a beautiful subject and one [that] depends a lot on the narration of the story. You have visually “re-lived” the subject by stylistically having people “pose” into beautiful compositions in the manner that the text from what I remember reading the book is equally beautiful and inspiring.

If you allow me to comment that it gives one the impression of being between a book and film, and was wondering if you had ever thought of it being narrated into an “audio visual” book form for educational purposes and “senior citizens.” I do realize all of this project was self produced, and the topic should reach a wide audience and not just people who can afford a luxurious book as the production costs and manufacturing must be astronomic.

The compositions, colors, atmosphere and quality of the technical images are quite outstanding. Perhaps one day you should consider a disc with you and Ilse talking about the making of the topic and book, but for better marketing it would have to be in English language edition. Hope you don’t mind my comments, I do fully realize that you must recuperate all [this] investment you have made to produce this impressive body of work….

Look forward to your counter comments.
Jimmy

© Fred Mayer
© Fred Mayer