Photographer Elisabeth Berkau has a preference for close-ups and black and white shots. One of her most exclusive shoots took place in the chambers of Madame de Pompadour in the Palace of Versailles. We present the Munich-based photographer in an interview.
When did you first encounter photography?
Elisabeth Berkau: The presence of photography in my life from an early age was certainly, formative for me. Apart from the fact that my father was a passionate hobby photographer and listed photographer as his profession on my birth certificate, which was only half true. I came into contact with photography for the first time myself in an advanced art course in high school. We were supposed to take architectural photos with black-and-white film and then enlarge them ourselves in the school lab. I thought that was great. However, I was taking pictures with a camera borrowed from my brother. I only took a few shots. Then my boyfriend at the time took it out of my hand with the remark: “You can’t do that.” And I believed him. I still remember the few shots I took myself, unfortunately, I don’t have them anymore. They were close-ups of the classical column capitals at the Stuttgart State Gallery.
What happened next?
Elisabeth Berkau: Shortly after graduating from high school, a photographer who was a family friend offered me the opportunity to study under him. There was also the prospect of taking over his studio later. But, I still thought I was too stupid to take photographs. This was particularly stupid because this photographer was good friends with Man Ray, and even after his death in 1977, (my high school graduation year), he was still in regular contact with his widow Juliette. Man Ray’s photographs were and still are an inspiration for me.
And when did you really start to get going with the camera yourself?
Elisabeth Berkau: At the age of 25, during my studies in social pedagogy, I was given my first camera. It was a used Canon SLR from my boyfriend at the time, who had worked on a construction site for six months so he could buy a Hasselblad. We started together, bought an enlarger. I taught myself all the know-how. I was immediately hooked. Many nights in the darkroom followed…
Which motifs particularly appealed to you at that time?
Elisabeth Berkau: In the beginning, I took a lot of nature photos. For example, I was fascinated by the details of a leaf and took close-ups of water and ice in which the light refracts. I took part in local competitions and won first prize. Soon, I was giving photo lab classes myself to other students at my college. However, I believed that the ship had sailed for me to make photography my profession, let alone make a living from it.
How did the social pedagogue finally become a photographer?
Elisabeth Berkau: After two frustrating years as a social pedagogue with a lot of confrontation with violence (I was simply too sensitive for that), the artist in me rumbled so much that I quit and tackled a professional 180° degree change. After internships at a small, fine poetry publishing house and the Munich-based Hirmer Kunstbuchverlag, I landed a part-time contract as an editor at a trade magazine for interior decorators. There was orphaned photographic equipment and flash equipment standing around that no one could operate except me. It was there where my passion for architecture and design was rekindled.
When did you begin working as a freelance photographer?
Elisabeth Berkau: I started my own business as a photographer and author in 1995. Subsequently, I worked for almost all interior magazines in Germany and soon in Scandinavia through the agency House of Pictures. I produced home stories and designer portraits, often in Paris. I often had a focus on textile topics – not without reason. Immediately after graduating from high school, even before I went to university, I trained with passion and dedication as a weaver and textile designer and graduated with a journeyman’s certificate.
Oh, is that where your specialization in interior photography stems from?
Elisabeth Berkau: Profound knowledge and a trained eye for good fabrics play no small role in interior photography. In 2000, I published my book “ABC der Stoffe und Stile” (ABC of Fabrics and Styles) with Winkler Medien Verlag, followed in 2009 by “Wohnen mit Stoffen” (Living with Fabrics) with Callwey Verlag. I am said to have inherited my love for beautiful fabrics from my grandmother…
Please tell us about your most exciting or unusual shoot!
Elisabeth Berkau: Probably the most unusual shoot of my career took place in January 2002 in the chambers of Madame de Pompadour in the Palace of Versailles. These rooms had remained untouched since the French Revolution. When they were renovated and made accessible again, I was invited to photograph there as the only German photographer by renowned French fabric and trimmings manufacturers involved in the restoration. Photographing Madame de Pompadour’s alcove bed, walking up to her secret staircase to the royal apartments, and reliving her view from the window into the gardens of Versailles was something very special. Also unforgettable was an almost nightly interview with the curator in her chambers: sitting in dim light on a little piece of furniture upholstered in silk jacquard…
Are you interested in other subjects in photography besides interior design and architecture?
Elisabeth Berkau: Over time, as a passionate gardener, flowers, and floral themes, as well as food productions, were added. Another turning point was the turn to fashion and beauty photography. I was triggered and inspired by the work of Peter Lindbergh, who passed away much too early. I studied his work in detail and still do. Here, an eye for textiles plays a role. Today I think I am secretly a portrait photographer because I am most interested in the person in front of the camera.
Do you have any preferences when it comes to photography?
Elisabeth Berkau: To this day, close-ups (long shots usually bore me) and black and white shots are my real passion. Close-ups are a wonderful way to bring small, barely noticed objects into focus. I want to make something “tangible” through my photos. Be it beautiful fabrics, fragrant flowers, melting ice cream, or an intense look. When I can work freely, I also like to play with blur and push the limits of both over or underexposure…
What is so fascinating about black and white images?
Elisabeth Berkau: In my artistic work, work I created for magazine and book publishers, black and white has always played the leading role. Around the turn of the millennium, I created my extensive black-and-white production “Citrus limon” with enlarged photographs of lemons. It was shown in several exhibitions in and around Munich. My inspiration came from the historic lemon gardens on the western shore of Lake Garda, where I visited and studied the history. When you strip a lemon of its yellow and greatly enlarge it, something surprising happens: It reveals a skin and a physicality strongly reminiscent of our own skin and body. One is caught unawares and faced with breasts and bellies…
Do you have a favorite camera?
Elisabeth Berkau: I was one of the last to switch to digital photography and resisted it for a long time. Today I’m happy with it. But my old analog Mamyia medium format camera has its permanent place on the shelf. It’s just sleeping. In my father’s estate, I found (besides numerous Rolleiflex, Leicas, and Minox…) there was an ancient plate camera made of wood. If I ever get in the situation to have a lot of free time, I will bring it to life…!
Discover photographer Elisabeth Berkau at living4media and House of Pictures