Marco Polo Tower, Hamburg

Not at home with my Rolleiflex – Stefan Wilde

Is a photograph any good if it needs an introduction? Shouldn´t art speak to you without accompanying words? Shouldn’t a great picture captivate your imagination and inspire thought and free association without the author telling you what to think and associate?

I have this idea in my head that a picture should wow the viewer. Like what Cartier-Bresson made. My own “work” if I may call my hobby work at all, falls way short of that grand idea. That is why I hesitate to show my pictures to anyone. Are they any good if I need to tell people why I made them in the first place? And, more importantly, do I have anything to say that would be remotely interesting to anyone?

I´m in my early fifties now and I have come to regard myself as a pretty average person in most aspects. I don’t travel to breathtaking places where no man went before, I don’t have grand adventures, yielding exotic or exciting pictures. I am not a journalist pursuing the great stories of the day. I am just a regular person living a mostly regular life. All I can tell you about – and try to take pictures of – is what moves me.

In my regular life among all the good things there also were humps and bumps in the road. Bad stuff I didn´t see coming. That had an impact on my view of the world. I somehow acquired a feeling of being disconnected from home. When I say home, I´m not talking about a place but about an emotion. It’s a feeling of being fundamentally safe and welcome. A loving feeling, the firm knowledge that life is good despite all the trouble.

That feeling has never quite returned to me as I imagine to have known it before. There now is that persistent nagging feeling that life is somehow dangerous. I don´t feel settled in it. It´s not a dominant feeling, it´s more like a shadow in a corner of the soul that light won´t reach. As of late, I found myself looking at houses for sale a lot, hoping that having your own home might somehow bring that feeling back. I know it won´t, because feeling at home starts within me, not in a place, however nice it may be.

But this experience gave me an idea. I wanted to translate my emotions into pictures. This feeling of disconnectedness from a feeling, a feeling of melancholy and quest to regain what was lost. A feeling of almost, but not quite being at home inside myself.

A glimpse of Flatpacks
A glimpse of flatpacks in a furniture store in Altona
A block of flats in Roosenstraße

So in late 2020, for the first time ever, I sat down and imagined pictures to illustrate my feelings and made a list of photos I wanted to take. A tower of the most expensive and exclusive flats in the newly developed “Hafencity” of Hamburg, my home town. A night shot of illuminated homes in Blankenese, a fancy quarter on the banks of the river Elbe. The bedstead of a homeless person under a railway bridge just a short walk from my flat. A shelter for refugees. Mind you, these are very dramatic motifs by comparison to my own situation – my life and my small worries are worlds away from the very real ordeal of a refugee or a homeless person. I merely take these pictures as a chiffre for my inner landscape of emotion, knowing full well that my emotions are a greatly distorted reflection of reality.

Bedstead of a homeless person in Schulterblatt
Homes in Blankenese seen from the beach

As a tool for this ongoing project, I use my Rolleiflex 2.8F. That needs no introduction. It is a perfect companion for this kind of premeditated picture taking. It is a tool that I love to handle and use in slow motion. Everything about it is a joy to touch and feel, so you don´t want to rush the process. It also is remarkably simple to use. I grew up in the 80ies taking 35mm pictures with automatic SLRs. Medium format always seemed daunting to me. The Rolleiflex 2,8F takes away all that sense of drama and complication. It is just the most natural thing to use. The only issue I have is that I have only had it a few weeks before I started the project. I ran a test film through it and the light meter on my copy seemed to give plausible readings, so I decided to rely on it. I have just had it CLAed and it turns out it wasn´t really – it was two stops off, leading to overexposure. Not a great issue, but the negatives are a bit dense now. Well, I never was good at waiting when I wanted to play with a toy…

Refugee Shelter
Refugee shelter with shipyard in the backgroud, south of the river Elbe
Homes seen across Heiliggeistfeld
View of a backyard in Schanzenstraße

The film is KODAK Portra 400. I wanted colour as I felt black and white would be overly dramatic. But I also wanted a balanced, neutral feel and Protra seemed just the right choice. Combined with grey skies, which are in plentiful supply in Hamburg, I achieved that look I was hoping for when I imagined the pictures. I had the film developed and scanned at a lab in Hamburg. They seemed to come out a bit more red than I believe they should, so I tweaked them a bit.

New flats
New flats in Hafencity, almost completed
Marco Polo Tower again
Marco Polo Tower again

This is the first project of this kind I ever embarked on. So far it was so much fun that I think it will not be the last. It will be over when I regain that feeling of being at home. What I learned from it so far, is that to me photography with a sense of purpose is a lot more fun than just casually snapping pictures. Trying to express my emotionality is such a purpose. I don´t know if the results are meaningful in any way to anyone but me. And to get back to the question at the beginning of this text; I don´t know if these photos work for anyone but me without giving a context (or even with context for that matter). But I believe that doesn´t take away what they mean to me.

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22 thoughts on “Not at home with my Rolleiflex – Stefan Wilde”

  1. Hi Stefan,
    Maybe it was just the emotional context of these images, it touched a portion of my soul. Images are meaningless with context, you have activated a part of what it is to be human. Good on you keep working as you convey this personal message, I could really relate to this “Weltschmertz”. Is this what you wanted to express visually, Stefan ?

    1. Stefan,
      Thank you so much for the article and how you express yourself. While reading it, it felt like my own feelings so thank you for putting it into words for me.

      Stuart Webster

      1. Hi Stuart, thank you for your kind words – as you can see from Steven´s comment, we´re not alone in this, even to the point that many years ago someone gave us a word for that emotion…

    2. Hi Steven,
      thanks for your kind words! I believe “Weltschmerz” is quite a good expression for the emotion. Even though I´m German, I looked it up anyway just to be sure about its meaning., Yes, it os a good fit.

  2. A lovely post, thank you Stefan. I think what you have said stands very well as its own testament, and I would like to acknowledge its quality without risking diminishing it by adding anything further.

    1. Thank you, David, for your wonderful words. I have looked up your website and I am very impressed indeed!

  3. “Shouldn´t art speak to you without accompanying words?”

    Really, the thought that art can stand alone should be put to bed for good. Yes, on the surface level an image can be pleasing, or not, but that is more connected with Craft and current tastes. Historically Art typically has, cultural, power, philosophical or religious aspects, more recently personal politics have become prominent. Looking back in time through any great art gallery as viewer you will find that unless conversant with the symbolism of the times in which work was made it’s very hard to fully ‘get’ what they mean – even with work from the mid 20th Century, for younger viewers.

    Therein lies an essential difference between ‘Art’ which carries meanings which definitely require other reference points to be brought to bear and ‘Craft’ which can be enjoyed on it’s own terms. It’s important to note that Craft and Art, related but neither is a pre-requisite of the other. There are also the seeds of an argument that craft is timeless there, however I’d also rebut that with photographic example – the both Pictorialists and the f/64 crowd placed great emphasis of craft one side looking for just the right degree of softness, the other side for sharpness. Very few would like both approaches equally, on a basic level.

    One area where photography differs from most painting, is that photography has a deep culture of working in series, projects, ‘zines. Not every shot needs to be ‘stunning’ in that context pacing and flow are also part of the edit. A literary book consisting entirely of barnstorming one liners would be a pretty tiring read… so feel free to include shots that aren’t quite at the top level of craft as long as they move the narrative on.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful and enlightening comment! I´m glad about your encouragement to put some concepts to rest that are not helpful.

  4. Stefan, you’re right to put captions on your pictures. It can be hard to appreciate a picture without its context. Sometimes it’s the phrase or story that comes to mind when I shoot that makes my photos come alive.

    1. Hi, yes, agree – I have often found that in art exhibitions I profit immensely from the explanations of a guided tour or from all the work the curators put into explaining what you see – without that I´d often not be able to appreciate what I see.

  5. Clive Shepherd

    Enjoyed the introspection and photos very much. Thanks. I would recommend Walden (D. Thoreau). It spoke to me in my early 50s.

  6. Hi Stefan,
    Judging by the comments so far you’ve certainly touched a chord with your wonderful words and photographs. I know they did with me.
    Consciously or not you seem to be using photography as a catharsis. Everyone needs something to express and face their inner feelings and I am glad you have found it. Keep at it, my friend. You are not alone.
    Do you need the words? Yes, they are part of the whole. After all, isn’t Gesamtkunstwerk a German art form?

    1. Hi Peter, thank you for this! You are right of course, expressing myself through photography has a cathartic effect – or at least I hope it has! What it does is take the emotion and make it an object of my own creative process, allowing me some distance, at least for a while. Robin Wong calls his photo walks “shutter therapy” – I sure can relate to that!

  7. “. ..This is the way the World goes; not with a bang but a whimper….” T.S. Elliot.
    Stefan, you put the images to the words. Indeed; Weltschmerz.

    1. Hi James, thank you! Weltschmerz is a great word – expressing the pain caused by the inadequacy of the human existence. I am not familiar with T. S. Elliot – is that a theme of his work? I shall have to find out!

  8. Love the shots especially the one of Shanzenstrasse. The images take me back years when I used to visit Germany in the late sixties & early seventies. I guess nostalgia is also a kind of emotion.

    1. Hi Abdul, thanks for reading! The shot of the backyard in Schanzenstraße was one I didn’t plan in advance. I didn’t know it was there when I came across it from another site. Hope you come back here some time! I checked out your website. Very good!

  9. A lovely, meditative piece Stefan.
    It makes me think that perhaps a key question is not “Where is our home?”, but rather “Where do we feel most at home?”
    The original intent behind your photographs shines through. To me, they clearly examine the question above and would make a fine photobook.
    For similar work, have a look at the Scottish photographers Al Brydon or Iain Sarjeant or indeed any of the publication of Another Place Press (who I have no connection with by the way!)
    Thank you for posting.

  10. Hi Keith, a very interesting question – where do we feel at home, and what makes us feel at home? This may take the project in a new direction… I checked out Iain Sarjeant’s website, that is very much my taste! Thanks for pointing me there!

  11. Stefan these are gorgeous, and the way you write and express things is the perfect balance of melancholy detachment and the human desire for hope and expression. I’m 21 living in Sydney, Australia, and we’re currently having a housing crisis. A studio apartment decently far from the city (that is not even built yet) costs about $650,000 AUD. I’ve been working and saving, living at home, but had a few 3 and 6 month adventures renting in the city during uni, and it’s led me to the same questions and the same conclusion. I don’t know myself at all, and no product or home will solve that. All we can do is try and find ourselves through art and human connection – and (on a positive note) that’s the fun bit!!

    Again fantastic work and very touching piece – all the best on your journey of self discovery (from a fellow traveler)


    1. Hi Lewie,

      thanks for sharing your kind thoughts and your experience! The housing crisis and the feeling of being at home in the sense of feeling secure and welcome – I suspect there is a connection between the two. The housing crisis is a pandemic in modern economies- and so is depression. That may be just a coincidence, I can´t prove that they are related. But I would like to ask how a person is supposed to feel welcome and secure in a society where housing – a fundamental need – is less and less affordable.

      But that aside – I fully agree that even if one´s basic needs are catered for or even if there is abundance that doesn´t necessarily mean that a person feels connected and safe. Understanding and acting towards yourself as a loving friend while being connected in a loving manner to other humans is fundamental to achieve that feeling of being at home. Yet so often I find myself chasing the wrong goals. I wonder what you´ll experience…

      But in the meantime, let´s burn through some more film and share what we see on the journey!

      All the best to you!


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