I came across Sugar Ray Banister a couple of months ago when it was clear that I will be moving to the US and I decided that I wanted to do a city portrait of Nürnberg before I leave. After all, I have been living in this city for more than 2 years now and did not have the slightest idea what the city was really like except for the older part of the town. I was browsing the web for some photography that depicted Nürnberg in a more natural, unaltered way. This is when I found Sugar Ray Banister’s blog and photography. I was immediately hooked to the intricate mix of photos and text putting them into the context and history of the city. After having met with him for some shooting I asked him whether he would be willing to be interviewed. He agreed and so he is the first one in a (hopefully long) series of interviews with unique photographers.
Please tell us about yourself.
I grew up in a small town near Hannover Germany and I also lived for some years in Hannover and as a young twenty something guy I took a job opportunity in Nürnberg not knowing anything about the city and what could possibly happen to a boy like me. I thought that it can’t be worse than Hannover because the city has the same size more history and is located in Bavaria with all the mountains, meadows and shiny lakes. But I was wrong.
Soon I noticed that the people in Nürnberg are generally shortspoken or offish with basically no humor but quite proud of being a Franconian and not being a Bavarian and also proud of their city and their culture. I had never experienced nationalism or traditionalism in Hannover before.
What pushes you to shoot? What do you shoot (for)?
In Hannover I discovered street photography as a nice way to capture things. Shooting a scene while I was still in the scene and while experiencing it without destroying it through observation. Also lomography was fantastic and I owned some of the hip and analog Lomos of the still young century. Lomography has this spirit of capturing life.
Also architecture and urban scapes are fascinating. I was introduced to the young, raw, and unfinished Berlin or Leipzig of the 90ths and early years in the current century with their power and individual spaces. These images and experiences of a city like these were formative to me. And in Nürnberg I found hardly anything from active and evolving cities. Nürnberg has its underground and off-places but they are far away from the image the city has from itself. At some point I was kind of aware of how a city feels like and that there is a correlation between architecture and the inhabitants. This then finally brought me to the idea of showing Nürnberg how it really looks like.
What is your style?
Generally I would say that my style is pretty German. It’s organized and structured. Not too much stuff in it. Clean and maybe including repetitive shapes, no strong colors. And always trying to bring in some irony.
And I try not to present too many pictures. Less is more.
When you shoot, do you go out with a plan, or do you let it happen?
I hardly plan shootings. I just let it happen even If I shoot people. The best pictures are the ones where nobody is aware of the camera and nobody feels observed.
Many of your shots are motivated by exploring Nürnberg (which is how I learnt about your work) and you put the images into the context of the city. What motivated you to explore every bit of Nürnberg with a camera?
Exploring cities is kind of a hobby and while moving to a new city not knowing anybody I was of course on the streets all the time trying to find interesting spots and new friends as well. It didn’t take too long and I knew the city better than any local person. And as said before, I found it interesting that the image the locals had and still have from their city was so contradicting to the reality that I experienced with my outside and more or less neutral view. I had to show my views to the people. It was hard to believe that they didn’t know better about their city.
A typical theme of your shots is to depict the raw nature of Nürnberg which somewhat contradicts the public image of Nürnberg as a nice and beautiful city. The castle of Nürnberg for example is one of its highlights. In some of your recent work however you showed that only a couple of hundred meters away from the castle you enter a weird world of uniformity. Where, do you think, does this sharp contrast stem from?
The simple truth is that Nürnberg was almost completely destroyed in the 2nd world war. It was really a beautiful medieval city before that and that spirit is still on the minds of the locals. They truly think that Nürnberg is a beautiful city. Only if you ask twice and a third time and really point them to examples they sometimes admit it.
Nürnberg was rebuild with the shortages of the post war times and after that the city never found back to its glory. Compared to other cities in West Germany it remained a poor city with a high unemployment rate. Also due to its location near the border to the DDR and to the iron curtain it was not too attractive for investors (all the investments anyway went to Munich). This is changing a bit nowadays, but slowly.
If you had to compare Nürnberg, Erlangen, and Fürth – how would you characterize their key commonalities and differences?
Nürnberg and Fürth are physically the same city but Fürth was hardly bombed during WW2 because it had a Jewish majority. The allies knew that. That’s why Fürth is way prettier than Nürnberg. It still has original architecture and some spirit. Erlangen is also a quite nice looking original city but boring as hell. It mainly exists of Siemens, students and students who work for Siemens. There is no room for individual culture. Fürth has more subculture than Erlangen and Nürnberg has more subculture than both of them together but it still feels like a small village. All of them do. Some say that it’s possible to have the advantages of a big city while living in a village. This is how many people like their city.
Are there any photographers/artists/role models that influence your work or inspire you?
I like the photos of Thomas Ruff a lot, a photo artist from Düsseldorf and his view of architecture that provides an ideology and character. This is inspiring.
Do you have a specific goal for the development of your photography?
No. I want to keep it as a hobby. It’s developing, yes but I don’t want to make it a profession. I want to keep it simple and I try not to overload it with knowledge. Knowledge is sometimes killing creativity. I kind of fear that.
What projects are you currently working on?
My main project is www.sugarraybanister.de were I’m focusing on the life in Nürnberg and other cities where I travel to and where I might live in the future. This is where I try to capture the spirit of the cities. A side project is the Experimental Sugar Ray Banister at http://x.sugarraybanister.de which is not too active and rather focusing on single pure pictures with no context.
Is there a project you are especially proud of?
I’m kind of proud of that I started a project like www.sugarraybanister.de telling the people that they are living in an ugly city and after all I get appreciation, press articles, exhibitions and all that. What If I was publishing post card imagery? First there weren’t too much motives in the city and 2nd I would have been one amongst all the rest.
Is there any specific advice that you have for us?
Everybody wants to make the perfect and prettiest picture and is aiming for technical perfection. Don’t do that. The life isn’t like that. Appeal and charm are rising out of inadequateness and imperfection. Be honest and finally: don’t think that you are living in the prettiest city on earth!
Now let us have a look at some of your favorite shoots.
“Atrium” an old unused cinema, taken in the context of gentrification in Nürnberg which is actually not visible or happening. This picture also won an award.
“Altstadtblick” The old town is the heart of Nürnberg. But if you look at it from a different angle it’s simply boring post war architecture.
“Maximilianstraße“ a scene typical for worker districts but which is also quite common in Nürnberg. I like it because of the pure and raw shapes the complete absence of any kind of decoration beside of a national flag, a car, and a driving school; seems to be more important than habitation.
“Scheiss Sauberkeit” People in Nürnberg often claim that they are living in a dirty city. Actually I have never experienced a cleaner place than this one.
“Nürnberg Impressionen #14 – Obere Schmiedgasse” Nürnberg’s old but famous painter Albrecht Dürer is a present character of the city reminding of glory but gone times. In this picture a Dürer info board is visible and a tower of the imperial castle is mirroring in one of the windows. But overall it’s all post war architecture.
“Landscape” One of my hobbies ist o whatch people while they are whating art. In some cases art and recipient are melting together to something new, an own piece of art. This picture is one of these pieces.
“AdBK Sommerfest 2012 #03” and this is a 2nd example of art and recipient melting into something new again.
“Volksbad Nürnberg 18” Urban Exploration is one way of exploring cities. Entering old abandon places and buildings. In this case it’s an old unused bathhouse.
“Neukölln 29” A shot from berlin. I’m kind of addicted to rough streetviews that are showing that the city is everything but a dead place.
Thank you very much for your time and efforts!