Bernd Schirmer

2021 Non-Professional Special Photographer of the Year

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background!

Well, there isn’t really much to talk about. I am a hobby photographer, a pixel pusher and my first contacts to the arts date back already to my 15th year, both when I decided for art as an optional subject at school (advanced course) and due to experiencing street art in the 1990s. In those days still rather punchy on walls, later on paper, canvas and commercially. My first commissioned work in oil was in early 1995. At that time, I had nothing to do with photography. It wasn’t until 2018 that I decided to get into this topic professionally and then bought my first real digital camera. Through my friend and mentor Sascha Safdar-Götz, I started teaching myself Photoshop in 2018.

Q: How did you realize that you enjoy photography and capturing pictures?

For me, photography has created an indefinite new world full of ideas and creativity, where I could go on the rampage and which I could experience by all its facets. It provides me with indefinite possibilities, I cannot (could not) realise by way of painting, for reasons of time and technique. Yet still, painting has never ceased to be a part of my life, on the contrary, it has become an element of my photographic expression and of presenting my images. Combined with editing, it is like feeling in a candy store. That I found out after the key to Photoshop was given to me. Everything was possible from now. What I could not take with my cam, I put in digitally in Photoshop. No more borders anymore. That was the moment that gave me the freedom to implement my ideas, my imagination and, above all, my creativity.

Q: Do you ever have trouble getting inspired? What do you do when moments like this arise?

I‘m inspired by everything. All the time I move through the world with my eyes open, I see and perceive, I smell, I feel, frequently I imagine images I would like to preserve. From many countries, I take objects, smells and memories with me, which help me creating my images. In the past I used to fly to the capitals of Europe on my own, just to spend the whole days at the museums there, the Louvre and the British Museum alone were reason enough for several visits. I always keep a small notebook with me, full of sketches and ideas. When I have collected enough, the idea of transferring them into images becomes manifest. Fortunately, my mind has stored a real endless repertoire of creativity, which constantly and everywhere tries to find its way to the outside. This is both a gift and a burden. By help of photography and image editing, I learned to organise it.

Q: Which aspect of photography would you say was the hardest thing that you had to learn or get used to?

How to use my camera properly. I still can’t really do that and hide my ignorance with my Photoshop knowledge and skills. I am not familiar with many functions and modes of operation and I still have problems finding the right aperture and mode settings. I also learned that everything takes time; Rome wasn’t built in a day either. My perfectionist disposition and approach sometimes get in the way, so that the processing process can get out of hand.

In general, however, I have to say that I learn new things every week and try out a lot all the time. Lighting and image processing in particular have an infinite number of possibilities and variants that need to be explored. For 2022 I would like to optimize my lighting and refined digital exposure skills. The aim is always to achieve the perfect illusion so that the viewer does not know whether it was and is actually the case.

Q: You have been chosen Non-Professional Special Photographer of the Year for your work “Pizarro’s Amor de Oro,” a photograph that looks almost identical to a pizarro painting in it’s style. How did you decide that this is the direction you want to take?

It wasn’t a decision for me to create a work like that. It is my style and my passion to make and to photograph pictures look like old masterpieces. I did oil paintings myself, but it takes a lot longer than do photography in painting style with the computer. So I tried to find a way to speed up this process and still keep the typical look-like. If you start new, you confronted with a lot of rejection of the artist scene because you are no longer seen as a photographer and no longer as an artist. I am still trying to master this balancing act. Such an honourable award helps immensely, because it is the recognition of a passionate and time-consuming work, whether digital or with oil paint. It is also an art to express yourself.

My style is combining the works of the old masters of painting with photography, sometimes in a surreal or fantasy way. I make my worlds resurrect, I create a certain atmosphere by help of differently positioned lights and arranged settings. Each of my images tells a story, has a message, sometimes hidden, sometimes obvious. Figures are purposefully positioned, they point out to certain situations and, as silhouettes, they frame scenarios. On the first view my images look different; if you deal with their content, they unleash their messages. Each image is careful planned out, it has researched, and from the props via the location as far as to the costume and way of expression of the model, to the way he/she as well as the title are staged, it is worked out gradually. I am not a street photographer for the quick shot to catch the moment; I would call myself a visual photographer-artist-painter. It’s like making an oil painting, I take my time when it comes to staging and editing, until the work meets my demands.

I combine art and photography. A symbiosis between ancient masters of light and the most advanced camera-light technology. For me a harmony which must be balanced – in my own ways. Oil paintings in the style of Baroque, Rococo and Romanticism, of Surrealism, Impressionism and Classicism provide the foundation of my compositions. I arrange and light them anew, I imitate scenes full of symbols and stories hidden behind, I rearrange them, bring them together. Thus, there develops my way of seeing things. For me, ancient masterpieces of painting are full of staged arrangements and messages like no other works; they play with light, with shadows and reflections, as life does. This fascination has enchanted me and it has made me wandering on its paths, creating new worlds, experiencing my own creative processes, realise them as images, by way of photography

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what was the hardest aspect when shooting these images?

Difficult. Pictures are always at visions in my head in advance. These then manifest more and more to the point where I just have to implement them. That can take up to a year.

I want to stimulate, to make people thinking, however sometimes I just invite them to stay and enjoy. I am not out for being “liked”, I want to captivate, and that is the observer´s view and emotions, not knowing what is real and what is pure fantasy. I have appropriated and utilised the technique of making photographs in the style of ancient oil paintings. For me, it is the suitable and most phenomenal interpretation of my creativity. I look for props or make them myself, I have costumes made or I adapt them, headpieces and accessories are mostly my own work. It is precisely in these fields where the creative side explodes. I enjoy constructing sets, adapting environments and props to the various epochs, empathising with them, letting look everything authentic, and staging fantastic, sometimes glamorous presentations of models. Many props I use are genuine and ancient; you really see this in the images. And that its precisely creates the atmosphere, makes the difference. Then on the set, I am in kind of a trance, in my element and perfectly focussed on the result depicted in my mind – my work of art. Hours fly by like in a frenzy, and for me reality disappears. I wave the brush, my camera, and I paint, I paint my image. The combination of everything, light, authentic props, suitable models and digital post-processing is essential for success. So everything has to stay in harmony and that is what makes it so difficult.

Q: Why did you decide on entering this particular photo into the IPA?

Actually, it was in my bucket list for 2 years. Renowned competitions are always a prestige and a figurehead for photographers and artists. But it’s also important to have a healthy assessment of yourself. In 2019, I saw the submitted work and then I realized that I’m not up on the level to take part in competitions like this. In 2021 I didn’t feel that anymore. So I submitted several works that show my skills and my range. I like to face an international expert judgment always with the thought of constantly improving myself and reaching a new level. This is the only way to grow from inside. The fact that Pizarro was chosen surprised me a lot, as you are your best critic and I saw other pictures on my range in an earlier stage. Fortunately, in the end, the taste is always different and the judges decided on Pizarro. This picture also includes over 160 hours of work and over 1 year of planning, preparation and image processing. Here I wanted to draw attention to myself and say: there is a little amateur photographer who dreams that his work makes many people look and think.

Q: What does winning this competition mean to you?

It is my first major international competition, which I won. To be honest, I never expected that. I still can remember it was Saturday afternoon and we were visiting my parents. The award ceremony was already running on YouTube and I thought to myself, oh, you can tune in, you haven’t won anyway. Then my name came … Not possible to describe this moment! I had tears in my eyes, hugged my daughter and wife and said, “Dad actually won, man, I’m going crazy, I really won! That doesn’t exist! ”I looked at the recording again to make sure that I wasn’t wrong.
Professionals like IPA judges with years of experience have given a little amateur photographer a confirmation and me an inexpressible joy that it is worth believing in yourself and work hard for dreams.

Q: If you could do anything or go anywhere, what would your dream photography project be?

My dream are joint venture projects with the great creatives of the scene, with photographers like Chris Knight, Jan Gonzales, Dmitry Rogoschkin, Kirsty Mitchell, Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk, Eugenio Recuenco, Domenico Falso and Alisa Sibirskaya just to put some names in a list.

Then travel back in time packed up with a high-resolution megapixel camera and understand how the old masters saw and staged everything. There would never be a lack of perfect motifs with an authentic atmosphere and I would not have to do so much on the computer. We would paint with our cameras, we could exchange ideas and philosophize. I love interesting conversations with creative people. That is an immense intellectual input!

Q: What good advice would you give to a photographer who is just starting to experiment with photography?

START, TRY and DO! Find your passion and finally start! You don’t make mistakes, you just gain experience and knowledge, which is constantly increasing.

Q: What is next for you, are you working on anything right now?

Yes, but I’m not going to reveal very much here. Now I’m working on several pictures at the same time, because I keep thinking of something about one or the other that I could add to or change. Some of the pictures are already 2 years old.

But that much should be said, there are 3 surreal fine art portraits and 1 composite. My sketchbook and my head are so overcrowded that the whole of next year is totally planned. At the end of the year, there will be a project with a designer friend. Here we go back to Greek mythology. 2-3 shootings are in the making, but it usually turns out differently than you think anyway. I just let myself be surprised. Nothing has to, everything can.