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Interview with photographer Emil von Maltitzby Bianca van der Bergh


Cloudy Sky Meet Emil von Maltitz, a photographer whose passion for insects developed into an all-consuming passion for photography. Emil owns his own photography company; Limephoto (situated in Durban) and mainly shoots landscape, nature and commercial photography. Find out some of the strange things that people have asked him and some of the challenges he has faced as a photographer while enjoying some of his passion-filled photography.

1. How did you get into photography?

As a preteen I was convinced that I was going to grow up and become an entomologist or zoologist (I idolised Gerald Durrell after reading ‘My Family and Other Animals’). The problem was that my growing collection of butterflies and other insects kept on being decimated by weevils. So, to record the collection I decided to save up money and get a camera. It took me a year. After the first roll of film though, I was absolutely hooked. The bug collection was forgotten and photography became an all-consuming passion.

Witches peaks below Sentinel in the DrakensbergAbove: Photography students at the 3 Witches peaks below Sentinel in the Drakensberg, South Africa.

2. What type of photography are you most passionate about?

I’d love to call myself a landscape photographer as that’s where my real photographic interest lies. However, as a professional I basically shoot whatever I get paid to. At the moment that’s predominantly commercial industrial photography. I also do a lot of corporate and commercial portraiture, some architectural work and large events like high-level conferences.

Two men rowing on the Zambezi RiverAbove: Two men rowing on the Zambezi River at Sioma Falls, Zambia.

3. What is the strangest thing that you've drawn inspiration from?

Hmmm, tough one. I’m not really sure to be honest. Rather I’d say there have been some strange things that I have photographed. The most memorable would be the time I spent photographing spirit possession rituals in the Caprivi. Seeing what people did under trance was incredible. Sadly I didn't know as much about photography as I do now, so I can’t say that my images truly capture what I felt and experienced at the time. Photographing a knee surgery for a client last year also ranks quite high on my ‘different shoot’ list.

The M2 highway in Johannesburg at nightAbove: The M2 highway in Johannesburg at night, Gauteng.

4. What tips do you have for aspiring photographers?

As a profession: Be prepared to compromise. We can’t always shoot what we want to shoot. Starting out you may have to be a little bit of a photographic prostitute, working for whoever will pay you. There’s also something known as the 2-5-10 rule: 2 years before you are covering costs and even think you could do this for a living - 5 years before your ‘business’ stabilises and you know that you have a career in photography -10 years to get to where you felt you should have been after the first year. Most important though, if you want to ultimately do this full-time, is that you have to throw yourself completely into the profession. It doesn't really work trying to do photography on the side. As a medium: Learn to simplify your images compositionally. If there is an element inside your composition, it needs to be there for a reason. If there is no reason it shouldn’t be there. Learn to see what shouldn’t be in the frame when you are composing and you will soon find that your compositions are tighter and more effective. Camping-at-the-summit-of-Ntonjelana-Pass

Above: Camping at the summit of Ntonjelana Pass, Drakensberg, South Africa.

5. Where is your favourite place to photograph?

Hands down, the Drakensberg Mountains.

Hiker overlooking Drakensberg escarpment at dawn

Above: Hiker overlooking Drakensberg escarpment at dawn, South Africa.

6. What are some of the challenges that you face as a photographer?

I think it’s a constant challenge to create meaningful images. I want people to think when they see my images. I want them to do more than glance at the photo. In a few cases I’d love it if the image could change the way people approach or think about the subject. I firmly believe that images are powerful tools for activism and I try to make my images of the Drakensberg create a feeling of reverence or awe for the mountain. From the professional side, running a small photographic business is also a major challenge (I guess any business owner would say this). You are only ever as good as your last shoot. It doesn’t matter if a photographer has won an award two years ago. If their last shoot was a cock-up they are suddenly seen as not that good anymore. Then there’s the fact that photography is an art and therefore there are very different ideas as to what works and what doesn’t. Balance this with the public’s financial devaluation of imagery (because you can now buy imagery for 50c a pop from micro-agencies) and it makes life very difficult for a photographer to make a living. It costs money to take powerful images. Some clients know this thank goodness. The ones that don’t contribute to a world saturated with mundane images. I’ll jump off my hobby-horse now.

Durban International Convention Centre at twilight, South AfricaAbove: Durban International Convention Centre at twilight, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

7. Do you occasionally use film in some of your shoots?

Very occasionally I do. I sometimes shoot with a large format Linhof camera. The price per shot is about R120 and even then the camera is kept in the cupboard 99% of the time. I was a very stubborn convert to digital admittedly. Some of the romance of film, like watching a black and white image develop in tub of chemicals is gone, but the abilities of the modern digital SLR are so phenomenal that I haven’t shot 35mm (in contrast to large format) film in three years.

Royal Natal National Park

Above: Royal Natal National Park, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

8. What photographic societies are you a member of?

I’m currently a member of the International Environmental Photographers Association (the IEPA).

Two bulls sparring each other at Thanda Game ReserveAbove: Two bulls sparring each other at Thanda Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

9. What do you try to say through your photographs?

When I’m doing a commercial shoot it’s really what the client wants to say. We’ll discuss what aspect they are trying to get across to the viewer and I’ll try and incorporate that into the image somehow. For my own artistic work I try to get across some kind of feeling for the subject itself. It sounds clichéd to say ‘the essence of the subject’, but if I’m photographing the sun coming up behind a peak at dawn I want the viewer to feel that they are standing there and Beethoven’s 5th is roaring in their ears. Or if I’m shooting dew on a web or blade of grass I’ll possibly want less drama and a more intimate feeling to the image.

The Tree Aloe (Aloe barberae)Above: The Tree Aloe (Aloe barberae)

10. Have you ever been in a dangerous situation to take the perfect shot?

I don’t think I seek out danger. I’ve done a few silly things like photographing waterbirds in the Caprivi by wading chest high in a swamp. Not clever when you realise there’s a great big Crocodile sharing the water with you. I’ve also been in some hairy situations in order to get a photo in the Drakensberg. One was where my wife and I were in the centre of such an electrical storm while at the top of Cathedral Peak that her hair stood on end. You could feel the static in the air and the bolts were terrifying (I actually proposed to her straight after that). The worst situation was when I was airlifted out of the berg after trying to get a shot of Ribbon Falls in the Cathdedral Peak section. I slipped, hit my head and washed down a small waterfall, fracturing my spine in the process. But I’m certainly no Bang-Bang club wannabe.

Three Basotho herders in the DrakensbergAbove: Three Basotho herders in the Drakensberg, South Africa.

11. Who are your favourite Photographers?

I have always admired a fairly large group of individuals. Names that stand out though, although in no particular order are; Jim Brandenburg, Frans Lanting, Ansel Adams, Joe Cornish, Steve McCurry, Joe McNally, Charlie Waite, Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson for starters. In South Africa I've always enjoyed Obie Oberholzer's work and really think that Hougaard Malan's stuff is phenomenal. There are so many amazing photographers out there that it can be quite intimidating to call myself a photographer. I mean geez, look at what's out there. It's amazing!

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