Alexander Krohmer travels the world, making impromptu, collaborative portraits of people and groups he meets in the streets. He uses a technique that is simple, yet strikingly effective — he shows us the same people from the front and from behind.
The portraits in Encounters stand out in part because they present the audience with two views of the same people—a presentation that deepens our engagement with each photograph’s subject. Looking at the photos of folks facing away from me, I felt more at ease to inspect the details in their clothing or the way they hold their bodies. New features jumped out at me, like the humanizing wrinkles in someone’s shirt, or a tattoo I hadn’t noticed.
When asked why he decided to form the project as a series of diptychs, Krohmer replies, “I wanted to create a holistic version of the people I came across. I started by taking normal portraits of people straight on, but the series quickly developed into these front/back portraits.”
Why photograph people from behind? “Well, the body language you pick up on is very different when you look at the backs of people. Usually you’re drawn to someone’s face, but when you’re looking at an image of them where their face isn’t visible, you start to look around more.”
This approach also allows the viewer to further investigate the relationship between the people in Krohmer’s images. In one photograph, a group of waitresses in Munich stand hip-to-hip, staring placidly at the camera. But the reverse image divulges that their arms are all linked together, a sweet revelation of connection that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Krohmer told me that he often takes three photographs of his subjects: first, he photographs them from the front, and then follows up by asking them to turn around and face away from him. Finally, he asks them to turn back in his direction for a last shot. “I often get the best picture with the third image,” he notes. “When I put you against a wall, you’re uncomfortable, of course, even though you’ve agreed to pose for a photo. When I ask you to turn around, it breaks the formality of the situation, so when you turn back to face me, we’re both laughing, thinking, ‘Well, that was strange!’” In this unusual exchange, a kinship is formed.
I expected Krohmer to say that the quality of the photograph is corollary to the amount of time that he spends with each subject (which ranges from just a few moments to several minutes). But, he says, this is actually not the case. “It’s surprising how much intimacy can come out of photo sessions that just last a few minutes,” he observes. “That’s the key to this kind of series, and that’s why so many photographs don’t turn out well. Ideally, I want to have a short encounter with someone who is open and honest. I tell them, ‘Don’t make a face, and don’t fake a smile. Just imagine I’m a friend, and be yourself.’ I was surprised by how quickly that can work for some people. Sometimes, you get an honest peek at their personality. That’s what I’m looking for in these ten minutes. That’s the challenge.”