Interview with Peter Liepke
Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a fine art photographer. Currently I’m working on a photographic series, “Above & Beyond” that is based on many experiences in my life. I grew up in St. Louis Park Minnesota. It’s a suburb in close proximity to Minneapolis. I’ve always loved woodworking, and most people don’t know it, but for a brief time I once had a pipe dream of becoming a professional 5 string bluegrass banjo player. I’d play and practice constantly 24/7, and even made a beautiful inlaid 5 string banjo from scratch in my high school wood shop class. But in a sad twist of irony about two weeks after I finished making it, I lost most of my right thumb (I’m right handed) in sort of nasty gruesome industrial accident at a temporary summer job where I worked. After that I never picked up the banjo again or really wanted to, so I got into photography.
After high school I moved to Los Angeles to attend the Art Center College, and then assisted various photographers in LA eventually opening my own commercial advertising photography studio with clients like Honda, Sunkist, Universal Studios and more. About five years later a level 6.5 earthquake ruined my commercial studio, and having never really felt comfortable living in Los Angeles anyway, I decided to move to New York City.
I completely threw out my entire portfolio of advertising work I had done for years in LA, and with a fresh start began shooting editorial portraiture, including the cover of Walter Cronkite’s biography, “A Reporters Life” and many other book covers which I really enjoyed. New York City (NYC) is also where I met my wife.
We enjoyed living in NYC for many years while I worked as a freelance editorial photographer for many great clients, however, about fifteen years ago we moved upstate and now enjoy raising our two teen age sons in a beautiful rural area of the Hudson Valley about an hour north of NYC.
How did you get started in photography?
In the latter part of high school I took a photography course as an elective taught by a truly gifted teacher who had such an amazing way of inspiring his students. Prior to the photography course I’d never picked up a camera before only my banjo. By the end of the course, I was completely hooked so I saved up enough money and bought my first camera, a 35mm Minolta SRT101 for $220.00. As a teenaged kid it seemed like a million dollars at the time. Most of my high school friends were saving to buy cars, but I was now totally hooked into photography.
Soon after I worked and saved more money to purchase the new Mamiya RB 67. It was one of the first ones released at the time in Minneapolis and I was becoming more obsessed, most of the time out making pictures when I should have been doing my school homework.
My parents were very supportive with my new passion, and my dad built me my first dark room. It didn’t have plumbing but it was still great.
Was art encouraged in your family?
Yes, and I owe my wife, my parents, and two older brothers such a deep debt of gratitude for their support and encouragement throughout the years that I’ll never be able to repay, but will be forever grateful to them. My parents were both retail display artists. So even as kids even if we realized it at the time or not we were exposed at an early age to a lot of art.
In their mid fifties both my parents were abruptly laid off from their jobs and were out of work. With very little savings, no college, or business financial training they decided to mortgage our house (a very courageous move) and start up their own design business out of our garage, creating and designing beautiful huge handmade custom Christmas decorations, and animation for large enclosed shopping malls around the country and Canada. Their products were stunning, and there is really nothing out there anymore like it. Honestly, I really don’t mean to boast, but now that I’m at the age they were at the time, I’m simply so proud and inspired by them and what they accomplished in a very short period of time before they died. What started as a small mom and pop business out of our garage at home morphed into a 20,000 square foot studio, multi million dollar enterprise, that employed over thirty people when they finally sold off the business.
The most important life lesson my parents taught me was that no matter how difficult the odds may be, with a deep passion and hard work it’s never too late to start over and create a new beginning in your life, to always deeply trust your own artistic instinct, and as difficult as it may be at times . . . never ever stop believing in yourself.
Which photographers and other artist work do you admire?
I admire, and have a deep respect for the early masters; Edward Steichen, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Alvin Coburn, Adolph Fassbender, Karl Struss, Lewis Hine. There are just so many more the list might not ever end. The work at the time of the early masters was not only stunningly beautiful, and groundbreaking, but I also admire greatly the adversity they overcame using the medium. Without any of the numerous technological advantages that we enjoy today they were able to capture, illustrate, and express works of art that now even one hundred years later remain unrivaled to this day. There was no Photoshop or megapixels; they did it by sheer hard work, artistry, and craftsmanship.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work?
Why Gum Bichromate?
First off I would say because the Gum Bichromate process can be anything that as an artist you want it to be. There are very few if any creative limitations. Each print is one of a kind and in a sense quite unique. Since part of its component uses watercolor pigment if you wish it can be quite painterly, or literal if that’s your direction. It can be full color, straight up black & white, duotone, or tritone. You can print it on beautiful Italian watercolor paper, wood, or if archival properties are not of any concern you can even print it on cement.
I feel that my art does not end with just taking the photograph; it only ends when the final print is completed, and framed.
The Gum Bichromate process tests your patience, is extremely tactile, it can be unforgiving, laborious, time-consuming, and is only made strictly by hand which is why I like it, but many people may not. It doesn’t come with any buttons to push that say “Print”. So that being the case it’s also quite personal. Most of my prints average about four-five individual coats, so with every coat comes a brush stroke from my hand, which is a pretty personal statement. Not to mention the fact that from an archival standpoint the prints will last forever, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Would you share an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
There are so many! Oh my god that’s like trying to pick a favorite song, and if that were the case I’d pick “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison.
But if I had to narrow it down I’d either pick, “The Flat Iron Building” by Edward Steichen or “Steam Fitter” by Lewis Hine.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Yes, absolutely. That’s what makes us who we are. Look at the life of Viviane Mayer. I’ve always loved this quote as well . . . “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” – Saul Bass
Please tell us about your process and what is the perfect day for you?
It depends upon if I’m shooting new images for my series in NYC, or making prints. If I’m shooting new work, then getting just one good shot that I’m excited about from that days shoot is a perfect day for me. If I’m making prints, then getting a finished Gum print in two or three coats right off the bat in the morning makes the start of a great day. Like a baseball pitcher throwing a good fast ball, and nothing but strikes. Of which finishing that perfect day for either situation would be spending the night at Yankee Stadium with my family.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Well, like it or not, it is a business after all, and I treat it like one. Art and Commerce = marketing, exposure, selling work, having your work acquired in collections adds up to a constant juggling act keeping all the balls in the air while trying not to drop any.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
I’ve never spent much time thinking about that, but I’d probably say when people put together and write really pretentious artist statements to accompany their work. I wish someone had the ability to banish pretentious artist statements to the gates of hell for all eternity.
How do you overcome a creative block?
Listen to great music, or get out and about around town, and often times both. But don’t stay inside the studio.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images?
Well, I would hope for some sort of an emotional connection, but if not, at the very least a sense of pride, uniqueness, and handmade craftsmanship.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
Although I have many, actually I’d rather not. Some, but not all of my images are based or inspired by certain people in my life that are my secret. I’d rather the viewer bring their own feelings to an image than hear my stories.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
It only reinforces the fact that each one of us are important individual pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.
Thank you Peter Liepke.