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95 dirk karsten


to Build the Titanic by Martha Blanchfield

In 2003, the German magazine Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s largest weekly current events and news magazines, engaged Amsterdam-based assignment photographer Dirk Karsten to produce a billboard and advertising images for its own marketing needs. Over the course of three weeks, Karsten worked to build a titanic masterpiece, which would appear throughout Germany. For images of the individuals, 95 stills were captured using a Mamiya RZ. A Sinar P2 4 x 5 was employed for photos of the ship. An award-winning result, Karsten shares that the foreboding gray tones and brooding look have become a signature style for most of his work: the Titanic subject a coincidental thematic mood match. But a second signature element is the smallest touch of humor. The lone passenger in a bright orange life vest represents the informed reader—the Der Spiegel reader. In the past 25 years, Karsten has been commissioned by the world’s top art directors and trekked ‘round the globe on behalf of hundreds of prominent companies and brands, including Mercedes-Benz, American Express, Heineken, KLM, Shell and Sony. He’s amassed critical acclaim for his work—winning awards in 28 countries, including several Clios, Lucie Awards, plus the gold prize for best photography from the Italian Art Directors Club. Karsten has been featured in each addition of Lürzer’s Archive’s“200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide,” and appears in annuals such as Graphis, CA (Communication Arts) and the Epica Book (a European advertising annual). His art has also shown in The Hague’s Gemeente Museum in The Netherlands and numerous contemporary art galleries. “Complex work such as that done to produce the Titanic image is very much the norm for me,” says Karsten. “Over the years this somber, desaturated palette with ominous mood and elaborate production steps are what I have become known for. Being pegged with a certain look can work well for a photographer—it’s important to develop a style and keep it consistent. Despite the dark tones, I enjoy throwing in a dose of the unexpected.” Today when an art director or buyer shares a thought like, “He’s so dark,” it’s a comment that serves to further reinforce Karsten’s personal brand.

Osram campaign that established Karsten’s signature location-based style.

Where are the Wolves? Not London Early in his career, Karsten was tied to a large studio and even larger payroll supporting 12 staff members. He photographed nearly everything in-studio, creating large and elaborate shoots for beauty and automobile assignments. That business model started to shift eight years ago when he took on an assignment for Osram, one of the world’s largest lighting manufacturers. The image of the wolves howling at the bulb has become a highly recognizable work (above). “Looking back, this work was a turning point for me,” shares the master shooter. “It required that I produce all imagery outside the studio on location. At the time I was working a lot with Ogilvy & Mather, Frankfurt. The creative director asked if I would shoot this particular assignment, knowing I had experience photographing a lot of still life images for composite, and that I could handle complex projects.” The final took 38 images. Karsten used his Mamiya RZ, Sinar,

Broncolor flash units, HMI lights and a few heavy duty generators. All shooting work was done at an Argentine ski resort near the Chilean border in the dead of winter—in the midst of wind, rain and temperatures in the teens. “It wasn’t until the final day that the crew was actually able to set up and work outside.” In the image, five howling wolves are poised round the bulb. In actuality eight wolves were on set and photographed over the span of one day, each one controlled and queued by its personal trainer. After a week, all photography was completed; what remained was one week of postproduction back in Amsterdam. On the return flight to Europe, Karsten conversed with his assistant. Production had gone smoothly and both agreed that getting out of the studio and traveling were welcome breaks. In several ways the session came together easier than past studio work. “Within six months we were doing nearly all assignments on location. I kept the studio another four years, gradually letting the staff go as I streamlined production and approach.” Today he works with a small, nimble crew that includes a producer based in Spain, Anthony Phillips, and an assistant in Amsterdam. Post-production work is handled by an expert, Stephan Lesger, who has helped Karsten for more than 15 years. “He sometimes comes on the shoots with me. After all these years Stephan knows exactly what I want and sees the way I see,” adds Karsten. “We can be like two old ladies when haggling over retouching details. We both demand edit details so explicit that zooming in will not reveal where change has occurred.”

Alitalia Charles Bridge

Alitalia: Bridging the World Just because he’s using digital does not mean assignments are any easier or simpler. In fact, Karsten is adamant in explaining that the career he’s chosen, with its travel, scheduling and coordination demands, is rigorous. Yes, he shoots in exotic and unusual locations, but working outdoors in venues around the world brings all sorts of political, logistical and environmental challenges, not to mention often outlandish deadlines. One such shoot was an arduous multi-location project for Alitalia Airlines. Karsten and an on-site producer flew to nine countries in 23 days. The photograph of the Charles Bridge in Prague (above) was taken for this campaign, and ran on national billboards and the corporate website. Final imagery was to be delivered within days of the shoot’s completion. Budgeting permitted roughly 48 hours production in each city— barely enough time to set up, photograph, transfer images and then move to the next venue. Karsten often found himself in the field photographing one day, then hurriedly uploading images in a hotel room that night or at the airport as he traveled. Time permitting, he’d coordinate emails— sending roughs to the client, RAW files to a London production team, and then revised looks back to the client for approval. Due to the complexity and fast turnaround on the assignment, he had to enlist the aid of three postproduction experts who toiled in London while he shot and moved between venues. “A job like this can really push you to the edge,” explains Karsten. “You do not rest, you’re constantly on the run. You check-in and work, edit, send files, grab a little sleep. It takes a great team, lots of coordination skill, and talent helping with logistics to make everything come together. A shoot like this is far from glamorous.”

Image made for Getronics workspace management services.

Helps You Get Where You Are Going

Photography Looking Up In 25 years as a professional photographer, Karsten has built an enviable repertoire of images, skills and experiences. In recent months he’s decided to broaden pursuits through new ventures, one being the launch of a photographers’ collective website that offers high-end fine art photographic prints for sale. Shares Karsten, “Several colleagues and I started with the goal to build it into a valued resource with an everchanging selection of fine art photography. Each print is made to order and produced in limited edition. Over the years we have each made many, many personal images that we’d like to show and share with others.” As the venture grows Karsten looks forward to adding more images from additional photographers. Presently the site features a variety of landscape, still life and fine art nude images. A second project has him teaming with longtime friend and fellow photographer Chris Golson. The pair is producing intensive handson education courses in the San Francisco Bay Area ( While Karsten brings his many years of assignment and commercial photography experience to the table, Golson bring his viewpoint as technologist and educator. Key among their learning deliverables will be helping students understand the importance of preparation, pre-visualization and message development for photography. Things are looking up for photography, and one segment in particular from their inaugural three-day program echoes this feel. Karsten and Golson took students 1200 feet over the Bay Area to photograph from one of the world’s remaining three Zeppelins. The duo is looking forward to more courses that promise to be just as exciting.

In the last 15 years, digital manipulation has been growing in importance for Karsten. Today nearly every one of his images consists of numerous individual files produced either in-studio or on location. But it wasn’t until a recent assignment in Scotland that the decision was made to move entirely to digital. Karsten now relies on Hasselblad H series cameras with Leaf Aptus 75 digital backs and at times a Cambo Wide DS. “Partly smaller camera size, partly less gear to transport, and partly the image quality of the Leaf 75,” references Karsten as to why he made the switch after all these years. “I was always worrying with the old gear. Would I arrive with everything, would the film get fogged traveling through X-ray, how much would I have to pay for overweight baggage? Digital has streamlined paperwork; I head through customs far faster, there is less hassle.” Digital has greatly aided his workflow, but it’s not without its limitations. Case in point, while shooting in Scotland for Amgen’s new drug Aranesp®, Karsten had to fashion a few workarounds he likely would not have had to do with traditional gear. Three weeks prior to the Scotland shoot, Karsten received rough sketches from the art director. “The Aranesp drug stimulates production of red blood cells which are vital to energy, so for this campaign the agency wished to show an active man in the outdoors and have his activity enabled by what looks like the Aranesp pill. In each photo he’s pushing his energy in different ways—climbing, fording a stream, hiking.” His step stones, or path, to health and energy are the pills. “Of course the focal point of the image needed to fall upon the drug, and we did this by contrasting bright red color against the somber backdrop.” Karsten sent his location scout to Scotland to select venues, a model was cast in Amsterdam then flown to the site. His producer was dispatched to help on set all five days. And the red tablets? A modelmaker created them from polystyrene. Production was pegged over a five-day period at the start of November, but the weather was so bad out on the moors that work could only happen on the last day. Aside from dealing with rain, Karsten encountered other challenges that required him to employ a second identical Hasselblad with Leaf 75 plus identical lenses— rotating work between the two. He shares, “To keep equipment dry and functioning we set up tenting and platforms plus ample wet weather protection. Not enough. The cameras were sluggish in the cold and damp air so we kept each warm by wrapping heat packs in socks and surrounding them to keep them operational.” To see more of Dirk Karsten’s images, visit Martha Blanchfield is creator of the Renegade Photo Shoots ( and a freelance marketing and public relations consultant.

95 Images to Build the Titanic  

AfterCapture Oct/Nov 2009 article