Ralph Larmann

Interview with Ralph Larmann

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Name: Ralph Larmann
Webseite: www.larmann.com
Buchbesprechung: Um die Welt in 760 Tagen
From The Ground Up
Ralph Larmann arbeitet als freier Fotograf für Künstler, Unternehmen, Architekten, Lichtdesigner und verschiedene Magazine. Der Deutsche gilt weltweit als einer der besten Live- und Konzertfotografen. In seinen beiden Bildbänden Stage Design und Stage Design Emotions dokumentierte er zahlreiche nationale und internationale Konzerte, Opern, Musicals, TV-Shows und Events, wobei er immer die Inszenierung und Live-Produktion in den Vordergrund stellt. Zur Veröffentlichung von Um die Welt in 760 Tagen hat Teammitglied Didi ein Telefoninterview mit ihm geführt.

U2tour.de: Dear U2tour.de fans, I am delighted to have a very special interview partner today and give a warm welcome to Ralph Larmann, the photographer and journalist, who is about to publish the photography book From the Ground Up. The book is to be published on 18 October 2012 and I am glad to have the opportunity to do a phone interview with him. Most certainly, I have some exciting questions, which we collected among the fans prior to today. Mr. Larmann, could you please introduce yourself to those readers who are not yet that familiar with your work as a U2 photographer and also please tell us how you got into journalism.

Ralph Larmann: Well, I took my own very special path. Originally, I am a drummer, studied popular music in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and then, about 25 years ago, moved into journalism as I was very interested in interviewing musicians and in releasing stories about music in professional publications. I started writing, yet, at the same time, I also wanted to take the pictures accompanying my stories. Thus, I more or less got into photography - writing stories, doing interviews and then myself taking photos of my interview partners, objects, concerts or whatever. So it evolved sort of automatically. I published my first books in the early 90s. Back then, I composed a book, or rather documentation, for Marek Lieberberg (German concert promoter) called Heute die. Morgen du (Today it's them. Tomorrow yourself) covering a concert against right wing extremists in front of the Festhalle in Frankfurt. The next book was 10 Jahre Rock am Ring (10 Years of Rock am Ring, a huge German music festival), again for Marek Lieberberg, followed by close cooperation with various artists. I worked a lot with Udo Lindenberg, Fury in the Slaughterhouse, Howard Carpendale, the Schürzenjäger (all German acts)...indeed, a very broad range. I covered very diverse fields of music, including classical music. David Garrett's current live DVD, for instance, is designed using exclusively my photographs. And in comedy, the current Bülent Ceylan DVD (German comedian), recorded at Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt. By now, I cover a very broad field. There was, for example, my latest project photographing the Golf VII presentation by Volkswagen in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. So, I feel at home in the field of events and concerts and that is the world I feel utterly comfortable in, that I enjoy enormously and in which, I feel, there is no end in sight for me. There is progression after all: events and concerts visually evolve in a very interesting way and there are always new, exciting visual productions. This is my profession and this is where I feel at home!

U2tour.de: You perfectly anticipated my next two, three questions and already mentioned that you also cover industrial photography. On your homepage, I noticed some photos related to industry and architecture, yet the majority is rather music-related. Knowing that you studied music and that you are a drummer, I now fully understand why and get to my next questions: How did you get so close to U2? There is the longtime U2 photographer Anton Corbijn, who is very close to the band, and Andrew MacPherson has taken quite some pictures of U2 - How did you get into the large U2 family?

Ralph Larmann: I published two photography books, Stage Design (2007) and Stage Design Emotions (2010) and for the first one, I took pictures of the Vertigo production. On this occasion, I met Willie Williams and, at the Berlin concert, gave him a CD-ROM containing my photos. Two months later, he wrote me a short mail telling me that he finally found the time to look at my photos and that he just wanted to let me know that these were the best he had seen of the Vertigo production and whether he could use them for his website. Most certainly, this was a huge compliment - coming from a designer like Willie Williams, who I consider one of the most creative and best designers in show and stage business regarding modern stage productions. At the same time, I was also photographing stage stories for my first Stage Design book. And learning that he (Williams) had also designed George Michael's 25LIVE, I asked for the permission to also take pictures of that production for my book. Two days later, I got the OK from the management. After seeing my pictures, they called me and asked whether I could take pictures of the production in Copenhagen directly for George Michael. Well, and when U2 started their 360° tour, I knew that I absolutely had to photograph this tour for my second Stage Design book. I had stayed in touch with Willie Williams and he said: "Come to Berlin and photograph that show! The band is eager to meet you, wants to see your photos and wants to see how you catch the show in pictures."

For that concert, I upgraded my equipment a bit, in order to be able to take 360° roundshot pictures, perfectly fitting the 360° tour. In Berlin, I photographed my first roundshots - at that time, not from the stage. The band was not familiar with that photography technique but liked it that much that they told me to come on stage with them in Gelsenkirchen. This is when I personally met the band. Most certainly, Larry Mullen, who was next to me on stage, wanted to know who he was dealing with. Among the Berlin photos, there was this star picture that you are familiar with. This photo was so popular with everyone involved in the production that, when arriving in Gelsenkirchen, I saw that everybody used it as wallpaper on their cell phones or notebooks. And even Bono came up to me and explicitly thanked me for my Berlin photos and this felt like knightly accolade to me right there. To receive such a compliment from Bono, from this artist, is just like a dream! The fact that he appreciates my pictures this way. I then took roundshots in Gelsenkirchen which also turned out fantastically and they were perceived brilliantly. So, as a consequence I was directly booked. During the two shows at Wembley Stadium in London, I photographed directly for the band and management. Some of these pictures were used for promotion and for concert posters. The Berlin picture became the official cover of the tour programme and was available as poster at the merchandising booths. As such, I ultimately got in through my work. Willie Williams then wrote the foreword to my Stage Design Emotions book, which was certainly very special to me. I will never forget the moment when he sent me his foreword and I read it. The way he perceives my work and described it was such a huge compliment that I got all teary-eyed. The band liked the way I caught their shows in photos and as a next step I directly accompanied the band in America for one week. In the US, I took pictures in St. Louis, at New Meadowlands Stadium in Newark and in Minneapolis. It was my objective to take pictures of a quality exceeding the 35mm format. During these three concerts and during set-up in Newark and taking down the stage in Minneapolis, I used one, respectively two Leica S2 cameras to shoot in digital medium format, which quality-wise is a dream come true. There are more than 180 of my pictures in this book, more than 100 of which were taken with the Leica S2s. These have a very unique quality. The depth and detail resolution is fascinating! This was my objective: to photograph this tour, this unique stage, this production in a quality exceeding the normal standards; and I have to say that I succeeded.

U2tour.de: Absolutely. As you said earlier, your Berlin pictures created quite a stir! I have it right in front of me on my notebook and it is just unbelievably great! I personally attended this show. You listed the concerts you attended, have you been to any other concerts on this tour? In your book, we read that you were travelling with the band in their private jet. Or was that just Dylan Jones, your author?

Ralph Larmann: No, I was travelling with the band. Ok, Bono always travelled separately (laughs), as he was travelling also to other destinations, but other than that I was in the same jet as the band, the production and management team; altogether roughly 50 people.

U2tour.de: And how does it feel to be allowed to travel with these giants of rock music in a jet? Or are they just normal people then? I once also had the privilege of visiting their studio for ten minutes, but this is certainly a different setting and they probably try to present that especially for the fans. Probably, hardly anyone of us knows the band personally, but I think that sometimes the curtains drop and you get to see the private side of them. How does that feel?

Ralph Larmann: Well, quite normal, I have to say. You don't sit there with just the band but with, I think, 50 people. We stayed in New York and from there travelled to St. Louis and Minneapolis. To the Meadowlands Stadium, we travelled with busses. Altogether, this is certainly an uplifting experience and just unbelievably great to receive this kind of trust from the artists and production team, as the U2 family is a closed community. This can be clearly stated. Someone told me, by the way, that usually nobody gets in. They have their people with whom they have been working for years, this is a very intimate group. Very understandable, just as you say: never change a winning team. These are people sticking together for many years and working together, getting these huge productions ultimately off the ground and professionally manage all processes. Once you are a part of this production, you start feeling that it has a professionalism that is hard to top. Everything is exactly scheduled and every agreed deadline is met right on time. Nothing is random, and I guess that even in case of emergency a perfect backup would be ready at hand. Everything is mastered with absolute precision and professionalism and this , I think, is clearly noticed by the fans and those attending the shows alike. This is really special, the tour is really special. I also think the band's attitude is very exceptional - they are Irishmen, not Englishmen, not Americans. In my opinion this also creates a special atmosphere. On the other hand, with all the energy of the band you feel like they are floating above the ground- but this is no surprise considering the energy the band receives from 90,000 fans during a show. And then again, they are all really down to earth, no one is detached from reality, you will not hear about destroyed hotel rooms or silly things like that. They are normal people who are geniuses in what they are doing. In more than 30 years, they have grown to a band that has reached a level that no other band could possibly come near to at the moment. There are the Stones who, however, address a completely different audience, and that's it, yes. Speaking about individual artists, there is Bruce Springsteen and then there's also Madonna...

U2tour.de: …who recently has had difficulties in filling stadiums, hasn't she?

Ralph Larmann: Yeah, you see, it already gets difficult here. Coldplay is very successful at the moment but they can't be compared to U2. The continuity with which the band has reached this production is extraordinary. To get there, also taking big risks to realise this production and yet exactly knowing what they want. Willie Williams told me a story regarding Jake Berry, the production director- they would never have done this tour without Jake Berry. That was the key position and the clear intention was: we only want and are even capable to do this tour with Jake Berry as our production director. It worked out, yes, but only by means of consistency that you will find there. They just know that they have to fill specific positions with certain personalities in order to ever be able to take these risks. The awareness of how much this production depends on individuals - we have indeed experienced that with U2 themselves when Bono had his back injury- […] the trucks were loaded, everything ready to take off but then the tour had to be cancelled. Just insane. But that's the way it goes. This is also the reason why the human factor was kept extremely high during this production or generally with U2, also by the management. The people who have been engaged and are involved definitely have the level that is necessary to work on par in such a position. This is the only way it works.

U2tour.de: Yes, well, U2 fans are also extraordinary, we appreciate the fact that for decades now, the band has never really lost touch with reality. Of course, they had to go through some ups and downs, and after Joshua Tree, they had to come up with something new… But I guess there's no occasion where the band was perceived as being utterly arrogant. The book also mentions the fans' eagerness to see the band: i.e. when Bono's back issues came up, only 2% of the tickets were returned. And it is stressed how exceptional this is, the way how most fans reacted: 'well okay, I don't want my money back and I am willing to wait for another year' .This is usually cannot be taken for granted.

Ralph Larmann: No, this is not common. When you experience a show by U2… there were moments when I was emotionally deeply touched, apart from standing on stage with the band at Wembley in front of a crowd of 90,000 in order to take these roundshot pictures, I will never forget the moment during the Vertigo tour at Berlin's Olympic Stadium when they started to play Where the Streets Have no Name and 70,000 in the stadium started to tremble. This is…this is simply …really, really touching, this is really hard to top. A band cannot unleash more energy in an audience. And also for me, this explains my relationship to music. I have my roots in music and have worked with the most diverse bands for 25 years and have been on stage myself - for heaven's sake not in this scale obviously, I haven't achieved that much as a musician (laughs). But I know the business, what it is about and what kind of magic it can convey. Luckily, now being a photographer, I have the chance to experience that again and again. Of course, never on the same level when accompanying U2, but many very different ways, which is absolutely great. Speaking about the shows in the USA. In Minneapolis, it started to pour down so heavily after 15 minutes, it was really tropical rain, the water was even splashing up from the ground - and the band and the crowd just converted this situation: They enjoyed it. Just like that. I was dealing with a large problem regarding my 2 Leica S2 cameras, I mean how much is this thing? A body like that is approximately worth $24,000… just the body. I grabbed a huge towel from the production office, wiping my cameras dry the whole time. By the end of the show, I was drenched, even my socks were wet - everything was wet, I was totally exhausted. I have never been that wet with clothes on, I could have jumped into a swimming pool with the same effect. Yet, I was happy (laughs), I think I can put it that way. The band had delivered a mind-blowing show. They had transformed this rain into positive energy, which is a highly complicated thing to achieve. Words cannot describe this feat when an artist is capable of transforming this energy into something positive. Others might say: "Let's call it off, the rain is too heavy to continue." Luckily, it was a warm summer rain but it was so torrential… Good Lord, how the band played! Never in my life have I seen such rain pictures in terms of concert photography. Mother of God… I cannot describe this.

U2tour.de: I'm looking at one of the preview photos available to us at this very moment and yes, it's been captured sensationally. Are there any funny stories you would like to share with us?

Ralph Larmann: It's just.. it's intensive. That was this massively intensive week, beginning with my journey to New York. The night before I left for New York, I had photographed Mario Barth's (German comedian) last stadium show at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. After that, I directly took off to New York and later on the same day, I was shooting the St. Louis show. Phew, that was… really heavy.

U2tour.de: Sounds like quite a challenge.

Ralph Larmann: Yes, it was indeed a challenge and eventually it all worked out fine. But like I said, it was an absolutely intensive time. Driving into the stadium with the band, being escorted by the police, cars pulling over on the highway… just like Hollywood. Especially this week in the US was incredibly fun and something really special. I think the pictures speak for themselves by conveying exactly this feeling. Over 100 pictures of more than 180 were shot in the USA. It was fascinating getting this feeling across, let alone in this quality. Incredible. Of course, in the end, you are totally exhausted. The band flew back to New York, I flew back to Frankfurt from Minneapolis. As I said, I was wet all over, so I was lucky having my luggage in the stadium, so I could change clothes on location. After that I thanked Brian Celler, general director at Principal Management and he was like "What for? You don't have to thank us, you're part of the family now." Him saying that was, once again, a giant compliment. This is just… having achieved this! I think, you cannot achieve more as a photographer in the business. This is just the peak position. I have done several other things lately, in particular the Gold VII presentation for Volkswagen in the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is the supreme level in this industry. Then I have photographed the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm for three years in a row. These are all things which have spirit and energy and certainly they are special. Being able to do this, being asked to do this as a photographer… well… what else could I wish for? I have found the job of my dreams, I enjoy it and I feel that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

U2tour.de: You have already told us that you got acquainted with U2 through your own books, Stage Design and Stage Design Emotions, which we also recommend on our homepage. How did the idea of "From The Ground Up" take shape? I assume that everyone was so amazed by your photographs, that they said: Let's print this on thick paper." How did it go exactly?

Ralph Larmann: No, this is a concept. There are now photographers on the planet devoting themselves explicitly to stages and stage design. I'm the only one who covers this topic this way. There are some books on stage design by an individual author, who then buys photographs from various photographers. I have worked as a photographer for professional journals, especially for Production Partner Magazine, Event Partner Magazine or PMA, whom I still work for. I have frequently written stories for these magazines on stage productions and also provided photographs. I noticed that there were no professional publications or books covering the world's key productions as a whole. That was my motivation to pull this off. Of course, I added some commissioned productions but there were several things I photographed explicitly for the book. I, for instance, photographed The Lion King Musical solely for my Stage Design book. Both, Disney and the Musical Theater in Hamburg were so enthusiastic that they said: "We make things possible that are usually impossible." That's why I was able to shoot the musical, in fact, five times. The entire cast performed five scenes exclusively for me. Then I had the chance to do a stage tour for a whole afternoon, so I could shoot all details of the stage setting individually - usually, this is not permitted, it's impossible: Whenever you attend a musical, you're told clearly that filming and photographing is strictly prohibited and, boy, if you get caught with a camera, you have to leave the show - like at the movies. Wow, I was given the official permission to do this, that was just fantastic. Also, I shot "Wicked" and "West Side Story" for my second photography book. In these situations, I enjoy so much trust from those responsible to only shoot for my book and to not publish them anywhere else and most certainly, I absolutely stick to these agreements. The only way to reach such professional level as a photographer is if you adhere to all the agreements to 100 per cent. For my third photography book, I photographed, for instance, Kylie Minogue's "Aphrodite" exclusively, which was one of those opportunites where I could really shoot the entire show. Usually, you're allowed to shoot during the first one or two songs and that's it. But in these cases I'm free to work the way I want to. This is all based on trust.

U2tour.de: Have you initiated the U2 book did the U2 management approach you?

Ralph Larmann: The idea came from Willie Williams and me. This book is not my book, but definitely the bands' book. Eventually, it has been finalized by the band or rather by the band's layout designer [Steve Averill]. It's a book by U2 and Dylan Jones of, with the majority of the photographs provided by me. There are some other photographs as well, as I was not around all the time, which wouldn't be possible with a tour of this scale anyway, that would be nonsense. Willie Williams added some pictures, then again there are also other stories like Glastonbury. They have also added this topic since, obviously, the band was just proud to be there. Plus, they were there without the Claw.

So, this is why the book is from the three of us, if you like to put it that way. I was one of the initiators and since I contributed the majority of photos and since they wanted them in that way and size, my name was also put on the front page. This is a great honor and the most wonderful compliment for my work. What else could I wish for?

U2tour.de: Absolutely. Is it your photo on the front page?

Ralph Larmann: No.

U2tour.de: So you can't tell us the story of this picture.

Ralph Larmann: The whole thing happened during the set-up. I photographed the set-up as well. If you look at that - what an effort the individual production crew members put in the set-up working so accurately on a very strict time table. I saw the technical build up in New Meadowlands in Newark, NJ. The steel construction had already been set up, then the technical production has been added individually: sound, video and lights. And that happened within one day which was exactly the day of the show. And at night on show day, the entire technical production was removed leaving only the steel construction which then was taken down separately. This is just insane. Well and there was a situation, where, obviously, the production crew had fun and hanged themselves on the screen.

U2tour.de: Setting up and taking down the stage really is an incredible logistical feat. We were often able to watch a large part of the stage disappearing within half an hour after the show, while leaving the stadium heading home.

Ralph Larmann: Yes, it is in fact incredible - what has been accomplished logistically is just insane. This is also the reason why this tour required this very special kind of crew. Jake Berry moved boxes for the support bands, too. He didn't sit in his office doing nothing, no, he was on stage, busy moving boxes. Jake Berry is an extraordinary guy, I met him years ago at a Rolling Stones gig. He's a dinosaur in this business - guys like him are simply unique. And it's guys like him who are really essential for this kind of productions. It's great to meet such people. Of course I gave Jake my two illustrated books, as he had always been a part of the productions depicted in there. Guys like him - just great. They do a 100 per cent accurate job.

U2tour.de: Okay, now we have almost reached the end of our interview. To conclude, I really feel the need to mention that, for me, this book is epic. Rarely have I seen any media documenting a tour by the likes of the 360° tour like this book does. We can only whole-heartedly recommend it. The way these pictures were taken and also the amount of the photographs are really incredible. Also, I think that, for everyone who has seen the tour, no matter which show, this book will be a perfect conclusion, providing them with a chance to re-live their concert experience. Sure, there are already audio recordings and videos of the tour as well, but having a book with high-resolution photographs to skim through is, in fact, fantastic. To move on, the third Stage Design book seems to be in the making. What are your future projects?

Ralph Larmann: I cannot talk openly about that as of now. I am currently in talks about a book with two artists. There's also a documentary about a tour, since there is no such thing as this U2 book yet. I don't know of any books like this about other artists. There is a book about the Rolling Stones called "Live on Tour", however, this book has a fundamentally different approach. Then there was the book "U2 Show" by an English photographer. This time, however, there was the idea, and that's why the band was directly involved: We don't want this to be done by any random artist, we want this to be done on our own, we want to transfer our ideas the way we think it's appropriate. This is why this book is, in fact, a book from the band and from the management. Paul McGuinness has written the foreword and everyone involved in the production is also part of this book. It's directly from the production team. Then there is of course Dylan Jones, a high-class author who linguistically rounds up the whole thing in perfection. Putting something like this together really is high art. I, for instance, if working with famous German artists or bands on a similar project, would definitely choose to collaborate with a good author. I think this provides the work with a special character. It's always very special to do everything on your own, I did this in previous times, but nowadays I focus on photography. I feel that it makes sense to mainly commit myself to photography and to work with the best quality possible and to go along with technical progress. That's what I focus on. Also, as a matter of fact, stage design is a field that has no limits. There will always be new, interesting and exciting visual productions. Even on a smaller level. I do not only see the big productions but also a lot of smaller yet captivating things with exciting creative elements. I want to take time to discover things like that. I will also be working on a major project in New York next year or the year after at the latest, focusing on exciting book projects. Coming back to the U2 360° book: there are audio records, DVDs, but a book offers the possibility of accessing this production from a completely different angle: we can examine all the details without any rush and be completely taken in by the stage and the show in a way we would never be able to just watching a video. And therein lies the beauty. Mine and Willie William's idea was to provide the fans with a document that gives them the chance to re-experience the biggest tour production of all time in a manner they, under normal circumstances, would never be able to. I also appreciate that the price for the book is kept within reasonable limits. This has been of great importance to me. Random House, the publishing company, has provided me with all proofs before printing to make sure I am pleased with the quality. Prior to that, I had rejected some proofs because the quality was not satisfactory. I was provided with the book already three months ago. My point was to really push the pictures, the quality as well as the expressiveness of the photos to the highest degree possible, without many graphical changes. Accordingly, you can also see that the illustrator hasn't let off too much steam. It is all about the texts, and how the pictures are described. The texts are clear and there is a clear, straight narrative line in the book. This really is a documentary, approved directly by the band and I think this is what makes it really outstanding.

U2tour.de: There have been some talks about a special edition of the book…

Ralph Larmann: A special edition doesn't exist. There won't be any other versions of the book. The only difference is the language. The English version is identical to the German version, apart from the language. Recently, I had someone on my facebook page asking me about the difference as the English version is apparently advertised with 300 pages and the German version with 256. The English version has 256 pages, too! The world-wide release is set for 18 October. The book will be presented on the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair. And the containers with the German editions have already arrived in Hamburg.

U2tour.de: Many thanks for this very detailed and frank interview. I can only repeat myself: everyone in our team who has had a look at your book is overwhelmingly excited. If we could recommend one U2 book only for the past five years, this would be it, as this is the perfect follow-up of U2's official biography U2 by U2! We look forward to your upcoming projects and hope that we have drawn our readers' attention to your other and future books! Enjoy your upcoming promotion work!

Interview: Reicht Dietmar

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