Almost 15 years ago, something twigged inside a young Oliver Hirtenfelder – a hardcore skateboarder and devout petrolhead – when he came face-to-face with a brand new BMW Z3. Today, this same young man from Johannesburg, South Africa is a respected name in automotive photography, and walks crankandpiston.com through his journey and how he finds life behind the lens.
I have to ask: three languages. Exactly how much attention did you pay in school?!
“I just happen to have grown up in a German household in South Africa where the predominant language is English. So I grew up speaking both English and German as ‘first languages’, the third being Afrikaans which is a South African language similar to Dutch and Flemish. It’s not a language that is required, but it’s definitely something that helps you from time to time.”
What encouraged you to give photography a shot? Was the drive always there to produce ‘cool photography’?
“I guess the desire to produce cool imagery is a natural part of being a photographer. One doesn’t really want to put out mediocre work, so one always pushes to try new things and expand one’s horizon. That’s been the goal from day one.”
Was ‘being a photographer’ the goal from day one?
“Actually I started studying photography in 2004 but only really started getting into shooting cars about three years after that. In 2008 I landed my first job as an in-house photographer at a local South African motoring magazine. From there the push was just to create better and better images.”
Presumably though studying photography taught you the basics of photography but didn’t provide you with the whole package…
“Exactly. I used to be part of a forum called ‘Dieselstation’ which attracted so many amazing photographers. It was an opportunity for them to share their work. Quite a few of the guys making waves now were part of the forum years ago, and… receiving solid, honest feedback on pictures is a big part of how my photography has developed. I attribute a lot of my technique and things I’ve learnt to those forums.”
Sticking with your South African background for the moment, does the expanse of landscape and amazing locations play a key role in your photography? Is no shot complete without that, for example…?
“Yes, South Africa is most definitely known for some stunning landscapes and scenery. Unfortunately I live in one of the few regions in South Africa that lacks all of that! It’s an area called ‘highveld’, which is beautiful in its own right but it takes a good 1500km before the landscape becomes truly stunning. That’s out in the Cape.
“Personally I think that location plays a massive part in car photography. That’s not to say that one cannot produce stunning results without great scenery, but it’s a huge part of it. Having the right kind of scenery for the right kind of car just brings everything together. It really sells the image, I feel. I’m a big fan of car images that don’t focus too much on the car itself, but rather on the car within its environment.”
Bearing that in mind then, how much does Photoshop play a part on ‘selling the image’…?
I’m a big fan of photoshop. There are always those that make the argument that ‘true’ photography does not manipulate the imagery: the anti-photoshop brigade. I can tell you now that that’s total and utter B.S. Anyone who does some reading on great film photographers will quickly discover that they often spend hours or even days ‘manipulating’ the image in the darkroom, with the use of different papers and gels and various darkroom techniques, to get a result they are happy with.
“I always say that as long as the final image looks good and makes the viewer appreciate it, who cares how much the image has been manipulated. This is especially true for a field such as car photography. If the car has been edited into a new background and the sky comes from a different shot, but the final result is visually pleasing, who cares?”
Has this attitude brought you under fire from critics?
“I guess I’ve been lucky, I really haven’t had all that many people bitch about my work. I might also not be reaching enough people yet!
“I’m all for criticism, as long as it’s constructive. When someone has something genuinely helpful to say then I welcome it. When it’s just a monkey behind a keyboard trying to stir a bit of controversy, I just ignore that and move on with more important things. There are far too many people cruising around the internet nowadays just trying to upset others. People like that are best ignored.”
It’s been 15 years since you started a love affair with automotive photography. Any tips for ‘young Olivers’ out there?
“I realize this is a clichéd answer but I do think it holds true: keep at it. Work hard, keep trying new things and don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll just get up and try again. The internet is so full of amazing work by photographers and other artists that one really should not be running short on inspiration. It’s not going to come easily, that’s the one thing to keep in mind. You are going to have to work for it, but it will be worth it!”
– Shots courtesy of Oliver Hirtenfelder