Markus Klinko's "Bowie Unseen"
Moments before meeting Markus Klinko, I found myself completely entranced by the posh yet approachable intimacy of the gallery I was standing in. The Switzerland-native photographer is currently based out of Los Angeles with his art being on display at one of the Art Angels flagship galleries. Art Angels, a contemporary art gallery residing in Beverly Hills, California was founded in 2013 by Jacquelin Napal and Kat Emery and is one of several arthouses to host Klinko’s latest international photography exhibition. "Bowie Unseen” is a series of hyper-realistic, highly-stylized portraits of the late and great David Bowie; these photos are currently on display around the world in various museums and art galleries and according to Klinko…selling out fast!
Markus Klinko: Well, so let me explain what’s going on. When David Bowie passed away, which is almost four years ago to the date, January 10th—this will mark the fourth anniversary of his passing. And so I first shot all of this work in 2001, when he asked me to shoot the cover for his album Heathen at the time. So a lot of these photos in this exhibition have never been seen until 2016 when I decided after his passing to show a lot of these images that haven’t been used.
Raven Moran: And this exhibition is also happening in other galleries right now as well?
Markus Klinko: This is a small excerpt of the exhibition that is being shown around the world. The first one actually opened in Miami in 2016. And from there it traveled to Switzerland and Paris. Then went to Sydney, Australia—this year it was in Hong Kong.
Wow, sounds like it’s really in high-demand?
Well sometimes this Bowie exhibition gets integrated in a larger exhibition I have called The 2000’s.
So it features more artists from that time period?
Yes, it includes Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez. All of those divas! Mariah Carey, Iman—just a lot of amazing celebrities that came up in the early-2000’s. Many of them at the very beginning stages of their careers. For instance Beyonce, I photographed her the first time when she was still a part of the original set of Destiny’s Child.
Ah, when there were four?
Ha! Yep. You know, a lot of development I’ve gotten to see from these artists. I did a lot of work with all of these exciting up and coming artists, so in 2018 I decided to launch The 2000’s exhibition. So this Bowie exhibition is really like a showcase from that.
I see, the exhibition as a whole sounds very exciting. The early 2000’s is quite nostalgic at this point.
Yes and seeing the big, blown up images in the front windows of the gallery is a nice accent to Beverly Hills. Simultaneously, I am also very excited about a similar showcase going up in New York. I am now three years into showing these never-before-seen images of Bowie and they are continuing around the world.
Is it a bit of a frenzy being pulled in so many directions?
Yes I was not expecting so many buyers in so many different countries, many countries like Sweden and even Switzerland—much smaller than the United States. It is a really happy process for me as well.
Absolutely. You also worked with Bowie’s wife, Iman, taking photos for her book?
Correct, at the time, literally a few months apart, I was working in LA on a shoot and the make-up artist on that shoot said “I think Iman would love your work. I’m going to take your portfolio to her house.” And you know sometimes when people say this it doesn’t always happen but she did actually call me.
Yes, she called me herself, a very powerful woman, and demanded to come over. She wanted to meet me so she came over the next day. She basically said “I chose you to shoot the photo for my cover.” And I was like whoa okay, you know? So it happened during the summer of 2001, right before 9/11.
Wow, I assume a lot of fashion work then was based out of New York, too?
Yes, my studio was in New York, in Soho, not far from the Towers. So what happened was that I did the shoot and two days later she came by with David Bowie to look over the best shots. I didn’t expect that whatsoever and at first he was very quiet but seemed pleased. So then he turns around and says “I really like this a lot. Do you want to shoot the cover of my next album?” And from there it all happened very fast.
The rest is history?
As they say! I was doing photography for about six or seven years but my career very much took off after that.
Can you tell me more about the collaborative creative process that happened between you two?
Well, he told me to come over immediately to his studio. The very next day. My photo studio and his music studio were right next to each other, funnily enough, like a quarter mile, both in Soho. So I went and he started playing the almost-finished tracks of the album. He had an idea of the kind of portraits he wanted to take but he also wanted to try out any ideas I had as well.
It sounds like it was a wonderful collaboration for you both.
Yes and I forgot to tell you before that as this exhibition is going up around the world, it is actually coinciding with my 25th anniversary as a photographer. Iman and Bowie were sort of at the very forefront of giving me my first international, bigger jobs. It helped to launch my art gallery career, unbeknownst and unplanned.
So you were initially only doing fashion photography?
Yes and working with Bowie really became a milestone for me. I never planned to make gallery exhibitions, just very focused on shooting.
I wanted to ask, since this is where the beginning of it all started for you, what were you doing before you had the bigger clientele?
So, well, I was born in Switzerland but moved to Paris in my teens. I was born into a family of classical musicians actually, and the first half of my life was dedicated to being a soloist, classical musician. I studied the harp until the age of about 33. And then due to a hand injury, it was never diagnosed, I decided to walk away from my music career. To become a fashion photographer.
Did your family freak out?
Yes it did freak everybody out but I was fine with it. I realized as a musician I very much enjoyed being in front of the camera. So after Paris, I moved to the United States and I was living in New York, I also briefly lived in Miami Beach and Los Angeles. As a matter of fact as I started photography I lived all around and even went back to Paris for a little while. My entire life I’ve been bouncing between all of those cities.
It sounds like traveling did a lot to help influence your style as a photographer?
Yes in hindsight it’s very fun to look at the past and how that all comes together today. I kind of like to say that to see the work jump from the pages of a magazine to a gallery is so very exciting for me. I don’t like to wait, I want it now!
I’m sure it’s a very satisfying thing to see. It’s sort of crazy that Bowie’s birthday and the day he passed is within the same week.
Only a few days apart. It’s a very big Bowie celebration kind of moment this week. So that combined with my 25th anniversary of being a photographer is a big memory for me as well.
It’s amazing because it sounds like it’s all still very exciting for you even though you’ve worked with so many iconic people and have had so many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
My goal is to be successful for my clients and for the future of my work. This exhibition is a great example because it has a long afterlife. These photos were shot for an album that came out in 2002 and you say “well that’s it” but that’s not it—everything is so much greater. You never know what your work can become. I still don’t know.
Are you working on anything else other than the exhibitions?
The relationships you develop in the photography business is very important as with any other field as well. All of this is only possible because of the Japanese camera company Fujifilm. I’ve worked with them for twenty years; I collaborate very closely with them and I too write articles about film equipment for them. You know, everything that I photograph I create from scratch: a studio, highly-stylized scenario. The entire approach comes about from a full team I never work alone. My smallest photoshoots generally have five to six people at least. I may be the conductor but I need my orchestra, my musicians. ■