Samuel Zeller is a Swiss photographer who finds visual pleasure in man-made environments. Inspired by plant illustrations in encyclopedias, he photographed the botanical gardens of his Geneva. In this interview, he talks to Lomography about the painterly aspect of photography, the value of a print, and the role of instinct in a creative project.
Did you have an interest in botanical gardens before you started with the project?
As a kid I wanted to become a botanist, and later on an architect. My grandmother had this house in Samoëns with a huge batch of land including a forest, a field, and a small river, and I remember running around trying to find plants and insects that I observed and collected. Then, later on, I developed a strong attraction towards botanical and animal illustrations, the ones you can find in encyclopedias.
What was your approach in the composition of the photographs?
For the close-ups, I approached the plants as human beings, kind of like as if I was shooting portraits. For the more architectural ones, I simply composed them based on what I perceived, in a very natural process. I didn’t use a tripod, I didn’t really take the time to carefully think about each composition. I just used my instinct and eye. That’s usually how I work, based on sensitivity.
The colors and light in “Botanical” are striking. How do you work with these two elements and what role do they play for you?
In terms of color, I choose to be as close as possible to what you can obtain by painting, I didn’t push things too much. The contrast is quite low; my intent was to remain painterly. As for the light, I was really lucky. The conditions were perfect and they just had the glass cleaned.
What camera and equipment did you use to shoot “Botanical”?
Being a Fujifilm X-Photographer, I only use Fujifilm cameras from their X-Series. For “Botanical”, I used the Fujifilm X-T1 and the XF35mm 1.4 lens which is tack sharp and perfect for these kind of straight images. This system delivers incredible quality and I’m mostly stunned by the electronic viewfinder. It is huge and bright and allows me to compose and get an idea of the final shot.
Are you planning on expanding the project?
I got contacted by an editor in London to turn this subject into a small photography book. In order to do that, I’ll have to expand my material to a selection of 30 to 35 images. I plan to visit London, Paris, Barcelona, Zurich, and a few other smaller cities.
You explained that you create a lot of your work when going through emotional phases. What emotions informed “Botanical”? In what way are they reflected in the photographs
I was on my way home after a hard day at work. I took the train and I got off one stop before my usual one. I needed some fresh air and time to calm down so I went to the botanical gardens. I was finally able to clear my mind and relax. It’s reflected in the images, but it’s not easy to see. I think the fact that I composed them and shot them in a very short amount of time shows how much I was ‘into the moment’, I was not really thinking, I was just in the flow of things.
Another series of images I did called “Brumes” was shot shortly after a hard breakup. I used that sadness as an energy and focused on the images to try to escape the current situation I found myself in.
Why did you choose photography as a medium to express your emotions?
I didn’t pick photography, it picked me somehow. I used to draw a lot when I was younger and I was really good at it, but then I started working on the computer and put down my pencils. I worked six months as an intern at Studio Casagrande in Geneva, that was the first time that I actually used photography for something else than vacation pictures. Then, in 2012, I bought my first camera, a Fujifilm X-100.
The range of your projects seems quite broad. Is there anything you enjoy photographing in particular? If so, why?
I particularly enjoy photographing architecture and people. I find beauty in cities, in man-made environments. I try to emphasize little elements that could seem commonplace if not looked at attentively. I also love unposed portraits, natural imperfections and the look in people’s eyes.
What’s the common thread in all of your projects?
A common thread is the way I compose my shots, I try to think in two dimensions as if I was drawing on a piece of paper. Of course, some of my images have perspective and depth but when I look through the viewfinder I consider all elements to be on the same plane.
While other artists are worried about putting their work online, let alone for free and unrestricted use, it’s interesting that you upload parts of your work to Unsplash where it’s available for everyone to use and modify. What’s your reason behind this?
Putting my images out there can help other designers and I think it’s more useful than just letting my files sit on a hard drive. There’s also a really nice community of photographers behind Unsplash. They recently created a book called The Unsplash Book and I’m part of it.
So you don’t ever fear that your work loses value for people because of it?
What is value? For me, an image has value because someone likes it enough to buy it as a print. It also has value for design agencies and designers who stumble upon my Unsplash profile. Value takes a lot of different forms and shapes. Leo Nocta, a talented musician, used one of my images for his first EP and for him it has an enormous value – for me as well, I’m happy to see my picture used in that way.
Giving images for free also brings a ton of visitors to my website and I already had jobs from people who found me through Unsplash. It’s like a teaser of what I can do, a try before you buy.
What are your plans for this year? Do you already have a new project in mind?
I have my first solo exhibition planned from the May 19 to 28 at the Next Door Gallery in Geneva. I’m also working on another exhibtion of black and white portraits I took at the Ô Bar perché, on my website there’s only a few but it’s actually a collection of around 250.
In terms of upcoming shoots, I have one planned that involves flying over the alps in a small motorized vehicle. I’ve recently worked for Monocle magazine which was a really good experience, and I’m looking forward to doing more work for printed publications – I’d love to work for Cereal or Kinfolk. I want to visit more cities and crazy places, especially industrial ones. I love them.
Also, in 2016, I’m hoping to dedicate more time and money to photography and maybe stop working full-time as a designer. By selling fine art prints, I can also invest the profit back into other projects such as my exhibition.