Markus Klinko was three years old when he started playing the piano. With a father as a symphony musician, it was almost inevitable. By the time he was seven or eight, his dream was to become a concert soloist. After trying classical guitar and electric guitar, he became a harpist at twelve or thirteen. A native of Switzerland, eventually, he moved to Paris and made his dream come true by signing a recording contract with EMI Virgin Classics in 1990.
In 1994, Klinko developed a malady in his hand, which prevented him from playing from one day to the next. This traumatizing experience remained undiagnosed and forced a premature end to his classical music career. He seized the opportunity to attempt something totally different. “Out of the blue, I decided I want to be a fashion photographer,” he recalls. “I had no logical reason to believe I could because I’d never even owned a camera. I had never even taken any pictures whatsoever—not even for family pictures, or a hobby—nothing at all. I had no clue.”
Klinko credits the hours he spent as a subject in front of the camera during his music career as prepping him for what the environment in a professional photography studio was like. Aware he needed to educate himself, Klinko purchased an introductory book by Ansel Adams, and began studying. Coming from a classical music background, he applied himself with his usual classical practice of ten hours a day. “Of course, 16 years later, I realize that’s not at all how you become a better photographer,” he says. “By just doing it a lot, that’s not how you become a great photographer, but at that time, that’s what I was used to. I was very, very eager.”
After devouring the Adams book, his father gave him an old 35mm camera. Klinko bought a store mannequin. “I decided this would be a very good way to practice lighting and experiment with film,” he says. After working with this set-up for awhile, he became unsatisfied, and felt it was time to raise the bar on himself. “I abruptly decided I needed to buy all the equipment anybody could possibly ever use immediately,” he remembers. “I sold several harps, which are expensive instruments; a harp costs up to $40,000. I sold a couple of them right away, and I went to Foto Care in New York, and I bought pretty much half the store and beyond.”
With the selling of his harps, Klinko purchased 35mm and medium format cameras. He also bought a wide assortment of lighting equipment. “I had the mannequin, and I had all this new stuff, and I applied this 10‑hour‑a‑day philosophy,” he says. “I started photographing the mannequin systematically with every different light, from every different angle, with every different type of film at the time that was available. All day long, ten hours a day.”
At the end of each day, Klinko would rush to the labs in New York City’s photo district, most of which are gone now. He would have the film rush-developed, and waited for it. “It would always be the photos of the same mannequin. Those people thought I was crazy,” he laughs. His energy and craziness paid off. Klinko asked the lab chief for advice on pushing the film, or other techniques to help him achieve his vision. Within two weeks, he felt he had the technical basis for what he was trying to achieve photographically.
With some connections at modeling agencies, Klinko approached them without a portfolio, but armed with his classical CDs. Amazingly, they sent him a few models who needed more material for their portfolios. “I met Indrani as one of the first girls who needed a test shot because she had just changed her haircut,” he remembers. “Again, within the very first days of going to modeling agencies, Wilhelmina Models sent Indrani over and she never left!”
Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri went for dinner with Klinko, and they fell in love. The couple soon formed a partnership which lasts to this day. At the time, she had ten years of modeling experience and had taken many travel and nature photographs herself, which she still loves to do. They went to Miami for four months that winter, and Klinko did test shots, with Indrani helping. A local magazine gave him his first assignment, and they were on their way.
Relocating to Paris, Klinko got an agent, and an avalanche of magazine work came in from both Paris and London. They fortunately met a small company of digital retouchers—a rarity in 1995. The company sponsored Klinko and Indrani, trading retouching for their book if the couple would later bring their paying work back to the company. The opportunity also gave Indrani the chance to become familiar with the possibilities of computer retouching.
After Paris, they opened their own retouching house in New York in 1996 with the help of a French company called Cyborg Imaging. This operated for a few years, servicing other photographers and corporate clients. When they realized they were shooting for the same clients as some of the photographers who were coming to them for retouching, they decided the conflict of interest was too great. They merged Cyborg Imaging into Markus Klinko Photography, and only worked on the images they shot themselves.
The experience proved positive, and the couple learned much from working as photographers and as postproduction specialists. “It gave us a lot of encouragement too, because we saw the raw film that came in from those people who were famous, so we knew that we could definitely compete,” Klinko says. “That’s basically how it all got started, and from there on it’s obviously always an up and down, struggling enterprise to become well known in the industry, but we had a lot of lucky breaks. In early 2000′s, David Bowie and Iman really championed our work by giving us major assignments. David Bowie hired us for his album cover for Heathen, and Iman hired us for her book cover, I am Iman.”
During this period, they shot repeatedly for The London Sunday Times, British GQ, and many interview-based magazines. In the early 2000s, the recording industry took notice, and began liking their work. Album covers followed. In 2003, they shot one of their most recognizable images for Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love, which directly led to campaigns for L’Oreal Paris.
The mid-2000s were fruitful for Klinko and Indrani. Simultaneously both they and Bravo began developing an idea of a reality television show based on photographers. “A lot of people when they saw us work on sets would tell us, ‘Oh my god! You guys are like a working reality show,’ because we’re sometimes quite comical because we discuss everything a lot and we argue a lot,” Klinko explains. “It’s creative arguments. ‘Should it be blue, or should it be red, or should it be from the left, or should it be from the right?’ Everything gets discussed and gets negotiated.”
After almost two years of meetings with production companies and negotiations with Bravo, Double Exposure went into preproduction in early 2009. The show has featured celebrity guests such as Naomi Campbell, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, Dita Von Teese, and many others. “I consider it an unprecedented opportunity because such a show has never existed before,” Klinko says. “It’s a very raw look at the behind‑the‑scenes, with obviously a lot of unnecessary drama added, of course, for the needs of reality television, which is a little bit the regrettable part because we are actually far less dramatic than we come across on the show.” He feels reality producers edit to make the drama more pronounced.
Still, there is value to the audience regarding the art and practice of photography. Klinko says, regarding the actual photo shoots, “This has never been seen before—so much access to things usually very secretive and very unapproachable. I think that was a big success in terms of access and of letting the viewer really be part of what’s going on.”
Klinko claims the shoots captured for the show document some of their best photographic work, particularly the sessions with Dita Von Teese and Lady Gaga. Season One is now available on the iTunes Music Store.
All those hours of dedicated photographic study have paid off for Klinko, as he has become knowledgeable about the tools of his trade. “Mamiya has been my brand of choice for so many years,” he says. “Literally all of our work has been shot with Mamiya, I think we started using a 22 megapixel digital back, sometime around 2004.”
With six years of digital Mamiya shooting, the team shot film-based Mamiya before that. “I used Mamiya as my favorite brand,” Klinko says. “Even though I’ve experimented, I was quite fond of the Fuji camera, which was six by eight format. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I always came back to the RZ. Of course now I’m also very excited about the new 645DF with the Leaf shutter lenses. Of course that’s amazing. So, I think Mamiya really offers absolutely the best platform for the digital back.”
“The RZ is just the greatest camera ever built for the kind of work we do,” Klinko continues. “I think the combination of an RZ and the 645—it’s really the dream setup because you can shoot with either camera, really, in every situation. It’s very fluid and the quality is just unbelievable. I’m using both the RZ and the 645DF. I’m right now getting more and more excited about the 645DF and started using it a lot. We have a very busy month. We’re going to be shooting a very long list of major A‑list celebrities. I’m very excited with the new camera, and I will be putting it to very good use. Yeah, so it’s all the way Mamiya! There’s really is nothing else.”
Klinko is equally excited about the choices of lenses available. “I use whichever lens is needed at the time,” he explains. “I’m not limiting myself, but most of the time a normal or slightly wide lens is probably the most practical for fashion and celebrity photography. I don’t use very long lenses very often. Of course, I have them all, like the 500mm lens for the RZ, for instance. It’s a fabulous setup but it’s obviously not your everyday lens. Anything too extreme, like a fish‑eye or something, again, I always have it with me, but it’s not something you use every time you shoot. I’d say one particular lens that over the years has been a big favorite is definitely the 65mm lens for the RZ. I think that’s probably one of the best lenses ever built. The resolution of that lens is unbelievable. The new lenses, the 80mm and the 55mm and all that on the 645, they’re all extremely sharp and extremely great lenses. I take a whole range. It depends a little bit what you’re doing. Back in the film days, before digital, my favorite lens was the 140 macro for the Mamiya RZ. That was the lens I constantly used. With the different chip sizes and the format changes and stuff, due to that, I started using more of the 110 lens and the 65mm. Those are probably my two most used lenses on the RZ.”
After having a SoHo studio for eight years, Klinko and Indrani are happy to be shooting on location whenever possible. For the show, they have been shooting in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London, and India. “I look forward to the next chapter, which we have various offers we’re discussing,” says Klinko. “We’re definitely going to keep a television presence, there’s no question.”
Indrani recently finished writing a book, and she and Klinko are working on a retrospective book of their photographs. They are also branching out and directing, which is a new path for the team. A few months ago they released a high tech commercial for Marc Ecko featuring Lindsey Lohan.
Currently, Klinko sees their work moving away from posed and highly retouched to more spontaneous and less digitally altered. Although he gives clients what they ask for, when given the choice, they seem to be moving away from the polished iconic look evident in their early years.
Regarding subject matter, don’t try to pin down Klinko as a celebrity shooter. “We’re not just advertising, or fashion, or celebrities. We do it all,” he says. We go from very dark, edgy and challenging type of work to very commercial, very mainstream kind of stuff without any hesitation. One day we can shoot a soda can, and then the next day we could shoot an edgy, underground magazine from London. We love that and we don’t think one’s better than the other; we think they’re very different. We like to do portraiture, and we like to shoot normal people whether they’re CEOs, or writers, or cooks, or whatever they are. We’ve also started doing a lot of book covers, movie posters, and all sorts of new work. We actually photographed our own campaign for the Bravo show.”
Markus Klinko’s first life was as a classical harpist. He has transformed himself into a professional photographer sought by clients around the world. As a reality show star, we see him entering his third endeavor. Keep watching him, his partner Indrani, and the iconic images they create. There’s no telling what might be their next creative incarnation.