Photographer Olaf Heine launches his latest photo book at the Mercedes me Store Hamburg.

Brazil – portrait of a country.

Photographer Olaf Heine launches his latest photo book at the Mercedes me Store Hamburg.
Text: Aldona Kwiatkowski
Photos: Olaf Heine/Galerie Camera Work

Soak up the country.

“On Ipanema Beach, all you see is beautiful bodies, the dazzling sea and impressive buildings. But do a 180 and you’re facing one of the country’s largest favelas,” Berlin-based photographer Olaf Heine sums up his impressions of Brazil, compiled in the eponymous coffee-table book that has just been published.

Up until now, Heine has been best known for images of musicians, actors, and athletes – images that tell stories rather than for documentary-like photography. Heine has staged rapper Snoop Dogg as a shaolin monk and Iggy Pop as a sinuous boxer. In contrast, painting the portrait of an entire country turned out to be more of a process. Altogether, and over the course of three-and-a-half years, Olaf Heine travelled to Brazil eight times, each visit lasting several weeks.

Berlin-based photographer Olaf Heine takes a look behind the facades of the country.

He initially sought to soak up impressions by retracing the steps and lines of modern architectural maestro Oscar Niemeyer. Only after months of producing photographic material did he realize that this might evolve into a larger project.

From the Copacabana to the Binnenalster.

The outcome of his travels and travails was recently published by teNeues: 250 lavish pages explore the manifold facets of this fascinating country. Flanking the launch, a selection of images is now on display at the Mercedes me Store Hamburg. The recently opened space near Hamburg’s Binnenalster not only presents the latest Mercedes-Benz models, but also serves as an urban playground for creative ventures. Each month, a new host curates a themed program, kicking off with musician Finn Martin and his theme centred around athletics. Besides Olaf Heine’s Brazil photographs, the space also sets the stage for local bands, panel discussions, and workshops.

A selection of images is now on display at the Mercedes me Store Hamburg.

The day after the opening, we meet Olaf Heine to discuss the curves and lines of Brazil, his choice of motifs and The Girl from Ipanema. Check out the photo gallery for more impressions of the Mercedes me Store Hamburg opening party.

Brazil's culture of the 60s.

Let’s start with your book – or rather with the country it was conceived in. What makes Brazil so intriguing?

I have always been fascinated by Brazil’s 1960s culture – from bossa nova by the likes of João Gilberto or Gilberto Gil to Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture and, naturally, the football magic surrounding the team of Pelé and Garrincha. After my last book (2009), I knew that my next project would revolve around something other than portraits of musicians and actors. Traveling to Brasilia to experience Niemeyer’s architecture in person had always been on my bucket list. So I simply booked a flight – and immediately found myself spellbound by the city.

Many locations were tips by native Brazilians.

I decided to travel the country, got to know the creative scene quite quickly, and even managed to meet Oscar Niemeyer himself. At the time, he was already 103-years-old – but still worked in his office every afternoon.

On the trail of Niemeyer.

Was it hard to get an appointment?

Yes, definitely. He’s a true legend in Brazil.

So, how did you manage it in the end?

Two of the magazines I work with were interested in a fashion-meets-architecture story from Brazil. So, I shot some fashion spreads on location to fund my book project. Those magazines, in turn, opened some doors and connected me with Niemeyer’s office. Even so, it took quite some time to finally meet him. My producer touched base with his studio on a regular basis and after several weeks we were asked to “drop by this afternoon.” Our meeting only lasted half an hour and he was already very ill. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a few well-known and important people – but this was really something else. Afterwards, I felt speechless and very impressed – his legacy is truly momentous.

Saudade – longing.

What sets your book apart from other works on Brazil? How did you approach it in a different way?

I hope that I have managed to create something a little more timeless – through my strictly black/white approach for one, but also through my style of photography. I deliberately stayed away from certain aspects. Although I took pictures of the Copacabana, I wasn’t looking to just focus on beautiful bodies on beaches or football, etc.. I really wanted to create a connection between Niemeyer’s striking lines and the lines of the country, the lines of the people. I’m not saying: This is Brazil – but it is one side of Brazil. I found it truly fascinating how Brazil exudes such a colourful, bold, passionate vibe, yet also has a very different side to it: the favelas, the violence, the melancholy.

Heine portrays both the colourful and dismal aspects of the country.

One of the most important words of the Portuguese language is saudade – a type of deep longing and yearning. “Saudade” was even my working title for a while; I love beauty and lightness, but also heaviness and melancholia.

Also its people shape the face of a country.

The right motif.

How did you find your motifs?

I think they found me, actually. When you tackle a project of this magnitude, you end up reading and researching a lot. Initially, my travels mostly followed in the footsteps of Oscar Niemeyer.

I photographed his presidential palace design in Brasilia, but also his former home close to Rio, the Casa das Canoas, an amazing building, nesting in the luscious green of the tropical rain forest. We were also constantly on the lookout for fashion shoot locations – and with time you meet more and more people who ply you with further leads.

Many of the visuals are by-products of Heine's fashion productions.

Amazing encounters.

What about the people you portrayed – were they chance encounters?

Some of them were models booked for our fashion productions. During the day, we would shoot the fashion spreads; at night, we’d change locations for portrait shots or nudes. Many of the visuals are thus by-products in a sense. But I also contacted some of the subjects directly, like Mariana de Moraes – the granddaughter of Vinicius de Moraes, one of Brazil’s most famous poets. He wrote the lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”. I visited Mariana and took her to the beach, her grandfather’s guitar in tow. That was an amazing moment.

More room for chance.

How did the country affect the way you work?

I would say that I’m a very straight-forward, focused person, especially when it comes to my work. I tend to plan out concepts in detail and follow the actual process with equal focus. In Brazil, I had to readjust. The nation is a little more laid-back and in flux; things don’t necessarily work out the first time round. Sometimes, you simply need to let things happen. So, I guess I started to work a little differently to what I was used to. I allowed more room for chance. And my photography became more documentary-like in style and approach. And that’s certainly due to Brazil’s way of life.

The exhibition “Brazil“ by Olaf Heine is on show at the Mercedes me Store Hamburg until 28 June 2014. Those in Berlin can enjoy his images a. o. at the CWC Gallery.

The Brazilian way of life influenced the documentary style of Heine's photography.

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