Stefan Draschan isn’t your typical photographer. By his own admission, he wasn’t much of a fan of the art form. “Photography and the fine arts didn’t really speak to me. I grew up on television and was much more drawn to film and literature. I had to train myself to appreciate other art forms,” he says.
For Draschan, photography began as a simple hobby. Although he saw himself as a journalist— he worked as a culture journalist and literary critic in his native Austria—photography soon began to take over his life. The camera was a means to keep his hands occupied while he weaned himself off of a heavy cigarette addiction. Armed with an iPhone and a Panasonic Lumix, he began taking his camera everywhere he went in order to keep his mind off of nicotine. A move from his native Vienna to Berlin upped his obsession, as he began to capture his love affair with his new home from behind the lens. “I don’t think any of this would have happened had I not moved to Berlin,” Draschan says “Vienna is very limited in what you can photograph. Berlin felt like a city where everyday you discover something new, and I quickly became addicted to this idea of wanting to photograph one good photo a day.”
Draschan began uploading his work to various Tumblr pages as he began to recognize patterns in the images he was creating. His first series, “Bicycle Culture,” was a selfie series in which he photographed him and his bicycle crashing into abandoned or wrecked vehicles as a means of demonstrating his abhorrence to car culture and his desire to see bicycles triumph to build ‘car free cities. Nearly two dozen Tumblr pages followed, with series like “People Matching Artworks”, a portrait series of museum-goers blending into works of art, gaining consistent press from Elle, Conde Nast, NY Daily News, CNN, Bored Panda and Architectural Digest and growing a following across social media.
Draschan chatted with Artrepreneur about learning a new craft and the transition from photography as a hobby to a full-time job.
An Interview with Stefan Draschan
KV: How long have you been photographing and what were you doing previously?
Stefan Draschan: I started photographing four years ago. I studied history at school and then worked as a culture journalist, writing mostly critiques. There isn’t a lot of money in culture writing in Austria so I ended up moving on to teaching. I taught German in language schools in France, Spain, and Italy. I also had a job running a cafe for a little while. I wrote mostly about literature, and honestly, never had a strong interest in photography or the fine arts.
KV: That’s interesting because a lot of your current work focuses on observations of fine arts.
Stefan Draschan: Yeah. That just kind of happened. When I first started taking pictures I was photographing everything. I had a model friend that I took portraits of. I shot portraits and landscapes in the street. I put together a bicycle series in 2013 which was a selfie series, that took off really quickly and got a lot of attention in the United States. Then I did the “Cars Matching Homes” series. I began taking photographs inside museums because museums were the only public spaces left where I could go and not be surrounded by cars.
KV: Photography began as a way to distract yourself from smoking. When did it switch from a distraction to a career path?
Stefan Draschan: I really wanted to leave Vienna and ended up traveling to Berlin. I really fell in love with the city. Berlin has a lot of open space. It’s a city that is very vibrant, very photogenic. You can just go out and discover and discover. I don’t think that photography would’ve happened if I hadn’t moved to Berlin. Here in Paris where I am now, it’s already a very photographed city, and Vienna is really limited in what you can take pictures of. Berlin offered me a sense of discovery and kept me distracted. I didn’t know what else to do with my time but photographing felt really natural and I never questioned that desire to take pictures. I got sober, stopped drinking, smoking, drugs, I became a vegetarian. My life was completely re-invented.
KV: What was the process of learning a totally new craft like?
Stefan Draschan: I think that if you give yourself four or five years, you can learn just about anything. I took my camera everywhere. I started out with an iPhone and a Panasonic Lumix; now I use a full frame camera. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr, uploading photos and building pages for myself to compile photographs of other artists. That was really important. I learned a lot from other photographers, just being able to see how other people see the world.
KV: Tell me about your process of putting together a series. Do you set out with an idea in your mind and shoot it, or do you take pictures freely and pay attention to what patterns arise?
Stefan Draschan: The series always comes after. It just starts with an observation. And then maybe I’ll make that same observation a second and third time and eventually it could turn into a series. I always carry my camera with me and am constantly photographing, so there are a lot of other photos that haven’t turned into anything, yet. I have a few photos of vacuum cleaners in churches, hover crafts, and if I end up taking three pictures of the same observation I’ll begin turning it into a series. But that could take a long time. Like with the People Matching Artworks series, I took the first photo and it took another half year before I took the second photo.
KV: Your first two series are pretty different from one another. The “Bicycle Culture” series is a staged selfie series while the “Cars Matching Homes” series is more observational, more street photography. How were you identifying your style?
Stefan Draschan: A lot of what I do is rooted in my activism. It could be feminism, ecology, anti-capitalism. With the bicycle series, I was trying to fight against cars and promote cycling. I’d like to see more city’s become car-free. There will be 1.7 billion cars on the road by 2035. Even in Austria, the lakes are 2 degrees warmer than they were in the 1970s. So the effects of global warming are just overwhelming. I’d like people to think more about their decisions and how it affects the planet. I don’t want to trash the planet, I don’t see any reason why we are ruining this planet. So the idea there was to triumph over cars. I crashed into the cars with my bicycle and staged it to kind of look like a hero or like a sort of hunter. Susan Sontag said, “All that remains is art and thoughts.” We all have one life and it passes pretty fast. I think it is better to leave behind beautiful art rather than plastic bottles in the ocean.
KV: Does that sense of activism translate into your museum series’?
Stefan Draschan: The museum series, like “People Matching Artworks” or “People Sleeping in Museums” are mostly aesthetic. But, yes, in a way they started out because of activism. In a lot of cities most public spaces are taken up by cars. We are constantly surrounded by them. I started going into museums because they were the only public spaces that were non-commercial and without cars.
KV: Do you think that your constant exposure to artwork in museums is changing the way that you take photographs?
Stefan Draschan: Yeah, absolutely. In a lot of different ways. Something I noticed over time was just how much quality goes into the works I see in museums. Like Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” I just stare at that painting and am so amazed by the amount of detail that goes into that painting. Or at the Louvre, there are hundreds of paintings by Monet and that is something that, in terms of production, it amazes and inspires me. I really love Henri Bresson, and there is actually a photo he took of children sleeping in the Louvre that inspired the “People Sleeping in Museums” series.
KV: How has your visibility as an artist grown so quickly? What channels are you using to share your work?
Stefan Draschan: I started publishing work on Tumblr in 2013 and by 2014 the bicycle series had a few thousand followers. A few articles came out about that series and I was recognized at the World Bicycle Forum which helped push me through. I continue to use Tumblr and also have an active Facebook and Instagram following. Social media is always something I have paid a lot of attention to. I use it as an indicator of what people like and don’t like and respond to that with the work I share. In the last year, I have gotten a lot of press over the “People Matching Artworks” series. It was featured in Arte Metropolis, which is the arts and culture channel for the European Union, and I’ve found articles from all over; Japan, Nigeria, France, everywhere.
KV: Why do you think people react so well to these series?
Stefan Draschan: Photography is in this weird place because everything has already been done. You keep hearing that it is dead. You always hear that smartphones and Instagram have ruined photography. And what journalists tell me is that it is more and more difficult to find something new. I think that street photography really appeals to people. What I do is observe things that surround me, things that exist and happen in real life. I am in search of capturing that poetic moment. I think that people see that and relate to it.