Interview with BERLINER LISTE Photography Curator Stefan Maria Rother · No Risk, No Fun

The fourth year in a row, Photography section will gather art enthusiasts and professionals in the historically important architectural structure nowadays known as the Kraftwerk venue. Our curator Stefan Maria Rother has a unique approach when it comes to finding true gems of contemporary photography. As an author, lecturer and photographer himself, Mr. Rother uses his extensive practical and theoretical experience to make a prudent selection of best pieces and he refrains from labeling artworks in a simplistic way. Rother’s personal judgment as well as his artworks tread a fine line between empathy and objectivity, which are two crucial elements particularly in street and portrait photography. He looks out for the artworks with mature emotional and intellectual messages, able to cross cultural barriers and attain a certain universal value. The proficiency of photographic technicalities is only of secondary importance to our curator – instead, he focuses on a raw, intrinsic, beyond-words level of visual communication. Mr. Rother is interested in works which portray either familiar subjects or unknown themes, provided he can recognize a fresh and innovative perspective in a photographer’s perception. In a nutshell, what he seeks in a photograph are the possibilities of bold and clear communication and an instant recognition of underlying emotional content.

You have an outstanding gift for finding unique characters and phenomena on the streets. Do you use the same intuition for finding the suitable Photography exhibitors?

Stefan Maria Rother: Thank you very much. The approach could be similar on the streets and in some ways it is. However, on the streets, it is a little less judgmental than it is with the photography exhibitors. We look for exhibitors with a focus on the quality, because that is the most important for me and the Berliner Liste.

There is a certain pattern in the authenticity of the photographs you create. How important is the emotional value of photography?

SMR: As a medium, photography for me has the most emotional value. Sure, there is the same potential in music as well. But if someone from – let´s say Japan – shows a photograph of his newborn baby to somebody in Canada – there will be an instant connection.

You are the program manager of the Media department at the SET – School of Entertainment and Technology. In what ways do you encourage your students to progress?

SMR: You are really well informed – thank you for your interest in my different work fields. My major encouragement is for them to stay interested in so many different things and not to get caught up too much in the technical fascination. I also believe it is great to look outside of your own field: if you are photographing – go and look at the painters. Everything about the light study is already there. Also, go and listen to music carefully. If you want to learn about sensitivity in photography you may find it through music.

Ever since your first book Berlin Art No. 1 got published, you’ve been working diligently on six other books. Consequently, it seems you have a constant inspiration for capturing the genuine spirit of Berlin and its people. Do you get the same energy from the Berliner Liste visitors?

SMR: Yes. Berlin is an ever-changing city and so are the people. I am happy to be with Berliner Liste that reflects this kaleidoscope of one of the most exciting cities right now.

What is your ambition for the Photography Section this year? How did you tackle the challenge of curating it?

SMR: I approach the curating challenge in the same way I approach my photography. I always have to choose based on my own personal perspective, but it has to be in accordance with Berliner Liste image. The more diverse the section is the better experience it will give to the visitors. Berliner Liste is the fair of many surprises and discoveries.

Berliner Liste is open to new art forms and new exhibitors. It has built its core concept on being diverse yet powerfully straightforward. What are the benefits of this openness to new art?

SMR: We simply get to see the artists and positions that have not been filtered by the art market. That alone is no guarantee that the result will manifest in great quality, but I keep it like this: no risk, no fun.

Photography is extremely responsive to technological and social change. Do you think the technological advancements affect the quality of photography nowadays?

SMR: I agree and then I disagree: if you are not having empathy for what you photograph, your photo could be technically perfect, but it won’t have any power to create empathy for the viewer. Technical advancements will not be a substitute for emotions, and just because it is possible to be technically flawless doesn’t mean it’s great.

As a lecturer, author, collector and an artist yourself, you have theoretical and practical knowledge of separating the extraordinary from the average. Do you think it is important to label art as good or bad, or it is just a matter of personal critical judgment?

SMR: Of course, at first it is a personal critical judgment – and yes, I love to have one when it comes to art. Am I right about it? I don’t know if I really need to be right about it. Art constantly talks to me and tries to tell me something. Even if it’s “bad” art – it might help me on the discovery of something else and the bare discovery will be marked as good art. Most of time I go for the art I do not completely understand, but that nevertheless fascinates me. People often tell me that they don’t understand art, and ask what it is all about. In the same manner, I do not understand the news, that’s why I go for art.

Photography Section keeps earning the appreciation of the visitors and exhibitors. What is your secret method of attracting so much attention?

SMR: There is something people love about photography. Actually, everybody could do it. Painting requires a canvas, colors, and at least one brush. Photography is always available – just take out your mobile phone today. There is already a preestablished closeness to the medium and then the love for the vision of a photograph.

What do you think visitors should pay special attention to at the fair, besides Photography section?

Be your own curator! Have fun walking through the aisles and pick your favorite pieces, find similarities and arrange them in your mind. Make your own museum events in your imagination and then let your gut feeling decide which artwork you should take home. Speak with other visitors but above all speak with the artists. Art has saved me. Every artwork resonates with you on a different level; there is a special energy in everything. You just have to be patient.