German photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Thomas Hoepker has reported on global cultures and conflict since the 1960s, producing vivid images that offer an intimate view of their subjects.Read More
Born in Munich, Hoepker received a glass plate camera from his grandfather at a young age. Hoepker would develop prints at home, which he sold to classmates and friends, earning his first prize in photography at age 14.
From 1956 to 1959, Hoepker studied art history and archaeology at Göttingen, Munich, where he learned about images and composition. While studying, he continued with photography and sold images to finance his education.
Thomas Hoepker's documentary photographs are known for their meticulous framing and compositions, vivid colours, and the pointed perceptiveness with which they capture their subjects.
From 1960 to 1963, Hoepker reported from around the world as a photographer for Münchner Illustrierte and Kristall Magazine, documenting social and cultural developments for post-war German readers who were curious about other places.
His first significant assignment sent him to New York, where he was told to drive west until he encountered the ocean. 'We had this open ticket to drive from coast to coast,' Hoepker recalled, 'For young photographers today, it's very, very different.'
With vast amounts of time to get acquainted with people and places, Hoepker's photographs relate an implicit familiarity with their subjects, avoiding the sense of an outsider perspective.
This sensitivity is evident in his documentation of the Mayan people reconnecting with their traditional ceremonies after the Guatemalan Civil War, East Germany from the early years of the Berlin Wall to its fall, or New York's streets leading to the 9/11 terror attacks.
Hoepker's attention to his subjects refuses the exoticisation of the other, resulting in observant photographs with subjects ranging from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to the ever-relevant Policeman watches a black teenager in Harlem (1960), in which the cop is seen with his hand on his firearm.
Hoepker became a photojournalist for Stern magazine in 1964. He moved to New York City as a correspondent for the magazine in 1976, later becoming its art director. In 1964, his photographs were also distributed by Magnum for the first time.
In following years, Hoepker worked as a documentary cameraman and producer for German television, paving the way for his TV documentaries today.
Hoepker's intuitive grasp of his subjects is evident in his 'Champ' series (1960–1970), featuring the boxer Muhammad Ali.
The athlete's eccentric nature, which Hoepker hypothesised had been the source of his victories, is captured across comic and memorable shots of a playful Ali, seen jumping on a bridge, being frightened by a bee, or being measured for a suit at the tailor.
These images contrast sharply with training scenes in the gym or Ali praying in the ring, which take a step back from the idiosyncrasies of their subject to capture the energy of an activity or a space, where solemnity or focus is dominant.
In Muhammad Ali in gym training (1966), a landscape, full-body shot taken from a distance captures gym walls lined with photographs of former champions, before whom Ali extends a fist into a hanging sandbag.
In 1967, Hoepker flew to Bihar, India, where he reported on the flood, famine, and smallpox epidemic. Among the photographs he took was a shot of a starved corpse being thrown into the Ganges River, which won him the third prize in the World Press Photo contest the same year.
'The macabre thing is that [these situations] are very photogenic,' Hoepker recalls, nonetheless noting the importance of 'thinking beyond the image'. Accordingly, after printing the story, Stern organised a fundraising event that included the German government, army, air force, and doctors.
On 9/11, Hoepker took a photo of a group of young people apparently sunbathing as the Twin Towers dissolve into dust and smoke in the background. Hoepker decided not to publish the image at the time, writing in Slate that it 'did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.'
The image provoked controversy after it was released five years later, in 2006, for the chilling distance and ease with which the New Yorkers appeared to carry on with their lives as the lives of others fell to pieces.
Hoepker was awarded the Kulturpreis of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie in 1968, the First Place Award for Art and Sciences from World Press Photo, Amsterdam in 1977 and an award in 1999 from the German Ministry of Foreign Aid for Death in a Cornfield, a television documentary on Guatemala.
Hoepker was also the president of Magnum Photos from 2003 to 2006.
Thomas Hoepker has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions.
Selected group exhibitions include The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton (2019); Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MKG), Hamburg (2015); Istanbul Modern (2015); and Kunsthal Rotterdam (2012).
Thomas Hoepker 's Instagram can be found here.
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2022