Hugh Kretschmer

Hugh Kretschmer told me he had a strange idea one night, and as soon as he spilled the details, I had the feeling he wanted to take it all back. Over the phone, his voice changed dramatically, and he wondered aloud whether he should have been so forthcoming to a reporter. It was such a juicy piece of information, one that could explain Kretschmer’s surreal and fantastic images, that I blurted out that it would certainly become the lead to this article. He laughed nervously while I assured him that no one would think he was weird. So remember now, I promised him, so keep an open mind.

Photo Insider (PI): I would really like to know where your inspiration comes from. Do you pull material from your dreams or from someplace in your head? Some of your work is kind of freaky.

Hugh Kretschmer (HK): (Laughs) You might notice that there are all these severed pieces of people in my images. The idea was based on my wife’s gloves that she left on the table back in the winter, these black gloves. She put them down in such a way that they looked like they had personality, that they had living hands in them. It felt like they were alive.

PI: How did this become an image?

HK: Well, I had this idea to photograph a double amputee with a pair of gloves in her lap. I tried to find a model, and I got a lot of resistance from some of the Internet resources I found. There seems to be a group of people that have sexual fetishes for amputees. They’re called devotees, and in some cases they stalk amputees and cross boundaries. It’s a problem, and I got a lot of hate mail as a result.

PI: But you weren’t a devotee…

HK: No, but I was looking into this and I started thinking…

PI: Am I weird?

HK: Yeah! Am I weird or something? The feeling stemmed from this phantom phone call I got from some man who threatened to call the police on me. All I stated was that I wanted to photograph someone with no hands, and he was going to call the cops! That’s all I said!

PI: That’s perfect. That’s what I was looking for. That’s the lead to the article.

HK: That’s the lead? (Pause) That’s how you’re going to start off? Oh man…

Kretschmer does not strive to be the master of macabre. One look at his images reveals humor, playfulness, and imagination. His work has garnered international attention and has attracted clients such as Esquire, Men’s Journal, the U.S. Postal Service, and Estée Lauder. Born and raised in L.A., Kretschmer became interested in photography through his father, who worked for McDonnell-Douglas as an engineer with a specialty in photo instrumentation. Through the company’s contract with NASA, his father photographed and shot motion-picture footage of rocket launches. The Kretschmer family bomb shelter in the backyard served as a darkroom, and Hugh spent as much time as possible as a child shooting and developing his own photographs. He earned a degree in photography from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in 1984.
After graduation, Kretschmer, like many aspiring photographers, worked as a traditional commercial shooter but found the work unsatisfying. He dabbled in photojournalism, traveled to Asia to build a portfolio and submitted work to National Geographic for an internship program. Although he was a finalist, Kretschmer did not get the coveted position. He did, however, re-evaluate his career path. He decided that in order to be truly successful, he would do the kind of work that made him happy, and the rest of the things he was looking for-money, security, recognition-would follow. “I come from a very creative family and was exposed to a lot of art throughout my life. Twentieth-century art, the cubists, the Russian avant-garde, and surrealism really influenced me. I wanted to work with images that would allow me to express myself creatively.”
He began to experiment with objects, lighting, airbrushing, and multiple cameras. The work generated interest, and Kretschmer started to work with clients that would allow him creative freedom. Although commercial success came slowly (Kretschmer admits that there were times when he was scraping together spare change to make ends meet), he had a solid vision and a steely resolve. He managed to earn a living, but there was a price. “I did a particular style for a number of years, but I started to realize that the art directors who were calling wanted me to repeat myself. Although I was making money, to repeat myself seemed like a slow death. I wanted to be challenged creatively. So, in 1994, I moved to New York and reinvented myself. The images I create now are completely different from those I did when I started out, but there’s a thread of the influence of painting and art that continues.”
Kretschmer found inspiration in his new surroundings. New York, with its energy and vitality, empowered the photographer to suggest new ideas and techniques to art directors looking for a typical Kretschmer image. “I was getting calls from clients who wanted my technique to solve their visual problems. I was thinking outside the box, and I began to approach my photography differently. I felt the solutions I was coming up with were more applicable to solving the problem as opposed to adhering or trying to fit into a style. It was a gamble, and I got a lot of rejections, but there were those who believed in what I was trying to accomplish.” One such New York-inspired series, “Gastronopolis,” which portrays an alien who eats the city, combined Kretschmer’s love of both science fiction and New York architecture. The series attracted the attention of Communication Arts magazine, which did a story on Kretschmer and his work. It was the breakthrough he had been waiting for. More prestigious clients such as Newsweek, GQ, and Esquire came calling, and Kretschmer finally had the leverage he needed to explore his vision for a new style.
The philosophy behind Kretschmer’s photography is centered on the notion that an image should be able to tell a story and convey its message with simplicity and surprise. “When I make a good photograph, it’s not just a pretty picture. When you look at it, it becomes more layered and involves the viewer. Most of the art directors I work with expect me to solve a problem. They give me the parameters and the story, and want me to come up with a visual solution.” Kretschmer executes his images primarily through traditional photography. Although he utilizes Photoshop, retouching, collages, and other techniques to achieve the desired results, he prefers to maintain purity and simplicity in the process. “There’s something tactile about the results I get that cannot be easily accomplished through digital manipulation. Everything is preplanned up front. A program such as Photoshop is just like an X-acto knife, not something that dictates the way an image is conceived.”
For “Thin Man,” Kretschmer used multiple photographs wrapped together to create a three-dimensional illusion. “I took the bench the figure was sitting on and cut that out, then took a sample of his sweats and wrapped it around for another level to create a cavity, and then there’s the original photograph with the figure standing against a huge background with the focus thrown off to give it depth.” The resulting photograph, with a well-placed doughnut, illustrates our obsession with weight and body image. It is a simple, tightly constructed piece that is indicative of Kretschmer’s ability to convey a clear message with a symbolic value.

“Liar” was assembled in the same way, using multiple photographs. The challenge of the photograph was to make the face appear to be three-dimensional when, in actuality, it was a two-dimensional print. “In this case, there’s a picture of his face with a fake nose put on by a makeup artist, which I cut out and mounted on a piece of wood off center so that when the light hits it, it has a three-dimensional quality. I peered down on the wood with the nose flat to the camera’s plane to get the shadow. The string is placed to make it look like the face is hanging.”

One of the stranger images in Kretschmer’s collection, “Breast Heads” was created digitally because of the difficulty in achieving realistic-looking and perfectly placed breasts on the back of a man’s bald head. “The idea for the shoot was ‘What Men Want.’ We wanted to make sure the position of the men matched the position of the breasts. We photographed the breasts first so we had an idea of the direction. It was hard to get the heads just right. I don’t think the image would look as real if we tried to attach fake breasts to model’s heads.”

All three of these images represent Kretschmer’s fascination with the human form, surrealism, and the way a photograph can surprise the viewer. “There’s something striking about these juxtapositions. I find it really interesting and in some cases very moving. My objective is to make the audience interested in what they are seeing.” Kretschmer avoids assaulting his audience with obvious clichés and strives for subtly and sophistication. “I try not to hit the viewer over the head. I have a big aversion to the tasteless. I want my images to be as basic as possible. There’s not a lot of set decorating or panache. It’s a matter of sensibility.” To elicit a response, Kretschmer depends on the details within the image that one might not specifically notice but that have power and importance to the overall theme. “I have to get a message across, and the small aspects of an image ensures that the idea goes through.”

After years of artistic struggle, Kretschmer is protective of his images. When he knows he has a good idea, he will fight for the way it is presented. Often, art directors have a definite agenda and a concrete perspective on what Kretschmer should create. Although Kretschmer considers himself somewhat pliable and easy to work with, he is not beyond defending his vision. “If I think an idea is going to work, it’s worth standing up for, to protect it, to defend it.” He feels it is important to jive creatively with his clients. “I have to abide by certain self-imposed criteria with those I work with. I love the opportunity to work with great designers. I’d redo an assignment if it meant it had to satisfy my requirements and theirs.”
With a growing, diverse client base, Kretschmer is in a position to pick and choose his projects. He is constantly testing new concepts and maintains a bank of ideas that are poised for inclusion in his next series. Will severed hands make the cut? “I brought the idea up to my therapist. She said it was just a phase I’m going through. I have ideas I want to execute, and this is part of the backlog. My work is going into a dark area lately, but I’m not worried about it.”
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