Photography

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The Photographer

Biographical notes by Fritz Abel, longtime friend and writer , who frequently travelled with  Anselm Spring on assignment.

It wasn’t love of photography that made him do it. It just so happened that he fell in love with a girl and wanted to take pictures of her. Many, many pictures because she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in the bordertown of El Paso. And she dreamed of becoming a photo model.

It was the early sixties and Anselm Spring was stationed as an interpreter with the German Air Force at Fort Bliss, Texas, where German soldiers were trained on air defense weapon systems. When he was off duty, Anselm took the sixteen year old “Military Brat” — daughter of an Army Colonel — on rides out into the countryside in his open Alfa Romeo Spider and snapped away at her blonde “California” looks, knock-out figure and dazzling smile. As fate would have it the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung was then looking for the “German Miss Soldier Bride” and Anselm entered her portraits. She won first prize…which landed her a contract with famous modeling agency Eileen Ford in New York.

Her name was Susan Blakely and her career soon took off: First as a top fashion model who graced the covers of Vogue and Bazaar, of Cosmopolitan and Harpers magazines, and later as a successful movie actress on the big screen (“The Towering Inferno”, “Capone”) and in television productions (“Rich Man, Poor Man”, “Murder, She Wrote”, “The Bunker”). Susan won a Golden Globe and other top awards over the duration of her long career, and she is now, at 65, still in demand as a performer in roles that range from the heavy dramatic to the screwball comic. She still is, as a critic recently noted, “a force of nature who seduces us with her charm, elegance, emotional depth. She is the engine that drives the show.”

Almost 50 years ago, this teenage beauty who was to become a Hollywood star, seduced the 24 year old Anselm Spring to consider photography as a career for himself. His mother was a well-known German portrait painter, his father an architect, and Anselm wished to express himself artistically as well. His teenage dream had been to be a painter and a musician….but he had never been quite sure how to go about it. With Susan Blakely in the viewfinder of his camera, he soon decided against painting and chose photography. Still serving as an interpreter, for unknown reasons the young German soldier was offered to do the still photography for the motion picture “Manos: The Hands of Fate” that was filmed in El Paso. The movie was at that time considered the worst film ever made but has since attracted a cult-following.

Anselm didn’t like most of the stills, and following an impulse to experiment, he took some of the slides and slightly melted the emulsion side with a match. Or he scratched drawings on them. The results were graphically exciting, surreal, mysterious.
So interesting indeed that the world’s largest photography magazine, Popular Photography, published a cover story about the work of this complete unknown under the headline: “Anselm Spring: He Has Pictures to Burn”.

After his return to Germany, Anselm started photographing portfolios for aspiring models which gradually led to a promising career as a fashion and advertising photographer. Even though there was a lot of money to be made and a lot of fun to be had, he soon tired of the superficial glamour and commercialism. He longed for something deeper than the trivial slogans of the industry. And he was at the same time shocked by the realization how tempting it was slide into a life without rules and moral limits..So when it happened that two Mormon missionaries knocked on his door, they found a willing listener to their description of a universe that is sacred and divine. “Something very powerful drove me into the arms of the church”, Anselm recently told an interviewer, “it came over me like thunder and lightning, irresistible, overriding not only reason and intellect, but also my artistic bohemian predisposition… and I think it saved my life because I was on a self-destructive path that probably would have killed me.”

Anselm gave away all his photographic equipment and started to write. Poems, songs, philosophical musings about the meaning of life, and where we all come from and where we are headed. He soon formed a three-man band: The name was SAM and they played a blend of blues and rock, of folk and country, with lyrics that questioned the social and political status quo while at the same time reflecting Anselm’s spiritual longings and his despair and sadness about the human condition. “I’m singing about the war within myself, that’s where I’m fighting”, began one of his lyrics from that time period, the 1970s. Another song was similarly confessional: “My dear friend, said the doctor, you are totally wasted, burned-out and far-gone. Too much smoking, eating and hitting the booze. You must be thinking you have nothing to lose…So I looked at myself in the mirror and started to see a shadow of the real me…waiting to be set free.”
Not all the lyrics were of such serious personal and philosophical nature. His songs often had a slangy playfulness, were rich with free-association rhymes and puns, with phonetic mix-ups and allegories that allowed him to chew up religious doctrines and spit them out in a wild, inspired doggerel. With caustic humor he sometimes made fun of the church, its missionaries and conformist flock. And not even the “Father of Gods and men” of the Ancient Greeks escaped his word-play: “Zeus in his Rolls Royce, riding high on Mount Olympus…”

As much as Anselm’s creativity was wonderfully blooming with his increasing awareness of who he was and who he wanted to be: He soon realized that he wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician. The band toured mostly in Southern Bavaria , playing for little money in pubs and inns, in beer halls and at a few open air concerts. A major record company, EMI, signed them up for a vinyl LP titled Ich bin (I am), but it wasn’t exactly a breakthrough album as far as sales were concerned.

Then, out of the blue, came a phone call which reconnected him with a craft he had so dramatically divorced himself from: A German book publisher — who knew Anselm from his days as an advertising photographer — wanted to know if he was interested in traveling the world to take pictures for a series of nature-themed coffee table books. He would have complete artistic freedom in his work, plus control over the selection of photographs and the layout. As an extra bonus some of the titles would contain a vinyl album of Anselm’s musical compositions he might be inspired to write on his travels.
It was an offer Anselm couldn’t possibly refuse, and very soon he found himself on journeys to some of the most remote and paradisiacal places on earth, but also some of the most threatened by the excesses of modern man. This kind of photography was much closer to his original dream of being an artist: “Painting” with his camera by catching moments that revealed another reality, a spiritual component, beneath the surface of form, color and light. But not only that: He was given the freedom to express a critical viewpoint in regard to environmental destruction and crumbling ethical values he noticed on his travels.

Nature photography taught Anselm patience, his heavy tripod steadying his pictures and his ego: He was always very disciplined and careful with the composition of his pictures, often waiting for hours at a location until the moment was right to catch the essence of a mountain in moonlight or of breaking waves on a beach. Photography (literal meaning: “drawing with light”) taught hin to work with the quintessential opposites: Get the big picture, but also its details. Be aware of the moment or the right timing within the timeless – so be prepared for random events and surprises during familiar, routine sequences. Follow your instincts, welcome a streak of luck but take good care of your tools as well: Make sure you got film in your camera, don’t forget to take the lens hood off your lens, keep your eyes open.

His first two books, coming out in 1980, “The Freedom to See the World” and “Babylon,” covered both aspects of reality as he saw it, with “Freedom” focusing on the beauty of nature and ancient architecture, while “Babylon” giving an apocalyptic vision of a world out of control in locations such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City . The hard-hitting photographs in “Babylon” made quite a splash in the German media, the book was widely reviewed in the press and caught the attention of other publishers. Some of the leading German and international news and nature magazines started to take notice of his talent to combine artistic sensibilities with critical storytelling and gave him assignments. He began traveling the world for Stern and GEO, for National Geographic, nature and ZEITmagazin, reporting on topics ranging from cactus hunters in Mexico, the pollution of the river Nile in Egypt and New Age crystal healers. For Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin he journeyed the Western United States and produced dozens of stories on such subjects as wild fires and the city of Santa Fe, on Western Art, Navajo Indian medicine men and the Mojave desert.

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“Babylon” and his early magazine stories put Anselm on the map of photography once and for all. What followed was an extremely productive period of his life which lasted well over twenty years. During that time he published no less than eighty-two books – on the average four per year — and shot the pictures for approximately 300 magazine spreads, resulting in a picture archive of well over 500,000 photographs. Away from home for many months at a time he would typically be out there somewhere in a remote spot of the world – getting up long before sunrise and carrying his heavy equipment, tripod, cameras and all, to some place on top of a mountain or a Mayan pyramid, so he would be ready when the light would be just right for a good shot.
Many times he would stay up for several nights at an interesting location, using nothing but the light of the moon to record the beauty and mystery – but also the man-made ugliness — of a world most people never experience. Three of his books contained only pictures that were shot in moonlight, with occasional help from a street lamp, a neon sign or some garish industrial floodlight . Most of the images had the moon somewhere on the picture. But the main focus was the natural world and the people beneath it, seen with the eyes of a born storyteller. He never took the easy path, never settled for the manipulated shot for a showy effect. He told stories, kept digging for the essence of a topic, saw himself bearing witness to a truth both ugly and beautiful.

In some of his books, when it reflected the reality of a protected wilderness area, he didn’t hesitate to roll out nature’s beauty without making any critical counterpoints. He did so, for example, in his “Wild and Beautiful” about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which was published in the United States (Gibbs Smith). In other works, such as in “Wood”, “Stone” and “Seven Seasons”, Anselm demonstrated again and again his particular use of the camera as a tool of exploration into the intricate structures and shapes of the natural world. The same was true for his “Magic-of-nature”-series in which he managed to capture the magic of water, fire and earth that not only pulled the viewer in, but also made him think, and informed him.

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Anselm could spend half a day trying to find what he liked to call the “essentiality” of a muddy canyon floor that had dried up and cracked into thousands of fantastically shaped polygons. In a similar fashion he could get all excited about pieces of driftwood or snake tracks in a sand dune, about ice crystals in a pond or thousands of brilliantly white aspen tree stems standing so close to each they appeared to be touching .
But what about his motives for abruptly quitting photography just a few years before? What about his search for meaning in the teachings of a church, his unfulfilled spiritual longings, his desire “to set free the real me”, as he had been singing with his band? To his great surprise he realized that going out into the world as a photographer was a much more effective way to find answers to his questions than by searching his soul on an endlessly winding road inside his mind that seemed to be leading everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Out there, be it in the desert or some other remote place in the world, he would sometimes find himself exhausted after a long day of hiking and picture-taking, feeling quite miserable in the heat or the humidity or the cold…but would at the same time feel energized and cheerful.
He would sit down on the ground, touch the earth with his hands and feel the presence of something he had no name for but seemed to be what he had longed for all his life. Something he had tried to find by reading and thinking and studying, by logical thought, but had never been able to experience. In such moments he often felt overwhelmed by the “miracle of being”, as he liked to call it: The miracle of existing as a creature who can gaze up at the sky and ask: Who am I, and why am I here? And the marvel of having an awareness of something much larger than himself, something “sacred” and “unknowable” that at this point in evolution our human mind was not able to comprehend. Something that was more than human, maybe “the One in All” or that mysterious “whole, that is greater than the sum of its parts.”mond mono lake

By discovering the world Anselm discovered himself. And by painstakingly photographing a reality both beautiful and ugly – which meant focusing on a rock, a plant or let’s say a refugee camp — he became one with the object of his attention to a much greater degree than a casual observer ever would. It made him, as Anselm likes to say, “give away part of my ego” and made him more humble and more open to voices beyond his own. His Mormon experience left questions unanswered and at the heart of his quest. was wanting to know who Jesus really was. One possible answer was offered unexpectedly during an assignment in Israel when he took an afternoon off at a remote beach of Lake Genezareth, after having narrowly escaped a life-threatening skirmish between two groups of rock throwers at the north gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful day, with the sky in a heavy golden light that brought to mind the biblical Jesus who had performed miracles on and around this “Sea of Galilee”.
With the Golan heights rising behind him, Anselm waded into the shallow water, his feet bogging down in the mud and his whole body “bathed in warmth and golden sunlight,” and, as he described it in his diary, feeling “gloriously at one with nature, with the universe, with all beings.” Afterwards, as he was sitting in the sand, he heard a voice— not only with his ears, but seemingly with every cell of his body. It said “Do you really want to know who I am?” and before Anselm could even contemplate an answer, the voice delivered it: “If you want to know who I am, you have to be as I am.” Nothing more. No crash of thunder or a flash of lightning. No vision of a god-like being. Just these words and nothing else.

Anselm was greatly impressed by his experience at Lake Genezareth. He resisted the temptation to give it an easy message-from-heaven interpretation but didn’t completely discount it either. Deep down he could feel that the words contained some profound truth for him personally. Over the following days and months he would mull over their meaning and learn to understand them as a reminder not to put so much focus on the imagined perfection and holiness of a god, a saint or a prophet but to concentrate on changing himself. “That’s a cop-out we are still looking for,” Anselm wrote in his diary. “We turn our idols and icons into gods, so we don`t really have to change ourselves. We are clearly projecting our ideals onto a higher power so we have an excuse to stay as we are.” Forty years have passed since the incident at the lake in the Holy Land. For Anselm it remains one of the most important events of his life. Because what he received there was nothing less than an assignment for perpetual change. As an artist he admits: “It’s a work in progress”.

Many times traveling alone in faraway places, Anselm had plenty of time to express his artistic, spiritual and scientific inclinations, be it taking pictures, writing songs and poems, filling sketchbooks with drawings or writing down his quite complex ideas about everything from existentialism to time warps and the Higgs particle – or any other topic in philosophy, cosmology and quantum physics he happened to be interested in. Several books resulted from these “meditations of a photographer while standing knee-deep in a waterhole taking pictures of some frogs jumping around”, as Anselm jokingly described the creation process at one time.

“Ich, Mensch” (I, Human) was certainly the most important, and so far the last, of his books. It is a very unusual work coming from a photographer – presenting both in his philosophical writings and pictures a world view of a potentially fruitful relationship between humanity and an order of existence we need to recognize and honor if we are to survive as a species. “Ich Mensch” was a continuation of a series of wakeup-call-books Anselm produced during his career. “Babylon,” the first, was followed by “Go West” , “Father Sky, Mother Earth”, dealing with Native American spirituality and their relevance to a modern ecological awareness. And there was also an “Anselm-Spring-Bible”: A German publishing company affiliated with the Catholic Church commissioned him to illustrate the standard edition of the Old and New Testament with just his own photographs. No strings attached – the church blessed the freedom of art.

About ten years ago Anselm decided that he had done enough traveling, sweating and wading in the mud. Enough of sitting in a tree for two days and nights, or getting up at two in the morning to be on top of a mountain at sunrise. No more picture shooting against what’s wrong out there in the world, and no more photographs as instruments for change, as witnesses to the truth, as tools to open people’s eyes. Enough now. Enough was enough. He owned his slice of paradise and a house on top of a mesa not far from the “wild and beautiful” Escalante area he had covered in several of his books and articles, and that’s where he wanted to be now, returning to the dream he had had when he was seventeen: being a musician, a song writer, an author, a painter, a sculptor.

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