Thomas Hoepker

In the Service of People

Photojournalism evolved in the early 20th century, when photography conquered newspapers and magazines thanks to simplified printing techniques. Pictures were used to illustrate news stories and daily events. With the arrival of 35 mm cameras like the Leica, photo documentaries became part and parcel of printed media. The rise of news media and trade magazines in the 1930s meant that more photographs were needed. A new type of journalist was born: the photo reporter.

Thomas Hoepker stands in this tradition. He is a photojournalist through and through and even calls himself a “contract photographer” or “image maker”. He won his first prize for photography at the age of 14; in 2003, aged 57, he was made President of Magnum. In-between, his life revolved around photojournalism. At the end of the 1960s, Thomas Hoepker did regular work for year books and journals including renowned magazines like stern and GEO. His work has taken him all over the world. “Time was always more important to me than being paid, because I wanted to familiarize myself with the topic. You have to know a lot, then you see things in a different light.” Press photographers today no longer have this luxury; the transiency of the Internet has taken away their publishing platform. Thomas Hoepker, on the other hand, often had several weeks to take photos for a story. As a result, the pictures he created had a perceptiveness and poetry that are characteristic of the imagery he uses. A recurring theme in his work is his interest in people and social issues; with his “concerned photography”, he has helped to shape a photographic genre that represents humanity and embraces the concerns of the underprivileged.

Something that is present in all of Thomas Hoepker’s pictures is his propensity to formal perfection. He is accomplished at merging two core elements of photography – frame and content. “My photography is all about waiting in the background until everything fits into place and the picture comes together.” He never manipulates his pictures: “I am a reporter, I take photos of reality.” But Thomas Hoepker, who has ventured into war zones and slums and has experienced misery and squalor at first hand, never shows the harshness of this reality. “You don’t take a photo of a dying child,” is how he sums up his principles. His camera has always shielded him from the suffering in the world. “Plenty of excellent pictures have already been taken of basic life situations – birth, love, mourning, death. There is a growing danger that we have already experienced and captured many situations too often.” Is there any value left in taking pictures then? “The world has been photographed too much. But there are always new realities and new topics.”

Biographical information

1936

born in Munich, Germany

1956–1959

studied Art History and Archeology in Göttingen and Munich, Germany

1987–1989

worked as art director for “Stern” magazine in Hamburg, Germany

2003–2006

president of Magnum Photos

2007

A retrospective exhibition, showing 230 images from fifty years of work, toured Germany and other parts of Europe

lives and works in New York since 1976