The all-important idea – BMW photography in transition

What’s the best way to photograph a car? It’s a question that has dogged BMW for over 60 years and counting. The criteria for a lovely and creative photo are determined by the zeitgeist and the current state of technology, not to mention the artistic preferences of the photographer. A trip through some significant moments in the history of BMW commercial photography, and an interview with photographer Uwe Düttmann, who helped shape it.

Words and interview
Hendrik Lakeberg

Swinging Sixties

The red background, the red-brown hue of both BMW cars, the orange dress worn by the model and the fluffy dog in front of the BMW 2000 C/CS – it doesn’t get more 1960s than this. Using just a few details, the anonymous photographer who set up this photograph managed to capture in the studio the entire atmosphere of the years of the West German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). Were a photographer to tackle the same subject today, the clothing, lighting, design and hue of the car would all look completely different. That’s because BMW’s commercial photographs don’t just depict cars, they also reflect the prevailing cultural atmosphere at the time they were taken.

Photographer: unknown, model: BMW 2000 C/CS / BMW 328 – 1965

More dynamics!

Photographer Uwe Düttmann has had a profound influence on automotive photography since the 1990s, not only by capturing cars perfectly, but also by using his photographs to tell a story, thereby imbuing his automotive subjects with emotional meaning. This photograph of a BMW 1 Series M Coupe was taken inside an empty factory hall. Smoke from the BMW’s spinning tires symbolizes its inherently dynamic nature, as do its tail lights. Add to it the linear quality of the factory space, and the atmospheric photo’s overall effect is to irresistibly pull the viewer in, just like an exciting movie trailer.

Photographer: Uwe Düttmann, model: BMW 1 Series M Coupe, location: factory hall, BMW Magazine 1/2011

Casually meaningful

Automobiles have been a frequent subject of photographic artist Martin Parr’s work throughout his career. An artistically sensitive take on everyday existence forms the backbone of his approach. Rather than photographically exaggerating his subjects, a common technique in traditional commercial photography, he looks for situations that cast an unusual light on people’s everyday lives. This photograph of a BMW X5 was taken in Bristol, England. Right in front of it is Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth and sister of Prince Charles, shown greeting an ordinary civilian. The content of the photo is thus casual and culturally significant at the same time. Parr’s photo may not have been officially commissioned by BMW, but his approach still demonstrates numerous to that of Kai-Uwe Gundlach in his documentary image of a BMW 7 Series taken in London, described below.

Photographer: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus location: St Mary Redcliffe School, Bristol, England, 2011

Tongue-in-cheek exaggeration

German photographer Kai-Uwe Gundlach has had a considerable influence on the evolution of automotive photography from the 1990s to the present. This 2004 photo demonstrates the increasing tendency of commercial photography to imbue industrial products with emotional meaning. The picture depicts a head-to-head race between a BMW M5 and an airplane. Not only is the image a perfect illustration of the popular commercial photography technique of exaggerating one’s subject while giving the viewer a conspiratorial wink; above all, it displays Gundlach’s stunning success at finding a contemporary visual expression of BMW’s time-tested advertising slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

Photographer: Kai-Uwe Gundlach, model: BMW M5, location: Great Salt Lake, Utah, BMW Magazine 2/2004

Natural environment

The locations chosen by professional automotive photographers in which to depict their subjects have also become increasingly important in recent years. In 2001, Kai-Uwe Gundlach photographed the new BMW 7 Series in the middle of London – right where its potential customers lived and worked. This photo is also significant due to its documentary-like characteristics. In depicting the car in its “natural environment,” the picture communicates authenticity and realism, making the BMW Series 7 less of an abstract product and more approachable to the viewer.

Photographer: Kai Uwe Gundlach, model: BMW 7 Series, location: London, BMW Magazine 4/2001

Art and energy

The 2000s was the decade in which art became a mass phenomenon. Exhibitions logged record numbers of visitors, and art began exerting influence on areas from which it had hitherto remained separate. Automotive photography was one such area. In one photo shoot for BMW Magazine, photographer Simon Puschmann collaborated with street artist Robin Rhode, who turned a BMW Z4 into a four-wheeled artist that used its tires to paint an expressive picture. The inherent energy of the resulting image is a pitch-perfect reflection of the BMW Z4 Roadster’s dynamism, agility and avant-garde design.

Photographer: Simon Puschmann, art installation: Robin Rhode, model: BMW Z4, location: Los Angeles, BMW Magazine 1/2009

Mysterious atmosphere

In 2003, Kai-Uwe Gundlach went to Hawaii to photograph the BMW 3 Series Convertible and the BMW 3 Series Coupe for BMW Magazine. Due to its blurriness and expressive exposure, this image marks a near total departure from the tendency to depict automobiles in a naturalistic, detail-conscious manner. Even so, the cars remain the unquestionable focal point of the photo. The blurriness symbolizes speed and dynamism, the most important qualities of a BMW. At the same time, the photo’s mysterious atmosphere awakens the viewer’s curiosity, beckoning him or her to dive in for a closer look.

Photographer: Kai-Uwe Gundlach, model: BMW 3 Series Convertible and BMW 3 Series Coupe, location: Hawaii, BMW Magazine 1/2003

Uwe Düttmann

Uwe Düttmann began his photographic journey as an assistant to Hans Hansen and Annie Leibovitz. His own career took flight as a result of photo shoots for magazines such as Tempo, Stern, L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue and Elle. He describes himself as a “people photographer,” which might explain why he has enjoyed such extraordinary success in automotive photography as well. His award-winning photo campaigns have played a key role in helping infuse commercial automotive photography with emotional content. Düttmann’s photos combine human warmth and an unforced aesthetic with precise, technically perfect depictions of the product at hand. His work with BMW and numerous other large corporations has made Düttmann one of Germany’s most successful photographers.

Mr. Düttmann, you’ve watched automotive photography evolve and had a profound influence on it yourself for nearly two decades now. Have things changed very much during that period of time?

Uwe Düttmann: Back when I started out, the most important thing was for the car to look great, that it had a shiny paint job. Those photos were just about the product itself, for the most part. Over the last few years, automotive photography has become much more lifestyle-oriented, more natural. Society itself has changed. People still want cars, cars are still consumer icons, but consumers today are much more sophisticated. These days, cars not only need to look as good as possible, but the entire scene has to have more vitality, which basically means that in addition to the car, a photo needs to have people in it. The aesthetics of photography have become much more dynamic. Viewers, and by extension, potential customers, are not supposed to feel removed from the product and the brand. Also, putting people in the photo and associating the product with a special location and an attractive aesthetic makes it easier to clearly differentiate that product from others, and thereby to address the desired target audience more directly. Pictures can be used to make very subtle sorts of statements. Whatever you do, though, the most important thing is for a brand to develop its own distinctive style, one that the viewer can instantly recognize.

How do you make a car look good? Are there tricks that you can use that will always ensure a successful result?

Düttmann: There’s one basic rule: photograph a car from about nine yards away and you won’t make any major goofs in interpreting its design. That’s important. Cars are usually about 16 feet long, sometimes more, sometimes less, but when you’re nine yards away, that’s a distance that’s well-suited for capturing a positive image of the car as a whole. The height of the camera and the light are also important variables, of course. But all those things aren’t really enough, at least not on their own. Every new car is an entire world unto itself. You need to have a sense of the car, you need an idea. A good photographer incorporates the distances, perspectives and the entire scene into a unique interpretation of an automobile. You can address the designer’s original vision, but the ultimate goal is to use the language of photography to take that design to a new level. If a car is sporty, you need to immediately be able to see that in the picture. You can accomplish that, for example, by moving the camera a little lower, getting closer in to the car. You can always find certain angles and distances that make the car look bigger and more dynamic. As a photographer, I can use light and perspective to highlight a car’s design in the same way that a sculptor works on a sculpture.

With digital photography, you can change a lot of things in a picture after the fact. Is the location where you take the picture still important at all?

Düttmann: To take a good picture, the most important thing is to have a good idea. And it’s also important to work with people who are able to turn that idea into reality. So first off, you need a great art director and a highly-skilled photographer with an experienced team in tow. Once you’ve got those things, the place where you actually decide to take the picture, whether it’s in the studio or on location, is of secondary importance in my opinion. The most important thing is the idea! And as far as digitalization goes: the kinds of editing you can carry out on photos today were also theoretically possible 15 years ago, they’ve just gotten easier to do. Still, though, contemporary automotive photography operates at a very high aesthetic level. It’s gotten much more complex, because it’s no longer just about a sexy paint job, it’s about using images to tell a story. You can achieve that if you do things like playing with light in more subtle ways, or if you can get out of the studio every now and again and photograph a car in the place where it might actually be parked at some point in the future. If you’re able to position the car casually in its natural environment without it appearing forced and stuffy, then the car breathes, and so does the picture.

Self-assured purism

Photographed by Uwe Düttmann, the BMW i8 marketing campaign is a study in purism, allowing BMW’s spectacular hybrid super sports car to completely speak for itself. By photographing the car in a barren desert landscape, Düttmann places the spotlight squarely on the BMW i8, confidently celebrating its breathtaking design and profile. “As a photographer, I can use light and perspective to highlight a car’s design just like a sculptor working on a sculpture,” Düttmann explains in an interview. The BMW i8 campaign is a prime example.