Beyoncé, Bowie and Britney: Celebrity photographer Markus Klinko shares his on-set secrets

Written by Zoe Sottile, CNN

Beyoncé. David Bowie. Lady Gaga. You have heard of his subjects, but you might not be as familiar with Markus Klinko, the photographer who has captured some of the world’s biggest celebrities since he first picked up a camera in 1994.

Now best known for photographing musicians, Klinko actually started out as one himself. As a classical harp soloist, Klinko toured the world, was signed to EMI Classics and received the Grand Prix de Disque, a top French music award, with members of the orchestra of the Paris Opera Bastille.

But at the height of his career, he experienced a hand injury and was forced to find a new passion.

Klinko went from never having held a camera to the top of his field, aided by high-profile clients who trusted his methodical, professional approach.

After 25 years in the industry, Klinko says he still has much more to achieve. “I feel like I’m just getting started — I’m ready to really go to the next level,” he said.

CNN spoke with Klinko about working with Bowie and why 2000s fashion is experiencing a revival.

Shooting Beyoncé’s first solo album “Dangerously in Love” after parting ways with Destiny’s Child, Klinko had to help bring out “a different image, a different Beyoncé.” Credit: Markus Klinko

CNN: How did you end up working in fashion photography?

Markus Klinko: My dad was a classical musician, and I grew up in Switzerland, in this environment of classical music. Everything that I ever thought about, between the ages of 3 to 32, was just music, music, music.

In 1994, I was in the midst of touring and recording for EMI Classics, and I had just won an award in Europe that’s like a Grammy. Very unexpectedly, I started having a mysterious hand issue, literally from one day to the other. I felt that (I had achieved) my childhood dream of being a successful classical concert soloist. I had traveled the world and made recordings. And I said to myself, “It’s time to do something else.”

And so I, head over heels, decided to become a photographer with no skills at all. I had never taken a picture.

Did any skills transfer from your music career to photography?

I would 100% say the answer is discipline. To be humble, and to know that you always have to work very hard and you can’t take anything for granted — that was the lesson learned.

Walk us through how you prepare for a shoot with a major celebrity. What conversations happen beforehand?

The secret of a great photo shoot is to be as prepared as possible — to have everything mapped out, but to be open to spontaneity and last-minute opportunities. And it could be just something totally unexpected.

One time I went to London to shoot Naomi Campbell, and this huge studio was rented — with all these lights and all that — and it was boring. Outside, there was a very cool parking lot. I saw it and thought, “Wow, let’s go out here.” And a great shot happened in two seconds.

This image, “Meditation,” is one of Klinko’s best-selling photos of all time. Bowie wasn’t interested in the shot for his album, so the photo was unknown to the public until Klinko’s 2016 exhibition, “Bowie Unseen.” Credit: Markus Klinko

What it was like working with David Bowie for his “Heathen” album cover?

He had some very specific ideas: some Man Ray references — the whole idea of someone losing belief, someone no longer believing in anything. But he kept saying, “If you have other ideas, you can do other stuff.” It was also very quick. I think he gave me a day or two to organize everything. And then he said, “I’m coming at nine and leaving at five. I don’t like long sessions.”

In the beginning, he was a little tense because he wanted to make sure we (understood) what he envisioned. He was examining the Polaroids and the instant film, and at some point, he was very happy. And he just started relaxing and became very playful.

Can you talk me through the Bowie wolf pictures?

GQ magazine called me and said, “We decided that David will be our ‘Man of the Year.’ Can you do another shoot?” So, I call David and he said, “There’s no way, I have no time.” I had an idea. I told (GQ) that there were so many unused images from this photo shoot, and that I could (make) a very elaborate photo montage where I would involve wild animals. They said, “We love it, but is Bowie gonna be OK?” So, I call Bowie back and he says, “Absolutely. Go for it.”

I just thought that the wolf represented Bowie the most — not too bombastic, like tigers and leopards.

You’ve just closed an exhibition in Hong Kong, and have several upcoming shows in Spain and London. It seems like you’re really expanding globally.

What’s really important to understand is that none of this work has ever been produced with the intent of a gallery. Somehow, it crystallized itself into this collection that lives with great ease in the galleries.

I’ve actually had a lot of situations where I get hired for a specific project, then so many other things happened. Let’s say, for instance, Britney Spears hired me to produce images for her (The Onyx Hotel) tour in 2004. The shoot became a cover for Vanity Fair, then Britney’s label called and licensed the images to do a single cover. Then Elizabeth Arden licensed several of the images for major Britney perfume ads.

So, these images that had this one purpose ended up being repurposed, and now they’re in galleries. That’s an exceptional photo shoot, when you can say, I shot for seven hours, and for the next 20 years, new stuff is coming out.

You’re working on a new book — can you tell us more about that?

It’s not going to be just the photography, but a lot about the process. I am actually very process-oriented. I really love all the technical aspects. And I collaborate very closely with Fujifilm. That’s much more than a sponsored relationship, it’s a real collaboration. With the technical advances being so immense, there are actually artistic inspirations that are coming straight of the development of these new possibilities with cameras and lenses and all of that. So, it’s very exciting.

Britney Spears hired Klinko to produce a series of dramatic, neon-colored images to use in photobooks and tours for her 2004 “Onyx Hotel” tour. Credit: MARKUS KLINKO

What’s it like working with new stars like Billie Eilish versus working with someone as established as David Bowie?

A lot of the very established artists that I photographed were at some point of career change, or reinvention, or comeback. When I saw Beyoncé, she had just decided to go solo. My task was to really envision who Beyoncé was about to become, and to anticipate the image that wasn’t really her quite yet. What’s most exciting is to (help create) a fresh start, whether it’s someone that’s literally a new artist, or someone that has been around but wants to reinvent themselves.

Last month, Klinko shot 17-year old songwriter Billie Eilish for Vogue Hong Kong alongside his artistic collaborator, Koala. Klinko said: “She used daylight and I used flash and a complicated setup, and she shot it in a very spontaneous way. And we just mixed them together.” Credit: MARKUS KLINKO

Why are the early 2000s experiencing such a comeback in music and fashion?

Everything in fashion has a comeback. It’s a certain nostalgia. The people that really love the 2000s are generally people who were very, very young at that time. Now they’re 25 or 30. And they’re very melancholic about that.

Back then, I wasn’t doing the 2000s, I was really referencing the ’70s, the whole disco era. So, what we’re looking at now is actually a 2000s vision of the ’70s. It was a more innocent era. It was the time before social media.

I have very mixed feelings about social media. I think that it’s very traumatizing for a lot of people. And I think that (people enjoy) going back to a simpler time, when you were not judged constantly by your Instagram profile.

What’s next for you? And are there any dream subjects you’d love to photograph?

There are always, obviously, new artists and new celebrities. But there are also interesting political figures. So, I think (I want) to branch out a little bit. I’m definitely very excited about doing a new book. I’m also planning to do a new TV show. I had my own show (“Double Exposure”) on the Bravo network in the US in 2010. That was pretty cool. But it was too much of a reality show. Now I want to do a show that’s much more like a documentary type of concept.

I would say I want to do more of the same, and just better and better. I’m very happy with what I’m doing; I’m not bored. I love what I’m doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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