Photographer and Fujifeed founder Samuel Zeller discusses the release of his new book ‘Botanical’.
What inspired you to start taking photographs and how did you develop this into a career?
That's a hard one; to better understand my decision and relation with photography you first need to hear where I come from. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland, from two artist parents that both did the Beaux-Arts. My mum became a teacher while my dad worked in IT. As a kid I was surrounded by art of many different kinds, from books to movies. I always loved everything that was visually interesting, so I started studying graphic design and eventually ended up working in various companies. I experienced a lot of tools and techniques during and after my studies, and explored many different fields whilst working for various clients. In the last agency I worked for I was a 3D designer; I was doing a ton of 3D modelling and rendering. I had to learn how light behaved, how different types of materials reacted to it and how to set up cameras and animate them. I learned so much about photography without really taking any pictures.
My experience with photography only started in 2012. At that time I was managing a project called ‘Lensblr’, the goal of which was to connect photographers on Tumblr. I had four people to interview in London and I thought that it would be really silly to go there without a camera. So I bought my first one; the Fujifilm X100. That was a complete revelation, I loved this camera with a passion. I started to see the world a bit differently. I was taking images in my free time, on vacations mainly. Then, in 2015, after a particularly bad day at the office in Geneva, I went to the city’s botanical garden. My anger heightened my sensitivity; in that green island inside the city I discovered what I saw as a series of paintings behind the glass, a refracted reality. I took the first 10 photographs of what is now my first book, Botanical, that day. In the middle of that year I was really depressed and wanted to change my career. I was tired of doing 3D and sitting in front of two screens at the same office desk every day. I wasn't considering photography as a full time option, but I got really lucky. I sent a few postcards with my work to Monocle Magazine and landed a job for them a month after. Then another, and another. I left the agency I was working in and quickly built up my clients. One thing that really helped me was to meet Niels Ackermann, a very talented Swiss photographer and founder of the Lundi13 agency. He took the time to look at my portfolio and gave me the courage I needed to make the jump. Without him I probably wouldn’t be here answering your questions. It was a risky move as I had no savings and not many contacts, but it somehow worked. I survived. I still suck at networking and sometimes I can't pay my bills in time but I'm happier than ever doing what I love.
What type of photography are you most passionate about?
I enjoy all types of photography, but I have a more pronounced attraction for architecture and human made structures. It may come from my design background. I like having ‘lines’ in my images and even when I shoot landscapes I try to construct them the way I would arrange layers on a canvas. Composition is a really important part of photography for me. I'm also fascinated by portraits; they’re a type of photography that I still need to explore, practice and improve upon.
What images have been your most significant so far?
The first images of my 'Botanical' series, the ones I shot in 2015, really helped define a long term project and ended up printed in multiple exhibitions. They're also significant to me because they happened at the moment where I was questioning myself about my career. I took those first images after a really bad day at the office where the anger and anxiety heightened my sensitivity.
What photography projects have you recently been working on?
I've finished my first book, 'Botanical', together with Hoxton Mini Press and their team; it's been a two and a half year ride. I've learned so much whilst working on this and I'm delighted with the result. I'm also working on a new series of images that will most probably end up as a book, but that's not before the end of 2019.
What reaction do you aim to inspire in people when they view your images?
I hope that they ask themselves questions. How was it shot, what's the angle of view, what's the subject, was it manipulated? In my personal and mostly abstract work I aim to give something for the viewer to interpret without giving away the subject instantly. I'd like to inspire people to love art more, to visit museums, to admire painters, artists and most importantly to dream more. Photography for me isn't just about capturing reality, it's also about giving the viewer a bit of a recipe to help them see the world differently.
Whose work has influenced you most?
I'm very influenced by the life of Sebastião Salgado, not only his impeccable photography but how he uses it for good. He's a photographer I always admired. I remember being quite shocked, in a good way, by his early books when I was younger. My current work is mostly influenced by painters. I grew up visiting a lot of museums, my mum loves them and she transmitted her passion to me. If I had to choose only one painter to describe my fascination for this art form it would be Klimt, the way he mixes intricate details with beautifully simple forms is incredible. My favourite art movement is clearly impressionism. It's not a coincidence that in my 'Botanical' series you can find a bit of Claude Monet, August Renoir and Gustave Caillebotte. The way they depict the intangible subjects such as reflections is an inspiration for me. There's also a bit of Japonism in it; an influence among the impressionists that consist in the removal of depth and perspective. Geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism are two other movements that influence my work, from Paul Klee compositions to Mark Rothko deep and textured colours. In terms of modern photographers I'm amazed by the amount of work Nicholas White has put on his black dots project. I'm also very fond of industrial photographers like Greg White and Christopher Payne.
What inspired you to start the Fujifeed Instagram account?
I always wanted to create a community around photography as I believe that just like music, it's a universal form of art that breaks down all barriers. It worked well with Lensblr but the scope was too broad. The initial idea of the @fujifeed Instagram account emerged after I realised I was taking too many screenshots of other photographers work on this social network, often Fujifilm users. They ended up lost in my camera roll. I wanted to create an account that would allow me to share the bookmarks I had on my phone, all those incredible photographs I once saw. I knew that limiting the whole project to the Fujifilm eco-system would ensure a fast growth and help connect photographers together more easily. I also noticed that people who chose Fujifilm cameras over other brands usually made that decision because they wanted to do photography, not just vacation pictures; they wanted dials and a tactile feeling. That being said, there's a lot of uninteresting images being made with Fujifilm cameras, but I still feel that overall the community is more artistically oriented than some of the big brands. Later on, Instagram introduced their bookmarking feature; I now use it to save images from photographers that I want to publish - no more screenshots.
How did you develop this into an online magazine and website?
It sort of evolved on it's own. I realised that gathering a following was great but Instagram is far too ephemeral. I made a website to host the various articles and interviews that I was doing and asked a few other writers to assist me. There's also a forum and a Slack discussion group; they both help photographers connect to each other and exchange ideas. Lately I've also been exploring Ello more, as it's a promising social network without all the ads and algorithms that are crippling Instagram.
What are your future plans for Fujifeed?
I've got a lot of potential development ideas, but the ones I choose to pursue will heavily depend on the budget I can gather for the project as Fujifilm isn't supporting it - I’m an ambassador, what they call an X-Photographer. All I can say is that it will grow a lot more in 2018 than it did in 2017, that's for sure.