Martin U Waltz: How to Evolve Your Style as a Street Photographer

All images by Martin U Waltz. Used with permission.

“I always felt when travelling that the most interesting part was roaming in the streets, without any directions or goal.” says photographer Martin U Waltz. “So it was actually a small step to street photography.” Based in Berlin, Martin describes his signature style as high contrast black and white.  Last year, he was voted as one of the 20 most influential street photographers and he’s won a number of aways including solo exhibitions in many big cities.

Martin draws influence from musicians and a whole load of other arts.



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Phoblographer:  Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Martin: My father was a passionate amateur photographer, he taught me the basics. In my late teens I was fully set including my own darkroom.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into street photography?

Martin: I always felt when travelling that the most interesting part was roaming in the streets, without any directions or goal. So it was actually a small step to street photography. I have found two areas of photography to the most most interesting: anything people and anything urban. street photography combines these two elements.

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Phoblographer: Your work is quite interesting in that there’s a sense of raw realism to it especially in the black and whites, but with the color that’s an in your face punch some sometimes vivid colors and otherwise vibrancy. How did you go about developing your creative vision and what influenced it?

Martin: I think many things influence my work beyond photography, like music ranging from J.S. Bach to contemporary electronic music, literature like the work of J.P. Sartre, Paul Bowles and Michel Houellebecq, from the film noir movies to the recent “Victoria”, the world of painting between Rembrandt, Hopper and Penck. Poetry with Baudelaire, Benn and Celan. And of course all the mundane stuff of modern pop culture ranging from TV series, to music videos and advertising.

I’m a regular visitor to museums and photographic exhibitions off all genres. I’m incredibly curious. I’m constantly looking for visual input.

Vision: To be honest when I started shooting I had no vision at all. I just went with what attracted me. Only when looking back at my work I could see that it was not all random. I think my vision evolves in a dialogue between my work and me. This vision is much more of a process or flow than a fixed thing. There are two questions to be answered. What do I want to say and what visual means do I want to employ. And finally the “trivial” task of getting out nailing those shots.

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As for my color work I think it is in many ways similar to my b+w work. There is high contrast, the colors are strong but cold, same as my b+w work does not radiate warmth.

Phoblographer: So when you’re on the streets, what actually motivates you to push the button and take the picture or not? Have you found patterns in your own work?

Martin: There are very different things that can attract me: like a an interesting geometrical background or great light and I work from there to fill the frame. A very traditional HCB like approach. Other times I see or even just that persons and urban shapes are aligning in an interesting way. And I just shoot – without any further thinking or reflection. It is a very intuitive approach. Obviously it results in a lot of crap shots as well.

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I think my overwhelming topic in my work is the certain unpleasantness of the human existence. The buddhists call it Sankhara-dukkha. There is nothing that can be done about – well other than full enlightenment. So as long as we are unenlightened in the human form we have to deal with it. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It can even be quite beautiful in a melancholic way. It is just how it is. Basically I think all my work evolves around that.

Phoblographer: You said in your original email that your signature is all about high contrast black and white; but do you think that translates over into color? By that, I mean the way that you see light and shadows.

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Martin: Well in a way all photography is about light and the absence of light i.e. shadow. I think the classic b+w high contrast translates into vibrant colors. The dominant darkness in my b+w work finds its equivalent in rather cold colors. There are technical differences in a color shot. I can work with color contrasts (blue figure to red background) in b+w I need a contrast in luminance (dark figure to white background) or pattern (solid figure to background stripes).

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

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Martin: My go-to camera for street photography is a Ricoh GR, it is small, silent, easy to use. And it has a great image quality. I like the 28mm lens (full frame equivalent) For flash work I some times use a Sony a7R with a manual 35mm Zeiss Loxia lens. The image quality is above and beyond. It is clearly heavier and far visible than the Ricoh GR but if working with a flash, you’ll be noticed anyway.

I have used cameras of the Fuji 100 series quite a bit. Yet if small form factor matters, the Ricoh GR does a better job. And if it’s about manual control and image quality the Sony/ Zeiss combo does it best. So I sold the Fuji.

Phoblographer: What motivates you to actually go out and shoot? Why is it so important to you?

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Martin: Without wanting to sound pompous: But once I have found my artistic outlet, it is very hard to let that go. Expressing myself artistically becomes a need. And yes I feel I could do better and stronger images than I have till now. And this work will only happen when I go out and shoot. Obviously there are periods of self-doubt and frustration and a strong inner voice that tells me to quit. So what keeps me going is the emotional need to express myself and the discipline to really do so on a regular level.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.