Artist Talk: Q&A With Thomas Hoepker
The world has changed since Thomas Hoepker received his first camera as a young boy in the 1950s. City silhouettes have shifted, as has the technology housed within each camera. But one constant through the decades has been Hoepker’s unwavering eye for those split-second moments when the people and places on the other side of his lens have let down their guard.
One of Hoepker’s most iconic photographs is of Muhammad Ali‘s clenched fist. During his artist talk in Milk Gallery last night, Hoepker revealed just how difficult it was to get that picture.
“I was watching him in the gym while he was training for a fight," Hoepker said. "I was sitting there in the darkness of the training grounds. [Ali] said, ‘Hello,’ and then he did this. [Makes punching motion]. So I had three seconds to take the picture. It was dark, the lighting was bad, but luckily I had a wide-angle lens attached to my Leica and I shot three pictures. If you look at the contact sheet, you can see there are exactly three pictures of this scene and only one is sharp.”
Although Hoepker didn’t know much about boxing prior to shooting Ali in 1966 for his famous collection — which is now on display at Milk Gallery through October 20 — he knew from the beginning that his focus would lie outside of the boxing ring. “I was fascinated, but more by the person and not so much the sport," he said. "Actually I haven’t shot any of his famous fights because I was simply focusing on the man.”
Hoepker also knew that he had to make each shot count because he would only use four to five rolls of film a day while traveling with Ali. “It was not what we have today when it’s unlimited," he said. "But I think it was better because you concentrated more. You knew a film roll had 36 photos and then you had to reload."
The German-born photographer has made New York City his home for decades, and he recently memorialized his adopted city with the book New York By Thomas Hoepker and offered a preview as part of his talk. Inside the collection, Hoepker chronicles New York through his archives of celebrities such as artist Andy Warhol and sexologist Dr. Ruth — as well as locations ranging from the iconic in bustling Times Square, to New Jersey’s not-so-secluded lover’s lanes. The collection also includes the most controversial photo of Hoepker’s career. In that image, a group of young people lounges on a sidewalk while the World Trade Center burns in the background on September 11, 2001.
Like so many of Hoepker’s photographs, it was his uncanny skill that put him in the right place at the right time: "It was just a scene that happened," he explained. "Nothing was staged here. I just walked by on the Brooklyn side and I saw these people sitting in this beautiful sunny day with the horrible cloud in the background. For me, it’s my quintessential 9/11 photo."
Photos by Zlatko Batistich