Q&A compiled by LIZAR VAN REENEN
Gerda Genis, a photographer with much passion for her art form has become one of the most seasoned photographers . From a Graphic Art and Design student to working in the advertising industry as an art director to having a strong portfolio showcasing the likes of international celebrities such as Charlize Theron, Claudia Schiffer , Alfie Woodard and Linda Evangelista together with our very own celebrities such as Christina Storm, Ryk Neethling, Leigh Anne Liebenberg, to only mention but a few. Known mostly for her fashion, beauty and portrait photography, Gerda also specialises in food & life and commercial photography. Today, we find out a bit more about the person behind those awe-inspiring imagery.
DID YOU ALWAYS HAVE AN INTEREST IN PHOTOGRAPHY OR WAS IT ONE OF THOSE ‘LIGHT-BULB’ MOMENTS THAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU REALIZED YOU COULD PURSUE PHOTOGRAPHY? My dad planted the first seed by giving my an old Yashica twin lens box camera when I was 17, but it took me a few years to discover that it was my real passion in life.
WHOM WOULD YOU SAY INSPIRED OR INFLUENCED YOU MOST WHEN YOU WERE STILL PONDERING ON THE THOUGHT OF PURSUING PHOTOGRAPHY? Without a doubt this would be Arthur Elgort and Bill King (who captured motion in a time when everything was quite static), Irving Penn (for his precision in both composition and lighting), Helmut Newton (for his strong eroticism and realism), Bruce Weber (for his storytelling, and ability to both idolise and shoot with intense realism, all at once).
YOU WERE A PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT IN AMSTERDAM BEFORE COMING BACK TO SOUTH AFRICA IN 1985. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE SOUTH AFRICA AS THE PLACE TO START YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER? The honest truth is that I was a little intimidated by the local SA industry, I guess I had no confidence that I would get any assignments as a start up ‘girl’ photographer. Amsterdam was an easier place to start, because I learned by trial and error and had the anonymity of a big city. My journey did initially start in Cape Town, working for a fashion retailer as art director and stylist. I was given the opportunity to shoot the Young section of their retail fashion campaign for the Winter of 1983, so the result was that I had some published work when I arrived in Amsterdam, which made my journey to build my portfolio a lot easier. I was never a great assistant…had too much to do, to shoot, to explore…I was so inspired… I can count on my one hand the amount of times I assisted a photographer in Amsterdam. Most of my knowledge was acquired after meeting my husband, Robbert Koene. We shared an apartment (3 young photographers), had our own darkroom to process and print and used each other as critics to improve each next shoot. We pointed out mistakes to one another and discussed how to improve our lighting, could discuss models, etc. So once I felt my portfolio had what it needed to be different (to what I’ve seen in South Africa), it gave me the courage to come back and show it around. Of course it was a lot easier here to get some paid work, because our industry was a lot smaller, and the plan was never to stay, but to move on to greener pastures once the portfolio has changed completely and could show mostly published work. Of course we are not always in control of our destiny…. and I ended up marrying my best buddy and have 2 beautiful children and a happy marriage of 25 years by now to show for it!
WITH THE PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY BEING KNOWN AS A MALE DOMINATED INDUSTRY – WAS IT DIFFICULT GETTING YOUR ‘FOOT IN THE DOOR’ AS A FEMALE PHOTOGRAPHER HERE IN SOUTH AFRICA? Yes, it was quite. There were no other women in SA at the time, although I learned much later that Fiona McPherson and Merwelien vd Merwe started their journeys alongside mine around the same time. Fortunately for me, I was lucky to know an amazing creative director who put his trust in me in 1983, before I was even remotely ready to call myself a photographer, which really helped to get me going. The next thing you know, everybody talks about you because you are different, same as is today, and from there on it just snowballed.
BEING KNOWN AS SOUTH AFRICA’S MOST SEASONED PHOTOGRAPHER, YOU’VE BECOME A HUGE INSPIRATION TO FEMALE PHOTOGRAPHERS. HOW DOES THIS MAKE YOU FEEL? Wow, I really appreciate that vote of confidence, thank you…and if I have inspired other women…then I’d say, like Annie Lennox: Sisters, lets do it for ourselves!
YOU HAVE AN EXTENSIVE LIST OF BOTH INTERNATIONAL AND LOCAL CELEBRITIES THAT YOU HAVE PHOTOGRAPHED. HOW DID YOU END UP GETTING SO MANY CELEBRITY COMMISSIONS? Honestly, no idea…! But I guess, in the case of Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista a few years ago, I was just fortunate to have the right people on my side. They had a lot of money in the balance (those were the days of these girls not getting out of bed for less than $10 000 a day, …!) and had to have a ‘sure hit’. Their was no room for failure, and I think, after all these years, I do have the stomach for it. “Nie ‘n bang haar op my kop nie…en gee my enige challenge…dis my kos!”
WHAT IS THE COMPARISON LIKE WHEN WORKING WITH INTERNATIONAL CELEBRITIES COMPARED TO LOCAL CELEBRITIES? Generally, there is just a lot more hype around the international celebrities, because they are so well known and there are huge contracts that comes along with the territory. They have agents that fiercely protect them against any bad publicity that might come their way, and after all, they are now being photographed by someone they don’t know and who is not known to the ‘world’ either. Charlize Theron, really freaked me out, because she normally shoots with Steven Meisel and the likes of him around the world. So for me it was HUGE when she chose me to shoot the campaign for Sun International here in South Africa. I was quite blown away, but very quickly realised that I had to jump off my cloud and plant my feet really solidly on the ground if I was to survive what was potentially going to be the toughest shoot of my life.…which it was…!
On the other hand, the local celebrities don’t come with body guards and agents ( only the odd one) and generally they are a lot easier to work with, unless they are a sports superstar who has exactly 1 hour for you to do a cover shoot! Yes…that happened…!
WHAT IS AN AVERAGE TIME PERIOD SPENT ON A SHOOT WITH AN INTERNATIONAL CELEBRITY VERSUS THE TIME PERIOD WITH A LOCAL CELEBRITY? It varies: with Linda Evangelista we waited for her for 4 hours, and then had 2 hours to do an entire 6 page beauty feature and a front cover. With Charlize we did an entire pre-shoot without her, making sure lighting and angles are correct before we started the following morning at 3am, because jet-lag-wise, that was her best time. We then had her for 8 hours, of which 4 was spent in make-up/hair/wardrobe and a short lunch break and 4 hours to do about 23 different shots!
Normally, we do cover shoots with local celebrities and that takes a shortish, but full day. They spend 2 hours in hair/makeup, perhaps another hour altogether in wardrobe and changes and we shoot 2-3 cover options and then 1-2 looks for the inside article…altogether 5 shots in an 8hr day…so, a lot less stress! And most of the time, an absolute pleasure!
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR STRONGEST QUALITY AS A SEASONED PHOTOGRAPHER? I don’t give up easily. I am a bit like a staffie…once I have taken hold of something I go all the way to the end… and I often go the extra mile. It’s just the way I am. I don’t fail easily.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST THING ABOUT BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER? Besides all the obvious things such as being rewarded for what essentially feels like ‘play’ and ‘fun’, I think it’s the fact that it brings me in such intimate contact with my subjects. I think it puts me on a natural high to know that they trust me unconditionally in that moment and its extremely rewarding to see how they become comfortable and relaxed in a moment that is essentially quite vulnerable for them.
WORD ON THE STREET HAS IT THAT YOU’LL SOON BE SOUTH AFRICA’S VERY OWN ANNIE LIEBOWITZ. ARE YOU READY TO TAKE ON THAT TITLE…LOL? LOL indeed! Who knows….but if the shoe fits, I’ll gladly wear it!!
FEW OF GERDA’S FAVOURITE PHOTOGRAPHS
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