For this Death Before Digital Exclusive, we sat down with Raphael Buehlmann. A multidimensional artist hailing from Switzerland. 

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

So, Raphael … Tell us a little something about yourself. 

My name is Raphael Jonas Buehlmann. I come from Zurich Switzerland and I am 30 years of age.
That’s about everything that I’m sure about. 

How did your creative career start? 

I was growing up in a family of artists. Expressing myself visually was very natural to me from early on.
I personally think we all have the urge to express and process the things we see or go through.
Others are good with words while I think I feel better communicating more visually.

You are quit the known tattoo artist under the name Raphael Verlan. It occurred to me that not many people know you as a photographer as well. You seem to keep those two disciplines separated on purpose. Is there a specific reason behind it? And what did you start out with?

Tattooing is one of the most beautiful things on earth to me and I am currently still tattooing every single day and I will most likely be tattooing for the rest of my life. However, tattooing stands in hard contrast to my photography. Tattooing is a very strict profession, there’s no mistakes allowed. In photography or at least in the way I approach photography, I’m able to do more experimental stuff. If the outcome doesn’t turn out as expected, no one gets hurt.

Although I do have to say… although it’s not that obvious, both my tattoo- and photography-work have many things in common. Especially since the last years in which my vision got more clear started to create my “voice”.

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

I started using a camera when I was about 18 years old. I made many pictures of my girlfriend at the time. Back then I used the pictures to paint her afterwards. I really hated the way the pictures looked though. It was a shitty digital camera but all i could afford at that time. Later i started drawing and painting more and more girls and I eventually could afford a better camera to make pictures of them first. But even those pictures where completely shit and I hated pretty much everything about them. The only good that came from the pictures was the fact that the paintings always looked better than the pictures. 

A few years later I bought an analog camera for my girlfriend at the time because she was interested in photography in general and it only cost about $50. I ended up using the camera way more than she did and for the first time I realised that the pictures itself where kind of good and that I didn’t need the extra step of transforming them into a painting or drawing anymore. I still did, but often lost some of it’s beauty without giving something more exciting. So it slowly became clear to me. Sometimes photography can be stronger than paintings. I have done an apprenticeship as scenic painter at “Schauspielhaus Zurich” and in those 4 years I always got told that a photograph would never be more than a flat version of a painting. But I’ve learned that that doesn’t always have to be true…

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

How did they react?

Well, to be honest, the local newspaper completely misunderstood my vision and that made me very sad. The people who went to the exhibition where fascinated but a little confused as well. Haha I couldn’t blame them.
I think most of my early work is complete shit.

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

What happened after that?

I was actually at a good point of my career. The tattooing went super well and luckily still is. So I could afford a better camera and bought a Canon 5d and started to do some jobs for agencies, brands and fashion magazines. But I didn’t like what I was doing with my photography. Something felt wrong and out of place. Like I was trying to become something that wasn’t me.

So I turned my back on the so called (professional photography) before I even really started. For me, the environment, the people from the agencies and the art directors who always think they know better, we’re getting on my nerves too much. I realised my pictures started to look boring and shallow. So I stopped doing that and decided I would only make pictures of what I personally find interesting and that I would ONLY make them the way I want them to look. Luckily there are still magazines and galleries who are interested in what I do and that value my work as is. By working this way every picture I publish now is highly personal to me.

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

We see you shoot a lot of beautiful women…
Can you tell us a little more about what you find interesting about your models?

What is really interesting to me is the thing behind the beauty. I like the concept of exposed intimacy. Because it is paradoxical. How intimate can something be if everyone can look at it? I think the dialog between model and photographer is extremely important. There has to be real interest in the person or object you you make pictures of. Doesn’t matter if it’s a building, a plant or a human being. You have to be really interested in it to get the full spectrum of it’s beauty, it’s possibilities, it’s weaknesses and it’s strength. Fascination isn’t enough, there has to be real interest and passion and connection.

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

We also see more objects and architecture in your photos recently.
Is this a new chapter in your photography?

Well no, I think I just finally find ways to show things the way i want. I always found buildings and other non organic objects very interesting as well, but didn’t have the skill to show them how I wanted to. All in all it’s the same. It’s an interest in the environment we live, in the food we eat, the places we make love in, the places we run through. I think there is a constant exchange between the humans and their environment. You can not tell one story without the other. The places we live are shaping and forming us constantly.

We saw you work a lot in Tokyo and other asian cities like Hong Kong,
Seoul and Taipeh. How come? And what makes those places so interesting to you?

Tokyo is my second home and I love it more than many things in the world. It is my most faithful muse and basic source of inspiration. I could literally go on for hours about how much I love this city. Of course i’m not blind and I see the stuff that is going wrong there as well. I’m not saying it is an utopian place, but the contrast between light and dark (metaphorically speaking) is absolutely breathtaking. I feel this energy everyday when I wake up there. Same for my tattoo work, my paintings and my photography it is important to me to be in Asia. Because in a way I find the most interesting drawing sources and models there. I know that my interest in asian culture comes close to obsession. But try to see it like this: If you are really, really in love with a girl… you want to know everything about her, what she eats, what she ‘s dreaming of, what she likes to wear, what frightens her, what makes her cry, laugh, what kind of music she likes to dance to and how she likes to fuck. But it doesn’t mean you wanna be her. You’re still totally cool with being yourself. For me it’s the same. I will never become a Japanese man and that’s totally ok. I’m cool with being European, but still I wanna learn and respect the Japanese way of living. Because i’m in love with it. If that makes sense?

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

Can you tell us a little more about the equipment you are currently using?

It depends, when I’m at an indoor location I mostly use a Minolta Dynax 700i. I love that camera because it’s simple and it does what I want. Plus it’s not super expensive so if one falls down I can go and replace it easily.
The outdoor pics are mostly done with a Contax T3. Although I find that camera slightly overrated. So as of recently I am using a Leica Minilux when shooting outdoor. It’s a bit heavier and bigger than the T3. But the lens is phenomenal!

Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital
Raphael Buehlmann | Film Photographer and Artist | Exclusive Feature | Death Before Digital

So what you can tell us about upcoming projects? Got some things lined up?

Right now, I’m at the point that I would love to bring out a book soon. Therefor I’m glad we already had a chat about possibilities and I’m looking forward going more in depth on this subject. Thanks for reaching out for this feature and I’m looking forward to future collaborations!  

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