Way back when I was still in high school, doing anything involving video or photography required a certain amount of specialization.
In other words, if you wanted to learn about cameras or shoot anything of your own, you were also going to have to sign on with a completely different social group.
It made for this strange barrier of entry. Your identity was decided by a singular hobby.
Thankfully, we’ve made some progress since then, as a society. Getting involved with photography and video on a more serious level is not terribly difficult.
This is thanks in part to the rise of high-quality consumer-grade cameras, including the one built into your smartphone.
It’s a time when just about anyone can express themselves visually. But high-quality cameras don’t guarantee high-quality work. That’s up to the artist.
Today’s interviewee, Ulli Gruber, has had a career on both sides of that major cultural transition. She got started with photography while growing up in her native Austria.
It wasn’t until the late 90s and a subsequent move to New York that she discovered her love for filmmaking, borne out of a desire to document and share the incredible mix of culture and art she was experiencing in the city.
In the years since, she has developed her artistic voice while also finding like-minded artists to collaborate with. Her short films have won multiple awards and her work continues to be shown in galleries throughout New York.
While speaking with Gruber, we did our best to cover a wide range of topics, hoping to get her opinions on everything from selfies to the messages her work communicates.
If you’d like to learn even more about Gruber and her work, feel free to visit her website, where you can take a look at her past projects as well as upcoming films and exhibitions.
Do you prefer to photograph people during candid moments or while posing?
Gruber: Have you ever watched people while they take selfies on their phone? It makes me smile because most people have a particular expression that they think looks good.
I’m not interested in their selfie face when I take photos of a person, so I let them do their posturing first and look for those in-between moments when they relax and are comfortable. It is a combination of candid moments and posing.
I create an environment and a mood on a shoot and let people get comfortable with it. It is a natural process that happens while setting up the shoot – while my subject is getting comfortable I test the camera and lighting. It’s important to keep the talent involved in the process, which gives us time to get to know each other and establish trust.
It’s the inner beauty that I’m looking for. I’m not worried about a pimple on the nose or if their hair is just right. I’m looking to see beyond that. My goal is to capture the person for who they are.
What was the first video project that you were really proud of?
Gruber: My first film BAGS, which was shot on 8mm. It changed my life in many ways. For the first time, I was able to share my vision with an audience and saw what was in my mind on the big screen.
I used to work in theater and stage production before making films. I worked on these amazing shows but once the night was over you could never see the performance again. When I made my first film it felt like I had built a monument.
The film was about the obscene overuse of plastic bags. I received a great response from the audience and loved it when people told me that they no longer used plastic bags because of it. Gene Stavis, a film history professor at SVA, once said to me that BAGS is an epic.
I put every frame that was halfway in focus in the film because film is expensive and I did not want to waste a single frame. I had no concept of editing then, and there is one shot that lasts about two minutes. It’s kind of like the camera is starring, which is a recurring theme of mine.
What are some of the challenges that arise on set?
Gruber: Once you are on set, life is good! Most of the challenges arise in pre-production. Location, actors, crew, costumes, equipment, vehicles, food, lighting, makeup, call sheets, parking and whatever else the shoot requires needs to be planned for ahead of time. When you gon on set you see the plan come to fruition, which is exciting.
Of course, there are always challenges on set. There are things that can happen that you simply can’t prepare for. A piece of equipment breaks, someone gets sick, or the weather is not what the reporters said it would be.
Flexibility and adjusting to new situations quickly is definitely important. What may seem like a disaster on set may turn out to be a blessing.
My biggest challenge is wrapping on time. To me, it feels like time does not exist on set, which is not true. I guess my biggest challenge is respecting the crew, talent, and locations time.
Are there any contemporary filmmakers who you greatly admire?
Gruber: I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog. His stories touch me deeply. He has grown with each of his films and at the same time, I feel that his early works are of the same caliber as his current films. Every project is made with great care about the subject.
The variety of his films makes him very appealing to me. Herzog is a true inspiration and reminds me that making a film allows you to be true to your current moment in time.
Of course, I love to work with contemporaries whom I respect and admire. Chad Gardella, for example, is able to share himself visually. David Spaltro is an amazing collaborator. Ulli Seidl makes the most honest social statements back home in Austria.
Truthfully, I admire anyone that makes a film.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since beginning your filmmaking career?
Gruber: The most important lesson I learned and I’m still learning is to collaborate, so everyone on the team can work at the highest level. I have been very fortunate to work with Mark Higashino for many years, and it has always been easy to share my vision with him.
I think what I have learned is to allow other visions and accept that not everything has to be the way I want it to be. I have learned to trust that everyone on set will bring their best to support the success of the project.
I have learned to choose my people I surround myself with very carefully and make sure that they are warriors of the light. Most importantly, I have learned to entirely trust my instincts and let go of my ego.
Have you found explored other American artistic communities outside of New York?
Gruber: Film and photography allow me to work with artistic communities all over America.
The community of artists is like a spider web that connects us to each other. The more you know the more the web expands and provides me with your opportunities to create.
Because of the high real estate prices in New York, many artists have left. I feel very fortunate that no matter where I go in America, there is always a kind person that introduces me into their community.
I’d definitely like to thank everyone who has hosted me along my travels and on all of the shoots. Tapping into an existing community is the most valuable thing that can happen on a creative level. It allows me to connect to a location immediately and helps me find the best spots in town for a shoot.
With each of your projects, are you trying to communicate something very specific or are you leaving the work open to interpretation?
Gruber: No matter how specific we are as visual artists, all images are interpreted differently by every single viewer. The same is true for music. Someone may find Jazz confusing, while the next person finds calming. Metal is exciting to one person, and others find it nerve-racking.
The same is true with film, as everyone brings their own life experiences with them and it affects the way they perceive the art. I can only make the film how I want to make it. It is for everyone to experience and interpret where they are at the moment in their life when they see it.