The Third Eye
When cameras were first introduced to the world, there were certain cultures who feared the strange new devices, believing they were capable of stealing a soul.
They may not have been wrong.
But for those of us who enjoy what a camera can create, from photography to film and video, we want the images to have a soul. We want them to communicate something vital to us, which we can then carry with us for the rest of our lives.
And whereas editing is perhaps the stage where a camera’s images can be made to lie, shooting and capturing images allows only for reality, only for what is in the real world at that exact moment.
The Woman Behind the Lens
But not all of us are bold enough to step behind the camera to try to make something beautiful. And even when we do, it’s rare that we find the courage to present our work to an audience.
But Ulli Gruber has never been shy with a camera. In fact, she has spent her life using cameras to tell stories, oftentimes stories that may not have been heard otherwise.
Originally from Austria, Gruber quickly found a love for photography. It gave her the opportunity to share her unique perspective with others, all while getting the chance to work with many different kinds of subjects.
After moving to New York in the 1990s, she found her way into the world of filmmaking, and specifically cinematography.
Ever since, she has used her skills to create impressive works of art. She has worked on award-winning live music recordings, documentaries, and television shows.
She has also continued her photographic work, including an ongoing project that documents motorcycle culture in the U.S.
It’s rare that we have the chance to speak with someone who has such a varied and compelling background, and we used the opportunity to learn more about where Gruber finds her inspiration, why she decided to become involved with visual art, and how she’s able to execute such emotional work.
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Can you tell us why you were initially drawn to photography?
A photo is like a poem. Pictures speak to everyone’s soul and whisper to the viewer. It’s a special moment and a powerful feeling when you push that button on a camera and everything is right for a fraction of a second. It is this moment in life and in time that creates an image which is a document of my vision and my surroundings.
When I started taking photos with my first camera, I was fascinated that I could make someone else see exactly what I see. This fascination never left me and became my artistic voice. I always had this deep need to capture the world around me: friends, family, animals, people, trees, houses, sky, vehicles, the city, the country. You name it.
We live in a beautiful world with many stories to capture and share. It makes me feel good when I see a person I’m photographing become comfortable with the camera. Somehow, the camera melts away and they feel free to be themselves. I really get to know the person. The lens picks up everything and you see the truth of a moment.
I feel very fortunate that I’m able to share my vision through photos. And the best part about taking photos is that you don’t need a crew and can take them anywhere and anytime!
When photographing people, do you offer any guidance on how they should pose or do you prefer to capture candid moments?
It depends on the nature of the photo shoot. I love to capture candid moments. Usually, I start by taking a quick photo at the beginning of a shoot, during camera and lighting set up. This allows people to get comfortable with the setting and gives them time to center themselves. No poses are necessary at that point.
Standing in front of the camera makes them feel special, and I share the images I’m taking throughout the shoot so they can be involved from the very beginning.
Most people start to pose once they get comfortable. From there, I just need to adjust it sometimes to get the best results. By that time people are ready to play with me.
It’s a bit like dancing. I make a move and they follow. Once they lose their usual photo face, that’s when I start to shoot the candid moments that reflect who they really are. It is my mission as a photographer to see what’s behind their eyes.
I have an ongoing project taking photos and videos of motorcycles and their riders. I love to shoot while driving in a sidecar. Motorcycle events offer many great candid moments. I see people’s eyes light up when they see a photograph of themselves doing what they love to do most.
Skills that Speak to One Another
So do you think that your experience with photography has affected or informed your filmmaking?
A photo is the beginning of every film. The concept of taking a photo is technically similar to that of shooting a film, except that your images start to move. Making moving images is a much greater challenge since it also requires a crew that needs to be directed, and the set still needs to be as intimate as that of a photo shoot.
I find that experience with photography is the basis of filmmaking, which requires far more preparation to tell a story.
Every experience I have ever had in my life as a photographer greatly enhances my vision as a filmmaker. But it works the other way around, too. My experience with film has changed my photography.
On my most recent photo exhibition, “e-motion” I was exploring and capturing a feeling of movement in every photograph.
When you first moved to New York, was there a significant amount of culture shock or was the transition fairly easy?
When I moved to New York it was a tremendous change in my career. I used to work in theaters all over Europe and was only familiar with live performance. But since I had come to the U.S. as a journalist, I couldn’t work for theaters in New York.
I needed a creative outlet so I made my first film, ‘BAGS,’ on a Super 8 camera that I had found in the trash in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I still have this camera 21 years later.
It was a culture shock because in 1997 there was trash littered all over the streets and no environmental awareness. Plastic was at that time already mostly abandoned in Europe and the obscene abuse of this toxic material in the U.S. felt foreign and strange.
I have never lived among so many different cultures in one place before, and I truly love that aspect of living in the U.S.
The transition was challenging, but the friends I’ve made here are some of the most talented professionals in the world who have gathered here in NYC to meet and work together.
I am very grateful for every single person I’ve been able to work with here in the U.S. I would never have accomplished so many great projects without the support of the New York artistic community.
When creating a documentary, do you start with a story in mind or do you let the subjects and interviews guide the filmmaking process?
The most exciting thing about making documentaries is the act of discovery. No matter how much I prepare, the process itself changes with every piece of new information. In many ways, it feels like working on a puzzle.
Making a documentary is the most organic storytelling there is. Every person I interview, each piece of information I gain about the subject forms the story, and you never know what you’ll find until you find it.
Making a documentary starts with intense research and creating an opportunity for people to tell their side of a story.
Every story has many different viewpoints. As a filmmaker, it is my responsibility to stay objective and diplomatic while editing a documentary since these are real-life stories. Making a documentary takes a long time, and following the guidance of the subjects and their interviews is the only way to complete it.
By making a documentary about something that is fascinating to me, it gives me in-depth knowledge of the subject. Like the name says, a documentary is a document of the world we live in, and one that will outlast our own time on Earth.
Why So Serious?
You seem to enjoy making use of humor in your work. Can you tell us why that is?
Laughing is the most healthy release in almost any situation. Sometimes life and human behavior get so ridiculous and can seem surreal, but it’s always real. Often in real-life experiences, if we put that experience in a movie, nobody would believe that it really happened.
We all experience these comical moments that happen in our day-to-day lives. They can be as simple as watching someone in the supermarket checkout line take too long to complete their purchase while a dozen people are left waiting.
It’s your choice whether to be annoyed by it or take a close look at the situation and find the humor. In general, we are our own masters, controlling our emotions. To find humor and make people laugh is the oldest and highest form of art. Every king needs a clown who can tell him the truth.
Besides, it is a wonderful feeling to contribute joy to the world. Making a TV show with the Austrian performer Alf Poier, who is a famous clown and philosopher, was so much fun.
Creating the scenes was already so much fun for us. When i hear people laughing out loud while watching our show, it’s the greatest compliment.
But for the most part, I laughing at myself, finding lots of humor in my own behavior every day.
With that said, do you have any major sources of inspiration in the world of filmmaking?
I have respect for everyone who finishes a film and puts it on the big screen. In particular, I’m very inspired by Werner Herzog. I studied his films intensively. I even helped Paul Cronin with some translations for a book he wrote on Herzog.
The sensitivity and vision he gives to the world deals with humans on the most honest level. He never judges, he supports every character in his pictures. There is no good or bad, there is just reality. Having been born and raised in Austria, I naturally understand his visual language. He speaks clearly to me and his stories have real meaning.
I also love Charlie Chaplin. He was a genius, playing so many characters with his whole soul and never making fun of anyone else.
Alfred Hitchcock influenced the whole world with his mysteries, all of which entertain with a real mastery of storytelling.
Akira Kurosawa’s innovative approach to filmmaking inspired me on every level. It all seems so natural and perfect when I watch any of his films.
It was a big turning point when I saw Peter Greenaway’s film, “Drowning by Numbers”. I’ll never forget how I watched this film every day when it was screened at a Theater in Vienna. Each frame looked like a painting to me and It was the most beautiful film I had ever seen. I remember that moment when my heart spoke to me, telling me to make something beautiful.
As a visual artist, my true inspiration is music, nature, and people. I watch very few movies compared to most people. When i watch a movie, I truly enjoy watching the mastery of the medium, but when I see and hear a bird sing, that’s when I feel truly inspired.
Painting with Light
So when you’re working as a DP, what is your first priority? Is it composition? Lighting? Blocking? Camera movement?
My first priority is to understand the scene I’m shooting. Composition, lighting, blocking, camera movement, all of these things are the first priority for me working as a DP. The order changes on each project, and working with actors requires a completely different approach than when you’re shooting a documentary.
I do intensive location scouting in order to know what light we’ll need on the day of the shoot. Light is my brush and it sets the mood. Once the mood is set, it’s time to start rehearsing.
This is when everybody gets to explore. The talent has time to get comfortable on set while the framing gets set and camera movements are practiced.
When everyone on set is on the exact same page, then it’s time to push that record button and capture the magic.
When I work with musicians, the workflow is entirely different. The most important thing is recording the audio from the performance. On those shoots it feels like I’m a cat moving carefully and slowly through microphones and cables that can’t be touched. Usually, it’s a low light situation and I don’t want to interrupt the recording by changing the mood.
When I shoot an interview it’s my first priority to make the person comfortable sitting in front of a camera. I think less lighting is better. A few lights on set will help people who are not used to being on camera feel more comfortable.
Are there any projects you’re working on currently that you’d like to talk about?
I’m currently working on a new project called, “CONFESSION OF THE SERVER”.
This will be a fun project and very entertaining. There is no shortage of interesting stories in the service industry.
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Ulli Gruber is an award-winning freelance filmmaker and photographer.
Links to Gruber and her work can be found here: