The intersection of fine art, technology and storytelling: An interview with Till Janz
By Joseph Genest
I’m very interested in cross-sections and intersections of what’s traditional and what’s more current, seeing how I can combine things and create something that’s new and unseen. That’s what I’m always after.
— TILL JANZ
Till Janz doesn’t describe his day job as being a photographer.
Although his photo credits include the likes of Maison Margiela and Nike, he views photography as just one of the many steps in capturing these brands’ stories.
Instead, Till Janz says he’s an image maker, blending the practices of photography, art direction, and creative direction. He constructs narratives that are familiar enough for brands and their fans to relate to, but pushes into challenging conventions. Taking inspiration from things like 80s Sci-Fi, his work takes emerging technologies and techniques into creating something that feels new and familiar all at the same time.
With upcoming projects including Hugo Arthole– a artificial alter-ego character created by Till Janz as a part of a larger NFT exhibit, we sat down with him to discuss his process, what it’s like to work with these brands in a multitude of disciplines, and how he challenges himself to use different techniques to make himself better.
JG: Starting with your last interview with SuperRare, I want to circle back on how photography became your full-time gig. What was your first paid position like?
TJ: Photography really started after high school. I didn’t really know what to do and my parents were really worried because I was just into music and skateboarding, you know, smoking weed for a long time. So, they put me into an internship for an advertising agency in Frankfurt.
I was doing an apprenticeship for two or three month when they wanted to take me (in full-time), but (the agency) went bankrupt. I ended up going to a photographer who was assisting during this apprenticeship and staying there. I really liked the guy and he became my mentor in photography. He was really interesting because he’s (always been) a photographer, but also was into winemaking. He bought a big vineyard in Tuscany and made super high-end wet wines, white wines, and brandy. He also was a professor even though he had never actually studied.
He always taught me that design is basically everything you can create around you. It doesn’t really matter if it’s photography, film, music, cooking, or wine-making, it’s the same process.
JG: Let’s talk a little bit about technique. When did you start experimenting with more digital techniques? What’s your process like for finding new tools and techniques to experiment with?
TJ: I think that comes from my interest in just generally being a tech geek. I was born in ‘82 so I know the time pre-internet and post-internet. When I was like five years old, my parents bought me a Commodore 64…it was an old computer. And from that moment, I was always interested in technology.
Since then, I’ve always been fascinated by new phones, new computers, AR, AI…anything that’s up and coming. My background is also in gaming. I’m a big gaming geek, so a lot of my inspiration comes from computer gaming.
So, just seeing how I can pick from different processes and combine them as an image maker. I’m very interested in cross-sections and intersections of what’s traditional and what’s more current, seeing how I can combine things and create something that’s new and unseen. That’s what I’m always after.
JG: What are some things you’re experimenting with now? What do you like working on?
TJ: At the moment I’m working with a mixture of scanning, 3D scanning. Of course, cinema using Houdini…combining traditional photography and film. Motion tracking and doing different CRO cross processes.
Then, in my photography practice, I usually work with a lot of big teams. I’m quite lucky in that position for commercial (work) where I have access to a lot of people. So, using them in my day-to-day practice to test something here, then give it over, bounce it back. It’s more of a mix of art directing, directing photography, and digital techniques.
JG: That goes a little into what I wanted to talk about next: your work has a sense of narrative to it that’s familiar but pushes the comfort level a little without being obscene or vulgar. How did you transition into creating this style that’s more creative and art direction? What goes into your process behind (those decisions)?
TJ: That’s an interesting question because I still work on commercial (projects) in fashion. I’ve worked for quite a lot of big brands and I think the problem I always have is that my vision is probably quite radical for a lot of them. They’re kind of scared and still living 10 years back. Fashion always wants to be in the top of the development but they’re actually not, they’re always 10 years behind. So, when I work with big brands, it’s about leveraging the right amount of creativity but bringing in something they can relate to.
I think even for myself, as a kid from the eighties, I hate it, but I don’t like many new films. I’m always looking at films like Brazil or old school Sci-Fi; they show the reality of things but in the future where there’s always an important human aspect to it. I never really think in the future humanity gets replaced or everything’s going to be CG. To me, it’s more like patchwork, and that’s something like, the reality but there’s an overlay. So, maybe more augmented reality than VR. That direction is a combination of a bit in the future but also using things from the past and feeling like you’re starting to push some boundaries…but not going too far away that it becomes obscure. For me, that’s the middle ground.
JG: So, it’s trying to get people excited about the future while also paying homage to the past a little bit.
TJ: Yeah, because I like the planet and I like the past, so I don’t want to get rid of it (laughs)…but I want to push it further. It sounds cheesy but I think the idea of using technology to make people aware and using humor as a really big tool to tell serious problems. It’s making people understand without telling them (straight) up. I think that’s something I really like to do, use humor as a tool to get people excited and show them problems but not telling them what to do because no one is listening anyway. It’s an approach to get them on board.
JG: How did you get into working with these brands and what do you think drew them to your work? What’s your approach when a brand comes to you? How do you construct a narrative?
TJ: There’s a few layers to it. With brands it’s more of being a problem solver. So, a lot of them come to me and say “we really need images”. Then, the more traditional approach is that they invest a lot of money into the main campaigns then use it across all different medias. I think they’re realizing more and more it’s not really working because people look at stuff on Instagram. People used to look in a magazine at a nice campaign. It needs to be more authentic for a different generation.
So, for brands it’s more of a mixture of consultancy and image creation. I usually consult them across all channels because I’m quite knowledgeable about how to approach different target groups, then cater them a specific menu depending on what their needs are, what they need to sell, what they need to communicate, and what the message is. Then, I come up with stories visually, conceptually, and technology-wise to solve their needs. So, it’s more 360 thinking about how we can utilize technology. I’m also super keen on using existing technologies and linking them into certain features to kind of hack them. An example is the timeline on Instagram: how can you use the timeline to kick into the next thing as a tool for interactive content?
So, I’m really keen on how you can create participation and interaction within existing technology without having to program something.
JG: What do you think challenges you more: your individual pursuits of experimentation or when somebody contracts you to work on something?
TJ: To be honest, the personal projects are harder.
Generally, I think my work is what I’m super passionate about. Sometimes the problem with brands is that I’m okay with compromising, but there’s only a certain level of compromise I want to do. So, I either get paid loads of money and then my name isn’t underneath it, that’s fine. But, if I get commissioned for something and my name is underneath, and it’s something personal, I want to do something that I like. I’m always criticising myself the hardest. I’m never happy with what I do. I always think I’m not good enough and need to be better. So, I think personal projects are definitely, definitely harder. They’re quite scary because the more growth working with or Nike, the more people are looking. I have to think about what I want to put out there to keep the boundaries and level up.
JG: With the rise of NFTs, do you think there’s going to be a changing face in publications? When brands get involved, do you think your approach to digital work might change?
TJ: 100%. For me, as an image maker, because I’ve never really felt like a traditional photographer, the scenes in London or New York are very cliquey. You know, there’s photographers, stylists, the right magazines, ‘you can’t get in’…there’s boundaries. For me, my work has never been just about images; so, when I first heard about NFTs in December I was like “fuck, that’s amazing”. It’s my medium, I’m so happy about it.
Then for brands, you know, nothing’s really authentic anymore. They’ll say it’s a limited edition of a perfume, but it’s not different from what they normally do, it’s just that they print ‘limited edition’ on the bottle but make a million of these. So, what I find interesting about NFTs is how you can generate unique value and combine the two existing products to create a new experience.
SuperRare editor Oli Scialdone considers the social experience of provenance and its relationship with community in the Web3 space.