Jürgen Bürgin: The making of « Urban Fever »

The Berliner and street photographer Jürgen Bürgin published late September his first photobook, Urban Fever.  And I got the chance to chat with him about the whole process, and his adventures through the crowded streets of some of the world’s biggest cities.

With a degree in literature and working in the movie industry for so many years, it was almost inevitable for someone like Jürgen Bürgin to go into a creative field, like photography.

And indeed it was his case six years ago when he realized he could take photographs, and pretty decent ones, as he recalled. And so as beginners do, he went on to take more pictures, read on photography and its history. He discovered a new found interest, though he was never keen on it before:

“As a kid, I didn’t have anything to do with photography. I was interested in art, yes. I went to a lot of museums but I wasn’t really interested in photography. Caring about photography’s history or art’s history with photography, just that, was 5 or 6 years ago, when I took photos.”

But more than learning he could take good photos, he found his mode of expression. And after many attempts in finding his creative path, he explored this medium and realised he had a voice he never suspected in photography:

“I always wanted to do something creative in the movie business too, but I never had time, or never had a thing, or never think I was good at that. And so it’s really a way to express myself. And sure it’s more easy to press the shutter of a camera than to make a movie.”

And though his search was not an easy one, he is very candid about it, and even shared his failed try at writing:

“I tried to write a script some years ago, but that didn’t end up very successful.”

His path was very much one of perseverance, hazard and spontaneity. And this trio of words is what best describes his style of photography and the work he did over a time-span of six years to publish “Urban Fever. Scenes from city life”:

“I always wanted to do a photobook. I wanted to do something about what I experienced in the big cities I visited the last 6 years…The funny thing is, I went to so many cities, because my wife worked for Lufthansa, and we could travel the world very cheap. And so we went to Tokyo, to Shanghai, to Hong-Kong, to wherever, and I always took my camera with me.”

Shanghai – Jürgen Bürgin

But as he shared with me, publishing a book is a long, tortuous and costly process, especially nowadays, in an industry struggling to survive in a digitally-driven world.

So after much research and thoughts, Jürgen Burgin decided to self-publish, while solely relying on his social medias following to get the word out, reach a bigger and more diverse audience, and hopefully sell some copies. But digital self-publishing also allowed him the freedom to not compromise his work and ethic, and really produce a book that is solely his:

“I have worked with a book designer who made the design of the book, and I think she did a great job. But the choice of which photos to take, and all this process, I did it myself. It’s my book, and I always thought why not ask someone for the editing. But I decided to do it myself. This is my book, and if someone doesn’t like it, I don’t care. I try to sell it, and it really works with my social media, and with contacts, and the galleries, and the exhibitions I will do in the future.”

And one of the many hardships Jürgen Bürgin had to overcome while self-publishing was selecting the photographs that will be featured in the book, and those that will remain in his memory cards. And while it is an already difficult thing to do when you are a regular person, just trying to post your vacations photos or whatever else on Facebook, or Instagram, just imagine the stress it must be when you are making a book out of them.

So he asked the help and opinion of some of his friends to get through this process and finally narrow down his selection to 75 or 80 photographs:

“The oldest one is from 2010 and the youngest is from this year, … There were, let’s say, 250 or so in the selection for the book. And now, I think, I am not quite sure, there are 80 in it, 75 or 80, something like that. So I had to reduce it by a third, which is ok. But if you are down to 250, there are 250 you definitely love, and it’s difficult to kill one of them. (…) It was a really hard process. And that’s why I needed the help of some friends. So I said: “let’s talk about my 250 photos. Which one have to be in the book, and which one won’t be in it?”. And so I started to talk with 3, 4, 5 friends. And everyone had a totally, completely different opinion.”

But though his friends’ opinions didn’t help that much, they were crucial in finding a title that best suited his idea and mood for this book. If you take a look at “Urban Fever”, it seems to be an intriguing, short and well-thought title to relate to cities. But, the original one had a way more poetic but slightly misleading connotation, so Bürgin decided to go for a way punchier and more graphic idea, as he recalled:

“Oh, it was a hard, very, very hard choice to find the title. The title, for a very long time, was, which is now the title of the preface, it was: “In the sea of the city”, was the former title. And it is a little bit more poetic I guess. And I told a lot of people, and ask them what’s your idea when I tell you my book is called: “In the sea of the city”.

And many of them said it must have to do with the ocean. And I loved this idea. And then, I said, I didn’t want to have that misunderstanding. And so, it had to do with the city, movement, and my way going through the city. 

And so this “urban fever” was a metaphor for this hot life, this walking, running through the cities, and the movement, and the dynamics of the changes that happen in the city. That’s why I choose this title.”

But interestingly enough, the photographer, turned publisher, chose to present his photos completely bare in the book. You won’t find captions next to or beneath each pictures, or text or even quotations. He made that choice out of a desire to enable the audience’s imagination, but also out of fear of distracting the viewer from the real situation, subject, story at hand in the photo:

“I have a preface at the beginning, and then there is only the image part. And I decided not to have the captions on the pages, but to have the captions on two pages in the end, … Sometimes, I only have a photo on a double page, and sometimes two photos on a double page…

Barcelona – Jürgen Bürgin

The Barcelona photo is one example of it. There are different elements. I always try to find, let’s say, gaps, voids in a photo. And this photo asks me a question and this question is: “Who is this guy, with this suit and these dogs? And I try to find out where does he come from? How is he living? Is he a rich person? Somehow he looks like an old, rich, he somehow looks more like an English man. And if I have the possibility to get a photo to ask questions and not give answers. This photo asks the question: Who is this guy? What is he doing? Where is he coming from? Where is going to? And if I manage to ask the question, I manage to get the beholder try to answer those questions.”

An approach he has in common with legendary photographer Diane Arbus, who once said that:

“A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” 

So basically, the pleasure of looking at a picture resides in its secretive aspects, its mystery, in the ways it incites excitement but also a desire for answers in its viewer.

Furthermore, his project intends to illustrate how inhabitants of different cities in the world are way more alike than different on a human level and in how they live in each of their cities, even though their interests and cultures are:

“I wanted to show people that we, people who live in big cities, had something in common. So that the woman who lives in Saigon has something in common with you who lives in Paris. And every city has major differences. And so I wanted to show the common things but also the differences. For example, I always dreamt of visiting Shanghai, and I was there 4 years ago, but it was… I love the skyline of Shanghai and I love walking through the streets of Shanghai. But somehow it was… I didn’t see anything of subcultures in Shanghai. I don’t know if those subcultures are hidden somewhere behind walls, or in some quarters that I didn’t find or something like that. But somehow, the people who walk through Shanghai weren’t very exciting for me to take photos of them. Which could be a communist thing or something like that, I don’t really know, but I think it could be. And then on the contrary, it was Tokyo, which is the complete opposite. You are walking through Tokyo, and in every corner, there’s a different subculture. Subcultures you have never heard of before. It’s extremely astonishing to walk through Tokyo.”

And in that, “Urban Fever” goes beyond showing what and how cities are around the world. It is a vision. Jürgen Bürgin put into this book the vision and perseverance he would have had for writing, if he ever went through with that script of his. Through the lens of his camera, he sheds a light on the common people of the city, women and men from every background, with their hardships and joys. But his book also appears to pay homage to these people who are the many faces of the city, and who make the city what it is, from hard-working people commuting to work, taking a busy subway, running through a rain pour, to dancers in the street, to people laughing hard, to lovers who exchange a kiss, to an old man taking a stroll with his dogs, to a random person crossing a street.

The photographer writes, through his pictures, a script of his own reality and emphasizes others as well. And he really managed to capture the frenetic, sometimes dull, sometimes fun, and other times so banal life we can all experience in while living a city life, whatever it may be:

“I started literature at university. And I always had to do with stories, written stories. I have written my thesis, in university, I wrote about two adaptations of Kafka novel to the screen. It’s about the idea of how it works to transform a novel into movie…This story thing was always in my mind. I always have this comparison between those shots from movies that are in front of cinemas, that tell you something, but only a little bit about the story of the movie. So you only know the mood of the movie. You know a little bit about the story of the movie from these photos. You know the genre from these photos. And it’s only, let’s say, 6 photos or so or 8 photos from the movie that try to tell a part of the story of the movie. And that’s a good comparison for me, to try to explain what I do with my photographs.”

So if you want to learn more about Jürgen Bürgin and his “Urban Fever”, you can visit his website, where you can also order the book in a regular but also a fine art print. In the meantime, enjoy the gallery of photos here after.

Man crossing the streets in Tokyo
Tokyo – Jürgen Bürgin
Circus in Berlin
Berlin – Jürgen Bürgin
Couple dancing in New York
New York – Jürgen Bürgin
Paris – Jürgen Bürgin

All photographs shown here are courtesy of Jürgen Bürgin. JürgenBürgin


Details about the book:

Published on September 23, 2016.

Price:  30€

Special Edition with two Fine Art Prints on Hahnemühle Rag paper,80€

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