Name: Petra Kleis
Training: Commercial photographer
Petra, the very first time I met you, you’d ‘won’ a photo assignment as P3’s in-house photographer over a few other photographers. Your task was to photograph all of the radio hosts, myself included. It’s around five years ago, and you were yet to become a huge name in the industry. Since then, you’ve photographed Paul Smith, Isabel Marant, Margrethe Vestager, René Redzepi. Are you turning into a huge name in the industry? Do you dare to say YES?
I do dare to say that lots of things have been happening in my ‘career’ since the two of us first met… I feel like I’m in a place where I do the things I really want to do and am able to turn down assignments that aren’t that close to my heart. I also dare to say that I’m becoming one of those photographers in Denmark that’s used a lot, which I obviously take as a compliment. But I will always be humble around my work, and I don’t like being praised, being from Jutland and all…
You work as a photographer and shoot for magazines all over the world, do portrait series and have your own cool projects, such as the one with Maja from ‘Habitual Body Monitoring.’ How does a normal day look for you?
My day starts at 6:30am when an arm or a leg will hit my face, belonging to the child that’s very likely to be in my bed, and otherwise, I’ll go downstairs to wake up my girls in their own beds… Then we have breakfast, and I’ll fight long and hard to convince my girls to get dressed (they are nudists), after which either my boyfriend or I will take them to their kindergarten… Then it’s around 8am… Depending on whether I’m working from my studio or a location, I’ll go there.
I’ve got jobs almost every day so most of my time is spent photographing, and when I don’t have a job, I’ll spend time retouching, sending photo selections back and forth, writing emails, putting together mood boards, coordinating shoots, etc. My work life is pretty intense given the fact that I want to get home to my 3-year olds. It makes you incredibly efficient to have kids, especially if you have two at a time.
Tom Kristensen, Marco Evaristti, Marcel de Sade and Kaspar Colling Nielsen
Let’s go back in time for a bit – when did you realise that you wanted to become a photographer? Have you always had a camera around your neck, or how did it sneak up on you?
I didn’t know that I was supposed to be a photographer. I was never someone who’d take a lot of photos or who was interested in cameras or anything like that. I panicked after a few too many years of not embarking on an education. I started studying Nordic Languages and Literature at Aarhus University, possibly the stupidest decision ever! (Everyone who knows me would say… I never read, and I find it quite hard to sit still… But it was the only thing I got accepted into, and I felt like I had to get started… I was 24…). When after six months it occured to me that it didn’t work whatsoever, I thought that I had to come up with something else!! It had to be something creative, and something with people… Hence; photography!! That’s it, I thought. And then I got an apprenticeship after just a few months of looking (quite rare!). My cousin lived in Copenhagen and knew someone who knew someone, and they took me on as an apprentice. As such, I got started, and to put it frankly, I was pretty incompetent. That I’ve made it as far as I have is quite a miracle when you consider my starting point.
In order to do a quick summary of the years – how did your career path look from the start and until now? (How did you go from finding an interest in taking photos to making it your full-time job and livelihood?)
Hmm… Well, when I finished my apprenticeship in 2011, I started working independently right away; you don’t really have a choice as a photographer, and it suited me very well actually. Euroman had reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do something for them, which was a sort of blueprint; it opened quite a few doors. I’ve never had too little to do; on that account I’ve been pretty privileged! I’ve also written countless, ‘Hi, I’m Petra, I’m a photographer and I’d like to show you my work’ emails. So, nothing just comes out of nowhere in this industry! But as long as you work hard and are nice to the people you meet, you’ll get far.
Sometimes it can be one single meeting, one single contact, one helping hand, the right person at the right time that brings you up the career ladder. Do you think back with gratitude on one such person?
As mentioned, Euroman reached out at a really good point in time, and I’m absolutely grateful for that! Art Director Sune Ehlers, whom I respect highly, definitely deserves a highfive for doing that.
Other than that, I’ve just been hired again and again by a bunch of sweet people.
Nicklas Bendtner, LOC, Rene og Nadine Redzepi and K-Phax
Which photographers have inspired you on your way so far? Does anyone in particular come to mind; someone who’s influenced your style, your work ethics or similar?
I’ve always been fond of Terry Richardson’s ferocity and simplicity. He may not be a grand technician (neither am I), but he’s got this special something with people that few photographers have (for better and for worse, seen retrospectively). There’s a lot to be said for his style, but it never gets boring.
Juergen Teller is my all-time favourite. His aesthetics and ability to (almost) always throw some humour into his work; I just love it!! there’s something extremely relaxed about what he does, and at the same time his photographs have so much nerve!! Pretty crazy ambiguity. I almost feel like that man hasn’t taken a single bad photo; it’s pretty crazy!!
There’s no doubt that you’re pretty consistent when it comes to style and aesthetics. Clean, straight-on portraits. Hard flash. Contrasts. How would you describe your style – and what do you want to express?
I’d rather not describe my style… But if I have to, I’d say – simple, intimate and humorous.
I’d rather not express so much; I’d rather that people see my photos for what they are… ‘Just’ a portrait of a person, shot in the light or the situation which – often spontaneously – appeared.
Sometimes, people want me to think a lot of thoughts about my photos, but I really don’t. I go with the things that arise, and often times, funny, intimate or silly things will arise… Sometimes, it’s just a gaze, or a way of turning a head, and in other cases, it’s more insane, and then it’s just my job to hit the button and keep up.
If you were to pick one of your own photos as a favourite, which one would you go for and what is the story behind it?
That’s damn hard!! Not to say downright impossible! I’ve photographed so extremely many people, where I really think we’ve made some brilliant shots!!
I love the portrait of Bodil (ed. Danish actress) because it really, I think, revealed her extreme beauty! Often times, she portrays some hardly charming characters, appearing less than appealing, which makes it easy for the audience to miss how incredibly beautiful she is. – And then we also just had such a good time shooting together! Bodil is just mega, mega sweet. She had just returned to work after her accident and was fragile and had a hard time walking simultaneously with being super tough with a very strong gaze!! A lot of people would probably associate my photos with the coloured backgrounds so this was probably a classic Petra Kleis…
The photographs of Marco Evaristti and Peter Ingwersen are also both old portraits which stand out as definite favourites… They just say a lot about the two men, I portrayed. One has the ferocity and demonic while the other encompasses the controlled and ornamental elements.
My portrait of Martin Krasnik is also a definite favourite.
I love soooo many of the photos, but I have a tendency to forget them because there are SO many of them.
You also sometimes photograph people in situations that could seem a bit precarious. For instance, you shot me in my underwear for Euroman. It requires quite a bit of human insight and sense of occasion to make sure that I’m comfortable and good in front of the camera, seeing as I’m out of my comfort zone. How do you approach a task like that?
I really try to keep things suuuuper relaxed… My partner-in-crime, the makeup artist Ayoe Nissen, is genius at making people relax. She always takes care of people first, doing their makeup; you were with her first as well 🙂 When they get to me, Ayoe has already discussed everything and nothing with them, and this makes them forget to be shy.
I’m probably what you’d call extremely relaxed around nudity; I think that’s contagious… You tell me? I have no problem with people being naked, not the least, and I have no problem AT ALL with people in their underwear 🙂 So, I think that if you create a setting that’s as relaxed as possible, everything works out very well 🙂 It’s ‘just’ photographs and bodies.
You must also have experienced some pretty wild, crazy, insane, frightening shoots. If you were to pinpoint one of them, what stands out in your memory?
I’ve experienced quite a few crazy things and found myself in a lot of weird situations, yes!! You get very close to people, in all kinds of possible and impossible situations… The XX was a gigantic challenge; they were so shy and just not in the mood to have their photographs taken… What can you do when you’re faced with three introverted musicians, who don’t want to be stars and are hiding behind each other…
Joining Medina on her tour of Germany also made quite a big impression on me… I experienced her up close and started to understand what sort of pressure was on her shoulders. In the end, she allowed me to photograph her in the shower. I was so proud that she trusted me to do that.
A quite grumpy, hungover Olafur Elisasson was also quite a special experience…
I just returned home from Latvia, where I was photographing a huge basketball star, Kristaps Porzingis, and this was also quite interesting. He is 2.21 m tall, which is a bigger challenge than you might think. I had to stand on all sorts of boxes to just get near to being as tall as him. But to see how crazy people were with him, because of his giant star status, was pretty crazy, seeing as I was just bossing him around in front of a camera.
There are so many nuts experiences that I can’t share because I have to respect people’s privacy 😉
Who would it be your biggest dream to portray? And why?
I would love to turn back time and photograph Freddie Mercury!! Fuck, what a gift!! What a man, what costumes, what an overbite and moustache! I love everything about him!
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’m sure that a few pieces of advice from a super talented professional photographer would be quite welcome. A lot of us have become amateur photographers since the appearance of instagram.
- What are your three best pieces of advice for taking ‘the good shot’?
I’m probably not the right person to ask… But if I have got to say something, I’d say – try to keep the horizon somewhat level, and, Less is more…
- Which photo app is essential to have on your phone, do you think?
I have an app that can make nice white frames, which I’m extremely fond of! It’s called Squaready… Insta is probably capable of doing the same thing, but I’m not that experienced yet 😉
If you were to go back five or ten years in time and give your younger self some career advice on the way to making photography your livelihood, what would it be?
I would probably tell myself that I was headed in the right direction and needn’t worry so much about how it would all turn out…
Do you have any photographic projects coming up, which you’d like to tell us a bit about?
I am, as some of you may have noticed, working on a book on Maja Malou Lyse. It’s by no means going to be a boring book! We’re planning to release it in February 2019! If you’re not already following Maja on instagram, I can definitely recommend doing so! This is a girl who embraces sex, intelligence and a massive amount of humour. Just my kind of woman.
Gazing into a crystal ball, where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’ll probably have given birth to another set of twins (god no!), will hopefully be living in a terrific house with a big garden in Frederiksberg, will only be photographing naked women and animals and will have found a cure for my gigantic hangovers so I can drink a bit more white wine than what’s currently the case.
It’s gonna be so damn good!