Illustrating the World
Talking to us from his Berlin-based studio is award winning illustrator, Christoph Niemann. Christoph's work has graced the covers of The New Yorker, Time, and Wired Magazine.
A man with an extraordinary gift for reinventing the way we see the world, Christoph has built a worldwide audience through his satirical, hyper-intelligent and topical work. He has a knack for injecting a sense of wonder and profundity into the most banal of objects.
Christoph is prolific and childlike, describing his own brain as “saturated” with “a million different ideas.” Yet, through it all, Christoph exudes a sense of endearing self-depreciation. He insinuates to us that imagery has never changed someone’s mind, let alone the world. But we think that he is wrong; you only need to look at Christoph’s own work to see that illustration can inspire, motivate, and put a smile on people’s faces the world over.
Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I don’t know how far to go back, but, it’s the usual, spending all of your time drawing as a kid and eventually seeing if there’s a profession out there that involves a lot of drawing. Interestingly, in Germany at that time, you couldn’t study illustration; it was always seen as part of graphic design. I remember being 20 and thinking, “What do I want with graphic design?!” But, once I looked closer – actually, it was called ‘visual communication’ – I realised it was pretty good, because it really is an ideal, kind of, communication with visuals. It’s not so much about drawing as an art form but a medium of communication. Learning illustration in the context of design and photography and animation, that actually is a much better foundation, I think, for the job I’m in now. I’m extremely happy to have had this background.
The second thing that I think I learned by seeing the field of illustration through graphic design, was that my work was never based on style. I was always based on a concept, then the style was only the tool. It’s like the typeface you use as a designer, you don’t start a poster by picking a typeface; you think about an idea and then you think about which typeface will solve my problem, or will it be a photo or a collage or a drawing? That’s the same way I try to approach all my ideas, all my projects; thinking of the idea, then I look in my toolbox and I try to constantly broaden the range of my toolbox in order to find different, unexpected, versatile ways of solving things.
After graduation, I moved to New York – because why not? – I had interned in the city so I knew it a little bit. I moved to New York in 1997 and lived there for 11 years and worked there almost exclusively for editorial clients, then in 2008 I moved to Berlin, just to shake things up. I realised there were a lot of things changing, with me personally and with the world around me. I felt I had to mess things up a little bit to move forward. In Berlin I started doing a lot more self-generated work: a column for the New York Times, which I started when I left; a lot more books; animation; and eventually even a kids’ book app.
"I wish I was an artist who could say, “You don’t get it? Well, you’re an idiot.”
Tell me, what does New York bring to the table for you? I know that New York plays a large role in your work.
Well, it was the first place that I owned. I didn’t have an uncle there, I didn’t have parents saying, “When you go there, call up this person or that person.” I went there with my portfolio and I had to live in shitty places and I had to do all the terrible things that one needs to do. But, it was my thing. I had people helping me, I had fantastic friends and mentors, but ultimately there was just like this line of my past and the present and the future, and this thing that got me to New York was entirely my own initiative. I guess you can only have this relationship with one or two places in your life, and that of course creates an emotional bond.
The second thing that New York does is, it’s so incredibly professional and dynamic. I felt that, when I came there, there was such a hunger and curiosity for new people that I didn’t have to apologise for wanting to do new stuff; I didn’t have to apologise for being dynamic or curious. It was just like, “You wanna do something? Here, do something!”
If you screw-up, that’s another question. it was an extremely competitive but extremely open professional community. To this day so much of what I do, of course, is rooted in that time. Even though by now things have changed a lot and I work with very few people that I worked with back then. But a life experience like that kind of sticks with you.
So, lets move on to your work. I don’t know if this is an apt comparison but I like to think of you as the Woody Allen of animation. What’s your initial response to that?
No, no, I take that! I get it. Woody Allen is a great filmmaker and a great writer. Once it comes to the personality, I only know things through the media, and Gawker, and I don’t know how far I wanna have that comparison with his personal life. But, other than that, I’ll gladly accept it.
Something that I find really interesting about you is that you’re unbelievably prolific. But, going through a lot of it, what I found – I guess as the main commonality – is definitely the humour, and I guess I would say it’s very endearing and there’s a lot of humility in what you do.
Well, there’s two things. The first: humour is closely related to tragedy, I find humour kind of the same as tragedy, in a way. It’s always the idea of creating a certain expectation, and then making a twist. You have to really be engaged otherwise humour doesn’t work. Humour doesn’t make sense if it’s funny from the sender’s perspective; humour actually needs to work with the audience; I can’t laugh at my own jokes. I can’t cry at my own tragedy, because I know what’s going to happen, so there can never be a real surprise. So this is something that only works with the audience, and humour, as well as tragedy, is always a great way to see whether somebody actually understands what you’re doing. Maybe it’s born out of insecurity, but the moment somebody laughs or cries, you know you’ve connected.
There’s nothing more sad or boring for me than somebody standing on stage doing stand-up, making funny faces and laughing at their own jokes. I think it’s usually the most successful if you’re very deadpan and very straight-forward. If you, as someone in the audience, think, “Oh, this is really, really, funny, and the person up there on the stage doesn’t even see how funny he or she is.” As a reader, I don’t want to be told when to laugh, but I want the puzzle pieces to come together in your own head — in literature, in movies, in drawings, —that’s always the Holy Grail.
So, now we’ve jumped to the crux of your work, I guess. I had a lot of questions around your work, but I think you nailed it. Your work has an innate narrative to it, but it’s extremely subtle. One of the things that I find so interesting about your work as a whole – and maybe you can address this – is that you transcend the most inanimate and arbitrary objects, and, I don’t know how you do it, but sometimes I’ll sit there and think “How did he do that?!” How did you make that relationship between that object and that?
No, it makes sense. We always have these very tight relationships with these objects. Like, most days we have toast and butter and jelly with the kids for breakfast. So, my personal relationship to toast and jelly and butter is much bigger than with so many other things that one would think are much more important and formative. So, I don’t think that toast and butter and jelly are more important than social relations, but once you have such an intimate a relationship with an object, it’s a great starting point to tell a story. Something as benign as toast, butter and jelly has so many little tactile or visual clues that we are very familiar with (the toast being too soft, or burnt, the difficulty of spreading hard butter on the toast etc), and that’s the element that I always enjoy best; something that feels incredibly private, where I feel I’m the only one who has this feeling of personal relation to the sound or the look, but everybody who eats toast and butter and jelly in the morning probably shares a very similar emotion.
You can use this shared experience to start a relationship with readers. Personal observation, it’s a terrific root for storytelling. Doing something big, using grand characters and grand images often uses up so much oxygen that there’s usually so little room left to tell the actual story that we want to tell.
I would say then that your true talent is that you see poetry even in the most banal parts of life.
Yeah, exactly. Usually they’re also more of a prop. For me, the idea of telling stories is always the idea of showing tension. Lets say, I watch a dramatic TV series, I have two adversaries who want to kill each other with knives and they build the tension up over hours and hours; how they hate each other’s guts or are after the same girl or what-not. I can essentially find the same tension between… salt and pepper, or between two chairs – maybe a sofa chair and a folding chair.
So, can we just jump into that for a little bit, “The tension between salt and pepper.” There’s so much humour in there. What does it mean?
We’re used to these objects – we know that salt and pepper can work together, but they are opposities, one’s black and one’s white. And very importantly: they’re not male, female, young, old, they’re culturally burdened… so, in a way, it’s pure tension. I don’t even have to tell you anything about them; I don’t have to introduce a character, I don’t have to give them names. By just placing them there, we already know there’s a tension between them.
Do you think that’s why so many people connect with you?
It’s certainly an advantage that I have; to very quickly set the stage for my stories, or so much of what I do has to work very quickly. When you work for print or especially for the web, you only have so much time and if you first have to establish a huge background story, then the moment you deliver your punchline, everyone has already left for the next Buzzfeed article. The idea of making illustrations using visual metaphors – this is not new and I certainly did not invent it. My greatest goal is to do it in a new and unpredictable way.
The greatest discovery while working in the realm of the web and social media, is to see how incredibly visually literate so many people are. When I work with magazines and newspapers, usually discussions with editors revolved around questions like, “Ah, nobody is gonna understand that, can we just make it more obvious?” And, you think that unless you hit somebody over the head with a shovel, they’re not gonna get it! And now since they can receive feedback through comments etc, you see that people get the most subtle references; they understand things, they read between the lines.
So, let’s talk about how you work; lets get practical. Let’s say, the last animation that you made, or something that you have fresh in your head. How does it work? Like, you see something in the street – I know you’ve probably been asked this a million times, but I just want to know for our sake – how does it work?
It never happens that I see something and think, “Oh, here’s the idea and now I have to just go back home and draw it.” For my Sunday sketch series on Instagram I take a random object, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do with it. Then I start looking at it, then I try to find something that clicks. Essentially, what I’m doing is, I’m racing two gigantic cogs of thousands of different memories; things I know; things I’ve seen. Then, I place this with what’s happening on the page. You’re drawing and then all of a sudden there’s a connection that’s happening and you’re thinking, “What could that be?”
So, it’s essentially making a lot of calculations at the same time, and what I need to do for that is to have my brain saturated to the brink with a million different ideas, with visuals, with personal experiences, and I have to find a way to have them all flow on the very surface, so when something comes up I can immediately say, “Oh, this thing relates to this thing over here and this thing over here.” But, it’s also exhausting, it’s like trying to think a thousand things in the same second.
"I can essentially find the same tension between... salt and pepper, or between two chairs, maybe a sofa chair and a folding chair."
But, it really seems like you grapple with the nooks and crannies of life.
What’s important is you need to always be an excited recipient of art in order to be able to do something that connects with people. There’s always this problem in writing, everyone wants to write and nobody wants to read – You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. You have to have a good feel for the reader out there. Most of the things that we’ve been talking about are much more learnable than one would think.
Talent is not so much this gift that you have to draw or tell a story or to see things, it’s more the ability to ignore all the frustration that comes with all these failed attempts and still try and slowly, slowly develop a language. It’s more the persistence to keep trying, because, essentially, it stays difficult. The art is to not get carried away with what you do and your skill, but still look at all the weakness and redo and re-sketch. This is a very frustrating process of course, you have to be immune to the frustration, maybe that is the talent.
I definitely think your talent is perception, I don’t think that’s something you can learn. I’m interested to know what piece you’re the most proud of – one that typifies your work and one that you go back to – and I’d like to know about your influences, whether it be films or writers or comedians, anyone who’s had a strong overarching influence on your life and work?
There were a couple of the columns that I did for New York Time’s magazine that happened to work out better than others, where I felt something happened that was a mix of drawing and storytelling. I look at them now and think, “Wow, I could not do that again now.” The I Lego N.Y. piece for example, there was something that just happened and it was fun. There was one that was like a diary of an overnight flight from New York to Berlin, via London (pictured below). It looks like a diary but it’s the opposite; I did it over weeks and collected the ideas from many other flights. There was just something in the way that the drawings worked out and the story worked out, so I look at it now and it still feels interesting. There were also a few New Yorker covers, like Fukushima – I had to do it quick, I only had like 48 hours – the reaction from people was just overwhelmingly good. Maybe it’s just my personal insecurity – which, again, is a real asset as a designer, if you’re totally full of yourself it maybe makes you a happier person but a worse designer, because you don’t care if people like your work or not.
I think, deep down, you know you’re good. You have a lot of humility, but I think deep down, you know that you’re very talented.
I’m confident in my skills, but if I do something and I don’t get a reaction or I get a bad reaction, it feels terrible. It’s the worst thing in the world. Of all the things that I did that fell flat with the audience, I always remember giving that piece a second look and feeling an overwhelming sense of doubt. Usually my love or passion for these pieces goes down to zero.
I can sense that about you…
I wish I was an artist who could say, “You don’t get it? Well, you’re an idiot.”
No, but I agree with you. There’s a reason why it works and a reason why it doesn’t.
It also works in the opposite direction: that Fukushima New Yorker cover: I felt it was good craft, but I felt I’d done better before, and all of a sudden the reaction was so much better than I expected. So, then I’m like, “You like it? Now I like it too! How much do you trust your own instincts, how much do you push for something despite the fact it might not get a good reaction? This is extremely important and I think about it a lot in the context of social media; if I post something on Instagram or on Facebook, I might get a hundred likes or two thousand likes. The whole system is built on… “A hundred likes… meh.”, “Two thousands likes… this is awesome!”, “Ten likes… this is disastrous.” Of course, this whole metric doesn’t work because a ‘like’ on social media is not a measure of quality; it’s a measure of how much you are able to punch through a gigantic fog of images and information out there. But, it’s not quality. It’s a huge challenge right now for anyone working creatively not to mix these things up. The moment you make an equation of ‘a lot of response = good work – little response = bad work’, you’re in trouble. Then you’re looking for these ‘likes’, and it’s creative suicide to work in that way.
You’re very thoughtful about your work, I would assume. You’re very perceptive; we talked about humility and empathy and endearment and humour, there’s a lot going on. I wanted to ask this question last; what is your opinion, as an illustrator, on the battle of freedom of expression – the recent attacks with Charlie Hedbo and the like?
There’s a couple of thoughts there. I consider myself an extremely political person; when it comes to political art, I have a very ambivalent feeling, because I don’t think that in the history of the world a witty poster has ever changed somebody’s mind. Let’s take, say, Kim Jong Un, what could I ever put on a poster to make him treat his people better? The wittier I am the less successful it would be. I did some work about racism in South Africa, not to convince the other side but to rally the people who were on my side, this is something a poster can in fact do. But when it comes to convincing a racist to not be a racist, I don’t think a drawing could ever have that affect – It’s much more interesting to observe why people like me — I consider myself open minded, liberal, generous— so often end up acting selfish and unreasonable.
Creatively, this for me is a much more relevant question. That said, what the Charlie Hebdo people do, I don’t make that kind of art. I still think it’s incredibly important to make that kind of art. I don’t want to say I’m anti-religious, I definitely see myself in the Christopher Hitchens league or being very critical of organised religion, and I think religion as an abstract idea should be up for discussion, without threat of violence. For me, the most depressing thought about Charlie Hebdo was that: if tomorrow I had an idea that I thought was offensive, but I felt I should be doing it because it’s right, I fear that after seeing what happened in Paris, I might be holding back. Because, is it worth it? Is it worth putting my kids, my family, in jeopardy – myself, other people? As far as that goes, I have to very sadly admit that… they won.
I hope that when that moment comes, I’ll be strong and brave… but it has definitely decreased the chances of me being brave. It’s one thing if you have to read angry letters or nasty replies on twitter, but the idea that someone would actually show up with a machine gun and shoot me is a very real threat. Maybe one day I’ll be the brave person who opens their mouth despite that, but I can’t pretend that I’m immune to this threat. There’s this horrible insight I had, where I was confronted by my own weakness, realising I might not be that brave person and self-censorship might take the upper hand if I was confronted with a similar situation. That was one of the most depressing thoughts I’ve had in a long time.
Image courtesy by Gene Glover.
It’s such a weird and strange book. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but I soon realised that all the surreal characters and absurd science ties into wonderfully crafted storytelling.
The two I’ve visited most often are the Skylight at PS1 in NYC/Queens and at the installation at The Pallazo Fortuny in Venice. Even though I know them so well, I’m still blown away by the poetic beauty of Turrell’s art. It’s just a rectangle of colour, but the way it plays with the perception of space is one of the most profound art experiences.