Pure emotion around heritage, craftsmanship and innovation.

A place for
everything and everything
in its place


Hans Hansen is one of the most important photographers of recent decades.
With his clarity, he has opened up the view of products and everyday objects for always changed.
A conversation about luck and career, his fascination with cars —
and the question of why he has now donated his entire collection to a museum in Hamburg.

Nansen & Piccard: Mr. Hansen, you have no photographic training and yet you have become a style-defining photographer. Were you simply lucky – or did you have a clear vision of your career early on?

Hans Hansen: Both. A clear idea of what I really wanted. And a lot of luck.

You actually studied graphic design at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. How did you become a photographer?

First of all, I completed an apprenticeship as a lithographer before starting my studies and actually wanted to study typography in Stuttgart. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out. Then I started studying graphic design at the Düsseldorf Art Academy under Walter Breker. I have to explain that there were two courses of study back then: one was “applied graphics”, which was close to advertising, and the other was “free graphics”, which belonged to art. I studied applied graphics. Incidentally, I also got to know Bernd and Hilla Becher in my class – both much older than me, but both not in the art department either.

Why didn’t you just study photography?

In my time, there was simply no photography at the academy. But of course, my interest lay in working with the camera, and I became enthusiastic about the combination of photography and graphics early on.

This graphic view later became a leitmotif in her photographic work. Perhaps her most famous work is the VW Golf, built in 1988, sorted into its 7000 individual parts.

Exactly. Incidentally, it took four days before I was able to take the picture … But during my studies I had to deal with completely different things. The academy simply taught graphic design – from book design to posters. No photography, although photographs were already essential for all advertising back then.

Was it already clear to you back then that you wanted to do advertising?

I was no stranger to advertising at the start of my career. I also had a certain interest in it, but that wasn’t what I mainly wanted to do. I wasn’t set on that at the beginning. I didn’t necessarily want to make advertising – but I didn’t want to make art either. Art was never an issue for me. I just wanted to take photos.

It sounds like the art academy wasn’t quite the right place for you…

I simply had other interests than my professor. I wanted to do photography and he wanted me to do linocut in one semester, for example. I wasn’t a rebel, I never liked conflict. So I gave in and dedicated myself to the linocut. I locked myself in my student room and worked on the project every day – simply because I wanted to be done with the topic as quickly as possible. I did that so consistently that I didn’t even go to the academy anymore. One day, at the end of the summer semester, I received a letter from the director of the academy. Persona non grata. Ejection. That’s it then. That was in 1962. From then on, I was suddenly on my own.

What happened to you after you left the art academy?

Then I just started working. Well, I had to. Fortunately, there was a coincidence with a Finnish designer, one of the really big names. We had a long, incredible conversation about design language and all sorts of things and as a thank you for the conversation I gave him a photo from my portfolio. Apparently I was able to impress him with the picture, because he contacted me some time later and asked if I would like to photograph his glass objects for him.

Who was this designer?

That was Tapio Wirkkala, a really big name at the time. Photographing his glass works for him after the academy was not only a stroke of luck for me, but also a huge opportunity as a young photographer. I have admired his work for a long time, especially the glass objects. And I was allowed to photograph them now, for a world-famous designer, as a twenty-two-year-old nobody! That was the start of my career and my first job. My glass collection started back then and is now in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg.

Were you able to meet his expectations?

Fortunately, the order was a success. As I was already familiar with his glass works, I immediately had an idea of how I wanted to photograph them. I also had a lot of freedom with the project. Wirkkala was much older than me and realized that I knew a lot about photography. He then simply said: Go for it! So I just did what I thought was right and sent him the photos afterwards. He was very pleased, they were published and so began my career in advertising photography.

They also did campaigns for Lufthansa after Otl Aicher designed the legendary look for the airline.

Yes, but my start was much more mundane. At first I was supposed to take on small tasks. Photographing gift items, that sort of thing. Of course, I did that very well and that was good for me too. Apart from the first job for Wirkkala, I had no experience in the professional field of photography. It was a lot of learning by doing. At the end of the orders, there wasn’t much money left over either. Because I had to invest all the money raised directly in the next project. Although I was already on a budget with my materials. It went on like that for quite a while until one day Lufthansa sent me to Madrid for a project. I was supposed to take the pictures on the plane on the way. That was something special – Frankfurt-Madrid was the longest flight route in Europe at the time. So I packed my Nikons, my passport and a bit of money and boarded the plane. The pictures turned out quite well and that’s how I started to be sent on more flights. First to Boston, then further trips to America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. -Along the way, I was always able to make new contacts and network. In the end, my work at Lufthansa led to a contact with an agency from New York that was doing things for Volkswagen at the time.

So your career is based on the fact that you have been lucky enough to travel the world?

I was particularly lucky that the plane that was supposed to take me back to Germany from Madrid was overbooked and I was stuck in the Spanish capital for three days. So what should I do there?


Exactly. I took photos, photographed the city, more like postcard motifs. They thought that was great at Lufthansa. And they asked me: Wouldn’t you like to fly to Boston and take photos for us there?

Today, everyone has access to a camera. The technology is so advanced that anyone can have images artificially generated from home. What do you think of the current development?

To be honest, I’m rather critical of the whole thing. I think if we don’t master A.I., then we’ve lost. The photography then crashes very quickly. It will disappear.

Her influence on contemporary product photography in recent decades has been enormous. Without her view of products and objects, modern brand representations such as Apple’s would be almost inconceivable. What fascinates you about product photography?

I am not fundamentally interested in certain products. Sure, I’ve always photographed cars, airplanes and even glass, but I’m fundamentally interested in what’s behind them. We live in a “world of things” and everything that is natural is far away. Our environment, to stick with our language, is first and foremost materialistic. Everything we use, everything around us, everything we wear, no matter what – it’s all artificial. On the one hand, of course, I am also interested in the surface aspect, but I am much more fascinated by who or what is behind a product and why a person has created this thing.

You have been taking photographs for more than 60 years. They have worked for renowned clients such as Porsche, Mercedes and Vitra, and their work has been printed in “Life” and “Paris Match”. Is there an assignment that you will never forget?

Many. There are numerous anecdotes. In fact, I only remembered another extreme experience last night. I was at a production facility for Fiat in Turin in the early 1970s. At that time I was already working for the New York agency Carl Ally. I was supposed to take photos alongside a film team for a commercial. We first worked in Rome, then in Turin. The commercial was about the new Fiat 124 speeding through really extreme scenarios. In Turin, a scene was to be shot in which the car flies through the air from one roof to another. On one roof, a ramp was cemented into the ground and on the other a landing strip with a huge wall of metal pipes to prevent the vehicle from crashing into the factory’s air conditioning system. The whole thing was precisely calculated by the stuntman beforehand. There was a huge amount of work behind it and an incredible number of people were involved.

What was your task on the shoot?

I was standing below between the two buildings with my assistant and was supposed to capture the snapshot of the Fiat in the air. We knew beforehand that the whole action would take less than six seconds, a fraction of that in the air. There was only one possibility for the perfect picture. Then came the jump, and each of my six motorized cameras shot a film.

Have you captured the moment?

Yes. But the photo ended up being quite boring. You could just see two houses and this car standing in the air between them. We basically did the same thing again in Naples afterwards. The car then jumped onto a ferry.

So rather product photography…

Fortunately, I’ve often met people who have simply said: Wouldn’t you like to? Carte Blanche. Just do what you want, done. That’s why I would also have total difficulties today. The abomination has changed the world. And the time pressure too. I’m interested in the quiet things and you need time to show them. I got them with the disassembled Golf back then.

Why did you keep photographing cars?

For me, the fascination of the car lies in the fact that everything on the car is made, everything is designed, not just on the outside, but also everything you can’t see. It’s high-tech, and when it’s good, it’s a beautiful object. You sit in it, it’s comfortable, you sit well, you know exactly what the handle is for with every grip. You turn a key, at least in the classic automobile, and suddenly you have incredible power at your disposal. If I press one pedal, you go 200 km/h and if I press another pedal, the thing stops in a few seconds. You can’t escape this fascination.

You have decided to donate your life’s work with more than 10,000 of your own motifs and your entire photo collection to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. These include works by Irving Penn, Joel Sternfeld, Barbara Klemm and Bruce Weber, among others. What prompted you to do this?

It wasn’t a decision I made overnight. I spent a long time thinking about what I could do with my archive and the collection. The idea of the donation has developed over time. It first came to me when I became part of a series of exhibitions to which the curator of the MK&G had invited photographers for several years. The photographers were asked to combine their own images with photos from the museum’s collection. When I looked at my exhibition, I noticed a real interplay, the works were alive in a way. Something special emerged: a transparency. Then one day I went to the curator and said: I would give you anything if you wanted it.

That sounds like a very big decision. How did the curator react to this?

She was delighted and accepted the offer. But other people came up to me and asked why I had done it. I think my collection simply fitted into the house. That was a happy solution for me. Now everyone can have a look at my collection, and that’s a good solution.

Your collection also includes a number of works by young photographers. How important was it for you to support and promote young talent?

I often meet young photographers at workshops or when I’m teaching. Sometimes some people apply to be assistants and sometimes these talented people bring really great photos with them and then I say: “Come on, I’ll buy some photos from you.” Or if I have the impression that I can support this person, then I do it. I think that’s very important, because if they don’t have anyone to buy something from, then it won’t even get off the ground. Everyone can always use help in some way. In the case of photographers, either in the form of motivation or through economic support by buying works. Quite simply. When someone buys something, it also shows me as a young artist that the person likes my pictures. That not everything I do is bad. It was similar for me with the Finnish designer.

Do you sometimes meet old students or assistants of yours?

Yes, and some of them have stuck with photography to this day and are now right at the top. I think that’s nice. But some have also disappeared without a trace.

In the meantime, you no longer take on any major projects. Are you still working?

When I start something new today, there has to be a strong initial spark. There’s actually a project that I’ve had in mind for a long time. In the States, I once photographed a car on a country road that crashed backwards into a tree and burned out. This created a contrast between the “evil” black rear end of the car and the immaculate white front end. I would like to recreate something like this in the studio, not in a glossed-over way, but really hard-hitting.