Known for his playfully provocative photography, Oliver Rath was a young Berlin-based photographer reaching the peaks of his powers. Sadly, the 38-year-old was found dead last month, leaving behind his wife Tina, their two children and a large hole in the German photography scene.
Although the circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown (his family and management have declined to comment), there has been an online outpouring of grief from friends, family and fans, all shocked to hear of Rath’s passing. The memorial page on his popular website shows thousands of tributes from people all over the globe who have been touched by Rath’s inspiring work.
Outside of the digital world, his eponymous gallery in Berlin Mitte that he opened in 2012 has become an impromptu centre for mourners to pay their final respects. Flowers, cards and messages of condolence have been stacked up high on the pavement, testament to a man whose enthusiasm and vision extended far beyond the limits of his craft.
Early Life and Musical Beginnings
The story of Rath’s life starts a long way from the bustle, freedom and limitless opportunity of Berlin. Born and raised in the southern German city of Heidelberg in 1978, he soon moved to the bigger Freiburg where he developed a passion for music and alternative culture. In his twenties, Rath became obsessed with making music, producing and performing hip-hop under the alias DJ Al Kapone.
He was heavily involved in the local Freiburg music scene, producing beats for the La Cosa Nostra crew, organising shows and DJing around the city at places like the infamous Kagan nightclub. Simon Pfister, of La Cosa Nostra, says that these formative years helped to define Rath’s creative side, giving him the experience necessary to pursue a future career in photography.
Pfister paid a fitting tribute to his old friend, saying that everything Rath did was “always done with passion, and his passion for music jumped on me. For me he was a mentor and friend, someone who was always there with advice and practical help, and always believed in you. I am very grateful for everything I experienced with him.”
New Adventures in Photography
Oliver Rath eventually grew tired of DJing, becoming bored of doing the “same shit” every weekend. Restless and looking for new creative avenues to explore, he picked up a camera and began experimenting. Things started slowly and he tentatively began by shooting his close friends and the parties they went to. After realizing his natural aptitude for photography, he explored further, upgraded his equipment, organized shoots and eventually started his photoblog in 2008. Showcased here were the embryonic beginnings of his style: distinctive, visceral and sexually charged. He was partial to extreme lighting, vivid colors and warped perspectives and these principles shaped the composition of his early imagery.
Elements of Terry Richardson’s aesthetic can be seen in this period, especially in regard to the gratuitous use of female nudity. He captured young, sexually free people in attention-grabbing detail. There was an irreverent and youthful feel to his work that blended excitement and hedonism in equal measure.
But hidden under the brashness were subtle erotic undertones that came from his biggest influence, Helmut Newton. The "King of Kinky" can be seen in most of his work, from the implied erotica to the focus on fetish and sadomasochistic clothing. “Helmut Newton is like the Bible,” Rath once told Fudder, clearly showing his admiration for one of photography’s greats. These provocative images, coupled with his prodigious work rate, soon saw Rath gain a large, dedicated following on his blog.
At this stage photography was still somewhat of a hobby, but, after tiring of restaurant and bar work, Rath decided to make the move from Freiburg to Berlin in 2010. Relocating would dramatically alter his life and help to establish him as one of Germany’s most progressive photographers.
Berlin As an Influence
Berlin changed everything for Rath. The city was raw, unashamed, energetic and full of people with boundless creativity. He found inspiration everywhere, from the city’s rooftops to its subterranean underbelly.
For Rath, Berlin embodied the freedom that he had long been trying to capture in his photographs. As a result, his work became larger than life, packed with color, flesh and even more sexuality. His images told tales of freedom, subversion and mischief and it wasn’t unusual for him to shoot nude models in the city’s streets in the middle of the day. He didn’t care what passers-by thought as he was obsessive in pursuit of his vision.
This dogged determination and single mindedness paid off and his stature within Berlin’s photography scene began to grow. Record numbers visited his blog, which in turn led to opportunities to work with brands such as Campari, Air Berlin and even a promo campaign with adidas for the launch of their Berlin flagship store. He also became the go-to celebrity photographer in the city, well-known for his portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, German model Franziska Knuppe and Berlin-based actor Sophia Thomalla. Soon the big publications came calling and his work featured in GQ, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and many others.
The Release of His First Book
In 2014, he released his first book, Berlin Bohème, a personal reflection of the cast of characters that inhabited Berlin. In it he showcased the kind of opulently hedonistic vision that he had been trying to hone over the past few years. Berlin Bohème showed a more conceptual, and at times chaotic, approach to his work. Shoots were elaborate, lighting more considered and various socio-political themes were touched upon, including consumerism, drug use, war and fascism.
The release of Berlin Bohème marked a point of great experimentation in Rath’s career. The saturated surrealism of photographers such as David LaChapelle competed with the stark, humanistic approach of Robert Mapplethorpe. Tying it all together was the playful promiscuity of Ellen von Unwerth. It made for a beguiling mix. Throughout it all are vast swathes of nudity and his immovable penchant for representing the fetish and sadomasochistic scenes of Berlin’s underground club culture.
Berlin Bohème was a sensory assault. But on show were the inner workings of Rath’s dynamic, restless mind. A man in pursuit of the previously unseen, the unspoken and the private; he wanted to provoke the audience with visuals that only he could conjure up.
Unsurprisingly, Oliver Rath was not one to shy away from controversy. As well as the nude public shoots on the streets of Berlin, he made national headlines earlier this year when he chose the old Nazi party rally grounds at Dutzendteich in Nuremberg as a backdrop for a shoot. Although his photographs were never imbued with too much political commentary, the choice of location was clearly designed to shock and rouse a response. Rath felt it his duty to be an agent provocateur of sorts and thought it important to use his photography as a tool to challenge the status quo.
The controversy wasn’t confined to Germany. In 2015, he was arrested and allegedly beaten by police in New York after being caught putting up stickers around the city. “I had just stuck two stickers on a streetlamp on Broadway. Suddenly came civilian police. They beat immediately on me! Then they put me in a single cell full of cockroaches for 13 hours and then in a filthy mass cell for 20 hours." After he was released, he unsuccessfully attempted to sue the NYPD for $1m. For Rath, the whole ordeal was almost a rite of passage, a risk worth taking for kicks in the spiritual home of graffiti.
Tributes to a Great Mind
Understandably, the news of his death was met with shock and grief. Thousands have taken to social media to talk about the passion Rath had for his art, his free spirit and his unique vision. His friend Enzio Maggiore summed him up perfectly with a small but poignant tribute: “Everything Olli did, he did one hundred percent, he lived what he did. Olli had passion, love and desire, that was his recipe for success. No matter what it was, whether music or photos. When it mattered, he had tunnel vision. It was all for him and never just a job.”
The passion so clearly described here, and hundreds of times on his website’s memorial page, is what drew people to Oliver Rath. He was open, creative and had an unquenchable appetite for his work. His photographs were bold and his lust life could be seen in each image. He was a creative mind taken far too young.
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