It ’s all a question of light by Christoph Peters

A bank of windows allows it to fall from the left into the large room which serves as a studio, office and gallery. I should really say that the windows would allow it to fall in this way because the photographer has drawn thick, black curtains across the windows in the centre. When he opens the door to me he is barefoot, wearing a white T-shirt and faded grey trousers. The light is only allowed to flood into the room unhindered at the front, near the desk right behind the entrance and then at the end of the room, where the early morning sun catches a group of three porcelain polar bears, making them look either ironic or dramatic, depending on your viewpoint. They are arranged on a pedestal in front of a black wall hanging, roaring at the sky together. The photographer asks what I would like to drink. ‘An espresso, please,’ I say. Soon afterwards he emerges from the kitchen with my espresso in a little mocha cup made from Meissen porcelain. I know the pattern: called ‘Rich Court Dragon’, it was developed in 1730 for Augustus the Strong’s royal table and was modelled on Japanese and Chinese designs. It was reserved exclusively for court use until 1918. We obviously share a love of porcelain – figures and tableware alike. I don’t know anyone else who gets excited about these things. The wall opposite the windows is covered with pictures right up to the ceiling. They are primarily works by contemporary painters, but artists who all seem to occupy contrasting aesthetic positions: gestural abstraction is hung next to figurative art and poetic surrealism follows collage-like compositions. Dotted in between are photographs, a baroque portrait and an old Madonna figure made from painted wood. Arranged on the sideboard underneath are small sculptures and a beautifully preserved horse’s skull. Almost all of the floor towards the back is covered by an antique rug in warm reds, beige and blues, making me feel well and truly at home. The rug stops in front of a wide leather sofa which also serves as something of a room divider. Here and there are antique chairs and tables, each chosen to suit an unconventional, undogmatic taste. ‘Let’s not do an everyday portrait. Can we try something else?’ I had said to the photographer on the phone. “Fine by me,” he had replied. I am wearing a grey-green cord suit and have brought a pull-along suitcase full of clothes with me: the fez my Turkish Sufi sheikh placed on my head ten years ago, wide Ottoman trousers and a matching shirt; a Kurta Shalwar – the suit traditionally worn in Pakistan – with a colourful scarf and turban; and the kimono I wear at Japanese tea ceremonies. I have also brought along a Pakistani prayer mat, my prayer beads and the Japanese fan. The photographer doesn’t seem in the least bit surprised or taken aback when I show him what’s inside the suitcase. Quite the opposite, in fact: he seems to think it’s totally normal for someone to bring these things along for a portrait which isn’t designed to advertise a masked ball or a carnival. At the same time, I am asking myself whether they are fancy-dress costumes, identities or experimental arrangements. I think: perhaps he’s so good at doing portraits because he doesn’t judge his subject: instead, he simply looks, calmly and attentively, with the melancholy distance of someone who has already seen a great deal. The photographer says: ‘I prefer to use natural light – no flash.’ This comes as a surprise to me: I had been expecting a computer-controlled system with sequences of flashes and reflectors which would show up every single freckle on my nose. The calmness with which he sorts out the large sheet of paper with the gradated grey background, draws the curtains a tiny bit more to send the light in the right direction, decides where the two stools should go – one for me and one for him – and positions the tripod and camera spreads to me. ‘I would like to try wearing the fez with the suit,’ I say. ‘There’s a 1920s portrait of the Russian-Jewish writer Essad Bey, who converted to Islam when he was 17, where he’s sitting in Café Kranzler dressed in exactly the same way, and it looks sort of quirky.’ The photographer nods: ‘Sounds good,’ he says. The green of my suit goes well with the dark red fez, the pale blue shirt and the striped tie. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of that – he wants to take mainly black and white pictures. Outside, the sun disappears behind some clouds and suddenly it’s several shades darker in the room; the light scattered instead of intense. While I talk about how I came to have the various clothes, what they mean to me and when I use them, the photographer is busy adjusting the light where I’m going to sit to accommodate the change in the sky. Each twitch of the curtains affects the background, the shadows and lines on my face. I lean forward slightly, shuffle to the left. Everything he does seems strangely casual and has none of the hectic agitation you would expect to find at a photo studio. It still seems like the things we’re talking about are what really matter and the pictures he is going to take are more of a by-product. My gaze falls on a Louis XVI armchair in the back corner which I hadn’t noticed before because of all the art. I think of the photo of Essad Bey in Café Kranzler again: ‘Let’s use that – it might be fun,’ I say, indicating the chair. I can tell from the photographer’s face and eyes that he is comparing the image of me in my suit and fez on the armchair with the idea of the picture in his head, alternating between scepticism and approval. At last he agrees and we swap my stool for the armchair. I’m sitting a little lower than before, so he has to adjust the curtain, background and tripod again. ‘Wait a moment,’ he says as he disappears into the kitchen. I can hear the grinder of the espresso machine then a hum as the coffee flows through. He returns with another little mocha cup which is obviously also valuable. It is a tall Biedermeier shape, white with vertical gold stripes and three little lion’s feet. ‘You don’t have to drink the coffee, but perhaps you could hold the cup in front of your chest,’ he says. At that moment, I am convinced that Essad Bey is holding a mocha cup in his photo too – if not the same model then at least a very similar one. ‘Where’s this from – what make?’ I ask. “KPM,” the photographer says. ‘That’s perfect,’ I say. ‘Can you tilt the cup forward a bit so that the coffee is visible? And move your head slightly to the right.’ He looks at me, I look at the camera, past the camera, at him while the shutter clicks – again and again and again.