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18.02.2021

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The photographer Sven Simon passed away in 1980, when he was just 38 years old. Born Axel Springer Jr., he was the son of the publisher of the same name. He left behind iconic pictures from sports, politics and travel; images that still hold a place in our collective memory to this day. Axel Sven Springer and Lars-Broder Keil combed through archives to get a closer feeling for the photographer and produced Das besondere Bild: Werk und Leben des Fotografen Sven Simon. The photo book appeared on February 5, 2021.  

LFI: What was the idea behind the book?
Axel Sven Springer: When my father, Axel Springer Jr., passed away, I was barely 14 years old. For me, he was quite simply my father. At the time, he was also editor-in-chief for Welt am Sonntag. There was never a real chance for me to ask him about his passion for photography, nor about the principles that concerned him as a professional photographer – for which he chose the pseudonym Sven Simon. There was not even a chance to ask him which camera he found best. This book, in honour of his 80th birthday, gives me the opportunity to get closer to my father.

What new facets did you discover in your father’s body of work?
Based on his pictures, I can see how multi-faceted he was; and I love his style. Pictures taken by his colleagues, who photographed him when they were working on joint assignments, showed me what my father was like when he was working:  how seriously he approached picture taking; but also, how much he enjoyed it. For all other readers, this display of his work offers an opportunity to remember or rediscover the photographer Sven Simon, through the pictures that are considered iconic; as well as through the lesser-known images that even surprised me.

How did you select and structure the pictures for the photo book?
In terms of craftsmanship, we worked with the corporate archives of Axel Springer SE, the current owners of the Sven Simon Agency, and its co-founder Günter R. Müller. Together, we looked for motifs and photo series that would form the framework of the book. The thing that became exciting was the search for forgotten or obscure material. That was fun – like being on a treasure hunt.

What emerged from all of this?
A recognition: the photo my father took of Uwe Seeler, leaving the field, disappointed after losing the World Cup final at Wembley Stadium in 1966, is maybe his best known picture. Today, he is often thought of as “the” sports photographer.  In truth, he found his calling through sports photography, but his success came as a political photographer and a portrait photographer, in Germany and while travelling. This diversity is reflected in the book, which is structured according to the different branches of press photography.  

Sven Simon won numerous awards for his work. His colleagues said: “He isn’t a photographer, he’s a sculptor.” Considering his imagery, what do you think they may have meant?
All of his portraits have something lasting about them. Like a sculpture, they capture and hold the essence of the person portrayed. The publicist Peter Bachér formulated it as follows: “His instinct was infallible; he recognised in a flash when a photo reflected the truth about the life of the person.”  My father himself said, “I was never looking for the quick photo, but rather the moment that scenically characterises an event.” This description underlines the title of the book. For Axel Springer Jr., aka Sven Simon, it wasn’t only about capturing the high points visually; but rather, the background, the surroundings, the essence – an approach that was to give his pictures a certain touch.

What was that special touch in the pictures?
He wanted to find that special picture that would tell the viewer immediately, and not just by looking at the stamp on the back of the photo, that it was a Sven Simon picture. In this regard, there were obviously two things that appealed to him in particular: firstly, to make visible the bizarre, the virtually surreal in a situation; and secondly, to create a rather private atmosphere. Even with political portraits, he aimed to “catch” a moment, with his lens, that would reveal the person more than, for example, the statesman; while also maintaining the balance between his intuition and a certain degree of staging.

Sven Simon was known as a sports, portrait and travel photographer. How did he influence photographers who came after him?
That’s certainly hard to answer. Professionally, it would be through purposefully choosing the photographic technique that would allow you to realise your own style. Then, through maintaining a willingness to try out new things, to move away from the usual. For example, my father was one of the first to use his zoom lens at football matches; to catch not only the immediate shots at the goal, but also the lively scenes and duels, during the game. Finally, and here I repeat myself, through not resigning yourself to capturing only what is visible in a picture, but rather, that something special behind it. (CSE)

Das besondere Bild: Werk und Leben des Fotografen Sven Simon
Published by Axel Sven Springer and Lars-Broder Keil
Hard cover. Format: 24 x 21 cm, 144 pages
Around 150 images
€ (D) 20,00 / € (A) 20,60
ISBN 978-3-86228-220-3

Edition Braus
The ball wizard: Brazil's striker Pelé is celebrated by his teammate Jairzinho. © Sven Simon / Agentur SVEN SIMON
Willy Brandt with cigarette © Sven Simon / Corporate Archives of Axel Springer SE
Portrait Romy Schneider © Sven Simon / Agentur SVEN SIMON
Portrait Sammy Davis Junior © Sven Simon / Agentur SVEN SIMON
Willy Brandt, genuflexion © Sven Simon / Agentur SVEN SIMON
Schmidt turns the tables on the photographer, 1966 © Sven Simon / Agentur SVEN SIMON
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