Ask any connoisseur of art, and she or he will tell you that details are everything. That these sometimes-intricate little monsters can elevate a seemingly normal rendition into a masterpiece, giving it a special place in your heart and mind. Be it poetry, be it sculpture or be it a photograph, a memorable piece grabs you and doesn’t let go. Like a jealous girlfriend.
Do you need a keen eye? Yes. Do you need knowledge of art? It helps. But, most important, you should enjoy it—and discover something new every time you look at it. These words are more than true when it comes to the work of Fabian Oefner, the renowned Swiss photographer who works at the confluence of art, science and mechanics. Though he trained in product design at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, he’s been into photography since he saw Harold Edgerton’s iconic photo of a bullet piercing an apple, at 14. His host of photographic works (titled “Infinite Moment in Time,” “Oil Spill,” “Iridient,” “Millefiori” and “Hatch,” among others) are visual delights that capture movement in stunning stillness; they channel phenomena such as the human aspect of industrial design, sound waves, iridescence, centripetal forces and even biology. While he has worked with brands on campaigns and on commissioned art projects, it is with his “Disintegrating” series that Oefner has captured the interest of men—and automotive enthusiasts—all over the world.
As the title signifies, these images capture cars that appear to have blown apart. Not just any cars, of course, since Oefner has picked some of the most iconic sports marques ever. The series, which he began in 2012, features the 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé with gullwing doors, the 1967 Ferrari 330 P4, the 1961 Jaguar E-Type, the 1936-37 Audi Auto Union Type C, the 1957 Maserati 250F, the 1969 Ford GT40, the 1934-40 Bugatti 57 SC and the 1982 Porsche 956. Each car is shown in vivid detail, blurring the relationship between engineering and drama.
The machination of creation is long and time-consuming, and often entails stitching together thousands of individual shots to create one complete image. To Oefner, it “explores essential questions about the relationship of time and reality, ultimately creating a visually-rich rendition of a moment that never existed.”
Oefner begins by sketching his vision of the “disintegration”—how each and every car will figuratively “explode” and where each individual piece will go. This is followed by dismantling a scale model in entirety, so that each component can be placed in the perfect position. The illusion of the exploding car relies on the exactness of position for each part, so these first steps are critical. After the deconstruction of the scale-models, he places each piece based on his initial sketch, using pieces of string, tweezers and fine needles. After meticulous calculation of angles and lighting, he photographs each component, using more than 2,000 photographs. Eventually, all these are blended together to create the final image.
Throughout the process, the wheels act as a reference point for the parts, each nut and bolt. It is painstaking work, and takes more than two months to complete. Though the images appear as though they are computer-generated, they are masterpieces of photography. And that’s how Oefner intends them to be. He says he is fascinated by the “clean, crisp looks of 3D renderings. So, I tried to use that certain type of aesthetic and combine it with the strength of real photography.”
He also feels the ‘Disintegrating’ series is about inventing a moment in time. “What you see in these images, is a moment that never existed in real life. There is a unique pleasure about artificially building a moment. These are possibly the ‘slowest high-speed’ images ever captured. The whole disassembly in itself takes more than a day for each car due to the complexity of the models. But that’s a bit of a boy thing. There’s an enjoyment in the analysis, discovering something by taking it apart,” he adds.
Oefner’s work is investigation-based, and he says art is his tool to explore and understand the world that surrounds us. He is curious by nature, and says, “I think curiosity is the key to creativity. I love Albert Einstein’s quote: ‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.’ I think there is a lot of truth in that.” His attraction to the “un-ordinary” got a boost with his education at the Basel University of Art. And, through product design, he learnt that a successful creative pursuit is a multi-layer process that combines tactile definition, aesthetics with emotional appeal and functionality. Oefner has also served as Leica’s Director of Visual Style for Geosystems, which widened his horizons when it comes to visualising “time and the invisible effect of natural sciences.”
Over time and through his evolving work, it is the thrill of the unknown that has come to guide his sensibility. “I think that is precisely what drives most artists or any other kind of explorer. The quest for the unknown—be it exploring new techniques of how to visualise an idea or coming up with new concepts,” he says. While a large part of his work is manifest in digital mastering, he prefers not to be pinned to any one medium. “Whichever media works best to communicate my ideas, I end up using it. Photography is one of them. Two installations that I’ve worked on deal with the concept of space and time, and sound turned into motion. For these two ideas, I felt that an installation—an artwork that the viewer can walk around and really be a part of—was a better way of conveying the concept,” he emphasises, adding that tinkering is crucial for an artist.
All men can associate with that. Men love to tinker, get their hands dirty, open things up, see how stuff ticks and what makes machines run. Gadgets, cars, modems. Oefner is no different. When he begins work on a new series or a new piece of art, he plays around with everything from form to exposition, and says it is one of the most important things in his process.
“I usually don’t have an ‘idea’ where the journey is headed. As I go along, ideas are sometimes formed and then turned into actual physical works. But, looking at the entire process, I would say capturing the idea or building makes up only about 20 per cent of the entire process,” he says, echoing the words of every artist we’ve ever met, as well as Oefner’s principal influences—Salvador Dali and Praxiteles. The ‘Disintegrating’ series is not just a one-off, because he has consistently added to it over the last five years. And will possibly continue. The first set had three, this one has five. Maximilian Büsser, founder and curator of M.A.D. Gallery—which displays Oefner’s work—says, “Fabian’s works are perfect examples of how mechanical art can be powerfully beautiful. Seeing objects we are so familiar with breaking down into hundreds of pieces, challenges the viewer’s perception of these items.”
And that’s precisely what drives Oefner. “I think the discipline comes from the fact that I deeply appreciate the belief that people look at my art and spend time interpreting it. I think, therefore, the onlookers and the observers deserve a very high quality when it comes to execution,” he says. Men over the world will probably congratulate Oefner for this dedication—one look at these images and you’re transported to your childhood. Bring on the Lego!