When you picture the 2000s, what do you see? It was a glamorous decade defined by a certain plastic shine. Britney Spears glittering in technicolor dimension; Beyoncé brilliant in dripping diamonds.
As it turns out, photographer Markus Klinko had a lot to do with that 2000s look. Coming to prominence at the turn of the century, he’s captured fantastical and iconic images of Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige and more.
He's crafted editorial campaigns for Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair, advertisements for L'Oreal Paris and Hugo Boss. David Bowie was a frequent subject, and after decades of fantasy building, his work has become quite popular in the gallery world.
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Currently, a 21-piece selection of his work is on exhibition at the Proud Galleries in London. Markus Klinko 21 hones in on one image for every year from 2000 to 2021. Most exciting of all is the Markus Klinko 21 box that takes all of these images and compiles them in a luxury portfolio for purchase, complete with its own display. Limited to 100 signed editions and valued at $21,000.
“It's an art object basically, but it's also an art book,” Klinko says. “I’m trying to leave some sort of a map where maybe the focus is not just my own, but maybe also on the world and what we focused on and enjoyed.”
The collection features immediately-recognizable images of Bowie, Britney and Beyoncé, as well as Lady Gaga, Olivia Wilde, Dita Von Teese, Iman, Mariah Carey and more. Proceeds from the box sale will be used to support a variety of organizations dedicated to mental health awareness.
We caught up with Klinko to hear more about this collection, and how he views his work in the greater cultural conversation.
How did you go about whittling thousands of images into 21 portraits?
I chose some very iconic images with David Bowie, Britney and Beyoncé, but I also chose a couple fashion shoots that feature relatively-unknown models, the one called “The Angel” for example. I chose a couple I did with Playboy magazine, one very successful shoot with Aubrey O'Day in 2007. It goes from Hollywood to music to fashion, and as it came to the 2021, I featured a famous TikTok star called Loren Gray. She's literally 18 or something, but she has 54 million followers. The box reflects pop culture, so it’s not just classic celebrities, but also the new breed of social media stars.
It must have been so wild to look back at your own life.
I have been submerged in my archive quite intensely for the last five or six years, because I am increasingly successful with art galleries. COVID and lockdown created an enormous opportunity and highlight for the 2000s in terms of the art world. Before lockdown, most of my work had been a little early or young for galleries. They wanted to focus on my Bowie work and were not as easily convinced to exhibit Beyoncé, Britney or Jennifer Lopez. That wasn’t nostalgic enough yet.
In the last 10 to 15 years, the art world of photography had a very strong focus on the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I wasn't a photographer at that time. During lockdown in 2020, I could feel this nostalgia emerge for anything 2000, which has been my signature because that's where some of my most well-known work was created. Now it's becoming very fashionable and trendy.
Lady Gaga as Hello Kitty
Why the charitable focus on mental health awareness?
As a society, we put our celebrities on a pedestal. It’s reminiscent of the gods and goddesses of ancient cultures. Now, Kim Kardashian is our goddess, and this is a sort of social commentary for me, an artist statement. My work is meant to be a mirror, and maybe it's exaggerated and taken to a new extreme, but I'm also very open about it in my description.
This is fantasy. This is not how any of these people really look. These are stylized, perfected moments with post-production and pre-production, during the photoshoot and after. No effort is spared to make them as flawless and as perfect as possible. They’re floating in divine perfection.
Social media is a very dangerous, slippery slope where things sometimes seem very real. People do staged photo shoots that look like a moment in their lives—which they are not. They are planned. They are styled. They are post-produced and edited, and that is what makes young girls mentally ill. They look at that and think they can never live up to that.
I care to explain it, because otherwise it would be almost cruel to have images like that out there. It is meant to encourage a dialogue that fashion and celebrity imagery are fantasy. They are make-believe, just like how a Batman movie is not a documentary. That's fiction, and my work is somewhat fictional.
You're capturing the essence of the personality, the pop cultural character.
The sugar-coated version dipped in that magical spell moment where there are no pimples. It's just not part of this world. It's very glamorized, but this is an artistic choice. When a Renaissance painter painted a portrait of a king and added angels, nobody was really thinking “this is completely real,” but it became a reality on its own in the world of art. That's also the beauty of art; that it's fantasy. It's imagination, and you can express yourself however you want. Other people create very dark work. It could be gory, but that's not my world. I like pretty things.
What goes into your process working with these larger than life figures?
It's very organic. I never sit there with Beyoncé thinking, “how can I glamorize her to the max?” My signature work is 2000s work, but I was actually referencing the ‘70s in a very specific way. There were more hyper-real elements, but there's a lot of disco ball type things. The star filter effect.
I like to walk a fine line where it doesn't become a painting. There's photography that is so post-produced that is literally an illustration. I believe mine is somewhere in the middle. It's still a photo, but … you're not quite sure what's real and what's not. Often, people look at my work and say, “is this real right there?” And I'm like, “yeah, that actually was there,” and things that seem very normal and common maybe weren't there at all. Sometimes I don't even remember what's real and what's not.
Are these shoots very collaborative?
Yes! I have no problem taking somebody's inspiration or ideas. Sometimes their inspirations refer back to my own work. You have two examples of that in the box. When you look at the work from 2000, it’s Laetitia Casta in that diamond-studded spider web. That was a very famous advertising piece for a brand called Diamond.com. Three years later when I talked to Beyoncé before for the Dangerously in Love album cover, she referenced that image and asked if we could do something like that but maybe smaller. When you look at the cover, it is no longer a spiderweb, but this idea of the diamond-studded top; it's the lining of the diamonds.
Not that people always reference my work when. They could reference all kinds of things, as long as there is enough room for me. I would not like the job and maybe not want to do the job if it was very closed like “that's what we want and that's it.”
It's not me and Beyoncé in the room. It's me, Beyoncé, a stylist who has five assistants, a hair and makeup team that are probably seven or eight people, her management, her PR, her label person, three security guards. It's not your most intimate of settings. They're high production environments, so there's more than one person to listen to because everybody has their own ideas, agendas, needs. You're going to have the marketing person say, “we have two singles,” and somebody will say “we also need three covers” and then “can you shoot some merch just in case?” I try to do all of that but with my Markus Klinko signature, because that's what I do. I'm not really capable of doing something else.
You've worked with so many incredible personalities. Who stands out?
David Bowie's wife Iman. We've worked countless times, from big advertising campaigns to editorial shoots and even personal projects. I did her book cover and things like that. I never run out of inspiration working with her. Similarly, there is the fashion icon Daphne Guinness, heiress to the Guinness Beer Empire. I've worked with her several times over many years. She's a very interesting character. She was the muse of Alexander McQueen, and I enjoyed working with her a lot.
There is also the fascination and never-ending nostalgia having worked with Britney Spears. That's a one of a kind experience. I don't think anyone can fully appreciate how intelligent, artistic and smart Britney is to work with. I haven't worked with her since my experience with her in 2004, but I can tell you that nobody told her what to do. There were managers and dads and people like that on set, and they didn't do anything. Everything came from Britney. She was a fantastic partner to work with.
The box is available for purchase, but it’s also getting an exhibition. Beyond the box, what else do you have coming up?
I'm doing this live NFT drop in March, and it will highlight a different aspect of my work. The title is "Are you ready for your close up?" It's close ups of eyes, lips, a guitar, the wolf from the Bowie series that I shot; things like that. I'm also shooting several new celebrities for it who are donating 100 percent of the NFT proceeds to charity. The box is just part of the proceeds, but the NFTs are 100 percent for charities.
I have solo exhibitions in Munich and in Naples, Florida. I have things left and right, and they’re all somewhat connected. The box feeds off the energy of the NFTs, and the NFTs feed off of the energies of the exhibitions; so on and so on.
Before we wrap it up, I just love that you have one self-portrait in here, and I love that it's for 2020.
Yes. I had some time, some time on my hands. It's actually a bonus image. If people think they're purchasing 21 images and I'm one of them, it's not. It's 22, and you get it for free!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Visit markusklinko-21.com to learn more about the collection and decryptstudios.co/markusklinkonft to learn more about the forthcoming NFT series.
Photography by: Courtesy of Markus Klinko