Back in 2003, German photographer Ralf Tooten first arrived in Thailand to prepare for an exhibition called ‘The Eyes of Wisdom’ at the National Gallery, a collaborative event with the Goethe Institute. Seventeen years later, he’s still here, has his own photography production company, Tooten Photography, and is married to a beautiful Thai lady named Tao, who is an interior and lamp designer.
Today you will find their individual studios, as well as their stunning home on Sukhumvit 49/14 in Bangkok, an urban neighborhood near the Saen Saeb Klong.
The Studio House they reside in is a modern masterpiece made out of concrete and glass, designed by the talented Japanese/Thai architect/curator Khun Jun Sekino. It took several years to find the right location for their villa, and more time for it to be ready to move in to, but the wait was well worthwhile, say Ralf and Tao.
The house is divided into two buildings connected by huge windows. Because the windows and terraces face north, they avoid the direct sun. The entire structure is covered with a kind of brick net, which gives the house a very special look and emphasizes its contrasting style compared to the old, colorful wooden houses on the same narrow road. Inside, the walls are covered with some of Ralf’s huge, colorful photographs.
Ralf, who has a captivating smile and a delightful sense of humor, was born in the small village Homberg, at the lower Rhine area in Westphalia, Germany, close to the Dutch boarder.
Ralf knew he wanted to become a photographer in his late teens when he met a veteran architectural photographer and his assistant. The pair were still using a huge ancient camera which required the photographer to cover his head with a black cloth in order to see the screen and the object. “I was so impressed and interested in what I saw, I just had to talk to them.”
“I learned that this photographer, as well as his wife who specialized in portraits, were both ‘masters’ of photography. They gave me the opportunity to study and practice photography under their guidance for the next three years. Those years were fantastic, and I had a really great time.”
After completing his apprenticeship with Master photographer Clemens Hartzenbusch, Ralf had an opportunity to work as a scene photographer during the shooting of the movie ‘The Tin Drum’ directed by Volker Schlöndorf and based on the award winning novel by the author Guenther Grass.
Asked was fascinates him about photography, Ralf explains: “I’ve always been interested in the way it drives the photographer to his absolutely best physical and mental limits, always trying to reach the ultimate result. It’s also fascinating to meet so many interesting people all over the world and to discover exciting locations during the work. I feel that I’m very blessed to be able to spend my life as an active photographer.”
His assignments over time have included working with models and photographing new collections.
“I was very lucky to be the photographer for the American label Marisa Baratelli for several years. We were shooting their collections in the most exciting and beautiful locations - the Maldives, Bali and even here in Bangkok. The label was popular brand among diplomats in Thailand as most of its garments are made in the best Thai silk fabrics.”
“I have also worked a lot for the hospitality industry. It has taken me, and still takes me, to many interesting places.”
Ralf has also held a number of exhibitions during the years, including one for Pfizer USA. “I had to photograph and create an international awareness campaign for photo exhibitions around the world. We started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the exhibition was held in a beautiful colonial museum.
“My favorite exhibitions include two large events in the National Gallery of Thailand – ‘The Eyes of Wisdom’ in 2004, ‘The Bangkok Noir Installation” in 2011 and ‘The Bangkok Art Biennale Installations’ in 2018/19 managed by the Artist Director Khun Apinare Poshyananda and his curatorial team in downtown Bangkok, at the BACC and on huge screens in Central World, as well as on many other screens within Bangkok.”
Ralf married his beautiful and talented wife Tao, in Ribe, Denmark, in 2017. “There were so many documents required to enable us to wed in Germany, and as I was busy travelling for work, it was a simple solution to marry in Denmark. It’s not too from Hamburg, where many of my friends live, and it was a relatively small, but very nice wedding.
“Tao is an interior and lamp designer, but also works as a stylist, which is good for me. She is a good example of a very creative Thai young person. She is from Bangkok and grew up in the area of Chinatown. During Covid she decided to create a jeans collection together with a friend who is a graphic designer. The collection was launched on social media: 210_jeans_official.
It was perfect timing as our new Studio House had just been completed in March 2020 and it’s such a fantastic place to be creative in. It really inspires you. Tao and her friend are also modeling for their collection and behind the camera is, of course, me.”
Next up is to design a supportive bag and accessories collection, says Tao.
What does Ralf like about Thailand?
“I really love the Thai people, the Buddhist faith, the spontaneous creativity among the people and last, but not least, the Thai food. Like most others, I really dislike the heavy traffic and the pollution.”
Looking ahead, Ralf’s ‘dream’ project is to travel to Tibet. “I’ve already visited Tibet – ‘Roof of the World’ – four times, but I would love to return to the Himalaya Mountains and take more photos. This is something I could do day and night. Just to inhale the air at an altitude of 4000 meters, the clear sky, the sharpness, it is like a whole new dimension.”
If Ralf could choose one person, dead or alive, to photograph who would it be?
“Without doubt, the German photographer and legend Helmut Newton, who passed away in 2004, and a great loss to humanity. His works were, and still are, incredible. Apart from being one of the best photographers, he had a great sense of humor as well.”
This amazingly talented couple are a pleasure to meet. And if you need a portrait, I can vouch that Ralf will capture all your best features.