Talk with Cylla von Tiedemann about Photography and German Roots

Cylla von Tiedemann Enlarge image (© Cylla von Tiedemann) Cylla von Tiedemann is one of Canada's most treasured dance photographers. Her work with the world-renowned National Ballet of Canada has graced the covers of magazines, brochures, and gallery walls. Right now, one of her photographs can be seen all over Toronto – the promotional poster for the hit musical “Once”, which is staged by the Mirvish Theatre.

Born in Biberach an der Riß in southern Germany as the daughter of German author and script writer Leonie Ossowski (Die große Flatter), Cylla moved to Toronto in the early 1980s, during her “vagabond years”, as she calls this time. Through her siblings, both photographers who had already been living in Toronto, she discovered her love for photography and Canada. Having first been trained in black and white photography, von Tiedemann has embraced the performing arts: dance, theatre, music and film. Cylla nowadays focuses on theatre photography and has found another interest in astrology.

We sat down with Cylla von Tiedemann to talk about her German roots and Canadian career.

You said in an interview once that you are ‘not so much interested in the past but much more interested in the presence’. How is this philosophy reflected in your German background?

Cylla vonTiedemann: This [philosophy] is still valid for me, but as I get older I get more and more connected with my roots, or at least I acknowledge them much more now. I was born in 1953, when there was still a certain inherent burden to being German, and my generation still tried to ignore its heritage. Even later, during my studies in Heidelberg at the time of the famous '68 movement, all we wanted was to abandon the past and create a better future. Back then, that was the Zeitgeist and the ideal. On top of that my parent’s generation didn’t even speak about the past, something which is much more different and easier nowadays. I have a deep respect for how today’s Germany constantly unfurls the topic of  National Socialism and the Second World War in a very deliberate way.

 Dancer: Holly Bright, Copyright: Cylla von Tiedemann Enlarge image (© Cylla von Tiedemann)

The title of our interview-series is "I am German". When you think about this title and your current life in Canada, what comes to your mind?

CvT: To me, “I am German” is mostly reflected in my family, which I love. My family is German and therefore my roots are German, and I very much respect these roots. It is sad that I had to give up my German citizienship when I moved to Canada and had to adopt the Canadian one. I would have loved to keep my German citizenship, but at that time you had to choose between the two.

And since I was working in culture and applied for grants, it didn’t feel right to accept Canadian funding without the citizenship, and I was always certain that I would stay here in Canada. But I see myself as an international citizen anyway and therefore found it always hard to identify with only one nationality. I have the deepest respect for Germans, as they are very thorough and open to self-reflection, but there is a certain German sobriety, and I personally often find Germans too serious and too humourless. On the other hand, they possess this depth and connection to their roots and cultural heritage. I feel that being German also implies a certain responsibility for others, and I believe that my generation was very much embedded in this social democratic mindset and spirit which is very distinctive to Germany.

As someone  who works in arts and culture in North America, do you find that there is something like a German cultural seal of quality?

CvT: German culture is, no doubt, a seal of quality here in North America. There is a cleaner line to German aesthetic and it is more elaborate. And for me as a German artist in Canada, my name precedes me. But there seems to be a given advantage for Germans within the cultural scene based on the German reputation, specifically a drive for precision and perfection – values I very much grew up with. If I know I can do better, I do better. I am also very stern when I work, which is something very German as well. But this sterness and perfectionism is something that is also reflected within dance in general.

'Gathering' with Katia Wittenborn and Jarrett Sidall, Copyright: Cylla von Tiedemann Enlarge image (© Cylla von Tiedemann) Karen Kain and Rex Harrington said about you that you are a ‘perfectionist’. Do you take this is as a compliment, seeing as it comes from two worldclass dancers?

CvT: When I work and take photos, I am in a certain space and mindset where I am very focused and very outspoken, which is another very German quality. And the direct translation, or rather the inability to translate one to one, is a major obstacle in my work. While taking pictures I get into a different visual sphere which leads to a linguistic problem because within this visual artistic sphere I think in German and I am very direct. This translates mostly into commands and imperatives, and the people I work with a lot understand this, but especially for Canadians my way of communicating is seen as harsh, although I don’t intend it to be this way. If people want to put it in nicer terms, one could probably describe this as perfectionistic.

In your opinion as a photographer, what is the photographic highlight in Toronto and worth a shot?

CvT: It really depends on what I want to shoot. I find that all the new architecture around the PanAm Games site, if you look at it from the south, is very abstract in its blankness and emptiness. The juxtaposition of old and new within the city is very fascinating to me. As a photographer, your eyes are constantly wandering and looking for something new to discover…there are so many great places… the lake and the nature. This is one reason why even after all these years, I still find Toronto extremly interesting and exciting. It changes constantly while being in the process of becoming a cultural metropolis.


Cylla von Tiedemann

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Cylla von Tiedemann - Picture Gallery