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Angelenos are known to talk ad nauseam about how amazing Berlin is, but for photographer Florian Hetz it’s the other way around.

Over the past few years, Hetz's images have become synonymous with gay male sexuality in Berlin, providing a glory hole-sized window on intimacy and anonymity in the city. But for the past few months Hetz called Los Angeles home as an artist-in-residence at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Echo Park, a visit that left him smitten—and affected in ways he didn’t expect.

Much has been said about Berlin and LA’s similarities as sprawling, art-hyped cities, but Hetz is quick to point out their differences. Addressing friends last weekend at a farewell gathering at the Tom of Finland House, he joked that “LA Florian” would be unrecognizable to anyone who knows him back home. Smiling, sun-kissed, wearing pink—this isn’t the same Florian who gruffly managed the Panorama Bar at legendary Berlin techno club Berghain.

Hetz’s demeanor isn't the only thing that changed during his stay. He also found new ways of working in LA, shooting subjects in the city's abundant natural light instead of the studio lighting required in gloomy Berlin. The images from his residency, collected in a limited edition booklet simply titled Echo Park, bear out the shift—they’re unmistakably Hetz, but with a warm, palm-drenched twist.

On the eve of his reluctant return to Berlin to finish out the winter, I talked with Hetz about his love for LA, sleeping in Tom of Finland’s bedroom, why selfies are the Paris Hilton of photography, and more.

Tell me a bit about the residency and what it’s been like living at Tom House?

I feel quite blessed to be have been invited by the Tom of Finland Foundation to be their artist-in-residence. Being able to live and work at such an iconic place feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I discovered Tom of Finland as a 17-year-old homo living in the very conservative south of Germany in pre-internet times. Being able to see someone depicting gay men and gay sex as something positive and happy was pretty important for me coming of age as a gay man. Each of his men show a confidence and happiness that I hadn’t seen before in the way homosexuals were portrayed. There’s no shame in his artwork, but a lot of confidence and happiness. You might like his type of man or not, but his work definitely helped me to develop a healthy way for dealing with my sexuality.

The first couple nights of my residence i had the honor to sleep in Tom’s room on the 3rd floor surrounded by his personal belongings, which felt pretty surreal and special. The whole house is full of gay art. I keep discovering new artwork pretty much every day. I encourage everyone to book a guided tour to see this wonderful place—just call the foundation and make an appointment.

The first month of my stay I was doing mostly research here at the archives of the foundation, and they are crazy! Seeing Tom’s art that close and getting to know his preliminary drawings felt more than special. But besides Tom’s work there’s also a large collection of gay art and artifacts. Not getting inspired in this house is close to impossible.

Your work has been influenced by—and is in many ways emblematic of—gay life in Berlin. How has LA shaped your work in the time you’ve been here?

As stupid as it might sound, the light here is really doing the trick. Berlin is such a dark city, not only mentally, but also in terms of sunlight. When I’m there I only shoot with studio light in very intimate settings at home. Here in LA life is bright, people are outside, they get up early. Overall I’m stupidly happy here. I think it shows in my work.

Also I have the possibility of shooting outside in LA and exploring the sun in its various colors throughout the day. One of my tasks that I set for myself in LA was: I’m not allowed to shoot with artificial light while being here. And it’s been quite a journey. The sun and me are still fighting here and there because I can’t control it the same way I can control studio lights, but we’re getting on better and better terms. And I really love what it does to my photos.

In general, how does living in LA compare to Berlin?

For me personally, the quality of living in LA feels so much higher than in Berlin. I like the healthy approach to life here, and I appreciate that i can meet people in LA at 8:30am for a coffee or a meeting. In Berlin I wouldn't suggest a meeting before 11am, and that would already be too early for most people. I worked long enough in nightlife that I don´t feel the need for crazy nights anymore. I like to go to bed early-ish and get up in the morning, so LA seems like a perfect fit.

Berlin is a wonderful liberal city and it’s my home, but the weather there is wearing me down. Friends from New York warned me about the fake happiness of LA people, but to be honest, I’d rather deal with fake happiness than with real bitterness. I really would love to stay longer than three months.

Walk me through a typical shoot, from casting to composition to what you look for when selecting images afterwards.

I do most of my casting on Grindr. Preferably i meet a model a couple of days before a shoot in a cafe to get to know each other, and to explain my work process. That’s also when I normally already start to develop small ideas.

But generally there are two different ways for me to shoot: often i have the photo already in my head, and then i find the right person to shoot it with. Those shoots are very controlled, I know exactly what I want, how the light should be, and there’s not much space for improvisation.

Then there’s the more spontaneous approach of shooting, which normally happens when I don’t have time to meet the model beforehand. In that case I force myself to be less controlled and to discover my model through the lens and see what happens. It’s a good practice for me to let go of set ideas in my head, and it’s a very intimate way of working.

I come very close to people when I shoot them. In real life I tend to create some sort of a personal space between me and someone, but when I shoot I can’t keep that up and i have to drop my guard. Normally there’s a lot of laughter while i shoot. The model is naked, I’m not, and a big part of my job is to make the situation pleasant for the model; to make him forget that he’s naked so he can act naturally. Humor is a good tool there. But of course there can be underlying sexual tension during a shoot.

You maintain an interesting balance of intimacy and objectivity with your subjects. Is this tricky to navigate? Is there ever a line that’s crossed?

I’m quite clear beforehand that the shoot is not about having sex with me, but some guys try to get into my pants anyway. I’m old enough to not get offended by that. Anonymity combined with intimacy has always been a big part of gay sexuality. Cruising, sex in public restrooms, darkrooms, etc. I like the idea that my photos show only a small fraction of an action or story. It's like you look through a glory hole and you only see bits and pieces. You don't really know what’s happening, but it’s stimulating your fantasy.

My book The Matter of Absence was playing with the idea of memories that we all somehow have: the crush that we had on the best friend of our older brother, remembering the drop of sweat that ran down his throat after working out. Or the obsession with the PE teacher, and how his bulge was visible in his gym pants… if i gave away the identity of the model, then the photo would be about the model, not about the memory. And i think it helps my models to be more relaxed in front of the camera, because I don't plan to “expose” them. You can say that I objectify men in the best possible way. I’m not interested in showing someone in a bad light.

What’s your favorite part of the body?

It’s definitely the whole neck/collarbone area.

When you’re not taking pictures of people, what do you like to shoot?

My mother would like me to shoot flowers instead of penis. But unfortunately i’m still not done with the male body. Although I did develop a fascination for succulents here in LA, so maybe that could become a new subject.

What kind of photography bores you?

Selfies.

Haha, it shows. Your photos are kind of like anti-selfies, holding back key pieces of information whereas selfies just put it all out there. Is this a conscious decision?

I rather like to focus on the other parts of a person than the fake selfie face. Most of the men I shoot are not model types. but it's exciting to show the world their beauty, their sexiness, their vulnerability. There’s a lot of beauty in all of us. you just need to open the eyes and have a closer look to see it. And my job is to do exactly this.

Social media tends to make us believe that we have to be perfect. For me it is more interesting to take a step back and look what else there is. We all are highly trained to show the two good selfie angles on every photo, but we tend to forget that we are more than just some pouting lips and doe eyes.

What I like about selfies, though, is that they tell a lot about the person--how they would like to be seen, who they want to be--which quite often has nothing to do with reality. But selfies somehow became something very inflationary in our society, they are like the Paris Hilton of photography; they are a big part of pop culture and they are everywhere. but quite often more than cringeworthy. I wouldn't mind if they disappeared one day again. Just like Paris.

Tell me about Echo Park, the booklet of photos from your residency.

I have a solo show in May in Hamburg where I want to show the photos that I took in LA, but I wanted to do a presentation of my work before I left the Tom of Finland House. The time here in LA has been very special for me and I wanted to create a little book that preserves this moment of my life.

What’s next for you?

Berlin winter and its misery, lol. But at least I can concentrate on the editing of the photos and the preparation for the exhibition in Hamburg. I’m going to travel a lot in 2018 and will try to create mini LA scenarios in different European cities where I try to capture as much as possible of the gay life there. Holler at me, maybe i will come to your city.


Alex Black
Alex Black is a writer, musician, and Enya fan. His long-haired chihuahua RuPaul is the unofficial INTO mascot.