In the photography world, there’s a lens called a tilt shift, which allows the photographer to alter the perspective of a picture. For example, if you were taking a picture of a fruit plate at eye-level and wanted a bird’s eye shot, a tilt shift lens would allow you to raise the photo’s plane of focus a couple of degrees. You can also achieve this effect via photoshop, which is something Geli Klein (@geliklein) does.
Geli has been taking pictures for decades, but she only joined Instagram about three years ago. While her oeuvre includes portraits and food photography, her Instagram feed is almost exclusively pictures of Cologne. If you ask her about what it’s like to take pictures in Cologne, by no means a city of significant architectural allure, she grins, shrugs and says, “You have to take what you get.”
I first came across Geli’s photography while reading an article in the Guardian highlighting the Accidentally Wes Anderson (@accidentallywesanderson) Instagram account. There among the catalogue of follower-submitted pictures was a snapshot of Die Bastei (The Bastion), a Cologne restaurant situated directly on the Rhine. Between the bridge and the cathedral, right next to the Economic Institute. It’s a prominent milestone on my riverside jogs. I had seen the building many times before. I had never seen it like this.
Die Bastei is a hybrid shade of yellow, a cross between canary and mustard. It has the curious contours and cumbersome aesthetic of the Millennium Falcon. Perhaps ambitious and vogue at the time of its construction, it’s now mostly there to reliably charm us with reminders of the limits we had back then.
It is perfectly and simply symmetric, pink and delightfully protrusive, emblazoned with a beautifully modest sans-serif font. Its pastel color sits flush in front of a blue-pink gradient sky, which looks like the color expecting parents might paint the walls of a nursery if they were waiting to be surprised by the baby’s sex. Geli told me it reminds her of the desert.
It is anachronistic; it is neither contemporary nor classical nor avante-garde. People who know Cologne will recognize it as incongruous to the city’s architectural ethos. Somehow this picture made Cologne—a city whose characteristic jolly demeanor often acts as a lens to rosy up its drab and incoherent cityscape—seem warm.
I wandered over to Geli’s Instagram account and found more of the same sensation. Architecture dominates her feed. Some of her best pictures focus in on the front of a structure and reduce it to a two-dimensional splash of color and balance—symmetrical or asymmetrical—checking all the Wes Anderson design boxes. “I like simple geometry,” she says. I’ve lived in Cologne for over two years now but consistently had to double-take when scrolling through her feed. Another building I had seen before. Another building I was seeing for the very first time.
“I hate the dirt.” That’s what Geli said when we met. Then she told me about her process. She doesn’t exactly take what she gets. She edits all of her pictures heavily, so much so that she sometimes warns her followers, as she did me, that it doesn’t look like that in real life. “Sometimes you have to make it nicer than reality.”
She walks around the city, looking for buildings that capture her muse. She knows them when she sees them. “You’re in front of a house and perhaps you see something, then you look longer, then you see a reflection in the window, maybe a tree—I love trees—and maybe it matches the façade of the house really well. Then I think, in Photoshop I could combine them even better.”
When Geli edits pictures, she “retouches” all the dirt. Then she does some “color-correction.” But some of the biggest edits often go unnoticed, like the tilt shift, which wholly alters the picture’s presentation. I asked Geli whether these tactics are deceptive, especially to novices like me. Are your pictures presenting the truth?
Geli’s picture of Die Bastei is probably her most viewed post. By now, it’s been shared by so many different accounts that it’s impossible to tally exactly how many collective likes her picture has received. She estimates more than 30,000. Among those 30,000—which includes a number of my likes across different channels—it’s even more difficult to understand the collective responses the shot has elicited. Is there a conclusive summary of what the photo has inspired? What does this picture make people think, see, or feel? A nursery and a desert are two entirely different places.
This doesn’t seem to bother Geli. “Imagination and fantasy is a kind of art form,” she says. “I wish Die Bastei actually looked like my picture in reality.”
Sometimes her followers write her with praise of her photography. Inevitably they mention the city. “Cologne must be so beautiful,” they write. It’s all really a matter of perspective.