When Anton Repponen woke up in the back seat of his 4×4 off-road Toyota, it was still dark outside. He wasn’t quite sure where he was — somewhere within the Brazilian state of Ceará, surely – perhaps a few dozen kilometers outside of Fortaleza, perhaps a bit more.
He was just over 19 hours into the 24 that it would ultimately take him to reach his final destination of Jericoacoara, a small fishing village on the northwestern edge of Ceará, near the equator. From New York, he’d flown about 10 hours south to São Paulo, then caught a connection back north to Fortaleza, where he met his driver and began a five-hour ride west.
Bleary-eyed, he looked outside. A full moon illuminated a dreamlike landscape. To his right, the infinite Atlantic glittered back at him. To his left, he found an also-endless expanse of desert.
Repponen shifted in his seat and glanced at the rearview mirror. His driver turned around and met his gaze, smiling broadly, before flipping off the lights and stepping down on the gas pedal. The car lurched forward, and they flew, racing at 60+ mph along the edges of two worlds.
Exhausted, he fell back asleep, lost between waves and sand.
Growing up in the suburbs of Tallinn, Estonia, Repponen’s childhood was filled with hundreds of thousands of grey, concrete-paneled houses or khrushchyovka, a utilitarian product of the Soviet Union. His home, however, despite its monotone exterior, was filled with colorful escapes, maps and world atlases teeming with photos of beautiful cities: Florence and its grand cathedrals, Rio and its majestic Cristo.
At an early age, despite not having the means to travel, Repponen developed a fascination with it. Flipping through his books, he knew with certainty that he would someday explore the cities within their pages — cities that were rich with culture; cities that were designed, built, and maintained to showcase human ingenuity.
His first camera was a Zenit 11 — a fully manual Soviet film camera that he bought from a friend, a skateboarder, for something like $10. He didn’t skate, but Repponen spent the days after the exchange returning to the park to take photos. When I asked him how they turned out, he gave me a wry smile and shook his head. “You can imagine that taking photos for the very first time of people constantly in motion using a manual film camera didn’t go very well.” When he developed his first roll of film, all 34 frames were a continuous blur.
But Repponen, by nature and trade, is a problem-solver. Curiosity alight, he enthusiastically threw himself into the work of learning, deconstructing and reassembling the mechanics of photography. While Repponen now has a full portfolio of stunning travel photography, it is not his primary craft. Instead, he works as a designer and travels the world to teach and present at conferences — his photography, he explains modestly, is just a result of many of his other unrelated loves. Currently, he is one-half of the duo behind Anton & Irene, a design studio based in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York.
Previously, he was a Global Creative Director at Fi (Fantasy Interactive), where he met Irene Pereyra, his business partner and Fi’s former Global Director of UX. There, he solved creative problems for clients such as Google, USA Today, Microsoft, Nintendo, Porsche and Sony and received recognition for his work from Cannes Cyber Lion, the FWA Awards, the Webby Awards and the Net Awards, among others.
Being a designer influences Repponen’s photography, as does his background in architecture. In his work, he begins with a blank canvas, adjusting composition and component parts until he is satisfied with the fit. Often, he brings this lens to his photography and shoots with an eye towards how he can cut, recompose, or manipulate his photos to achieve what he intends to illustrate.
Having studied architecture, buildings, structures, and cities dominate Repponen’s photography as some of his favorite subjects. His photos often deliberately feature empty shots of cityscapes, something he acknowledges people will very rarely come across in their day to day.
“I enjoy transforming reality with photography. I don’t think you can really judge the locations I visit by looking at the photographs I take — my approach is somewhat opposite to the journalistic style. For example, in New York, where I live, most of my photos don’t have people in them. That’s not the way anyone will experience that city. Sometimes, I wake up very early in the morning or spend hours retouching my photos to get to what I’m looking for. I like capturing and expressing places in ways that they don’t seem to be.”
He pointed me to his 2016 “Misplaced Series,” as an example, a photo collection he officially launched last spring, which places iconic New York City buildings against unexpected and remote backdrops, such as the Lanai Islands of Hawaii and Costa Rican volcanoes. Concrete behemoths and steel-and-glass towers rise out of sand dunes and rocky cliffs, inviting viewers to see them as if for the first time. “Out of context, architectural forms become more pronounced and easily understood,” Repponen explains. “‘The Misplaced Series’ combines architecture, emptiness, surreal landscapes and a lot of photo manipulation — all of the things I am after.”
The same elements can be found in Repponen’s photos of Brazil. He’d traveled to Fortaleza to speak at a conference and took advantage of the trip, adding a four-day getaway to Jericoacoara before returning home.
When he woke up there, he found himself in unfamiliar territory: no paved roads, no cars — just sand and sand-buggies everywhere, carrying drivers with bandanas and scarves wrapped over their faces, presumably to protect them from the sun and sand.
“It felt like an apocalyptic sci-fi movie set in a future where we’ve run out of water and are forced to live in deserts,” he mused. “I think that thought stuck with me and informed the way I wanted to take these photos.”
Of the otherworldly series, he singled out a shot of a sand-buggy driving through a surreal landscape as his favorite. “There’s no indication of where it’s coming from or even where it’s going. It gives an impression of a whole world that is just like this.”
When we spoke, Repponen was on the road again, sitting in the airport on his way back to New York from Milan, where he’d just spent the last three days. While he always carries a camera with him — “You never know what you’ll see and what you can photograph” — he doesn’t always find free time to walk around and capture photos.
“There are some nice shots waiting for me in Lightroom,” he smiles. “In another three days, I have to go to Toronto. Maybe some nice photos will come out of that trip too.”
To learn more about Anton Repponen and to view more of his work, visit repponen.com.