There are not many places where you can touch the crispness of an unfolding summer’s day as intensely as in Stuttgart. You want to be up early. Really early. In those twilight hours just before sunrise, it will just be you, a yet-to-be-discovered new route, a camera to capture the unseen and your motorcycle to take you anywhere inspiration leads you. Nobody to get in your way and obscure those incredible, undisturbed urban perspectives. Nobody to rob you of a special moment that you know will never be repeated.
“There’s a distinction between alone and lonely “, Max Leitner says. He is alone in those moments when he steps out and captures the world in a way that nobody has ever seen before. Whether in Chicago, Shanghai, Rotterdam, Macao, Shenzen or one of many other cities across the globe. Max has travelled around the world, stepping fearlessly out of top floor windows of very tall buildings, capturing the architectural and natural beauty of unexpected shapes and lines as they unite in uniquely defined angles and moments. “I have always been a driven urban explorer, never waiting to see if someone wanted to follow.“
How do you become a modern pioneer in a world where men can conveniently travel nearly anywhere they want, and where satellites document the formerly unknown from outer space? Stuttgart is a place of rich heritage, incredible light and an icon of German engineering, innovation and design. So, what does this town, where Max Leitner was born 26 years ago, have to do with it all?
We meet up with Max at his favourite time of the day in the early hours of the morning, It is a particularly rough area with small factory buildings, railway tracks that abruptly end here, and trains that wait to be repaired. A somehow cool industrial landscape, standing as a sharp contrast to the lush green of the wooded hills and vineyards that surround Stuttgart. Max rides up a loading ramp to get a better perspective, noticeably enjoying the nimbleness of his SVARTPILEN 401.
“I love the raw and exposed authenticity of the design as much as the thrilling contrast of its smooth riding feel“, Max admits. He still remembers the early thrill this rugged area in the city’s industrial North gave him when he first rode past it on his mountain bike at the age of 11. “The area evokes an emotion, I connect to my first exploratory memories here.“
For as far back as Max can remember, from a very early age he has always had an endless stream of questions, and fortunately for him, great parents that patiently tried to answer every single one of them.
Questions. Solutions. Max Leitner will never stop searching and exploring until he has found his answers. A skill that helps him push his boundaries and keep improving. Finding the previously unseen magnificence in the construction of space. The interaction of buildings, spaces and the infrastructure that guides us throughout the urban landscape. That is ultimately what makes his work so insightful.
Why did he leave the United States where he had spent the past few years? What inspired him to make Stuttgart his home again? What is the draw of a town in Germany’s wealthy South-west with 600.000 inhabitants, when his goal is to push the status quo of experiential urban photography further than anybody has tried before?
“If we look at the topographic make-up of Stuttgart, we actually have a lot of room to explore because it is a city built on hills. This causes a natural type of movement. A flow. It is a quality that inherently comes with elevation, traveling up- and downhill and the changing perspectives that arise from this. There are places where it is too steep to build upon and where inevitably, there is a forest. These are some of the reasons why Stuttgart is a lot more interesting to me than Chicago, which is a very flat city – laid out on a typical grid.“
Max starts the bike and accelerates away up a hill - man and machine in effortless symbiotic motion. “I’d never ride a bike that doesn’t perfectly fit my personality “, he had earlier stated. On his way up the hill, he makes a spontaneous stop to share one of those stunning Stuttgart views. An hour and a half’s travel through the hills and beyond, you find yourself deep in the German countryside. Friends of Max’s have a house on the Donau river in Sigmaringen. “When I ride the SVARTPILEN out there for a night, it feels as if I am far away from home, like on vacation – even though it is just 100 Kilometres South.”
How do you know, when you are ready to go further? Looking at Max Leitner’s Instagram account, one might feel a little dizzy seeing him sitting on top of skyscrapers, with his feet dangling hundreds of meters above ground. Though it may look risky, it is strictly professional and executed with calculated precision.
Real adventure, as he understands it, is not about risk. It is about being able to control the risk. Physically and mentally. “I think my judgment of danger has grown with experience. I have learned to understand the wind, rain and elevation, and to always have three points of contact – as my father had taught me“.
„I’d never ride a bike that doesn’t perfectly fit my personality.”
Near the famous Stuttgart City Library, which was designed by the notable Yi architects, lies an abandoned stretch of urban landscape, covered in gravel and wisps of grass. A remarkably rugged piece of land that is contrasted by being set behind an elegantly styled shopping mall called Milaneo. Max has chosen this spot to have some fun on the bike. As a backdrop to the decayed urban setting, the library stands - a futuristic monolith, whose facade incorporates countless glass blocks, inviting light into the floating architectural lines. Its heart and core seemingly inspired by the great heritage of an ancient pantheon.
This area around Mailänder Platz, where the old rail freight station once stood, seems in constant transition from past to future. It is an important impulse generator for an ever-unfolding future that is yet to be defined. Nobody knows how long the urban wilderness of this starkly contrasted gravel field will survive.
“I like it when I am alone, just enjoying the loose ground. It makes me understand how the bike reacts. If you have a gravel surface detached from public streets, you can deliberately lose traction and still be safe.” He is very aware of his boundaries and while always wanting to explore new possibilities, he will never endanger himself or others. That is a rule Max Leitner says he will never break.
Heading to Stuttgart’s West for some memorable home-roasted coffee at Mókuska, a small roaster in famous Johannesstraße - previously the main transit route through Stuttgart, nearly 200 years ago.
Mókuska is the Hungarian word for squirrel. Fittingly a furry mascot holds a coffee cup with a very contained expression on his face to form the logo for this unique roaster of sustainably-sourced ‘bean juice’. Max arrives slightly late, grabbing a fresh croissant, one of the delicious home-made Espresso Blondies and the best Latte Macchiato in town, for his perfect Stuttgart breakfast. “I love people who make their own things, driven by the idea of bringing quality to other people who know what quality means. Mókuska really hit a nail there“, he says.
Globally inspired and forward thinking, yet deeply rooted in the firm belief in the value of traditionally produced quality. With this approach, the Café has breathed new life into this formerly quiet residential street corner. “I am kind of ‘bummed out’ that I am moving away from this area“, Max says. Hip Heusteigviertel in the South of Stuttgart’s centre will be his new playground. He has rented backyard premises, which will serve as his new living and studio location. To actually find an affordable retreat in this sought-after area itself, is also an exploratory urban masterstroke. It requires a touch of imagination, an open mind and a touch of luck.
Back on the bike. Continuing the search for something that offers an urban perspective unlike anything he has seen before. Max cautiously checks out some promising angles from the rooftop of a parking block. We’re met by a stunning 360 degree vista of Stuttgart stretching out before us. In the distance Killesberg is visible, a lush green suburb where Max grew up, beyond that lies the “wound “, an expansive building site where Stuttgart’s new train station will soon stand.
During the Christmas Break, Max was down there capturing the story of industrial and metropolitan change with his distinct style of contrasted architectural aesthetics and symmetrical lines. “I have always been fascinated by the opportunity to use photography to deconstruct, and for the discovery of completely new perspectives and thoughts on things“. The creation of his unmistakeable images is a fusion of Max’s unique insight, the environment itself and equipment that expresses its distinct style through the purpose it was built for.
“I like to think I have as much a character as the SVARTPILEN 401 does“, Max says, as he jumps on his bike again. It’s time to check out Wagenhallen, a wild artists’ community in the North of town. The way they live and work together is very different from the way he ticks, but the crazy mix of colourful container spaces and gigantic sculptures made of repurposed tech, is intriguing to him.
Later, Max will stop by at Hillson’s, a cool hybrid bar-venue-shop for Moto Culture that has just opened in Heusteigviertel. He will no doubt share a drink with Philipp, a tall, hip and bearded gentleman who is a driving force in the creative circle of bar owners.
It’s the perfect time for Max to share ideas he has for his next exhibition with Philipp; relaying tales of his friend Brian at the edge of Death Valley, recounting his friend Jennifer exploring the top of a high rise at dawn in Shanghai, remembering a lofty late-night excursion at the famous Louvre in Paris, and then there was Lisbon, Chicago, the whole lot. His considered selection of the many possible astounding photographic masterpieces reveals the incomparable vision of a true urban trailblazer.
How did Philipp and Max first meet? Max’s SVARTPILEN first grabbed Philipp’s attention somewhere in town and he was instantly fascinated. They got talking, much like they will do later. But, for now, Max is off to another location check. Up the stairs and out the window. Scouting for a new unseen angle for his next shoot somewhere in the heart of Stuttgart. Exactly where? Max’s story and journey of discovery is one that is still forming, ever-evolving and which hopefully, will never end.
„I have always been a driven explorer, never waiting to see if somebody wanted to follow.”
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Photos: Robert Fischer | Text: Anne Nürnberger