Brian Parkes: A lifelong photo enthusiast with a penchant for 20th Century Architecture, Travel, and digital Leica Ms

Brian Parkes is a retired Civil Engineer based in London whose methodical and structured approach to Leica M photography generally yields outstanding results. Though he modestly describes his photography as “not good enough,” two of his compelling architectural images had the honor of being included in the prestigious Leica User Forum Book that is being used to raise funds for the AICR (Association of International Cancer Research). He also had a hand in the book as one of the sub-editors for the Architecture chapter. Brian is the archetypical straight shooter in all senses of the term and he pulls no punches about his likes and dislikes. Here in his own heartfelt words, is the compelling story of his deliberate but profound passion for photography and his ongoing enthusiasm for Leica lenses and cameras.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: At present I only own one camera-an M9. I find that sufficient for my needs although I really should have a back-up and I might obtain a Digilux 2 for that purpose; I have a soft spot for that camera. I own a range of Leica lenses, from the Elmar-M 24/3.8 ASPH, Elmarit 28/2.8 ASPH, Summicron 35/2 ASPH, Elmar-M 50/2.8, to the APO Summicron 75/2 ASPH. I have previously owned an M8 and a Digilux 2, as well as briefly the Panasonic version of the Digilux 3: also an R4, an M4-2, and an M7. I am not particularly a fan of DSLRs or for holding a small screen at arm’s length. I do of course recognize both the limitations of rangefinders and the advantages of the DSLR in the right situations.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, as an art form, etc.?

A: Back in the dim and distant past when I was a teenager and then a student, photography was a major hobby. I used to develop and print my own images, and also frequently shot and developed color transparencies. Work and other interests intervened for many years until my early retirement allowed me the time to rekindle my interest in photography.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Generally I take my best shots when I am by myself, am not distracted by company, and can take my time. Usually I only take at the most two lenses out with me at any time, and frequently only one.

Q: You’re a member of the Leica International Forum. Can you tell us how long you’ve been a member and your relationship to that unique community?

A: I joined the Forum on 23rd February 2006, although I suppose I lurked for a while before that. I try to contribute and to take part in Forum activities and also initiate meetings of the “London Forum Group”. Through that, taking part in three “One Challenges” so far in Berlin, Krakow and Valletta, Malta, and a visit to the main Forum Meeting at Hessenpark in 2009. I’ve met and become friendly with a lot of superb people, and learnt a lot about photography and Leica in particular. It’s great to be a member of such a diverse International Group of people with a unifying interest and different points of view.

Q: What two photos of yours are featured in the book? What are the stories behind them?

A: I would have been disappointed if my own Architecture submissions had not been selected by the judging panel, but to my relief they were!

Returning home from Buenos Aires via Madrid and with time to kill before the early morning London flight I was photographing Richard Rogers’ Barajas Airport Terminal Building and the composition of the diagonal columns with the wave slatted roof appealed to me visually. It was only later that the resemblance to the Praying Mantis insect struck me, and hence the title.

The other image “Diagonal” came about a month later following a heavy overnight snowfall. The shot was taken from our living room window looking down into the courtyard of the block where we then lived. It was followed by an expedition into the surrounding area that yielded several other satisfactory images, one of which appeared on our last year’s Christmas card.

Q: As a sub-editor of the Architecture chapter in the Leica User Forum Book did you face any challenges? Were you particularly impressed with the photos, and can you tell us anything else about this experience?

A: In the Architecture Section I was surprised at the number of images we received that involved stairs or staircases (in the broadest sense), and let me say up front that all the images that made it into the book were worthy of inclusion, and most were very impressive indeed. The challenge for me was that in my opinion, one or two of those images voted in should have originally been submitted in more appropriate subject categories. By the time the issue was published it was too late to do anything about it, to the detriment of the section in my opinion.

Instead of providing a critique of my selected image I decided to use my allotted words to create a little essay on what architecture might mean and why it appeals to us as viewers, a daunting task given the 300-word limit!

Q: What made you want to, or how did you get involved with the ‘Leica User Forum Book’ project?

A: The idea of a Leica User Forum Book to aid of a really worthwhile international charity was simply a fantastic idea and I must congratulate Bill (Palmer) for coming up with the idea and the charity. I would also like to further thank him, and Andy, and Steve for the incredible amount of work that went into the book’s preparation. When it was announced and a call for helpers went out, I could not possibly say no to such a worthwhile venture and I am amazed and delighted at how successful the book has been.

Q: You have quite a nice collection of Leica-M lenses for your M9. Which ones are your particular favorites and why?

A: I have a particular liking for the Elmar-M 24mm, and for the 75mm APO Summicron.  The Elmar 24 was a “killer” lens on the M8 – sharp yet smooth and not too wide so I’ve recently re-acquired one for the M—it’s great for architecture. Alas, I can’t afford a Summilux 24mm f/1.4  and anyway I like my lenses to be as small as possible – (he said carrying around a 75 ‘Cron)! At the moment I’m not using a separate viewfinder for the 24mm on the M9, but I may well get one.

The 75mm is wonderful on the M9, providing just enough length for me to capture details, but not too difficult for aging eyes to focus accurately—and with brilliant rendering. And then there’s the late 50mm Elmar-M. Someone I know describes it as the “Sweet Little Elmar 50”—spot on! It’s a shame that Leica discontinued it.

Q: You mention that you have a penchant for rangefinder cameras. What are the particular features or characteristics of your M9 that you find particularly suitable for your kind of photography?

A: I certainly have no special or unusual take on its features to announce. I think anyone who uses any M is well aware of the advantages of rangefinders.  The M9 is in many ways a definite advance over the M8 although there are some changes that have arguably not been for the better. Simply put, it’s comparatively small, it’s pretty quiet (but could be improved), and for once one is not completely at the mercy of a maze of cascading menus trying to tell you just how your photograph should be taken. It’s all up to you for better or (quite often) worse!

Q: How do you think your training and professional work as a civil engineer have influenced your approach to photography other than your attraction for contemporary architecture as subject matter?

A: I was taught to gather as much information and facts together as possible about an issue before making a decision so I feel there is a sort of a parallel as M photography demands a similar more measured approach; selection of subject, determination of exposure, composition, and framing. Of course all that must often happen in a fraction of a second to capture a fleeting special moment, and that can be challenging!

Q: Since you have had no formal training “except for Leica Workshops of course” what useful information did you learn in these workshops that has helped you improve your technique or enhance your creativity?

A: Being given a specific topic to shoot forces a concentration of the mind especially when it’s followed by a critique. The hints and tips one picks up during the course certainly aid one’s technique and in my case some Lightroom techniques imparted by the trainer have proved invaluable, as I use Lightroom as my sole DAM (Digital Asset Management) and processing program.

Q: You evidently made your initial “Leica connection” by acquiring a Digilux 2. Aside from the “sheer quality of the images” what did you like about it, and how did it influence you to “graduate” to the Leica M9?

A: Compact size, lightness in weight, and absolute silence in operation immediately spring to mind. Unless interesting developments are already being planned for the X-1, a new improved version building on the Digilux 2 strengths really should have been introduced; Leica definitely missed the mark there – look at how popular the Forum’s thread “Digilux 2 photos have a special look” is, and the strength of the market for used examples. It did however have some disadvantages which made me look at the M and that’s when I briefly began shooting film in parallel with the Digilux 2. Although I found I was in tune with the rangefinder principle, and enjoyed some aspects of working with film, I was much happier with digital and took a deep breath when the M8 arrived. I think my best work has been done with that camera, and frankly I have yet to find the same synergy with the M9, although I’m working on it.

Q: We love the name of your website, “Indecisive Moments” a classic example of ironic self-abnegation. Other than being an obvious trope on Cartier-Bresson’s oft-quoted utterance does it have any deeper meaning for you?

A: I suppose it could be part of my character!

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward? For example, do you plan to explore other genres, shoot film (you said you like B & W), maybe try an X1, or acquire wider or longer lenses?

A: In reality I take photographs to please myself, to record what I have seen and what catches my eye. Even though I don’t always carry a camera, I make a mental note of places and subjects and return to take the shot— eventually! If I do show or publish my work and others like and appreciate it, that shows I must be doing something right and that pleases me. Constructive, sensible and thoughtful criticism is good and helps one to progress!

Right now I have a few projects in mind—for example I need in particular to get back to “Strange London” which has been stalled for far too long; and I have a Barbican Project germinating, but in general I don’t think my photography will change greatly, although hopefully it will improve. Lenses, possibly not longer, but probably wider, and I would like to acquire a 2 version MATE. This acronym stands for Medium Angle Tri Elmar, and refers to the Tri-Elmar 28-35-50mm, a great travel lens that was produced in two versions, the second with a 49mm filter size (this had somewhat better mechanics) known as the MATE.  I think I will probably get a reserve camera too–just in case. Quite what that will be I’m not sure yet, maybe it will be another Digilux 2 or the amazing X-1, or maybe I could return to film and in that case it could well be a Leica III or something similar. I might even go back to an M8, or perhaps Leica will pull a new rabbit out of the hat at Photokina! It’s all so Indecisive, you see!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information on Brian Parkes, please visit his website or follow him on Twitter

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the ‘Leica User Forum Book’, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Based on Leica’s Twitter initiative, Leica is donating €3,000 to AICR – thank you for making this possible!