A master at capturing the feel of the vibrant, edgy hip-hop scene from the inside, and the wistful desperation of romance in the subway with the eye of an artist, John Ricard is irreverent and opinionated, but never boring. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he moved with his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a youngster, but found his way back to New York City as an adult. There he nurtured his passions for rock, hip-hop and picture taking and transformed them into a career as an intuitive visual artist and professional photographer. Here John shares his remarkable story with us.

Q: How did you get into photography and when did you begin perceiving and using it as a means of creative expression?

A: Like many people I first got into photography to play with the toys. I was always fascinated with gadgets and I had a lot of fun playing with cameras. Even if I sometimes took an interesting shot it was hard to see myself as an artist — it took me a long time to get to that point. In the beginning, I don’t think I was consciously creating anything. I was shooting rock concerts; just pushing the button and taking the photo. It wasn’t until I started doing group shots before or after the performance that I realized I was composing and creating something.

Q: When did you start shooting rock concerts and rock artists and when did it become a profession?

A: I began shooting rock concerts in 1985, but I didn’t become a full-time pro until 2000. As I said, I began slowly transitioning into a mindset of “I’m doing something” while I was doing portraits of the artists. I had to set up lights and give a heads-up to my subjects, “Give me 20 minutes before you go on so I can take some pictures.” That’s when I started to control things, to make choices about lighting, soft boxes, etc. In making my own decisions, I started feeling like an artist. Incidentally, my transitional camera was a Minolta Maxxum, the first workable autofocus camera. Everyone else was using a Nikon or a Canon, but I held my ground with the Maxxum.

Q: When and why did you start shooting with a Leica and what special characteristics does it have that are conducive to your kind of photography?

A: Well, as the music world started changing in the ‘90s I started shooting hip-hop and thought about doing street photography, but that only came about when I got the Leica. Again, as a lover of gadgets I was attracted to it its form and I wanted to play with it. Form and the appearance of things are very important to me. As a photographer you may think that how you look doesn’t matter or what you’re wearing doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the photos, but the way things look does matter since you change what you observe by observing it. To make an analogy, wedding photographers that don’t dress appropriately for the event not only look funny and out of place, their pictures may suffer. I wanted something that was unique and different yet functional. We’ve lost a lot in the digital age and part of the appeal of the Leica is having something special that can create something different from what everyone else can create.

Today people expect cameras to do everything, but with a Leica, when you’ve mounted a 24mm lens you have to do everything in 24mm unless you decide to switch lenses. For example, if you’re covering your daughter’s school play with a DSLR and a long range zoom you can shoot pictures of her dressing before going on stage, performing, and a close-up of her expression as she takes a bow. With the Leica and a 24mm you have to concentrate on the backstage scene of getting ready for play, digging deeper into those visual possibilities, because you know that you can’t get close enough to shoot compelling pictures of her on the stage. In other words, the Leica imposes limitations, but within those limitations the possibilities you can explore are infinite, so you go deep, deep into that world to create those shots. It’s work, but it’s worth it.

Q: We are intrigued by your unconventional portrait of what looks like a Hip-Hop artist showing off his bling. His head is almost completely cut off so your eye focuses on the profusion gaudy gold jewelry and chains hanging around his neck, and the multiple rings on his finger, and there appears to be a framed picture of Muhammad Ali on the left side of the picture. What’s going on here?

A: Yes that’s the famous portrait of Ali underwater in a boxing pose. I shoot at BET’s 106 & Park television show 3 days a week and I like to shoot portraits of the artists like this one of Big Sean before they go on set, but not in the manner of a typical Wireimage or Getty photographer. I ask myself how can I shoot this in a manner that’s different. That’s why all of my backstage stuff is done with the M9. It’s quiet, subtle, and at the same time in your face. I just shoot what’s going on but the shot will look different. I’m proud to be able to shoot the current Hip-Hop artists that are dominating the scene, and I like that voyeuristic feel I can get with the camera.

Q: How did you come to shoot your amazing series of romantically engaged couples in and around the New York City Subway? They are reminiscent of some classic street images of the past, but they seem somehow fresh and contemporary. Can you tell us something about them?

A: For the longest time I rode the subways and walked the streets of Times Square looking for something to shoot. I began to notice all these people sharing these very special, intimate moments in a place that most people feel is miserable.  Everybody else wants to get out of the subway and go home, and yet here’s a couple lost in the moment and totally focused on each other.

When I’m shooting in the street I usually don’t ask permission. I’m trying to be stealthy, snap it quickly, and capture a moment. There’s a shot in the gallery here of a couple lying on ground in Union Square at 1am very much in their own little world…lost in love…unaware of people around them. With this type of shot you have to ask for permission because there is no way to get close to them and I actually did ask them if it was OK and told them to hold their pose. When I do this, about 90% of the time they say yes…and then I give them my card. Strange, but hardly any of my subjects ever e-mails me back about the photo.

Q: Can you tell us something about the War of Art book you mentioned?

A. It’s a very simple, quick book that talks about resistance, dedication, and focus inherent in the creative process. It approaches the subject more from writing perspective than a photographic one, but the message is clear. One of the solutions in creating art is that you have to show up. For example I say to myself, “I’m not leaving Times Square, but will keep taking pictures until 90 minutes have elapsed.” When you do that the muses will descend from heaven to help you get the shot. I’m quite serious—that’s what really happens to me. When I photographed that kissing couple in front of the movie theater, I focused all my attention on them and their passion, but the lonely guy at the left who is looking away is what made the shot. That’s what the muse gave me that time as a reward for showing up to work. But it’s hit or miss. I once framed a great picture of a girl with tattoo and a tourist stepped in at the last second and ruined the shot. There’s nothing you can do about things like that, but if you keep shooting and shoot enough, those things will balance out. The key is to get out there and do the work.

Q: Your picture of three masqueraders is funny and sad at the same time. Can you tell us something about it?

A. Yeah, I shot it at the West Indian Day Parade, and I love the fact that the faces are deadpan, but the clothes say “party.” I did ask permission to take this shot and simply asked them to hold their expressions and not to smile for the camera. The picture is about the way they look—nothing more.

Q: What were you trying to say in your Subway Romance series? Do you think there’s a deeper message?

A: I guess it’s just that romance is happening in the most desolate place in the world. Again, it’s about the contrast.

Q: How have you integrated the M9 system into your professional work covering the music scene, and which lenses do you use?

A: The M9 works perfectly when I’m able to control things. For example, the extremely sharp almost fashion portrait of a woman that I call ‘the green shot’ was made using hot lights, and with the 75mm f/2.5 Summarit lens. In the beginning I bought non-Leica lenses because they were cheaper, but I read somewhere that they were optimized for film, not digital and that irked me, so I sold them and bought Leica lenses instead—the 24mm f/2.8 Elmarit, 35mm f/2 Summicron, and the 75mm f/2.5 Summarit.

Q: What are you doing to promote your work and how do you place your images?

A: I work with an agency, Corbis, and everything ends up there. That’s where various magazines and publications that cover the contemporary music scene pick it up. I know I’ll be doing some really good stuff in the near future because I really love using a camera that makes it so easy and intuitive to concentrate on the four essential things you need to control—aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and ISO.

Q: How do you see your career going forward?

A: I believe I will do well because the kind of images I shoot distinguish me from the masses. The rangefinder camera is an essential part of that creative process because it is a tool that forces you to see differently. It lets you make your own distinctive mark. And when I’m shooting with it I know I’m doing what you’re supposed to do to create images that stand out. No one knows why it works the way it does, but it does and that’s why this is the kind of camera for me.

I started off shooting rock, but at a certain point Hip-Hop was better music than rock–Ice Cube, Ice-T, Public Enemy – this music attracted me so much. Now is an odd period where Hip-Hop has lost its purpose and there’s so much profanity. But I really like the people—the Hip-Hop artists. However, I’ll never lock myself into anything. So who knows what I’ll be shooting next.  I’m open to anything that’s visually interesting.

Thanks for talking with us John!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more photos from John, please visit www.johnricard.com. John also tweets from www.twitter.com/johnricardnyc.