After attending art school and working as an assistant to a skilled commercial and studio portrait photographer in the Netherlands, Rutger Pauw leveraged his personal passion for BMX and other action sports to find clients who valued his uncanny ability to create outstanding and memorable sports images. As a result, he has had the opportunity to work all over the world with top athletes while covering a wide variety of sports. “Because each sport is so different it requires a new take on things every time,” says Pauw, “but that’s what I enjoy. The challenge of having to prove myself within each sport and still coming up with a unique images is what I love most about what I do.” He currently resides in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Here we talk with Rutger about his images that document the building of the world’s biggest dirt quarter-pipe.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind the portfolio you submitted?
A: In a nutshell, it’s based on a Sebastian “Bas” Keep’s (UK) project. He’s a professional BMX freestyle rider that has been pushing the sport for over a decade. He came up with the idea of building the world’s biggest dirt quarter-pipe and try to go as high as possible on it. Red Bull helped him realize it, and he rode the ramp for three days in total with his friends Ben Hennon and Ruben Alcantara. There was no audience, just a small crew determined to see what the next level of bike riding could be. It all took place in Llangynog, Wales and was featured on the cover of Ride UK BMX magazine.
Q: This portfolio was created using the Leica S-System. Do you use the Leica S or S2, and how long have you been shooting with it? Also, which lenses do you predominately use?
A: I use the latest S body, the Leica S. Funnily enough I used the 120 mm lens most often last year, a focal length I had never used before, but it ended up being one of my favorite lenses of the S range. The 30 mm is what I use for most wide-angle shots; it’s roughly equivalent to a 24 mm on a full-frame, and it has been my most often used lens for years. It’s super sharp corner to corner and if I need an even wider angle I simply pan the camera, take one more photo and stitch the two images together afterwards. I prefer that to working with a wider-angle lens.
The 180 mm works like a 135 mm on a full-frame and it’s easily the most impressive lens I’ve ever worked with. It’s also pretty much the only long focal length I’ve ever used, so I’m happy Leica chose to make that particular lens. The thing I like a lot about all these lenses is that you can rely on the autofocus when light conditions are poor. It has no problems focusing in darker situations where my old full-frame system would have let me down. I’ve been using the S-System for about a year, mostly with the CS lenses so I can shoot with flash at 1/1000 sec.
Q: Aside from the advantage of being able to shoot with flash at shutter speeds up to 1/1000 sec and its reasonably compact size, what characteristics of the Leica S-System do you find especially useful in your kind of work? For example, most photographers that shoot extreme action sports like BMX use full-frame and APS-C format DSLRs, so what is it that you find so appealing about the medium format Leica S for your style of photography?
A: The first thing is that it feels like a creative tool, not a tech gizmo machine with a million buttons. I like that the S is here specifically for one purpose, namely to focus on taking one good photo rather than a thousand. It forces the photographer to think before shooting, which I missed since changing to digital. In sports photography you hear a lot of people go on about burst rate and buffer size, but it’s really just one frame you need to worry about.
The second thing is the feel of the look of the photo. It has that depth that you only find in medium format or bigger; it makes the images dreamier because of the bigger difference between sharp and un-sharp areas, which complements the atmosphere in my photography. I try to reach for the viewer’s imagination rather than present an easy to read sports picture.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: As I work with lots of different sports, it’s impossible for me to shoot on film. I need to check the image with the athlete so they can tell me if I’ve captured correct timing, which is a crucial part of what I do. When the S-System came out with the leaf shutter lenses it opened up new possibilities for me, as I was able to freeze action during the day (on a regular DSLR there is always motion blur). That definitely sparked my interest, and also because the S yields impressively large image files but doesn’t handle like a clumsy medium format camera, I like to be mobile and work fast if need be.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: At first I was more interested in riding my BMX bike, which I’ve been doing for about 15 years now. Then I gradually started to find the same rewarding feeling from taking photos as I did from learning a new trick on the bike. The two are very similar; they require creative thinking to make things interesting.
Q: That is a great comment about how riding your BMX and photography are similar because both require creative thinking to make things interesting. Can you enlarge upon that statement and perhaps tell us how your BMX experience has helped you achieve more compelling pictures or vice versa?
A: The advantage of being part of a certain sport helps in regard to communicating with people; you know how dangerous or painful something can be. It also teaches you what angles definitely NOT to choose, which is important. The tricky part is being so much a part of something that it’s easy to miss the beauty of small things in your surroundings, because they’ve become part of everyday life. It takes double the effort to come up with new ideas, and it seems that’s why I like to venture into other sports; it gives me a new outlook and fresh ideas that can be applied to other sports where they might not have been experienced yet.
Q: Did you have any formal education or training in photography? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I went to art school in The Netherlands, and assisted photographer Oscar Seykens for a few years; that’s where I learned a lot about light. For portraits I take my inspiration from the classics, but for action it’s a young world out there. Right now there are so many young photographers coming up with new creative ways of showing action (predominantly in the action sports genre, not conventional sports). Dan Vojtech is a good photographer pushing this game.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I can get ideas from lots of different things. Sometimes it’s fashion or movies; it can also be just architecture. I like the mathematics of a photograph, even though I was terrible at math in school. Photography means freedom and fun times to me. It allows me to come up with a plan. Sometimes I keep that plan to myself for a year or so, and when the circumstances are right I execute it with the right people. It still blows my mind that people trust me when I come up with ideas. Seeing them work out while everyone is having a great day making of the shot means the most to me.
Q: Your statement, “I like the mathematics of a photograph” is very interesting since the Ancient Greeks, among others, believed that aesthetics and good composition has everything to do with mathematical ratios like the Golden Mean, and many photographers are taught to follow the Rule of Thirds. How do you see the mathematics of a photograph in terms of creating dynamic images?
A: I’ve always been interested in architectural photography, and I used to go to a lot of industrial areas when I was in art school. In a sense, making a sports photo is much like an architectural shot. You have to fit the athlete into the surroundings, that means not just finding an empty spot, but also the direction of lines in the body that correspond with those surroundings amplifying a sense of motion, speed or height.
Q: The sense of light in most of your images is very natural, yet it often conveys a sense of heightened reality as well. You mentioned you learned a lot about light when assisting the photographer Oskar Seykens for a few years. Can you tell us a few things you learned from him and something about how you combine daylight and flash illumination so seamlessly in your images?
A: As an assistant I worked with a portrait/studio photographer, so we made all kinds of artificial light setups typically used for commercial advertising or fashion shoots. The funny thing is that in so-called freestyle sports we use the same kind of light setups; we just work with powerful battery powered strobes like the Broncolor Move light.
Lighting is a tricky subject for me because I often work in unique places where you wouldn’t find athletes doing what they do on a daily basis. So it’s important to consider whether you need an extra dose of flash lighting to make things even more surreal. It can push a good photo over the edge and make it look like it’s been shot in a studio and put together, which completely makes the effort that went into finding, travelling and preparing the location pointless. At the Sebastian Keep shoot I didn’t use flash at all simply because the location was too big and the circumstances too unpredictable.
Q: This image of a BMX rider pushing his bike up a hill, with the precipitous track and gorgeous mountains in the background conveys a dizzying sense of space and of actually being there. Can you tell us the story behind this striking image and give us some of the technical details of how you shot it?
A: With this project I let everyone just do what they wanted to do. It’s a ramp so high and dangerous that I am just there to record what’s going on. We were there for a week and when things felt right the guys rode. Being mobile and able to move fast made me decide to not use any flash, so this shot is made with available light as Ben was just out of breath climbing up the roll in. Imagine walking up an 8-10 story building. The difficult part is that such small bikes without any suspension are not designed for speeds like that, so it was quite scary.
Q: Compared with most of the other images in this portfolio, this one of a close-up portrait of a guy wearing a Red Bull hat, is kind of quiet, but it conveys a phenomenal intensity that suggests the subject’s engagement, commitment, and determination. What’s it all about, and why did you include it in this portfolio? Also, this image is a great example of the effective use of shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s eye to the main subject. Which lens and aperture did you use for this compelling portrait?
A: I think the photo describes Bas Keep quite well for me. He’s a dreamer, but he dreams big. He’s not verbally loud or aggressive, but his riding is as loud as it could be. People stop what they’re doing when he gets on a bike. This was shot during the preparation of the quarter-pipe, and Bas was having all these mixed feelings of feeling intimidated, doubting whether it could work at all, and if it would look good. I took all the portraits beforehand so I wouldn’t have to bother anyone during riding. It was shot with a 35 mm CS lens, and the shallow depth of field definitely captured that dreamy autumn evening feel.
Q: What do think you accomplished with this portfolio and how will these images be used? Have you thought about having a gallery exhibition or publishing a book of your BMX photographs?
A: This project was printed in Ride UK BMX magazine, and readers voted it cover of the year as well, which was a nice end-of-the- year honor. In time I’d like to publish a book, but not with just BMX photos; it would include many other sports. I love my background, but as far as photography is concerned I don’t have an abiding love of just one particular sport or genre; I enjoy the change of scenery. For example, two years ago I had my work published in an exhibition about street art that featured works of Banksy and Space Invader. I really enjoyed that.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan on exploring any other genres?
A: I would like to start working a lot more conceptually. Sports photography at the moment seems like a race for the craziest and most exotic locations, but they don’t always offer an opportunity for impressive performances. In the end, a conceptual sports photo can look cool, but if the action isn’t up to par it’s still worth nothing. I’m currently working on a few projects now that are hopefully a bit different than what you usually might see in sports photography. As far as other genres go, I’ve always been interested in them, and I’ve always been active in them as well, but at the moment I feel that sports is still an area where new exciting things can be done, with concepts and visuals people haven’t seen, so that feels like the biggest challenge right now.
Thank you for your time, Rutger!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Rutger via his website and Facebook.