Robert Turi creates compelling photographs using an unlikely combination of an astute awareness of the emotional effects of lighting and style, and the technique of shooting spontaneously based on the images and feeling in his mind. He specializes in shooting fashion, swimwear, portraits, landscapes and automobiles, and in the course of his creative quest he has become an accidental pro and a true Leica devotee. When we asked him for a short bio, he produced this disarming and charming response. “I spent most of my life in sales. I had played around with photography, but only briefly and with a point and shoot camera. It wasn’t until that fateful day in June a little over 4 years ago when a friend lent me his Nikon D70 for a shoot that something snapped. I was hooked! I had found my true calling in life. If you work with me you will find I bring that love for what I do to every shoot. I tend to prefer working outdoors and I love spontaneity.” Turi recently switched to a Leica X1 for much of his work, will soon own a Leica M8 as well, and plans to acquire an M9 before too long. Here, in part two of our interview, he tells us more about his creative process, his methods and his mission.
Q: In your picture portfolio are two intriguing full-length portraits of active women taken outdoors with radically tilted horizons. How did you come to take these pictures, and can you say something about the feeling of spontaneity they seem to convey?
A: Both of these images are special to me. They were among my first experiments with the X1 once I got it dialed in. You mentioned their spontaneity and in this case it is a very descriptive and fitting word. I had a model call me at the last minute wanting to play around and take a few shots and I decided to test out my new X1 while she was there. When I shoot an image I have something in my head before I press the shutter release–a visual representation of an emotion so to speak. When I am shooting with a Leica I feel as if that vision has more depth and possibility. It’s sort of like a dream… everything is better in a dream right? Water is wetter, the sky is bluer, etc… My point is that this is where the spontaneous feeling came from in these shots. We picked a spot, she changed outfits, and I felt something and tried to capture the moment. Both of these images are built to share that memory and emotion with you, the viewer.
Q: Your compelling portraits of an impressively muscular body builder with black cape and jacket all seem to have tilted backgrounds also, although the main subject is sometimes vertical or nearly so. Is this tension one of the signature elements of your style, and why do you think it is so effective in bringing the viewer into the picture?
A: I think your observations are right on. The shots of bodybuilder Ryan Watson do have a tension and are especially engaging. Unfortunately, I can’t really discuss the theory of the style they embody because as is the case with most of my work, they are spontaneous. I didn’t plan to shoot those images like that. They express what I felt and to some degree saw it in my head … the X1 did the rest. I would agree that what you describe as tension in my images is a part of my style. When I look at a subject and location or scene I try to re-imagine what I am seeing in another way … almost trying to imagine that if this was a movie how would they present this character. The angle of the composition is simply a part of that emerging concept.
Q: You mentioned that the 24mm f/2.8 Leica lens in the X1 is not only extremely sharp, but also has “more depth … both in color and in contrast.” Can you say something more about the quality and character of the images it produces compared to the images captured by other cameras and lenses?
A: When I talk about lens sharpness, color, and contrast please remember I have no formal photography training or education so my descriptions will be straight from the street — I can’t show you charts or graphs. What I can say is that after shooting with the X1 I have since tested my Nikon against several other Nikons, seeking to upgrade because of this difference. I actually thought there was something wrong with my D300 so I tested it against another D300 and a D7000 only to find that all three Nikons were just about as sharp as one another. Shots taken with these cameras at f/2.8, regardless of the focal length of the lens, require sharpening in Photoshop — that is, increasing the contrast as detail sharpening. With images shot with the Leica X1 there is no need for this, regardless of the aperture I use. In fact, if I tried to use my normal workflow on the X1 shots they would be over-sharpened. You have no idea what it means to me personally to know that I am getting sharp dramatic images in camera! I love it!
Q: You identify yourself as a portrait photographer who specializes in swimwear, glamour, beauty, and fashion, yet you seem to choose different styles spontaneously to express the mood of each picture. Do think you are developing an identifiable style or do you think that having no particular style is your style.
A: This is something I have asked myself on several occasions. The best answer I can give is this: When you describe styles I think of the light and mood of an image. I shoot so many styles of photography from bikini to high fashion, from strobe shots to natural light, from high key to low key. I am all over the place and I am very happy there. But I have been told there is some unifying characteristics about my images. People have mentioned that they can tell when I have shot something because there is something identifiable in the presentation. I have my own twist I add to each image. There is a subtle nuance that is mine. If anything I suppose it my perspective or rather the perspective I show the viewer.
Q: Can you tell us something about the similarities and differences you’ve found in shooting with the Leica M9 and the Leica X1?
A: The M9 vs. the X1? Well, it has been a few months since I held an M9. However, as much as they are completely different animals they are also very similar. Confused? Welcome to my world. Compared to holding a pro or pro-sumer DSLR the two Leicas are very similar. It is the difference between a father putting on his suit for work and a 6-year- old running around the house naked. Complete freedom! It just feels like there is less between you and your subject and that you are somehow more connected with a Leica.
Between the X1 and the M9 themselves, again they are very similar, but very different. I would suggest that a 24mm f/2.8 shot from the X1 and a 35mm f/2.8 shot from the M9 would both look very similar because the coverage angle would be the same. The X1 is a true Leica. However, the extra pixels and full frame of the M9 do give its images even more life and character overall. They are also very different cameras to work with. I prefer a viewfinder so for me M9 is much simpler to shoot with. Yes the X1 has an accessory viewfinder too, but it doesn’t have a rangefinder to show focal point so for my use it’s worthless. Additionally changing focus is tedious on the X1 because the distance setting and focusing mode share the same button. I may change the focusing distance for each shot, but I rarely change the focusing method, so for me these button functions should be reversed. It slows me down, whereas the M9 with its manual focus works as quickly as I do.
Q: Although you are self-taught you noted that you would see a style you liked and try to emulate it until you could do it. Can you tell us some of the styles or types of work you found worthy of mastering.
A: My inspiration is a little more complicated than any certain style unfortunately. I am not normally inspired by any one style as much as by individual images. Every day we are bombarded by images, right? I filter through those and retain a mental picture of the ones I like. I look at the different ways in which life and the media present things to us to alter or influence our perspective on them. As an example, if you’ve ever seen some of the latest vodka ads, there’s one company that has a cool series of images that feels a little Frank Sinatra. The basic premise is that these are upscale strong personality men and when they drink they choose the featured brand. It’s all done in black and white and just has a cool vintage feel. This image or style would come to mind when I was shooting something in which I wanted to convey an upscale, classy feel, but with some drama to it.
Q: You have evidently studied Hollywood movies intensively, particularly the lighting, and tried to emulate it. What are some movies and scenes that have influenced your work, or that you feel are worthy of emulation?
A: I wouldn’t say I have studied movies as much as I have just taken notice of how they use light, color, contrast, frame and perspective to help set a mood. With that said, any movie you like is a great place to start when looking for inspiration. There are so many I could point out, but the fun of it is finding what you like. However, a good place to start would be something like the new Bond movies. They use all kinds of the techniques I mentioned to help us feel a certain way about a character or scene. Changing color saturation, color balance, using black and white, etc. But these elements are all there in every movie. Look at the movie “Office” — the scene where the three guys break the fax machine is prime example. It is just three guys with a bat hitting a fax machine in a field. But watch that scene and look at all of the elements that were used to make us feel something by watching it.
Q: How do you see your work evolving in the immediate future, and do you have any projects or different types of subjects you are interested in exploring?
A: The fun part of my job is that I never know what’s coming next, and as of today that’s even more exciting than it’s ever been. As I respond to this question I am a few days away from owning a Leica M8 and by the time anyone reads this I will have already begun working with it. For me, this is a game changer. The X1 brought fun, inspiration and set the creative side of me free. The M8 will open up possibilities that never before existed. I realize that saying this in a Leica interview all sounds like posturing, but it is pure passion. The same shot with the same settings at 24mm and say f/2.8 will look similar on my Nikon D300, my Leica X1 and soon my Leica M8. But from experience I can tell you that the Leica images will be sharper, have a more interesting contrast and render color in a more appealing way to my eye. The best analogy I can give is that if I drove to work this morning in my Honda convertible that same drive would feel different if I was in a Porsche Boxster. Yes the performance specs on paper might be quite similar, but what’s on paper can’t show you the difference in feel. The Leica is my Porsche, but the big change for me that comes with the M8 is its ability to change lenses. There is nothing I have seen to compare with a Leica shot taken at f/1.0. To be able to do all that Leica already does for me, plus add the availability to use that shallow a depth of field is a game changer. So stay tuned…
Q: Evidently you already had some inspiring but limited experience in shooting with the M9, and were very impressed with the M9 pictures your friend Sig shot. Do you plan to acquire an M9 when you can afford to do so, and how do you think it might influence your work?
A: To tell you the truth I was extremely impressed with the shots I took with Sig’s camera when I pried it from his hands and played with it, though not much prying was required since Sig is a good friend and loves when we get together and play with cameras. Yes there is an M9 in my future and it’s just a matter of time. In the meantime, the M8 is currently within my budget and that’s where I will start while I build my lens collection. Within a year I will own an M9. However, I can tell you that I will still keep the X1. It is so compact and easy to use yet yields Leica quality images. Over the years I’ve been in many random everyday situations when I wanted to take a shot but didn’t have my big camera rig with me, or it a wasn’t convenient time to pull it all out. Having the X1 with me means I not only can get that spontaneous shot, but I can also capture it in professional quality.
-Leica Internet Team