Essentially Marc Babej is an artist who employs the literalism of the photographic image to take the viewer beyond the confines of the spatial-temporal world and to confront the parameters of their own perceptions. His endlessly fascinating and provocative images have been created in the course of a never-ending process of inspired and open-minded exploration.
When we asked him to describe himself and what he’s trying to achieve, he provided this succinct and thoughtful answer: “I’m a marketing strategist by profession and a journalist and a writer by training. I was always much more interested in writing opinion columns than in telling stories, like writing features or news stories. For me writing has always been a means to end in expressing my point of view on a given subject. That’s also what I do as a marketing strategist and that’s also of course what is important to me in photography. Hence the thought is not so much about representing something or even speaking through symbols the way we commonly think about them. What I’m really trying to do is to get people to think, to see things from my perspective. So I would really describe myself as a photo columnist rather than a photojournalist.”
In the second and final installment, Babej reveals the intriguing details around some of the compelling images in his African portfolio, his thoughts on being an “amateur”, and creating images that challenge the viewer, and his plans for future projects in Burma, Ireland, and Ukraine, including Chernobyl.
Q: There is this picture I’m trying to figure out called “Pom Pom Game Drive.” It looks like a bird standing on one foot, but the bird is very strange. It almost looks like a wing suspended on a stalk. It’s fascinating and disconcerting.
A: That bird is actually a very big bird and I think it’s presented abstractly as a nice, pleasing shape. You are viewing the bird the “wrong” way around. By traditional wildlife imagery standards, it wouldn’t be a picture that they would want. But my point was not to shoot wildlife imagery. I like the fact the bird’s foot looks like it might strike out at you. And you don’t quite know what to make of the wing. It doesn’t look like the bird is about to take off, and it doesn’t look like it has just landed, either. In fact, he remained in this pose for quite a while until he put his other foot down. You don’t really know what’s going on in the image and what he is up to. That to me is sort of a decisive and interesting moment.
Q: There are two things that I like about it –you have these craggy rocks, and then you have the feathers of the bird which is a completely different texture compared to everything else. It’s like the essence of “birdness” in the world. It goes to something more fundamental than a typical wildlife picture. Do you agree?
A: Exactly. It gets at a different kind of truth about birdness than a wildlife photographer would seek to portray. This insight into birdness is about three surfaces that progressively become smoother. The cragginess of the rocks, then the feathers of the bird, and ultimately smoothness of the sky above the. It’s exactly that.
Classical wildlife imagery isn’t my focus – a point that I became aware of the first time we traveled with our pilot and guide, Jan Friede. He is also a conservationist, and one of the best wildlife photographers in Southern Africa. By virtue of his profession, he gets to shoot wildlife all the time. Over the course of decades shooting – and armed with an academic background in wildlife behavior as well as a big dose of talent – Jan has built a tremendous body of work with wildlife at just the right moment, and in just the right light. You can’t achieve that if you don’t spend a considerable amount of time in the bush, because classical wildlife photography depends so much on the whims of a subject you can’t direct.
My images are not so much documentary as introspective and psychological. The decisive moment in my wildlife photography is not primarily about what the subject is doing. Rather, I aim to express in an image what a subject triggers in my mind. Moments that would be “off” in classical wildlife photography – like the bird – are the most evocative to me. Once I realized what motivates my wildlife images, I also discovered that I prefer shooting wildlife with the Leica. It forces me to take photos differently, to create images that are visually and conceptually different as well. Those are two separate things. The “it forced me to take photos differently” part speaks of the technical aspects. It’s hard, especially if you like shooting with the lens wide open. You can imagine that shooting with a 135mm at f/4 makes precise focusing on moving subjects extremely difficult. You’ll get a fair number of shots that won’t be as sharp as you would like them to be. But it also forces you to think differently about the images that you take. Not having all those options at your disposal forces you to look for different things. Had I been shooting with my Nikon with Jan’s 500 mm lens, I wouldn’t have clicked the shutter button at that moment because I wouldn’t have been looking for that. I would have waited until the bird had turned, or until the vehicle was in a “better” position; maybe even until he put his other foot down. The result would have been something completely different.
Q: There’s another picture you took showing vehicle tracks on a dirt road and then you have this imposing tree. It almost looks like an infrared image because the foliage in the foreground is so white and the tree is so white. I really love the background that’s dark on top and radiates into a lighter grey toward the bottom. Can you tell us something about it?
A: That image was taken with the 50mm Summilux as we were driving back to camp. It was shortly before noon – a time when most photographers usually wouldn’t be out there shooting. What I wanted to bring together here was the road that is man made and the rest of the scene that is not. Another “off” moment, but one that gives you two elements that play together very nicely. I like how the road leads to, and then past, that tree.
Q: How come everything looks so white or light?
A: I converted that image to infrared in post-production, but much of the brightness was already there. At that time of day, everything is very bright. Brightening it even more with infrared emphasized what was going through my head as I took this image.
Q: There’s one picture in your wildlife series that makes me smile—a picture of the Stanley’s game camp game drive number three “the elephant walk”. And the elephant is sitting down and munching on something and just the way his or her legs are crumpled under him or her… there is something amusing about the picture. You don’t usually see and elephant in that casual orientation.
A: And those are drops of water flying over her.
Q: Yeah, she is spraying herself.
A: That is Tembi, a female elephant. She had just been lying down here she is getting up. It was a truly unique experience and a unique game drive. The man who organizes and guides it is Douglas Groves, a world-renowned authority on elephants who has literally formed a herd out of stray elephants that have been, for one reason or another, kicked out of their herd or have had a difficult life. I think this one had been kept in a private zoo. It’s a unique experience because these elephants walk freely and you can also walk with them and they listen to his verbal commands. My dogs don’t listen closely as the elephants. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Q: This picture has a sort of a “at home with mama elephant” feeling or something like that. It’s not your usual picture of an elephant.
A: Yes. And that’s what I found interesting in that moment .You don’t have the elephant made too cute and at the same time you don’t have it made into this grand, imposing, proud animal. It just makes the elephant, for lack of a better word, more “human”. You get a sense of her personality there.
Q: That’s a good observation. There’s definitely an empathetic element to her.
A: Yes and this is an example of where I’m making the unfamiliar familiar. It’s the opposite of what I did in some of the aerial images. Making the elephant and most animals seem strange would be to me a “censored exotic” because that’s one of the unstated aims of typical wildlife photography, to show how exotic the animals are.
Q: Aside from posting them on this estimable Leica blog, what are you doing with these pictures?
A: Good question. I think there really are two series here—to me the wildlife and the landscape go together, and the aerials are a separate story, semantically and also in terms of the meaning of the images. I’ll show both series to at least one gallery and one magazine. But to me at the end of the day it’s also the question of whether I’m a professional photographer or not. Of course I had a show a couple of weeks with my photography (a series on blacked-out downtown New York City during Hurricane Sandy), and my photography will be published. But I’m not looking at it as an income stream, at least at this point in my life. The pure joy that I get from photography and the thoughts that go through my mind as I photograph is, to me, a state of mind. It’s a very important thing for me never to lose that perspective.
Q. Yes there is a wonderful word that has been systematically destroyed in the United States by pejorative association and that word is “amateur”. Essentially an amateur was a lover, and that’s the root meaning of the word—one that truly has a deep love for something. One of the greatest amateurs in the world was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a phenomenally gifted composer and musician. Fortunately for him he did not have to earn a living writing music. In the United States if you call someone an amateur, it’s like stepping on his toe or something.
A. That’s very true. In that old sense, in that French sense it is absolutely a very fitting term. Another photographer I like quite a bit is Jacques Henri Lartigue, another amateur. If truth be told Henri Cartier-Bresson was actually an amateur too. Indeed, in that whole generation of the 1930s, 40’s and 50’s photographers you would find people who would find people who didn’t depend on their images for income to be over-represented. A contemporary role model, and on a more personal level someone I greatly admire and am also friendly with, is Roger Ballen. Roger is, by any standard, one of the best-known art photographers in the world.
He has been photographing for 50 years – all of that time exclusively in black-an- white, and exclusively on film. His original profession that he practiced until recently is that of a geologist specializing in gold and diamond mining, which also means he has been living in South Africa since 1982. That is kind of a similar path. He didn’t initially pursue photography as an income stream, but now practices it as his primary profession.
Q: It is evident Marc that photography is your passion, so where do you go from here? Do you have any other projects in mind for the near future?
A: My long-term path is to further develop myself as an art photographer. That’s really what I’m interested in. My wife also enjoys photography, but isn’t quite as maniacal about it as I am. We were in Grenada over Thanksgiving. I did a lot of shooting there – and not the kind of images you’d expect from a Caribbean island. The highlight was a couple of Soviet transport planes that have been literally rotting away on the old airport ever since the invasion in 1983. This Christmas and New Years we’re going back to Burma. We went three years ago when it was more of a closed society. Now, we want to witness the opening in progress. It’s a wonderful country with wonderful people.
Q:It’s actually like going back in time—don’t you think so?
A: Indeed. That’s why we’re doing it now because the place is going to change radically in the next few years. When we were there three years ago I got some great pictures, and I think my skills have developed further. My point of view has also developed further since, and the country has evolved as well. Now there are a lot of well-known photojournalists streaming into Burma. I’m already thinking about what I can convey that’s goes beyond the mainstream.
Next spring, we will be going to Northern Ireland, to Belfast and Derry. My particular interest there is the possibility of spending some time in the Catholic community. That will be interesting. Next summer we are going to Ukraine and to Belarus. What interests us in Belarus in particular is that it ‘s the most Soviet of the post-soviet states, and not only in the Soviet architecture but also Soviet monuments have been preserved. Another thing that we are going to do on that trip which I’m very excited about is that we’re getting permission to go to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. With any luck we’ll be going with one of the leading Ukrainian environmental scientists who has been studying the development of wildlife since the disaster.
Q: Better bring your radiation meter with you!
A: Yes, we’re getting a dosimeter although supposedly you don’t get exposed to more than getting a chest x-ray done. We’re also planning on taking aerial images of the exclusion zone, from a helicopter. and around the exclusion zone. That’s something you haven’t seen very often—especially in black-and-white.
Q: That sounds like a great project for your two Leica Monochroms.
A: Absolutely. I think in different ways all of these projects do.
Q: Which of your photos were featured in your show?
A: The photos that are in the show were a totally different subject. They’re images that I took before and during Hurricane Sandy, and some of the most interesting were things you wouldn’t expect in terms of “before the storm” photos. One of the images I call “it begins” was shot at with the 50mm wide open at f/0.95. It’s a small branch in the evening. The lights are still on. It’s just a small branch on an eerily empty sidewalk. The branch is quite close so only some of the twigs that go off it are in focus. Some are less so. And that was the first branch that I saw that came down. There is nothing dramatic about it. There is nothing big or spectacular about the object. Usually when you take photos of storms it’s all about masses of water being flooded or large objects being tossed over. “Look how big this thing is” to show how powerful the storm is. To me this is a different way of thinking about it: the branch that broke the camel’s back, so to speak
Another image is actually of my own street— out of focus just before the storm. And there are a bunch of images that I’m not including in this show but that I personally find very interesting of the city, or at least the downtown sections of the city completely blacked out, where the only source of light is either the moon or headlights of cars. The rest is quite dark. That one to be honest with you, if I didn’t happen to have a Monochrom and a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux I don’t think I would have been able to shoot those images handheld under those conditions. I really love that lens and it can get you out of a lot of trouble.
Thank you for your time, Marc!
– Leica Internet Team
To see more of Marc’s work, visit his Facebook page.