Tom Brichta was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where he also attended Cleveland State University and majored in marketing. A lifelong photo enthusiast and an accomplished photographer whose fine art images have been exhibited at one-man shows in prestigious California galleries, he’s been involved in the photo industry since the early ’80s. He was a sales rep for Argraph, the well-known photographic accessory distributor, and later as National Sales Manager for Tokina Optical, a leading independent lens manufacturer.
For the last 22 years, Brichta has been with Leica Camera as the Northern California sales rep acclaimed for his wealth of knowledge on Leica products, and for the past three years he’s been an instructor for the North American Leica Akademie. Before joining the Leica Akademie he had run his own workshops in the Western United States and Europe. Here is the inspiring story of how he captures images of transcendent beauty with his Leica X Vario.
Q: You were last featured on the blog in February 2012, celebrating 20 years with Leica. Can you let us know what have you been up to since then? Are you still in the same position?
A: Since my last feature, I’ve become more involved with the Leica Akademie. I also plan and lead most of the Leica Destination Workshops. In my sales territory, (Northern California) I’ve also started “Mornings with Tom” that entails my bringing in Leica products to the stores and reviewing them with my dealers’ sales staffs and consumers. We also discuss photography, and critique each other’s prints.
Q: Was or is there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: There were two photographers that have had the greatest influence on my photography — Ansel Adams, and Galen Rowell. I credit Ansel with learning how to pre-visualize my images, and being able to see tones and shapes in black-and-white. Looking at Galen’s photography, taught me the importance of light and how to use color effectively.
Q: What are some of the qualities or characteristics of the Leica X Vario that especially stand out for you?
A: I know many people felt Leica misled them with the ad campaign before the release of the X Vario, but the more I use it the more I feel it’s like a mini M. It’s perfect for my landscape photography since it provides the most popular focal length range, (28-90mm equivalent), and has an APS-C sensor. Another important feature of the camera is that it’s part of the Leica family, and since most of our cameras operate the same way, I can pull the camera out of the box and use it. Another good thing is the consistency of all our lenses. All my images look the same no matter which Leica camera I use.
Q: What type of photography do you think the X Vario is most suited for?
A: The X Vario can be used for all types of photography. It makes a great travel camera because of its size and lens. It’s not a pocket camera, but because of the focal length and moderate speed of the lens, Leica was able to keep the size of the camera to a minimum. The camera’s size and focal length range is perfect for street photography when you don’t want to take your M. And for me, the APS-C size sensor is perfect for landscape photography.
Q: What is your opinion of the X Vario’s image quality?
A: Leica produced a great lens for what they wanted to accomplish with this camera, namely to offer a smallish APS-C-format camera with a medium wide to moderate telephoto lens. I’ve had no problem making outstanding 13 X 19-inch prints from the image files shot with this camera.
Q: You mentioned that you feel that the Leica X Vario is like a “mini M.” It certainly seems to be in terms of form factor, solidity, and high performance. But it doesn’t have an eye-level viewfinder unless you add the optional accessory EVF3. Have you tried this accessory, and what is your opinion about holding a camera at reading distance when using the LCD rather than up against your eye?
A: I use the EVF3 most of the time. I’m an old film shooter and I’m used to having a viewfinder. What I like about the EVF, is that I can see my exposure. When I change the aperture or shutter speed, the EVF will lighten or darken. The camera’s rear LCD screen’s resolution and brightness are quite good. It’s useable in sunlight, but I still feel I can compose the picture more effectively by using an eye level viewfinder.
Q: Most of the pictures in your portfolio were output in black-and-white. What is it about this medium that you find especially attractive for your kind of work, and how do you decide whether to output an image in color?
A: When I photograph in black-and-white, I’m trying to reach the viewer’s emotions, or to really have them think about the image. I’m not looking for a literal representation of the scene that I saw. Most of the images I gave you are from the ghost town of Bodie, located at 8500 ft. in the Eastern Sierra Mountains in California. The people that lived there had a very harsh life, and for me, black-and-white really conveys that feeling. When I make an image in color, I’m conveying a more upbeat emotion or a literal interpretation of the scene I’m photographing. I just returned from my annual fall road trip and the majority of these images were shot in color because I wanted the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the fall colors here in California.
Q: A number of your images evoke a nostalgic feeling for the American Old West, and include such elements as weathered or dilapidated structures, old farm equipment, a 1940s pickup truck, etc. Where did you shoot these images, what inspired you to create them, and what do you think they communicate to the viewer?
A: As I mentioned, most of the photos I sent you are from the ghost town of Bodie, CA. During its boom days, Bodie was home to 10,000 people and the majority of the residents were miners, and some families supporting the miners with their shops and services. It’s said there were one to three shootings a day in town. All goods had to be brought in by horse, or in later years by train. Winters in the Sierra can be deadly and this made life even more difficult. Once the gold was gone the remaining people just picked up and left, leaving most of their possessions behind. The town is now a state park and is being preserved in what’s aptly called arrested decay. There are about thirty buildings still standing in town, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given permission to enter some of the buildings to photograph them and their contents.
Q: Lighting is obviously a key element in your photography, helping to set an emotional tone to many of your images. Can you say something about the way you use light to articulate your creative vision?
A: Once I’ve decided to photograph a scene, I look carefully at how it is lit. I envision my compositions as a stage, and how I want to light it to tell the story. The most important lighting element for me is the illumination on the main subject, and then I consider how it falls on the ‘supporting cast.’ I’ll try to light the subject with side lighting, since this gives a more three-dimensional look to the photograph, and if there is any texture, it will show it too. A more intense light will separate the main subject from the rest, so I look for my ‘supporting cast’ to be in lower light.
Q: There are a number of images in your portfolio that were evidently shot along the Pacific Coast in California. Is this correct, and what is it about this location that you find visually compelling and inspiring?
A: I love where the land and water meet — the point where the strong earth and the crashing water come together. Who’s going to win the battle? Most of these images were from the Big Sur area and the beauty that they create at that point is just magical. Because the water is cold along the California coast we get a lot of fog, and the light is exquisite. We get some of the most beautiful sunsets along the coast because of the clouds created by the fog. The low afternoon light along the coast also gives nice warm light to illuminate the landforms.
Q: This image of a spectacular sunset scene of boats nestled in a harbor with hills in the background is certainly a stopper. Where did you take this picture and were all those intense colors in the original image or did you pump them up in post-production? By the way, since Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell are both noted for being traditionalists, what part does post-production play in your work and do you think that materially altering an image (that is, not just enhancing it moderately) is a valid form of artistic expression?
A: This image was taken just minutes from my house. I’m lucky to live in the Bay Area. There’s a marina close by that makes for a beautiful setting for sunset photos. We don’t get much rain in the Bay Area in the summer and this passing shower came through at the perfect time for sunset. We all dislike air pollution, but it does create beautiful colors at sunset. The color is pretty much what I saw that night. I think there might be a few points of saturation I added, but the light and color were so intense, I did not have to add much. I’m pretty much a traditionalist myself and I keep post-processing to a minimum in my work. We are all artists when it comes to our own work. People have their own vision of what they want their work to look like — it’s all basically subjective.
Q: This close-up of an old wagon wheel is kind of a timeless classic that reminds me of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs of the 1930s. Do you agree and what focal length did you use to achieve this unusual perspective?
A: I used the 28 mm setting on the X Vario for this image. There was a nice beam of light hitting the wagon, and I wanted to exaggerate the wheel and texture of the wagon. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were right there next to the wagon and able to touch and feel the old wood.
Q: There is one image where the subject is identifiable, but it is nevertheless enigmatic with an odd flat rock in the foreground on an expanse of beach and a misty soft-focus shoreline in the background. It seems to transcend time and point toward eternity. Am I over the top here, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Thank you! Your statement confirms that I achieved my goal in this photo. I was teaching a Leica Akademie in Point Reyes National Seashore when I made this photo. I was demonstrating to the group how to look at different perspectives when photographing an object, and how it would change the story you are telling. Think of the very different story it would have told if I shot it from my normal standing position!
Q: If there is any single image in your portfolio that reminds me of Ansel Adams’ work it is this image of driftwood on the beach with lovely clouds in the background sky. The composition is masterful, and the textures on the wood and sand as well as the lighting really make this a memorable image. Can you tell us how and where you took this picture and how you achieved such detail, and a harmonious relationship of all the elements in the picture?
A: This is also shot at Point Reyes. My goal in this photo was to try and hold the textures in the sky, sand and tree stump. This was taken at sunset, and the sun had just dropped out of the clouds on the horizon, my favorite light. Instead of making the usual sunset photo, I thought I would also get down low, and use the stump in the foreground to add interest. This was taken at f/16 for maximum depth of field. The way I metered this shot was to turn around and meter off the green grass behind me. It had the same type of light on it, and grass reflects about 18% grey, which our camera’s meter is looking for. In post-processing, I had to bring out the shadow areas a bit.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan on exploring any other photographic genres such as portraiture, street photography, or architectural photography with the X Vario or other Leica models?
A: My goal for the next few years is to sell more of my photos. I have a following of people that buy my work now, and I would like to expand on that. I also like teaching one-on-one workshops. It’s easier to tune into a person’s needs that way, and tailor the day or day’s instruction to their specific needs. I also like making environmental portraits and I might start doing more of those with the X Vario.
Thank you for your time, Tom!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Tom’s work on his website and Flickr.