Antonio Sánchez-Barriga was born in 1948 in Jerez de los Caballeros, a small town in Extremadura in Spain. His passion for photography began when he received his first camera as a present from his father and took a photography course by mail when he was 10 years old. He is presently the Curator of the Toledo Cathedral and has recently retired from his job with the Spanish Ministry of Culture. He has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions and his photographs can be found in various museums and private collections. In the interview below, Antonio shares his feelings on capturing everyday life and exploring Kingston, Jamaica with the Leica M Monochrom.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: My photography is strongly influenced by classical paintings. I can’t conceive a photograph without symmetry, without the use of perspective, and without balanced tones of shadows. Lately, I have been trying to make my photographs with very open diaphragms, with backgrounds slightly out of focus, so that the subject achieves more depth of character. I believe classical paintings are at the base of modern photography. In the making of a great photograph, all the elements present in Treatise on Drawing are found: perspective, equilibrium in the use of tones, and precise use of the vanishing point in linear perspective. I am convinced that without these elements one cannot produce a good photograph. I am not at all in favour of photographic touch-ups as is widely done today. Sometimes reaching theatrically extravagant levels of bad taste.
My photography expresses my desire to achieve the impossible. The never ending battle between light and shadows. Characters that resemble virtual sculptures. A fleeting magical phantasmagoric world that is only possible with chiaroscuro, capturing an instant that is real the moment that it is seized but not in the moment that it was observed.
I am looking for harmony and balance in the framing, to fixate the surrounding atmosphere, the lights that reflect and define the objects, the people, the landscape or the architecture: the search for movement in time.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: Nowadays, I am using two Leica cameras. I’ve had the M6 for many years now, then I bought a Leica M9 with a 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH. that I no longer own. I debated between the Leica M or the M Monochrom. In the end, I bought the Monochrom and that is the one that I use constantly today. I am a photographer that conceptualizes his photographs in black-and-white, and am therefore very pleased with my decision. The Leica M Monochrom is a monumental camera and I have only praise for it.
Q: What do you find so compelling about the black-and-white medium that you now shoot black-and-white almost exclusively? Please give us your views on some of the technical and aesthetic advantages of black-and-white that make it especially suitable for expressing your creative vision.
A: I have been taking photographs on film and developing on paper in black-and-white for many years. You must know that I had many doubts before purchasing a Monochrom. I knew that the new M was about to be launched, but my obsession with black-and-white led me towards the acquisition of a Monochrom. Black-and-white photography stimulates more consistently the imagination of the viewer.
We see life in colour and this is in all simplicity something that is common knowledge, while black-and-white is more mysterious and forces us to use our imagination more deeply in order to understand the meaning of a picture. It is a photograph naked from colour. Unknowingly acting as a reminder of how many master painters made their sketches in black-and-white expressing themselves in such a way that monochromatism became the foundation and only then they proceeded to paint in colour on the canvas. I am firmly convinced that my photography communicates much better in black-and-white, for the drama originating from the use of light and shadows, and also by the way the characters move in front of the camera.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I believe the right path is to capture everyday normal life situations, my personal vision of the world that surrounds me. I went through several phases from the magical realism of the ’70s, up to dark tenebrism to finally reach an idea of happiness and sorrow that is common place in ordinary life. I don’t think I can accurately define it as street photography, as many of my pictures are conceived in my head and later materialize on the street.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression?
A: As expressed before, I am fascinated by the richness found in everyday informal situations all around us, no matter where that is found, in a big metropolis or inside a home. I very much enjoy photographing reality. I wonder if it is right to call it, “aiming to find the magic in unexceptional everyday life”. Even though that is a very wide concept, I believe in its rightness.
Q: Where did you shoot the pictures in this portfolio, and was your primary object to create a cohesive visual document of a cultural environment or to capture a series of individual standalone images? Did you use your Leica Monochrom to capture all these images and which lens or lenses did you use?
A: These photographs were taken in Kingston, Jamaica, during my last journey there in 2013. Many were taken in downtown Kingston, a very special area, quite depressed by poverty, but where people express themselves with great dignity. Taking pictures is rather hard as they do not wish to be photographed, but I had the chance to be with them in Community Works so they somewhat know me.
I have always been interested in normal everyday life situations in countries like Jamaica and Egypt, the latter a place where I have been working on projects for many years. What interests me the most is their way of living, the strolls through their streets, the food markets, their way of walking, dressing, seeing their children go to school. I am not interested in drugs, alcoholism, gangsters, murders, those are scenes that one can see, and have seen daily, but that also exist in developed countries with the same violence and that we are all familiar with through the daily news. These people wake up daily with their hands in their pockets and they need stimulus for their development and with their pride and sense of self-respect they very often manage to have a decent life. These photos represent a very coherent story of the people of Kingston that is difficult to express with words. I used the Leica M Monochrom with a 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens.
Q: This image of a guy in a patterned shirt wearing sunglasses gazing upward while sitting at a restaurant table has an expression that seems joyful but somewhat detached as though he is contemplating something beyond day-to-day realities. It is a striking image that is ordinary and transcendent at the same time. Do you agree, and where was it taken and what does it mean to you?
A: It was inside a restaurant in Kingston and the person looking up was at the table next to me. Everything caught my eye: the lights, the shadows, and the character. I very quickly realized that the person was necessary for the photo and was particularly interested by the light coming from a lamp, which was very important. The camera did the rest.
Q: This image certainly exemplifies your technique of shooting at wide apertures to achieve graphic impact. In this case, only the central figure is in sharp focus, and his matter-of-fact expression seems watchful, and maybe a bit wary because of his wrinkled forehead. His out-of-focus companions in the foreground are directly facing the camera, and their expressions are calmer and happier. This image comes off as a fascinating triptych. What was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release and what do you think this image communicates to the viewer?
A: I think the viewer understands the meaning. The main character’s head exactly silhouettes the shapes of the two out of focus characters. Objectively, this is a very difficult picture to accomplish and many may be in disbelief. Most photographers will not consider putting out of focus the foreground. Nothing is really normal when one is alone in a place like downtown Kingston. You just can’t believe that you can do this kind of picture, I think that I just switched to an ecstatic creativity mode and let my heart just beat a little bit faster.
Q: There is a luminous eternity in the moment character to the above image. It has the feeling of a grab shot and looks like it may have been taken at a slow shutter speed, but it is also very precisely composed, which creates a charming tension. Why and where did you take this picture and why did you include it in this portfolio?
A: This photograph was also taken in downtown Kingston. It was in the evening, and I was walking down the street. It was very dark and all of a sudden I saw a stream of water and the reflecting light on the incoming traffic. It had been a gruesome day, but the picture was there for the taking. How can I express it: a sense of mystery. The background character and light on the ground, I quickly saw on the visor that the shutter speed was not ideal to take the picture, but it was worth a try, even if there was danger of it being moved. The diagonal lines and the shapes coming from the cars were beautiful. When I saw it on the screen it looked like a good photograph that could accompany the rest.
Q: On the surface, this is a simple picture showing a woman walking down the street carrying a plastic bag over her right shoulder, but there is such elegance and grace in her movement, posture, and body language that she embodies the dance of everyday live. Am I on target, and what do you think this says about the culture and places you have documented in this portfolio?
A: You are right on target. It is almost a dance step. Jamaica is all about music. One hears it everywhere. Music has an effect on the way people walk and the way they pronounce words. Even though walking on the streets can be dangerous, one must admit that it is worthwhile to be among them. She was walking towards me and I heard her steps, I didn’t want to take a picture as there was back light so I waited for her to pass by me and I looked back and liked what I saw.
Q: One image shows a handsome young military man apparently standing casually at attention (if that is not a contradiction in terms) and his expression and posture convey an intensity and seriousness that is quite different from the other people shown in this portfolio. The extreme sharpness of the central figure is emphasized from the soft background and the overall feeling here is one of quietly assertive presence. What motivated you to shoot this impressive portrait and can you share some of the technical details such as lens, aperture, ISO, etc.?
A: Frankly, the character looked stunning from the beginning in many ways. He had just received a medal for his achievements and was very proud and disciplined. I opened my aperture to 2 and shot in automatic at 160 ISO, with a ND filter. The heat was unbearable and he stood at attention and with a very serious gaze looked directly at me, as if I were the official photographer of the event. I found that charming and I thanked him, asking for his name and wrote it down on a notepad that I always carry with me. My father was in the military and so are my two brothers. In that moment, I remembered my deceased father, when during my childhood he arrived home and gave us all his salute.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years, and do you plan to explore any other genres going forward?
A: I have received assignments for other genres of photography but have always preferred, as stated before, to concentrate on normal everyday life situations wherever those may be in the streets, in the workplace, or in homes. These are the kind of photographs that I like. Asking me what I will be doing in three to five years is like being able to see into the future and that is very difficult.
Thank you for your time, Antonio!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Antonio’s work on Flickr.