Curt O. Schaller, cameraman, steadicam operator and photographer, works professionally on the development of the optimization of camera stabilizing systems and accessories, for camera accessories manufacturer Sachtler. He now photographs his catalog himself with a Leica M and his R lenses. While perfection in this case is central, when he works on his own projects with Leica M cameras – and especially the Monochrom – it is the abstraction of black and white that he especially appreciates.
Q: Film and photography are related, but, at the same time, very different. What does a cameraman and steadicam operator find so attractive about photography?
A: I grew up with pictures. My father had a large collection of LIFE magazines, and other photography and architecture magazines. When I was a child I often used to sits for hours amid piles of them, looking at the pictures. Because I was born in 1964, a lot of the magazines were defined by black and white photography. The images were and still are powerful – you can still sense how the reporters were always looking for the right moment.
As a steadicam operator I experience something similar. It’s about combining space, time and movement so perfectly that the camera movement is invisible and the only thing that remains for the viewer is living the moment.
Q: As a steadicam operator you are also actively involved in the development of camera stabilizing systems. What criteria do you apply to your choice of camera equipment?
A: The possibility to work intuitively, no limitations due to the technology, and no distractions due to unnecessary functions. These are the main criteria I apply when developing a camera stabilizing system and accessories. I think it’s the same as Leica’s approach. My first contact with Leica was with an R9, and I immediately fell in love with the clear design, the direct control, and the viewfinder image that captivated me with its clarity and brightness. As crazy as it sounds, I never put a roll of film in the R9 – I had immediately acquired a digital back, and worked with the camera for eight years.
With the M cameras, the rangefinder reminds me most of working with a film camera. With film cameras, depending on the mask, we see – unfortunately, we should really say: we saw – a lot more than what later appeared on the screen. This little plus in the viewfinder image that allows you to more or less predict when the actor will actually step into the picture, gives you so much control over the ultimate framing and the camera movement. With the M, I can also get completely involved in whatever situation I find myself in, and I don’t have to give the slightest amount of thought to the technology.
Q: And what do you particularly like about the M Monochrom?
A: The light. It’s thanks to the Monochrom that I’ve learned to see light even better. The way that light, in all its facets, becomes visible over the full greyscale range, is just great. Someone like me, coming from the world of television, knows the fear of something getting swallowed into the black. The cameras we used to make television programs, didn’t know too many levels between bright and dark, and small structures quickly disappeared into black. And naturally the black and white: 85 percent of all the pictures I ever took with the R9, M8, M8.2, M9 and M became monochrome in the end. I personally like the thought that the mind of the viewer participates actively when looking at a monochrome picture. That it allows his or her knowledge and fantasy to add the missing aspects, complementing and taking ownership of the picture. The purely clinical reproduction of a situation is somewhat boring. We’re all aware of the timelessness of black and white photography and, in my case, it simply reflects my childhood memories of browsing through LIFE magazines. Seen from that perspective, it doesn’t matter what decade we’re living in, the moments and emotions that interest and move us in a picture are always exactly the same.
Q: Which lens do you prefer to use when photographing with the M Monochrom?
A: Frequently the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4, as well as the Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 and, when the background is not too busy, the Summilux-M 21 mm f/1.4. With the Monochrom you have to develop a somewhat different picture composition. Something else has to be conducted into the picture for the viewer. If you’re too open, depending on the situation, the background can distract somewhat from the core of the picture. If you want to work documentary style, the 50 mm is a very fast and safe lens. With the 35 mm and definitely with the 21 mm, the pictures become somewhat different. With these lenses I prefer to find myself a fixed position; I let life move into the frame and I wait for the right moment.
Q: Do you also use your Elmarit 135 mm f/2.8 on the M Monochrom? What do you find particularly attractive about this lens?
A: Its age. The 135 mm has a magnifier spectacle that I think is great – after all, one is also getting older. Only joking, but the 135 mm is, I believe, from 1975 and is still sharp; but it’s a soft, gentle sharpness, with soft grey tones. The pictures look like they are printed on soft paper.
Q: Do you use the M Monochrom right from the beginning for certain assignments, or does it tend to be more random?
A: No, not random. I use the M Monochrom when I want to capture people in their particular situations or light in rooms. In addition to reportage, I’ve also already used the camera for product photography. A good photo is the best way to introduce a cameraman to a good product.
Thank you for your time, Curt!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Curt’s work on his website.