Born in 1972 and raised in Switzerland, David Carlier’s playground has mainly been the Alps and, since the beginning of his career, he’s been bouncing from mountain activities to water sports depending on the season. Nowadays, he works on international adventure projects all around the world, and he says, “My inspiration comes from the sublime beauty of nature, the people I meet while shooting and the unique lighting situations I encounter.”
Carlier studied economics at the University of Geneva, worked as a trader and as a web designer in his early years after graduation. Then his life quickly took a 180° turn to live a life outdoors in nature. “I attended the Mountain Guide School in Switzerland,” he recalls, “and practiced a lot of various outdoor sports such as paragliding, mountaineering, free-riding, sailing and many more. I see myself as an all-rounder. This gives me an edge in my photography work since I’m capable of following top world athletes in their playgrounds with my camera around my neck.”
Carlier had the honor of being included in the finalists’ short list of the Red Bull Illume photo contest in 2013 (top five finalist in the Energy category), and in 2014, two of his images were selected as finalists in the Best Press Photo Award in Germany. “But for me the best achievement is when I see a smile on the face of someone who looks at one of my images,” says Carlier. “This is the best reward a photographer can get I guess!”
Here is the story of how he created this portfolio of images which were all taken on the longest glacier in the Alps in Switzerland in extremely challenging conditions with a Leica S outfit.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I am an adventure and travel photographer. I love telling stories with my pictures, so the photo reportage format is what I like most. I also like imperfect, kind of unfinished photographs, and image sets that ask questions, are suggestive and create discussions. Working in the great outdoors a lot, often in high mountains or on big glaciers surrounded by snowy peaks, I love to capture the immensity of a place, especially under special lightning conditions that one can find in early morning or in the fall. I love every sparkle of light, every reflection, every sunbeam that I see. I also really like interacting with the people I take photographs of.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: My passion for taking pictures started when I was a teenager. I borrowed my dad’s Nikkormat and began to understand the mechanics of creating an image and how light works. Then, years later, as an enthusiast backpacker, I started to realize that I could tell stories with my images. It then became my mode of expression to show what I have seen, but even more, what I have felt throughout my travels. Working in the action sports industry in the year 2000, I took photography more seriously and discovered that I could earn a living as a photographer. I was lucky enough to be there in the mountains or on the rivers where the action takes place and I could document the action in a creative way that seemed to suit the athletes. That’s how I started to shoot professionally.
Q: Why do you feel it is important to be engaged, and in a sense, inhabiting the same social environment as your subjects rather than shooting them from an observational perspective? How do you think that affects the character of the images you capture?
A: I need to understand what and whom I am shooting, and even more importantly, I want to get inspired by the subject. To some extent, if I can, I like to experience or practice the sport I am shooting for myself in order to be able to anticipate the action when looking at it through the viewfinder. This is a key element actually, especially when working with a camera like the Leica S, which doesn’t have an extremely fast burst rate. It requires that I talk a lot with the athletes to be able to pick the right moment in their movement, so that it makes sense and looks good to their eyes. This is an important collaboration in achieving the end result actually. The athletes need to validate what I am doing! They’re the ones who know their sports best and I expect them to guide me through the shooting process. The process is really collaborative rather than me telling them what to do.
Also, photography for me means storytelling. So I like to shoot everything that happens and is present around the action. From the gear preparation, concentration, friendship, joy, disappointment, etc. To do that, I need to interact with the actors and spend time with them in their environment. This is totally part of the job for me and I like it a lot.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: No, I learned by doing, since I was a teenager. I still remember my first camera that was given to me by my grandpa when I was probably 10, but using my dad’s SLR was my real first venture into photography.
I shoot photos at every possible occasion I can and I self-produce a lot of stories that I then pitch to media outlets. I think this is the best way to learn. Once you understand the techniques and the gear, it’s important to get out there and shoot constantly. I also try to put myself outside of my comfort zone by shooting subjects that I don’t necessarily know. This is a great way to improve my craft and learn new ways to shoot that I can then use in my world. Recently I’ve been working more and more with strobes, which is something unusual and difficult to put in place when you shoot action sports. But it’s a great challenge and it opens amazing visual and creative possibilities.
I learned a lot by shooting action sports and events. I think this is the best school you have to learn how to work in very difficult environments — in the cold, the snow and sometimes in very remote places. Then the editing has to be done very fast to deliver the images to media outlets on the fly, before finally going back to your hotel room, with ski boots still on, late at night when the job is finally done. After this, any other assignment looks easy!
There are a lot of photographers who inspire me, especially in the new wave of great outdoor photographers. I like the progress and evolution that the technology is allowing today in this particular area of photography. But I also like some of the masters for their techniques and their unique styles that opened the way for what we see today, photographers like René Burri, Steve McCurry or Sebastião Salgado. But my favorite is Saul Leiter for his vision, his avant-gardism and of course his interpretation of color and light when black-and-white was still the norm.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I always loved the brand and what it represents in my eyes in terms of the history, the philosophy, the simplicity, and also the beauty of the object. Since I was a teenager, my dream as a photographer has always been to own a Leica. Last year, I had the chance to try the Leica S in Hong Kong and I instantly loved the philosophy behind this camera. It is incredibly sophisticated, but so simple to handle. It is a pure pleasure to look through the amazing viewfinder. For me, watching the world through that camera is like watching a movie at the cinema. Every beam of light is visible, every detail is there, and it’s so sharp thanks to the superb Leica lenses. After a shoot, when I’m back in the studio and I start looking at the images on a big screen, I’m always amazed by what I see. The quality of the files is just astonishing, especially in the low light areas where such a wealth of texture and details are present.
Q: Your portfolio consists of images taken in what appears to be a mountainous polar region where there is a lot of ice, snow, crevasses, etc. Were all these images shot in the same location, and were the people shown on rafts and on foot on a special mission? In short, share with us the story you were telling in capturing these images.
A: The images were taken on the longest glacier in the Alps, in Switzerland. The place where the action occurred is called Konkordiaplatz, where four glaciers meet to form the Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The two adventurers we see walking and on the rafts are Claude-Alain Gailland and Gilles Janin, two guides specialized in canyoning expeditions. They went up the glacier looking for this river that they knew existed, but didn’t know whether the water level would allow them to ride it or not.
This mission is part of a one-year documentary project portfolio and a movie called “13 Faces of Valais” that I am working on for this alpine region, compiling many different adventure sports imagery, explorers’ profiles and beautiful landscapes.
Q: The Leica S is known as a rugged, handheld medium-format digital camera that has excellent weather sealing. However, it also relies on battery power. Overall, how did the camera stand up to the rigors of extreme use in cold weather and did battery capacity ever become an issue in those frigid conditions?
A: I am working in tough environments, in the mountains or on water, all year round, and the camera has proven to be extremely rugged. On the glacier, at some point I was very close to the icy water and the camera got splashed and really wet, but it was not an issue at all! It is really incredible to think that I’m shooting with a medium-format camera that would normally be used in a studio, in this king of environment, without having to care too much about protecting the camera all the time. It gives me a lot of freedom to be creative.
Regarding the battery life, I know I can rely on it, as typically for this shoot I had two spare batteries with me that I carry in a deep pocket close to my body, and it was only at the very end of the shooting that I had to change the first battery after shooting about 2000 frames all day long in the cold.
Q: What other features and characteristics of the Leica S make it particularly suitable for outdoor adventure photography in challenging climates? Which Leica S-Series lenses did you use for this project? Do you believe, as many have asserted, that Leica lenses have a distinct and identifiable way that they render images and if so how would you describe it?
A: For me the fact that the camera is really rugged is the biggest advantage. Sometimes I choose to position myself in a very wet environment, in deep powder snow, very close to white water rapids, etc. and I know I can rely on the Leica S. It is amazing for a medium-format camera to be able to stand rough conditions so well.
The size is another key criterion for me. When I go to remote locations, I am very limited in space. The Leica S is the size of a classic professional DSLR, which is totally mind-blowing for a medium-format camera. Also it is very convenient to handle the camera as the grip design allows for holding it very firmly. The buttons are ideally positioned and make the handling very smooth.
Regarding my lens set on an adventure shoot, I typically bring three lenses with me: the Vario-Elmar-S 30-90 mm which is my workhorse for its versatility, the Elmarit-S 30 mm for beautiful landscape shots or to dive into the heart of the action and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120 mm to get closer to the action when needed. With this optical arsenal I know I can handle any situation! I also shoot in manual focus mode and I have done so for years, so now I believe I am even faster focusing manually than in auto mode. The combination of a great lens with a large bright viewfinder is essential to be able to capture sharp images.
Yes, I believe Leica lenses have a specific and very recognizable look. For my eye, it is especially visible in the low light areas where you see a big difference compared to typical DSLR cameras. The small details and texture are revealed in a very subtle way. When looking at the final image, I also see that a lot of light has come through the lens so it feels to me as though the white color is especially white and bright.
Q: You mentioned that you’ve been working more with strobes lately, “which is something unusual and difficult to put in place when you shoot action sports.” What are some of the advantages and challenges of using this technique?
A: When using flashes, a photographer can control the lighting very precisely. Even though I often shoot in very bright outdoor environments, I like to use additional artificial light to simply emphasize a particular piece of equipment, enable some creative back-lit shots, minimize the look of arched shadows or visually enhance the picture. I also use it at night, at the bivouac for example, to take a picture of the flashy colorful tents under the Milky Way, or in the forest to freeze and light a mountain biker wearing a shiny outfit as he rides full speed between the trees. It gives some very interesting and sometimes unpredictable results. I carry a very light and compact set of flashes with good batteries.
Q: These two images show a photographer in a blue jacket walking along a snowy landscape carrying what looks like a Leica S. Is that you or one of your buddies, and why did you include these images in your portfolio?
A: Yes that’s me and I included those shots to show me working with the Leica S in my giant outdoor studio.
Q: These two images show a spare, barren, highly textural landscape with virtually no indication of scale. They are almost abstract expressionist images, yet they have an emotional character that inspires awe, and perhaps even a little dread. Can you tell us something about why and how you captured these images and what they mean to you?
A: I always try to capture what is around the actual action. I want to explain the circumstances and context of the shoot, put the location into perspective, tell the full story. I also like to try to surprise viewers with different angles. Glaciers are perfect for that, as the graphic shapes of ice draw some really abstract lines; it’s almost monochrome. I am dreaming of doing a series of huge prints with those abstract expressionist images. They look like paintings. I find nature really beautiful when you look at it in a 2-D perspective.
Q: As soon as you add active people wearing brightly colored snow gear to your images, their character is completely transformed. These images are less contemplative and more viscerally joyful, a celebration of being there and experiencing the sublime beauty of nature. Do you agree, and do you think it is important to include both kinds of images to tell the whole story of this amazing place?
A: Yes I agree. Those shots are actually the core of why we were there that day, but for me they are only the excuse for creating a much broader set of images around the action.
Q: Perhaps the most spectacular picture in this entire portfolio is this masterfully composed vertical image of snow formations in the foreground framing snow-covered mountains in the distance, and a magnificent sunburst pattern in the upper right-hand corner. To say this image exalts what is already a breathtaking scene is an understatement — it’s a visual tour de force. Can you provide the technical details and tell us what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I really wanted to catch in a single frame the contrast between the elements — ice, running water, and sun. So I rappelled down and took the shot from the bottom of the gorge, trying to have a symmetrical construction of the image with the river in the middle. I didn’t want shallow depth of field and I did want clean sunbeams so I shot at f/22 and ISO 100 to achieve this result.
Q: Aside from being published on the Leica Blog and on your website how do you plan to get these images out there? Do you intend to publish a print or online book of your mountain images, or to exhibit them at galleries in Europe or elsewhere?
A: I work regularly with a lot of media outlets internationally and this is where my images can be seen most of the time, in print or online. One of the images of that glacial river trip has been selected as “Adventure Shot of the week” by Red Bull and was therefore published on their channels. An adventure magazine in Switzerland also published it as part of a full story. I also have a plan for an exhibition tour in Switzerland and we will show those pictures together with the movie “13 Faces of Valais” we are filming at the same time.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you have any plans for any new projects going forward that you can talk about?
A: One of my goals is to create more fine art content. I have a lot of ideas in mind to play with the amazing shapes and light that nature offers. I worked recently on a series of fine art images that were to be sold by the auction house Christie’s for a charity cause and I really enjoyed it.
I also plan to focus more on photojournalism, as I want to tell stories with my pictures. I need to work towards getting more assignments that give me the creative freedom to build a story from A to Z — not necessarily in the adventure sports genre, as I’d love to cover more travel and social subjects. Something around people, a civilization, a valley in the Himalayas… something along those lines where I could bring my experience of working with top athletes in tough outdoor environments to a more National Geographic type of reportage. I believe it is very important to get out of my comfort zone in order to improve my art. I am ready and looking for it!
Thank you for your time, David!
-Leica Internet Team
See more of David’s work here or visit his website.