An accomplished professional photographer for more than four decades, Arthur Meyerson is also a much sought after lecturer and educator at leading photographic workshops. Author of “The Color of Light” based on his personal photographs, he continues to lead inspirational photographic tours and give back to the field he loves by mentoring up-and-coming photographers. This is the story of how he created his latest portfolio of images that capture the essence of life in Lisbon and other cities in Portugal, the country that has stolen his heart.
Q: We last interviewed you two years ago in August 2012. Can you tell us what you have been up to since then?
A: Since then, my book, “The Color of Light,” was published and well received; in fact, it has almost sold out. The book is a collection of some of my favorite personal photographs from over the past 40 years and illustrates the three themes I’m most interested in photographically: light, color and the moment. Also, I have continued shooting for myself on several personal projects and plan to use that work as the basis for my next book that I hope to publish in 2015-2016. As always, I’ve been very busy continuing to teach my photography workshops, leading photo tours and mentoring. It’s been a great time for me living the photographic life!
Q: Can you provide some background information on the portfolio you submitted?
A: Portugal, for me, is a country that I have had a love affair with from the first time I traveled there. In 1974, upon graduating from college, I did a European backpacking trip that included Portugal, but I didn’t return until 2000 when one of my former students invited me back to have a major retrospective exhibition of my work and to teach a photo workshop. The people, the food, the wine, the history – they all seduced me again! In 2005, I was invited back to conduct a week-long photo tour that took me even deeper into the culture. And in 2010 I was asked to return once more and conduct a couple of speaking engagements to university art students and museums while still allowing time for me to further explore parts of the country I had not visited before.
However, this most recent trip was a joint effort between myself and my friend and fellow photographer, Keron Psillas (who now lives there), to attempt another photo tour that, in two weeks, would give participants a total Portuguese experience. The trip itinerary was so successful that the first offering sold out in 24 hours, a year in advance! We added a second one that also sold out quickly. The reviews from our fellow travelers have been stellar so another trip offering will be announced soon.
Q: What camera equipment did you use to shoot this portfolio?
A: All of the work presented here was shot with the Leica M and the 35 mm f/2 Summicron lens, my favorite Leica camera/lens combination.
Q: What made this equipment suitable for this particular project?
A: Until recently I had the M9 and the 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux lens, which are a great duo! But when the M became available, the camera with its improvements – including the very quiet shutter and extended ability to shoot in lower light at higher ISOs – made it the natural next step for me. I also decided that as much as I loved the 35 mm Summilux, I was willing to sacrifice one f/stop with the 35 mm Summicron in order to work with a lens that is smaller, lighter, a bit less noticeable and is tack sharp, all of which allows me to work closer to my subjects.
Q: After using the M for a while have you found any other advantages that make you happy you acquired it?
A: Several things, I like the larger LCD, longer battery life and the CMOS sensor. One item I didn’t expect to use and have occasionally found useful was the Live View. Finally, I love being able to see my frame lines in red (it’s easier when working in extreme bright light or dark situations). My only complaint is that while the M is extremely well built and sealed better against weather, it’s heavier than I’d prefer.
Q: One of the reasons you mentioned for switching lenses is that it would allow you to work closer to your subjects. How important is it for you to be able to shoot discreetly, and how do you think getting closer to the subject affects the character of your images?
A: It’s very important! It’s one of the major things that allow street photographers to make the images that they make. Nowadays, it’s difficult enough to photograph people in candid situations, and using long telephoto lenses is certainly an option I have used as well. But, there is a certain look and feel that happens when working closer to the subject with a wider focal length. Not only one of more intimacy, but also the creation of layers and adding context to the image that is not otherwise achieved.
Q: The images in your Portugal portfolio were evidently shot in Lisbon, and taken as a whole, they give a good sense for what it must be like to be an astute observer of life walking around the city capturing little vignettes of what is fascinating and distinctive. Is that correct, and was that your mission or did you have something else in mind?
A: While the majority of the images included in this portfolio were shot in Lisbon, other cities included Porto, Obidos, Tomar, and Fatima. As for my mission, I really did not have one. My photo mantra has always been to avoid preconceptions. That way I’m less likely to be disappointed by what I don’t find and more likely not to miss what’s actually there. I am also a firm believer in that quote, “Sometimes we don’t take a photograph but, rather, we are taken by a photograph.”
Q: If you were teaching a workshop on photographing Portugal, Lisbon, or some other location, what is some of the advice you’d give your students on a technical, aesthetic, and existential level?
A: Basically, I’d give them the same advice I give all my students when working on location:
a. Avoid preconceptions and photo clichés.
b. Minimize your equipment. The less you carry, the more you’ll see and shoot.
c. Listen to your intuition.
d. Look for unusual perspectives.
e. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to say?”
Q: The image of a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench holding a red plaid umbrella with what may be her worldly possessions held in several bags and cases, positioned next to two municipal garbage cans is, amusing, enigmatic, and disturbing at the same time. Who is she? And what is she doing hanging around in front of that surreal green background (which looks like a construction cloth) in the middle of a cobblestone plaza? The fact that there is a profusion of detail combined with a sense of mystery is, of course, what makes this image so provocative and engaging. What does this image mean to you and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I had seen this woman a few days before on this same street and I made a photograph. She was pretty much in the same area but feeding a flock of pigeons. Photographically it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before, so I wasn’t particularly content with it. Then when I returned to this area a day or two later, there she was again only this time there was the interesting juxtaposition of the woman to the construction netting and the figures working within it. That, for me, took this picture to another level of interest. Now it wasn’t just about the woman, but also her relationship to the background and the background’s relationship to her.
Q: This image is essentially a kind of mandala, a bilaterally symmetrical pattern, evidently shot in a restaurant looking out onto an open street. The subtle colors and the backlight create a very striking effect. What’s actually going on here, and where was the window or mirror positioned so you were able to envision and capture this effect?
A: This photo was taken in Tomar. I was walking down the street and saw the view through this open shopping area next to this restaurant. The interest for me began with the mirror reflection created by a window of an adjacent store. I began to make some photographs when all of a sudden this waitress came walking (almost running) into the frame providing a human element that gave the photograph a sense of scale as well as interest. This was a result of patience, persistence and a bit of luck all coming together at the right moment.
Q: Here is a classic picture of a street vendor, and what makes it so dynamic is her bright red hair, strikingly, if unconventionally, beautiful features, intense expression, and the fact that her arm goes completely across the frame as she hands a bag of the food she’s selling to an unseen customer. The figures in the background define the space and give the image a strong sense of depth. Do you agree with these observations, and what do you think makes this picture so powerful?
A: I love that you saw all of that! Yes, that is exactly the reaction that a photographer wants when presenting his work. Everything in the photograph — foreground, middle ground and background — need to connect.
Q: What I find amusing about this image is that the woman, enmeshed in an impressive array of religious objects she is evidently selling, is looking downward and holding her fingers up to her mouth as though she’s concentrating on a book or something else unseen held out of sight below the viewer’s line of vision. Blissfully unaware of the visual profusion surrounding her, she is simply passing time waiting for the next customer. Am I reading this correctly, and what do you think this image conveys to the viewer?
A: You are absolutely reading this correctly. The picture was taken in Fatima, one of the most important Catholic shrines in the world visited by pilgrims the world over for healing. These shops are situated nearby and sell all manner of things.
The gesture that she is maintaining within this potpourri of religious objects caught my eye. It begs the question, “Is she reading? Is she thinking? Is she praying? Is she sleeping?” We don’t know and yet we continue to wonder. For me it falls into that category of photographs that don’t always give us an answer, but sometimes provoke a question.
Q: There is more than a touch of irony in this image. Evidently it was shot in a neoclassical municipal building of some kind and it shows a woman’s arms and hands holding up a digital camera (and a map in her left hand) as she photographs a medieval-themed mural adorning the hall above two majestic arched entrance ways. She is, of course, the archetype of the tourist, and yet there is something empathetic rather than mocking or judgmental about this picture. Do you concur, and why did you include this image in your portfolio?
A: Absolutely! The photo was taken in the Porto Railway Station. So often today we see the average tourist “assuming the position,” camera extended at arms length to make a photograph. The idea that I might be able to anonymously photograph that person striking that all-too-familiar pose and at the same time include the subject of her interest was what made that particular moment for me.
Q: In addition to appearing on the Leica Blog, do you plan to exhibit these and other images you shot in Portugal in any galleries in Europe or the US or perhaps publish a print or online book to follow up on your other successfully published volumes?
A: At this time I have no immediate plans to exhibit this work in any galleries, although if any galleries are interested I’m certainly open to that prospect. However, there has been some interest by some Portuguese photo magazines, as well as some online book publishers. I do plan to utilize some of this work in my next upcoming book that I am beginning to work on now.
Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio and can you point to anything you have learned in the course of capturing these images that will be useful going forward?
A: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I accomplished anything specifically, but I do feel that this work, along with other projects I am currently working on, has a different feel than my previous photographs. In large part, that’s due to the Leica M and how it forces me to think, work and see differently than with an SLR.
Q: And how do you think your photography has evolved over the last few years?
A: For forty years I had the good fortune to make my living doing something I love: photography. Now, I am at a point where I want to concentrate on my personal work and giving back to the profession by teaching workshops and leading photo tours. The personal work, which keeps driving me forward as a photographer, includes several ongoing projects that will be the basis for my future gallery shows and books.
Q: Do you have any photo tours or workshops planned for the immediate future that you can tell us about?
A: Upcoming workshops:
Santa Fe Workshops, March 22-27
Maine Photo Workshops, July 5-11
PNW Arts Center, August 10-14
Other workshops are being considered but we don’t have dates scheduled yet. Also, besides the workshops, I will be offering some photo tours including Cuba, Portugal and other locations to be announced soon. So the best for all those interested is to check my website or watch for announcements on Facebook.
Thank you for your time, Arthur!
-Leica Internet Team