Usually, Olaf Willoughby interviews other Leica photographers for this blog. This month we turned the tables by asking him to tell us about his work and how he uses his Leica for street photography in London.
Q: How do you define your street photography?
A: It’s simply about capturing life in the street, revealing the drama in the everyday. That’s it. It may capture a decisive moment, highlight drama and tension or just pose a question. When the street becomes a road it overlaps with travel photography. When it involves a journalistic approach or street portraiture, it starts to blend into documentary. And that’s fine. Personally, I see no need to be too precious about definitions.
However, traditionalists see it very differently. I’ve just finished a book which argues that street portraits should be excluded because they involve interaction with the subject. Shooting from the hip is also dubious, as is cropping the image in post processing and the use of a telephoto lens. For these purists, street is almost the spiritual hub of all photography. But I take the opposite point of view. These aren’t rules; they are just opinions. Anyway, good creative photography in any genre is hard.
Q: What makes a good street shot?
A: The same basic qualities that makes any photograph or indeed any work of art successful. It possesses an energy, something which attracts and engages the viewer. This can be as momentary as a gesture or as meaningful as posing a question for the viewer to answer. After all, one definition of art is that it leaves space for the viewer to interact with the work. In street shooting we do this by recording a split second which symbolises our humanity – a hand movement, a look, an interaction which is instantly recognisable when we reveal it to others.
We pass through a thousand of these moments of drama everyday, mostly without noticing them. We screen them out to get on with our lives. The magic of shooting street photography is that we become attuned to noticing and capturing these brief instants.
Q: Tell us a little about your choice of Leica cameras and lenses and how you use them?
A: Originally I started with an M6 (and foolishly sold it), then moved on to an M9 and now an M (typ 240). I have just three lenses, the 24 mm f/1.4, 50 mm f/1.4 and 90 mm f/2.0. Of these my favourite for street work in London is the 24 mm.
I like to shoot with a sense of freedom and play – get in close, shoot from the hip, sideways, look in the other direction whilst clicking the shutter, whatever it takes to create an unusual, fresh angle on life. Ideally the subject won’t even know that you’ve taken a shot.
I set the ISO high enough to give me the right shutter speed for the lighting conditions and use zone focusing. So for my Leica 24 mm Summilux, I know that at f/5.6 anything between 1.2 m and 4.8 m will be acceptably sharp. The downsides are that it involves a lot of wastage, plus straightening and retouching in Lightroom or Photoshop is essential. The upsides of this free flowing shooting style are that it often creates an energised image that captures reality in a fresh and intriguing way.
I’ve shot with DSLRs and even beautiful medium format equipment, but I prefer Leica because not only does it just feel right in the hand, but for me it offers the best overall combination of image quality, size and weight on the market.
Q: How much of your shooting is instinctive vs. planned?
A: The locations are planned but the actual shooting is very definitely unplanned! I’m just looking to tune in to the movements of people around me, try to forecast when an interesting juxtaposition might take place and be in the right place. I still struggle slightly with my own inhibitions in photographing strangers, so I prefer to observe and blend in. Personally, although the photo/flash mugging style has been exhibited in some of the best galleries in the world, it seems to me to generate very similar pictures – everyone looks dazed, unattractive and sometimes angry – hardly surprising really.
Q: How does color vs. black-and-white play out in your work?
A: I have a simple guiding principle. My street images in London are mostly B&W unless color is integral to the message. That happens elsewhere a lot, for example in Nepal, where a Sadhu wearing bright yellow paint cries out for color or in Shanghai where a desaturated look may convey the oppressiveness of the smog better. But here the decisions are mostly simpler, although check out the sentry for an exception.
Q: Who inspires you? Who are your favourite street photographers, and why?
A: I love the work of Michael Ackerman, particularly his End Time City. There is a looseness and a raw purity to his seeing which is amazing. I constantly look to develop my version of that style. It’s a challenge and I mostly fail but occasionally the sun shines through the clouds! Otherwise I don’t really have favourite street shooters. Being a co-founder of The Leica Meet I’m amazed on a daily basis by the huge talent which exists amongst our members and that serves as a continuing source of inspiration.
Q: If you had one piece of advice for street artists, what would it be?
A: There is a temptation to follow accepted visual recipes. For example, find a huge billboard of a beautiful girl and wait for a the right guy to pass in front of it, shoot colour wheel opposites (red umbrella on green background, priest in a yellow robe passes a blue doorway, etc). These make good street photographs because they are an image waiting to happen, a jigsaw about to be completed. And they can be set up at leisure and repeated in most locations around the world. This is fine. Shoot these images and when you reach the point where they are becoming predictable, move on!
Creativity often comes from play, experimentation, just trying something out. Look for other tools and techniques to stretch your ways of seeing. I’m a strong believer in the principle that “if your waste bin isn’t full, then you’re not trying hard enough.”
Thank you for your time, Olaf!
– Leica Internet Team
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to 7K+ members in 18 months. Starting June 21, 2015, Olaf will be co-teaching “Visual Conversations”, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport. If you have an intriguing project or body of work, completed or in progress, that we might feature contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org.