Van Styles is a New York-born and Los Angeles-raised photographer. His journey into photography started in the 1990s skate scene. What started as him filming his friends skateboarding and learning tricks turned into a hobby and then his career.
After years of working with leading skate and street wear brands, Van created a platform for himself and his peers to showcase their work and V/SUAL was born. V/SUAL is more than an apparel brand, it is an outlet for art and inspiration. Van recently got to test out the new Leica M Monochrom during an aerial shoot in Los Angeles and he shares his thoughts on the experience below.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Like a variety pack to my life. It is across the board in subject matter and techniques, but really is just me translating what I am seeing through my lens to share with whoever wants to take a look.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: I grew up skateboarding in the early ’90s. Being exposed to the photographs I would see in the magazines, whether lifestyle or action shots, showed me how one can interpret their environment through a camera. Later I picked up a camera in 2002 and started shooting. It was a mix of love for photography along with being a requirement for my job at the time.
Q: What made you decide to become a professional photographer?
A: I think the idea of being able to do something you love everyday made me decide to see what could happen if I followed photography as a career. If there is one thing I have learned in life so far, it is to recognize what brings you the most joy and do it as much as possible.
Q: Does your photography fall into a specific genre?
A: The genre of my photos are across the board. In my mind, a photographer should be able to shoot anything and translate it through their lens for people to see/understand. I think people can have a lane where they progress faster at than other subject matter, but it is good to step outside your comfort zone and learn the different types of techniques required to shoot other things. For me I am probably more known for my portrait photography with models, but I love aerial; I love street, as well as land/city scape photography.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I have no formal training whatsoever with photography. No exact mentor other than me picking people’s brains who had been shooting longer than me. One thing that skateboarding teaches you is independence and the ability and persistence to figure something out. I just applied that school of thought to photography. As far as photographers who inspired me, it started out with skateboarding so people like Mike Blabac, Daniel Harold Sturt, Spike Jonze’s early work and Grant Brittain, to name a few. As I kept shooting I discovered other people’s work that influenced me in one way or another. From the works of Larry Clark, Ari Marcopoulos, Richard Kern, Ralph Gibson to people I have befriended such as trashhand, Travis Jensen, Evidence and 13th Witness have all inspired me in one way or another.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: Going to my local camera store and seeing them on display. Once I started to research and dig into the brand, I learned of its rich history with photography. I would realize how many iconic images were created with these amazing tools and my interests grew more and more. The first Leica I bought was a used M6 with a 35 mm Summicron from Samy’s Camera. I soon fell in love with the simplicity of the M along with the images you could create. I came to understand how much fun it is shooting with a rangefinder.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I really just try to have as much fun with photography as I can. When I am out shooting it’s a release for me. Everything else in the world shuts off and I am just alone with my camera. I have always been very observant and a people watcher by nature so to go out on my own and drive around LA or travel to other places is just exciting. Never really going out with any type of agenda other than to enjoy photography and see what I can make of the day. Photography to me means happiness. I think in life there are a lot of people out there who never find or discover what they simple love doing, not necessarily for money or notoriety but because the act of just doing it makes you smile. For me I have discovered this feeling twice so far. When I was 12 and picked up a skateboard was the first time and the second was when I picked up camera. It is important to recognize these moments and to appreciate them.
Q: What camera and lenses did you shoot for this project?
A: For this shoot I got to use the new Monochrom (Typ 246) along with my 21 mm Summilux and my 50 mm APO-Summicron.
Q: What did you think of it?
A: I loved it. I enjoy shooting with the M-P 240 so it was a great feeling to pick up the same body and know I had the Monochrom capabilities inside.
Q: What technical characteristics of the new Leica M Monochrom specifically stood out to you?
A: The high ISO and the amount of detail the images still retain. Not to mention the faster buffer, smoother shutter and having the ability to shoot in Live View if needed. That usually can come in handy when shooting aerial photography.
Q: This portfolio was shot from a helicopter. What was the goal of the shoot from the helicopter?
A: For me the goal was to test the high ISO capabilities of the new Monochrom. One of my favorite views of a city is at night. Unfortunately shooting from a moving object like a helicopter even at slow speeds requires being able to shoot at a high ISO while having a fast shutter to be able to make a quality photo. When I had the opportunity to shoot with one in Los Angeles, I immediately called up my friend Esteban Jimenez who is a pilot. Luckily I was able to get a flight going under such short notice to see what it could do.
Q: Did you achieve what you set out to do?
A: Definitely. Los Angeles is a big city and at night the lighting is spaced out. There are some pockets that obviously have more light than others such as Downtown or the Santa Monica Pier. For the most part I shot at 12500 and 25000 ISO to see how the photos would hold up and I was definitely impressed.
Q: Did you run into any challenges shooting aerial?
A: Not really other than it was a little windy up there and I do have a fear of heights. But once I started shooting, my fear went away.
Q: What is your favorite image from the series? Why?
A: My favorite image would have to the shot of Downtown LA with the blimp. There was a restricted fly zone over that area due to a Dodger game so I decided to shoot the city from a distance with the 50 mm. I just loved that I was able to capture all of the city. From the the mountains to Dodger stadium in the distance to the buildings, to the 110 x 10 freeway interchange to the Goodyear blimp cruising across the sky. To me, this is Los Angeles.
Q: Obviously, the Leica M Monochrom only takes black-and-white images. Your work primarily isn’t all in black-and-white, so how do you decide which medium to use for a particular subject?
A: I think it comes down to contrast. Sometimes I look at something and I see it in black-and-white or I recognize it might be a stronger photograph if shot with a Monochrom.
Q: What about black-and-white photography appeals to you?
A: There are a few things. I think it is the timeless feel a black-and-white photo carries, but more importantly it forces you to focus on the content of your photograph. Sometimes colors in photos can be distracting from what is really there in the picture. Black-and-white strips all that away.
Thank you for your time, Van!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Van on V/SUAL Apparel and Instagram.