This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way. This month’s interview is with Jono Slack, an entrepreneur and a beta tester for Leica. Jono was born and brought up in St Ives, Cornwall. His mother Janet was a jeweller, and his father, Roger Slack, a local doctor who was also an excellent photographer and sculptor. Amongst their close friends were Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter and Tony O’Malley, a fantastic environment to grow up in. He studied botany at university, and most of his working life has been spent running a small software business on the Norfolk and Suffolk borders. He has taken photographs since the mid-seventies, but it was only with the onset of digital photography that he took it really seriously. Jono came across the Leica Meet via their Facebook Page and came to know Olaf, Stephen and Gavin at the book launch earlier this year. Here’s how he put the new Monochrom through its paces as part of a long-term project finding a unique way of catching the spirit of spring.
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title and its main theme?
A: We live buried in the depths of rural Suffolk, just on the border with Norfolk. Springtime tends to be very fast and very dramatic here. It doesn’t really get going until the beginning of April, when the hedgerows turn bright green and then rapidly yellow with dandelions and cowslips. By the beginning of May the trees are in leaf, the hedgerows are white with cow-parsley and summer has begun.
Of course I have thousands of photographs which I’ve taken over the years, mostly in colour. I’m a botanist by training, and I’ve always loved photographing the details of flowers and leaves. In the springtime it’s really easy to get pretty shots, but really difficult to find a different angle.
The Spring Dream project came to mind just as the daffodils came into flower this year. I thought it would be nice to try something really different, something to catch the spirit of the springtime without being quite so literal. Gradually the idea of shooting black-and-white with a very short depth of field presented itself. This idea was reinforced when Leica sent me their new Monochrom camera to test. This has Live View, and is thus quite suitable for this kind of photography especially using an EVF. The very wide apertures required made hand-holding easy (I lose the will to live every time I pick up a tripod!).
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: I began by shooting only plants, but gradually the concept expanded, and I found myself shooting still life in the kitchen and also strange mechanical objects. For the sake of this blog I’ve kept pretty close to the original idea.
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?
A: Well, I have been field testing cameras for Leica for several years now. I don’t find it very useful to use test scenarios; most issues arise by just using the camera, so it’s important to find themes which are relevant to the new features of the camera.
In this context, it seemed a good way to give the new Monochrom a thorough testing; one of the new features being Live View, which together with the Macro-Adapter-M, allows focusing down to very short distances with a variety of lenses.
I’ve long planned a book of B&W images of nature and still life, and have been making images with this in mind. So the purpose was twofold: firstly as a good test regime for the new camera, and secondly to get myself a step further towards producing the book.
Q: What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: Increasingly these days I read photographers entreating us to slow things down, to stop and think, and then sometimes using it as an excuse to buy increasingly unwieldy equipment to make this compulsory! Indeed, the earliest piece of advice I can remember was from my father, who told me to ‘get a grab shot, then stop and think about it to get the right shot’. Over the years I’ve realized more and more that it’s the grab shot that is the best shot, and stopping to think nearly always seems to squash the life out of the image.
Then I heard about some research done into first stage thinking with chess grand masters, and how their instinctive first idea for a move was nearly always right, but more to the point, how much more brain activity goes into the first few seconds after the opponent makes his move than into the subsequent 30 minutes or so of conscious (second stage) thinking.
Applying this to my grab shot situation, I realized that those first seconds when you see something worth a photo are not some kind of magic, but that everything you’ve seen and read and learned about photography goes into that internal decisive moment, and for me at least, conscious thought about composition, etc. just muddies the water.
Q: What photographic choices have you made?
A: So the idea of the project was to apply limits within which to let my imagination run free (the limit being the very close focus range and the very short depth of field). All the pictures are hand held and none of the subjects are arranged in any way.
Whether I’ve succeeded or not depends entirely on other people’s responses to the images. Of course, I have personal feelings too, but it seems to me that taking photos one personally likes which nobody else can relate to is not very useful!
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: As for inspiration – although I look at lots of other photographers’ work – I try very hard not to have it in mind (consciously at least) when I’m shooting myself.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: Testing cameras for Leica, I’ve used most of the recent camera releases, but my first Leica love affair was with the M7 – my first rangefinder experience, and I nearly always prefer to shoot simply with a rangefinder. In this case I was using Live View with an Electronic Viewfinder, a different experience, but the controls and operation are still the same as a standard M. I think this camera has evolved into an almost perfect photographic tool, with everything a photographer needs, but with very few unnecessary extras.
Thank you for your time, Jono!
– Leica Internet Team
To learn more about Jono and his work with Leica, check out his website.
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 over 7,600 members. Later this month, 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 that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.olafwilloughby.com