Among countless accomplishments that have elevated him to the top ranks of today’s contemporary photographers, Al Satterwhite is the acknowledged grandmaster of the fisheye format. Here, in his own incisive and revealing words, is the story behind how he created the images featured in aRound New York, a 30-year retrospective of his spectacular 180º images “at the intersection of photojournalism and fine art” now on exhibit at Leica Gallery LA.
Q: You have an exhibition at Leica Gallery LA. Can you provide details about it?
A: aRound New York opened on September 3, and continues through September 20th. It presents 17 large prints (one on aluminum) of the 180º Fisheye images I photographed over a 30 year period. I embarked on this project because I believe that the more our world is viewed through today’s ubiquitous digital lens and small screens, the more narrowed the perspective. The true magnitude of the cities in which we live, work, and play can only be seen through a much broader and larger expression, which I captured using the Fisheye lens and my own unique perspective.
Q: What camera equipment do you use to crate fisheye images?
A: Using Leica’s digital M camera (Typ 240) with my special 180º lens afforded me the ability to get into unique locations with the minimum of equipment needed to work quickly on this special project; it’s a truly minimalistic way to work. As we used to say: “f/8 and be there” – as long as your equipment can deliver, and the Leica system certainly does that.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: They’re round! We don’t live in a linear world. The world is round. We enjoy a rounded experience, and I’ve been around the block a time or two, and have internalized that perception. What these images provide is all the other bits and pieces that inform, influence, and inspire daily city life, even if we’re not aware of it at a particular time. Each time I look at these images, I see something that even I haven’t seen before. They reignite my love affair with the city.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography?
A: I take an approach that can be described as “curiosity focused.” I’m naturally curious about the people, places, and things I capture photographically. This approach has given me an extraordinary opportunity to experience a deeper relationship, understanding, and appreciation for the life we get to live.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: I think I was always fascinated by photography and stunning images. My first job as a photographer was at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. That experience gave me a backstage pass to a lot of the events in my area, and into how stories are told from a photographic perspective. The desire to tell stories is very basic for human nature. While my friends will tell you that I can sometimes be a bit awkward in terms of the written word, my strength is in my ability to tell a story well visually. The pursuit or the expression of a good story is what keeps me active and motivated each and every day.
Q. Although the word is vastly overused, I think it’s fair to characterize the images in this portfolio as “iconic” in the sense that they reveal the essence of what is in front of your camera at the time, and yet have a timeless quality of capturing the eternity in the moment. Am I over the top here? Aside from the fascination and discovery you alluded to, what goes through your head when you study these images? Do you have any personal favorites?
A: Thank you for that acknowledgment. When I see these images, they take me back to that moment in time when I shot them. I can immerse myself once again into the image because it surrounds me. It’s as if I’m right back in the city seeing, hearing, and feeling that slice of my own life all over again. I have a large print hanging over my kitchen table, and when I am eating lunch I never tire of looking at all of the detail within the frame. There is so much information going on with these 180º images. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. What might be my favorite one day might be replaced with a new appreciation for another shot, and my favorites change as I add new work.
Q: Most of these round images are visually related to the mandala, an ancient spiritual art form that explores the unity of the spatial-temporal and the absolute un-manifest. Do you think there is a spiritual dimension in the way these images are composed and presented? Why did you choose to display them as very large prints at the LA show?
A: I hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but I can see the connection between my work and the mandala. We are spiritual beings after all. Since the work comes from what lives deep down inside of me, what inspires me, and what makes me feel most alive, it seems natural that they are in line with how others have visually expressed their relationship with the world in which they live. I put my heart and soul into my work, and I hope my images have a spiritual dimension to them that the viewer can grasp.
These round 180º prints are best viewed large. After we hung the show, we realized I could have made the prints even larger for the show given its extraordinary venue.
Q: As an internationally acclaimed photographer and long-time Leica user, what are some of the features and characteristics of the Leica M series that you have found useful in executing your work over the years?
A: The camera is small, unobtrusive, quiet, and quick to use. It delivers what you are trying to capture. It’s the first step in actualizing the final print, but that first step is the most important. Sharp optics that capture images that can be enlarged, while still holding all of its information and contrast are extremely important. Leica lenses have never been shy in that department. Another key factor is dependability, knowing that your camera is always there and fully functioning when you need it.
Q: This image is one of the most surreal views of New York City I have ever seen, and the lighting, color, and composition are exquisite. From what vantage point did you shoot this exceptional picture, and how did you get those amazingly vibrant colors under those incredible cloud formations? Was this pretty much a straight shot, or did you do extensive post-production work on this image?
A: It takes a village to create images like this. Through the kindness of others, I have been able to gain unprecedented access to many buildings to use as vantage points. This image was taken from the roof of the London, a hotel on West 54th Street, late on a winter day around 5:00 PM. A storm was brewing, and I waited patiently for it to develop. In digital processing (as in the old days of chemical processing) I use all the tools available to me, including my experience, to bring out what I have captured in the original RAW file which holds an amazing amount of information; much more than we ever had in the film world. It’s all there, nothing added. It’s just a matter of taking the original file capture, and bringing to the front what I want most, while making it more visible.
Q: Here’s another of my favorite images in this series. It looks like it was shot looking down toward Times Square? Is that correct, and how did you come to shoot this picture? Did you just get lucky and happen to be there at the right time, or did you plan this beforehand?
A: It wasn’t a matter of planning. It was a matter of waiting. A good photographer knows precisely when an unexpected moment is about to reveal itself, it’s called the ‘decisive moment’ – coined by none other than Cartier-Bresson. It’s always a matter of selecting the time you want to shoot, and then waiting for all of the elements to move into place.
Since I love Times Square, especially at night, the waiting period for that shot was never dull. There is so much light from all of the marquees and electronic billboards. I also love large areas of certain colors, red being one of my favorites. I made the photograph from the top of the red stairs over the TKTS booth. I almost always go there when in New York, rain or shine, always at night. Even at very late hours, it’s still very crowded sometimes.
Q: This is another brilliantly composed image that, in a metaphoric sense, places New York City at the center of the world. I do not recall seeing a “Unisphere” at that location. Is it still there now, and where did you stand to get this spectacular image?
A: I first photographed it in 2008 (when this image was taken). It was still there when I was in town last year, and I don’t think it’s going away. It’s a smaller replica of the original one built for the World’s Fair in 1964. It’s by the subway stairs between Broadway, and Central Park West. I shot it at various angles, but standing directly under it facing the center of Columbus Circle gave me the image I was looking for.
Q: Do you plan to continue your “Round” series of fisheye images in New York City, or will you shoot a similar series in another great city? How do you see your photography evolving over the next three to five years? Do you intend to explore any new locations or genres, and what’s on your agenda for the immediate future?
A: I’ll always be adding more to my New York collection, as it’s my favorite city in the entire world. I am working on more cities in the series too, having already spent a lot of time shooting Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome, and Venice. I would love to add Tokyo and Moscow.
As for evolving, I’m always looking for fresh and interesting approaches to the work I do. In addition to the ‘aRound’ series, I’m also working on a series called ‘undressed reality,’ a series that combines nudes I have photographed over the years at many locations that I have photographed. Juxtaposing 2 images that might be 10 years and a thousand miles apart, in an interesting and exciting way, gives me an opportunity to tell a new story with familiar characters. As for the future, in everything I do, I’m eternally looking for that one essential element- soul.
Thank you for your time, Al!
– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team
Connect with Al on his website and Facebook.