Born in 1969 in the south of France, François-Xavier Richard carries his camera since he was 12 years old. After being a photojournalist in a local newspaper for 22 years, he now works in the fine art landscape photography. Fascinated by the wilderness, the great skies and the rising light of northern countries, FX Richard, as people know him, has traveled to catch the atmosphere of incredible places and landscapes for over a decade. He shared with us his experience with his Leica cameras and the Shetland project.
As a long-time user of Leica equipment, what’s your perception of Leica and what’s your approach with photography?
I guess all photographers once have dreamed about Leica. I had a Leica CL when I was eighteen unfortunately when I started to work, I sold it to buy an autofocus reflex camera. I always loved rangefinder cameras: small body and lenses, fast and responsive, clear viewfinder, easy handling… When I started a personal work, I bought a Contax G2. Great camera, but the autofocus was not suitable for me and not very accurate either. So, in 2003, I broke my piggy bank for my Leica MP and the first three lenses. A M8 followed in 2008 with the 28mm, (great camera too, still in my bag). And then last year an M-P (240) and the new Monochrom (246).
In contrast to the standards of landscape photography that usually require large format cameras, I do not want to be stuck with my camera. I like to move in the field, inside the landscape. That’s why the Leica M is the best camera for me. If I was restricted in term of print size with the 35mm film, the M Monochrom solves the problem. I make my own prints, and I think the best results are achieved in a homogeneous graphic chain. Digital is more flexible, and I plan to acquire the basics of platinum printing, I think it is a wonderful way to print the Monochrom files.
Photography is a way to setting a specific time, a time when everything falls into place in my field of vision, shapes and light, textures. I like to catch an ambiance rather than the best landscape. This is not necessarily the subject or the landscape by itself that is important, but the time and the memory of that moment.
You describe your creative process as being quite attached to the physical experience of using analog film. After shooting with the Leica M Monochrom, how do you see the evolution of digital vs analog in your own experience?
Well, nothing can replace the magical of the « handcrafted » analog process. However, times are changing and digital is now a part of our photographic lives and I do not want to argue about which is better or not. It is a more versatile medium, easier and cheaper to implement. But art needs constraints, and here the M Monochrom takes a great place. Because it forces the photographer to see and think in B&W. One cannot just shoot a picture and see in Lightroom if it will be better in color or B&W. It is necessary to choose what camera you want to use for your project as you should have done with the film in an analog camera. The big question with digital is : what does one do with the pictures after shooting ? In analog it is necessary to print to see the results but with digital many images remain in the computer and are forgotten in the box. That’s why printing is important. And this is the point where analog and digital meet. The final product in some way. Here, today’s printing techniques like Piezography or old processes, specially platinum/palladium printing take an important place. But digital photography is still a (too much) technological medium. It needs more simplicity to drive the photographer to the essentials, from the brain to the final picture. I think the M Monochrom goes that way.
Please describe your objectives of the Shetland project, what were you trying to achieve?
Actually I am fascinated by the rough and wild landscapes of northern countries. I would like to reveal the « soul » of the land. These are countries which always push the limits where humans may settle. The man, the environment, each one affects the other and it is important to maintain a perfect balance. I think landscape photography might point what we could loose if we cannot live in harmony with the land.
The Shetland series is a part of a long term project to document northern landscapes.
There is a sense of timelessness in the pictures with the uninhabited fields and profound blacks and whites. What drives you to document landscapes in black and white?
I think B&W photography is more subjective and poetic than color that is more precise and real. I believe that B&W is the better way to drive the viewer into the picture so, with imagination, he could feel the elements. Furthermore, it perfectly suited the aesthetic of Shetland scenery, the textures of the rocks, the skies, the sea.
Share with us the general environment and ambience of Shetland.
Well, I hope my photographs speak better than me. For this project, I was there for a fortnight. I walked a lot across the islands, in different parts of the archipelago, from south to north, east to west, in the wind, most of the time. Stone walls, sheep pens, abandoned houses are parts of the scenery, it remains the history of people who struggle for their land. Trees are scarce on the islands, they have all been deforested thousands years ago and they can hardly grow against the winds. Wind is a real « character » of Shetland. When there is not, it seems strange. The weather changes very fast and, combined with the unspeakable light of northern countries, it produces magnificent skies.
It is a land between sky and sea. Lay your eyes on the horizon and you will see all the fishermen legends of the north sea, it will tells you the tales of migrants forced to leave their land for better lives. Take a walk by the cliffs, with the roar of the ocean underneath, and big rocks surrounding, nothing but sheep and birds around you, you can feel the telluric forces going through your bones. Perhaps these words sound a bit emphatic but that is why I am attracted by this country.
You’ve had a lot of experience taking photographs for a local newspaper and you are now focused on fine art. How has the experience been thus far?
Trying to make a living with a non commercial work is quite a challenge. It is totally different from my former job, and I need to adapt myself. However, I like the freedom I have to achieve a work without any pressure, taking time for a project, working in B&W without someone saying that color is better. I am the only one deciding how and if I crop my pictures or not. I hope I could keep that comfort as long as possible. Sometimes I still take some assignments when the subject fits me.
How does the experience of shooting with the Monochrom compare with the other equipment you have?
I own Hasselblad’s Flexbody and 501C/M, great cameras, but actually not comparable with the M range and today I rarely use them, aside the Flexbody for still-life. In my former job, I was using a pro SLR camera for long lenses up to 90mm, that kind of cameras are sort of « lorries » or « tanks » compared with the M range. The Leica M is a fine brush.
Today, I only use M cameras, so the Monochrom is not very different in term of handling from the M-P and even the M8. The analog MP is smaller and a bit more responsive with this magical sense of mechanical watchmaking. As I have said before, the main thing with the Monochrom is that it forces you to think and see in B&W. You cannot change this. You use B&W for a good reason, artistic, aesthetic or editorial. It is not just checking the image on a computer and decide if you prefer it in color or B&W.
Another thing is that I can use a yellow filter, as I was doing in analog (I use different densities depending on the light). I think color filters are essential in black & white, and the more control you have in shooting, better are the results. Alike, the use of high density neutral filters is facilitated by the rangefinder system, insofar that it does not interfere the composition of the picture. The post processing is virtually useless, which is a good point, it saves lots of time. Even with DNG files, once you have adjusted whites, blacks and a bit of clarity, it is done. If you want to push more in depth, you can achieve impressive results.
Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share for readers to know? Maybe other projects you might be working on?
I would like to take some more time on northern landscapes, mainly because I want to return with the Monochrom in some locations where I already went such as north of Norway, particularly the isle of Senja and the north cape. Many countries lack to my catalog, so I would continue this work with Iceland, Faroe islands and Newfoundland, Canada – not necessarily in this order. Furthermore I plan to add some winter shots from Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Eventually I hope I could make a book with that work.
Thank you François-Xavier!
To know more about François-Xavier Richard’s work, please visit his official website.