Amsterdam is one of the most culturally diverse cities you will find anywhere on the planet. It was among the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century and ever since then immigrants from all over the globe have come to call Amsterdam their home. Amsterdamer, Paul Struijk, set out with his Leica M10 to document the facial archetypes of the city’s residents and, in doing so, captured the diverse yet kindred nature of humanity in all its forms.
You studied an array of subjects from biology to archaeology and even classical dance. What was it that drew you to photography?
It was the creativity of the work. I needed to create things from the inside out and have the freedom to choose what I do. I also wanted to encounter new worlds, new people and new ideas.
How would you describe your photographic style?
My aim is to document. I try to find authentic images with a mix of old school and modern approaches. I like real life. I love people and how they try to make the best of it. I am absolutely a color person but over the last 2 years with my Leica, my photography has become more and more monochrome but always with a little shade of color, a little hint of a tone.
Was there anyone in particular, who influenced or helped you in finding your own form of artistic expression?
Nobody really, but of course I look around. Mostly I am inspired by painters but to mention one name in photography, it would have to be Sebastião Salgado.
Can you tell us about your motivations and aims behind this portrait series? What did you set out to capture?
This series of Real Humans (of Amsterdam) is part of a broader project exploring Face Type Recognition (FTR) technology for Integral Algorithmic Psychology studies. I was asked to make a series of several hundreds of portraits to capture four archetypes of the human face: the Lion, the Snake, the Bird and the Bull. These are ancient archetypes but still visible today or at least that is what they claim. They asked me to make the most simple of pictures without any extra meaning, mood or expression; a plain representation of the faces.
I also want to do this for myself, not only in Amsterdam, but in several cities throughout the world over the next few years. The series will grow and become more diverse and still keep showing the underlying archetypes, that is what I hope.
The photos in this series have the distinctive look of street portraits, while also presenting a wide cross-section of society. Where did you shoot? And how did you go about choosing and approaching your subjects?
That’s exactly what I wanted. All the pictures are shot on the street, we asked all the passers-by to give us 5 minutes of their time. I chose 10 different locations to deliver the best variety of people: the Vondelpark (tourists), a market (over 100 different nationalities shop there), a student campus etc. The person, who gave me the assignment from the FTR selected and approached people, another person did the administration (securing permission etc.) and I took the photos. I set up in a small party tent with a white roof and one white ‘wall’ as a background. I used an indirect flash via the roof to get the soft lighting and white background I wanted.
Which camera did you use and what do you see as the advantages of your set-up?
I used my Leica M10 with the 50mm Summilux lens and shot mostly at f/2 or f/2.8. This allowed me to get most of the focus on the eyes and the background plain white or light grey.
What was it that influenced your choice of lens for this series?
The choice of lens was crucial. First of all, the 50mm is the lens that gives the normal proportions of the face and body but even more importantly, I wanted an expressionless face, not posed despite the subject standing in a posed position. No extra smiles, just a plain expression. I gave simple instructions and shot almost instantly. I think the total time of each shoot was approximately a minute. If the first result was not sharp where I wanted it to be, I took a second. That was it.
I took the 50mm for another important reason (and not a 75mm or 90mm): the distance between the subject and the photographer had to be about a meter. This was because, in the Western world, that is more or less the end (or beginning) of an individual’s ‘personal’ space. I was standing on the borderline and even entering their space just a little. It was just a bit to make the subject alert but not feel threatened. For all photographers, who shoot portraits it is interesting to find out where that border lies. It depends, of course, on the photographer, culture, self-confidence and each individual situation.
The very low saturation of your images gives them an aged feel. Almost like the old, faded photos you might find in a shoebox at a flea market. What was it that made you adopt this effect? And how did you go about creating it?
I post-processed with Photoshop to get a good old school black and white picture (and used Silver Efex pro to maximize that). I wanted it for two reasons: to take away the modern, dated feel and to refine the architecture of the face. A third reason why I like this feel is that it makes the people in the picture look stronger, more confident, perhaps even more beautiful. Every photo is a long process of finding the right balance. When you have it you know but before you do, sometimes you have no clue where to go, what to do to bring the ‘soul’ out of what you are shooting.
You live in Amsterdam and take part in the Leica Meet. Could you explain what the Leica Meet is?
The Leica Meet is a virtual platform where you can see photos by other photographers with different levels of ability and interests. You can post your own images and get feedback and/or likes or support in many different forms. It has allowed me to make friends and meet fellow enthusiasts in the ‘real’ world. The Leica Meet helps people to arrange meetings in various cities with chats, drinks and photography. Amsterdam has to have a Leica Meet soon. The city has a great history with close ties to photography and Leica.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras? And how has your relationship to the brand developed?
3 years ago I bought my Leica M Typ 240 and it was love at first sight. Last year I bought an M6 TTL and this year I bought my Leica M10 – the feeling just gets better and better. At first I only shot with the 24mm Elmar and the 35mm Summilux but soon I picked up more lenses and my latest buy was the precious 28mm Summaron.
You also run the imageLab and offer photo workshops all over the world. Can you tell us a little more about your work here?
I run imageLab and I give workshops there. I also take assignments relating to architecture, portraiture and branding. I tend to be very busy. Being a manager is not my thing. I love to be in the field with my camera or with students and photographers, who want to explore and learn. You can wake me up in the middle of the night to teach, it’s my second nature. I believe that teaching is also good for me, I learn when I teach and it is important to transfer knowledge one-on-one to the next person. I believe in the old master-pupil relationship.
My work as a photographer can be split into two different areas: the assignments I fulfill for others and my own work. I believe it is important to pursue my own work each year, my own decisions, processes and mistakes, while developing new techniques, styles and approaches.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their portrait style and photography in general?
Well… Everybody is different. I would say that practice is the most important. Conquer your fears, of which there can be many when shooting portrait photography. Stick for a longer period with one lens (in my opinion 50mm is perfect), focus on one concept and get better and better at it, for example zone-focusing for street photography.
Secondly, observe. Observe people, observe the light, observe other peoples photography: are they as good as everybody says? Do you yourself like them and why? There is nothing wrong with trying to replicate someone else’s work, when you approach it as a learning process.
Do you have any projects you’re working on at the moment and what are you looking forward to in the future?
At the end of the year I will go to Rio de Janeiro again to give workshops there and also pursue my own photography. I am currently focusing on the following projects:
1. Landscapes around Rio
2. A documentary series of people from different areas of Rio. These portraits will form a Real Humans of Rio series.
3. Real Humans of Istanbul, Romania or Bulgaria. I’m still not sure exactly.
4. Returning to Sicily to make a follow up to my Catania Fishmarket series.
I will also be preparing for a 2019 tour of India, so I will be busy as always. Not forgetting to get healthy again because my illness (Lyme disease) takes a lot of energy and is hindering me in doing what I want.