Limitations come in many forms. What makes all the difference, is if we can manage to turn them into our friends instead of seeing them as our enemies. To set limitations in gear, locations, subject and aesthetics can benefit an artist greatly, as street photographer Alan Schaller from London points out in our interview.
How did your style of photography develop?
When I started photography I was very protective of the fact that I was going to shoot what I wanted to shoot. And that was it. I learnt some lessons from writing music for other people and ultimately ending up with no identity as a musician for myself. So my style of photography was born out of allowing myself to follow exactly the path I wanted to follow.
What made you go for black and white?
I gravitated strongly towards b&w photographers already at the very beginning of my career. I figured, I like this, this is the kind of thing I want to try and do. So from day one I set out creating black and white exclusively, even converting all my colour pictures [laughs].
How do you feel about limitation?
In the context of photography, it’s great! I used to go out a lot with one lens and one body, preferably 24mm, shooting only in black and white with my Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246). For some time I even worked exclusively from 1.2 metres. Putting all these kinds of limitations on myself was a big part of developing my style. By ignoring everything outside my zone I learnt how to anticipate an image. After some time I knew, if something was going to happen in my zone, I was going to get it.
Acertainty that helped your photography?
You see, I have to really believe that a picture is going to be there. It’s all about pre-visualising the shot. By that I mean seeing what there is and imagining what there could be. That is a skill you can only achieve by limiting yourself in terms of what you are shooting and what you are shooting with.
What about where you are shooting?
Exactly! You see, if I take 100 pictures a day, it will usually be 20 shots in five locations rather than 100 single shots without stopping. With street photography it seems like capturing the most random and chaotic thing. The street is ever changing and unpredictable, so it’s very important to go out and have a focus of some sort.
What’s your advice to someone starting out as a photographer?
I think it’s very important to show consistency in your thinking when you are a photographer. At some point you have to just say, ‘this is what I’m going to do,’ and go out with this in mind from then on. Otherwise you just end up creating a random set of images that might be clever as single pieces but will never work out as a whole.
What do you think about photography today?
It’s great that there are so many more people doing photography through smartphones now. Of course not everybody takes it extremely seriously, but it means that more people are in a position to understand what a good picture is. I believe that if you dedicate yourself to photography as much as possible, go out and shoot every day and don’t take your progress for granted, you can get your work out there – and recognised – more than ever before.
Who was your biggest influence in photography?
Definitely Fan Ho and his book The living theatre. Without this book I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I got inspired by all the great legends of photography, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastiao Salgado and Steve McCurry.
As a street photographer, would you like to go back in time?
It surely would have been great to be around in the 1960s, it was a whole different world to shoot street back then, but I am fortunate for the opportunities of today’s world. Whether it’s the advancements in camera technology, social media or being able to connect with people all over the world. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to trade my place now for doing something back then.
Where did your passion for the Leica M Monochrom originate?
When I found the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) and the M-lens system with the zone focusing, the tactile nature of the camera and its discreteness, I knew immediately that this was the perfect tool to execute my ideas. Being able to pre-focus and therefore be discreet, not having to bring the camera to the eye in order to get a shot — it was a huge relief for me to be honest! Also, it released me totally from ‘gear aquisition syndrome’ [laughs*].
Talking about gear, what’s your take on the new Monochrom vs. its predecessor?
Both are fantastic cameras and I would be more than happy to use either one as my daily shooter! The new M10 Monochrom has the benefit of being quieter, having a better shutter and obviously the higher resolution. But despite the higher megapixels, the dynamic range and low light performance have been unaltered. It’s really, really good!
People tend to award great meaning to your images …
Well it’s been very interesting seeing the reactions to my work, particularly from non-photographers. I think that if you can appeal and transmit to someone that has no idea and prejudice about photography and they can see an image and like it for some reason, that’s just great. In terms of attaching a bigger meaning to my work, that I can’t really talk about. I just take the pictures.
Alan Schaller is a London based photographer who specialises in black and white photography. Publications who have featured his work include The Guardian, The New York Times T Magazine, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Time Out, The Independent. Alan regularly has exhibitions, showing recently at the Saatchi Gallery, The Edit Space in Milan and at different Leica Galleries and Stores.
He co-founded the Street Photography International Collective (SPi). It was set up to promote the best work in the genre, and to give a platform to talented yet unrepresented photographers.