The Paris-based American, Jane Evelyn Atwood, was one of the first photographers to work with the Leica M11. Known primarily for her passionate reportages on social issues, she chose to explore Brittany visually. We spoke to her about her experience.
Where did you travel with the new Leica M11?
On a map of France, to the west and slightly south of Paris is Bretagne (Brittany), and on its western tip, Finistère – literally “the end of the earth”. Almost completely surrounded by water, Finistère is steeped in history, Celtic roots and a strong Catholic heritage that is present everywhere. This is the region where I worked with the Leica M11. I was in Finistère about two months, off and on.
Did you know the area before?
I discovered Bretagne over ten years ago, thanks to my companion, Sylvain, who comes from there. We share a house in Quimper and I divide my time between Paris, Quimper, and wherever I am on reportage.
What do you appreciate most about trips to the countryside?
I’m originally from Cape Cod, in the USA, and with the Leica M11, I wanted to do something about the sea, so it was only logical that I would make photos in Finistère. Almost immediately when I started working, I realized that the sea was too limiting, and I enlarged my vision to include landscapes of all kinds, and even some people. The rocks, trees, wildlife and even the architecture moved me. I was haunted by the shapes and forms I encountered throughout the terrain. I wanted to seize all of it. But the story narrowed down to the region of Finistère.
Would you describe yourself more as a city person, or is there also a longing for peace and seclusion?
I am more of a city person; but with age, and working a different way, I’m drawn to the country more than before. It’s a welcome break to be able to escape to the country.
What encounters during your trip have stuck most in your mind?
What fascinated me the most were the spectacular landscapes everywhere, nature, the sea and the sky. The ocean is rivalled only by the sky. Vast, enormous, hovering like a mirror of the sea, now close, now far-flung, it envelops the land at any hour of the day or night, its texture teeming with patterns, designs and colours ever changing. I’m known to traditionally photograph people, but for this story I was more drawn to nature, because nature in Finistère is often spectacular! In Finistère I found the human presence dwarfed by the incredible character of nature. But wherever I roamed, I was intrigued by small signs of life and what they reveal of the people who live in this sometimes harsh, often austere, but absolutely magnificent land.
How did you get on with the Leica M11?
Up until now I have rarely done digital photography. I’ve worked with Leicas since the beginning in 1976 (when I think I must have started with the M3 or M4…?), and for the last many years, with the M7, an absolutely incredible camera. To switch to the Leica M11, was relatively easy once the camera was regulated to my work. My assistant did that for me, then all I had to do was make pictures.
Were there any aspects of the Leica M 11 that particularly surprised or impressed you?
What surprised me about the camera was its simplicity. Not too many bells and whistles! Also, the silence of the camera. It’s quieter than the M7.
So this series with the Leica M11 is a really surprising new chapter in your work….
Yes, the work I did with the Leica M11 in Finistère is different from the work I’m known for, because I haven’t done many landscapes in the past. I have done very “hard” subjects – AIDS, prison, blind people, landmine victims. Also, with the Leica M11, I worked in many different places, jumping around from place to place all within the one story: Finistère.
Jane Evelyn Atwood was born in 1947 in New York and has been living in France since 1971. Her work reflects a deep involvement with her subjects over long periods of time. Fascinated by people and by the idea of exclusion, she has managed to penetrate worlds that most of us do not know, or choose to ignore. She has published several books and has been featured in many international magazines. She has received numerous awards for her work, amongst others, the W. Eugene Smith Award (1980), Prix Paris Match (1990) and Leica Oskar Barnack Award (1997). The photographer describes her method of work as ‘obsessive’. She does not move on to a new subject until she feels she has completely understood the one at hand and her own relation to it, and until she believes that her pictures reflect this understanding. Find out more about her photography on her website.