Leica Ms – cameras and lenses – have the reputation of lasting a lifetime. Their timeless design, their quality and, last but not least, their successive continuity, underline the veracity of this statement. Nearly all the lenses and cameras, since the first Leica M in 1954 up until today, are compatible with each other. Successful businessman and passionate photographer Ken Narula has made good use of this. He is the owner of the largest collection of M lenses, as well as historic and contemporary cameras. However, in contrast to most other collections, his pieces are not set behind glass nor hidden in a safe: Narula takes his out on the street.
In Iris & Lens, a double volume recently published by Steidl, Narula presents five years of his street photography – from 2017 to 2022 – in the first volume, and juxtaposes the images with precise portraits of the lenses he uses in the second. They include no less than 100 years of Leica technology. Furthermore, two of his cameras and lenses – two Leica M2 Black Paint models with serial numbers 948857 and 948858, and the matching lenses, a Summicron 5cm f/2 with brass mount No. 1587561, and a Summicron 35mm f/2 with eight elements and brass mount No. 1654919 – will go under the hammer at the 43rd Leitz Photographica Auction in Vienna, in November, along with a copy of Iris & Lens, signed by Ken Narula, Dr. Andreas Kaufmann and Gerhard Steid. We had a chance to speak with the photographer.
How did you get into photography?
Taking photographs to capture everyday life has always been part of my family. I remember seeing childhood photos of my parents, even a portrait of my great-grandfather, so that felt natural. But photography as an art form only became present for me when I suddenly had a fear of blindness. Looking back now, it’s strange to think I wanted to capture photographs which one day I might not be able to see … but perhaps the fear of losing my sight was the catalyst to capture as much as possible before that chance disappeared. Another pivotal point was walking past a large Rodney Smith in a gallery window – it really affected my sense of how a photograph can convey feeling.
You have one of the largest collections of Leica cameras and lenses in the world. Why Leica specifically?
It actually didn’t start off with Leica. In the beginning I tried out every camera and lens I could get, in the hope of finding something perfect. The closer I got to perfection, the bigger and heavier the camera, lens and all the equipment would get – and the photograph lost character: it was increasingly sharp but had no emotion. Leica fascinated me mainly in two ways. First, Leicas maintain their small form factor, even when they get more expensive. Second, whenever I tried another brand and then sold it, I’d lose money. But with Leica I usually didn’t lose much or would even make a small profit, which was a strange way to earn money at a young age.
Can you still remember your first Leica and the first lens?
It was an M3 and the first generation Noctilux. But it was not quite love at first purchase, it was more like heartbreak for the one that got away! This was at the time when autofocus was improving rapidly, so I was looking for something with autofocus. I briefly experimented with a Leica to find out what it was all about, but the manual focus and vintage lens didn’t quite fit what I was looking for at the time. So I sold them but then realized there was nothing that could match the experience of looking through the M’s viewfinder and the unique image quality of that Noctilux.
You take pictures primarily in black and white; so your images appear timeless and very intense. How would you describe your photographs and your way of taking pictures?
I like images that look uncomplicated on the surface but cut deep into our hearts. The emotion of the image is more important than the rules of photography. Despite using my eyes to photograph, I shoot from an emotional point of view.
Your mostly candid photographs captivate the viewer, and stand out from among today’s flood of images. To what degree do you plan your motifs, or do you simply go with the flow and recognise the right moment in all the casualness of daily life?
The open flare or the wide-open choice stems from both the technical aspect and the resulting photographs. Technically I’m trying to push equipment to its limit and see how good it is. But the real challenge it how to use that limit, that extreme depth of field, to focus, to maintain composition, and most importantly to capture the right moment and emotional connection with the subject in that split second.
Is there a camera or a lens you do not yet own, and which you would like to take pictures with?
I’ve been experimenting with almost everything for decades, so not at this point. But publishing my latest book Iris & Lens: 50 Leica lenses to collect and photograph with Steidl this year and visiting many galleries, I’ve been learning much about many great photographers of the past, and I can already feel my curiosity cooking.
You’re a very successful businessman. How do you find the time and quiet to capture such impressive photographs?
The opposite to this question is actually true: business is always 24/7, so photography is actually not a break from it but the fuel that inspires many parts of business – whether it’s a new way of looking at things, a new inspiration, or a clear and focused vision.
For years you just took photographs in private. What moved you to now published the double volume Iris & Lens?
Credit here must go to Dr. Andreas Kaufmann: he’d tell me that a good photograph is not complete without printing, so I experimented with printing some photographs and it began to take on a life of its own. I’d already shared my photos and collections anonymously for a while, but the decision to use my real name came through a last-minute meeting with the people involved, who felt it would lend it more credibility.
Born in 1976, Ken Narula is a passionate photographer and collector of Leica cameras and lenses. The businessman, who lives in London and Bangkok, has a degree in Economics and Finances, and owns a number of companies. Over the decades, he has built up one of the largest collections of Leica lenses, and has travelled round the world with his museum-worthy pieces, taking photographs and drawing the strength he needs from them for his work. Find out more about his photography on his Instagram account.