I ask myself every day: “Why do I take photos? Why do I feel the urge to record what I see?” And the answer is more or less the same every day. I don’t feel that urge to actually document what I see, at least not for myself. The only reason I use my camera is to make contact with a world I understand less every day. I use my camera to interact with people, to force them and myself into making contact. At the same time the camera helps me to keep a safe distance of what ever is happening. So I can look at it without any judgment or even without forming an opinion. I merely try to observe and hopefully understand whatever it is I’m looking at.
So why not use an unloaded M6 or M7 ( analog Leica cameras working with film, for those who don’t know) instead of the Leica Monochrom? Here’s the tricky part. I would love to do that. It would safe me a huge amount of time in terms of selecting, post processing, uploading photos etc etc. On the other hand… I need to conquer my place on earth, find a way to make a living and - for some weird reason – I feel the need to be seen as an individual just like everybody else. I’m also trying to give meaning to my life in some way. I try to get better at the things I do. I hope to be more successful everyday and I work hard trying to exceed the expectations people might have of me.
I guess this is what it comes down to: “Making sure other people confirm my existence.” I’m pretty sure this is what everybody does. In my case, people give me conformation by saying my pictures are beautiful or that my blogs are shit. Whether they recognize my work or condemn it doesn’t really matter, either way they confirm whatever I’m doing and therefor that I am alive. (I prefer the positive conformation above anything else by the way, like most people would.)
Isn’t this what everybody does? Whether you are a successful businessman, a caring mother, praying to a God, or begging for food, drugs or alcohol. Everybody is just searching for the same thing in a different context: “a way to give meaning to their lives and an acknowledgement of them actually being alive.” I feel truly grateful to have found a way, which comes closest to what I’d like to think I am… an observer.
I’ve been traveling India now for about one and a half month. I’ve seen a lot and there’s many more to come. On the program are Amritsar, city of the golden temple, Rajasthan with it’s blue city Johdpur and its pink city Jaipur, countless colored saris and the endless yellow sands of the dessert. The white sandy beaches of the Andaman Islands are still a place I want to see and there is so many many more.
The crazy thing is, I’m going to show you all these places without color, as I have totally fallen in love with the Leica Monochrom. There were some times I wanted to grab the M9 again, sometimes I even did… but even most of those pictures I ended up converting in Silver Efex Pro. To me the lack of color, takes away the distraction of just that same color. All is suddenly stripped down to emotion, movement, light and energy. Yes color is one of the most obvious in India, but what is left when you take away the most obvious ends up to be often a lot more interesting.
The fact that the Monochrom is so very defined in its dynamic range - specially in blacks - and that it is amazing in sharpness, makes this camera an absolute treat to work with. Because of the high ISO possibilities, combined with the Summicron 35mm it’s pretty much all I need to carry around, no flash needed.
I guess I’ve made the change I wanted to make, from DSLR to rangefinder. I now cary a small bag, light on my shoulder. It replaces the heavy load of 2.8 zoom lenses and 2 pro Nikon bodies. A bag that would easily top 10 kg. But I’ve taken it one step further. One step closer to, what to me has become the very basic of photography: One camera, one lens and a monochrome image. I feel lucky and grateful. I can roam the world, looking at it’s beauty and capture this in exactly the way I observe it. In its naked, vulnerable, most honest way. To me that’s in black & white… in Monochrom.
I’ve been asked why I only take photographs of the slums and poor people and not of the richer part of India and the people who indulge in luxury. I’ve not only been asked here, but on facebook and Flickr as well. I even got asked so many times, that I thought it would be a wise idea to write a blog about it.
First I need to explain in this matter, that I don’t make this journey on an assignment. It’s my own trip, no rules, no expectations, nothing. I’m not earning any money with it, I pay everything my self - therefor I travel light and cheap - and I really like it this way. I like walking planet earth without having to go any where, without having to arrange things, to be honest… without even thinking to much. If I had to judge my own pictures, those are the best as well… the ones that I wasn’t really thinking, but I was just roaming the streets, seeing whatever I would see. Sometimes it’s hard to do it this way… Most of the time I do my best not to think of a budget, on how long I can last this way. Most of the time this works out really well… sometimes the “real world” kicks in and I do worry for a day or two.
Anyway, back to the story I wanted to tell. Why slums and poor people and not the rich in India. There are a few reasons for that.
First of all; I’m lazy. For me to photograph the rich people, I have to go out of my normal way. I have to look them up, often go to places that cost me money, and than try hard to get into conversation with people I think might be interesting. If I do get in this conversation, I have to convince them to let me take pictures.This isn’t really my expertise. And I therefor don’t really go to these places… Sometimes it can be nice. Once in a while - most of the time on invite - I like to go there… I even really like days and evenings like this. But that is only once in a while. At home, in the Netherlands, I occasionally get these invites. I get asked to photograph these kind of situations. I’ve even blogged about this in the past. When I do get there, I love it. I feel like a little kid looking at a movie from a distance. I can fit in, but don’t really feel part of it. Now traveling through India it’s the other way around. If I want pictures like this, I have to search for these places. I have to put in an effort. I have to ask if I can please take pictures during an event or at somebody’s house. I just don’t really feel the urge to have these pictures.
Second: The slums I can roam… I can walk around through the streets, see what happens. People come up to me, talk to me, offer me chai and often don’t mind me taking their picture. Interaction is instant and almost every time pleasant. Even if they don’t want me to take their picture, we have a laugh and a chat. I have to say, having a small camera instead of the big SLR does help here. Any way, this is different with richer people, specially the real rich ones. They live in bigger houses. Often these houses are behind fences and many times there even is a guard. They are just not that easy to approach. Here I immediately refer back to my first point… I’m lazy. I don’t really want, and certainly I don’t need, to go through all this trouble. It’s not that I’m doing this project on how all different communities in India live… I’m just sharing my journey with you and therefor the things that I see and find interesting. Things that happen without me doing anything to cause it.. other than saying yes every now and again.
Third: The few times I did try to go out of my way and document the working class - for example the Dabba Wallahs - or a real rich Indian person, things get complicated right away. I need to pay money or suddenly I am very limited in the time I get. Most of the time I’m all of a sudden not dealing with the person I want to photograph, but with three or four other people as well… who all want money. I’m not saying this is wrong or right, bad or good… I don’t really have an opinion on this, other than that I don’t want the hassle. And there’s the simple fact that I don’t really want to spend this money. Don’t get me wrong… If I really like to experience whatever they ask me the money for… I’m happy to pay for it. (As long as it’s asked in a respectful manner). Only this doesn’t happen that often. I don’t really HAVE to experience anything. When it’s there, it’s there… if not, no problem!
So there, I have tried to explain it. I’m not posting my pictures because I want to give you a full view of India. I’m showing my pictures not because I have a higher cause or a story to tell. The only story I’m showing you is the world that I see during my journey and the way I show you is through the lens of my camera. I hope you like it!
I don’t pretend to be even in the vicinity of a photographer as great as Henri Cartier Bresson, but every now and again I like to tell myself I’m on my way to get a little bit closer… small steps. Today I had a very slow day, photographically. But if there is just one shot you have been waiting for, suddenly is there… these moments make it all worth while! Hope you like it to!
So I got lost… again… on purpose.
Heading for the Mumbai slums, I found myself in a city within a city. Narrow ally’s, stairs leading to little box houses, one put on top of the other. I went from bright, sunny and very busy streets into dark, nearly black and very tranquil ally’s and back again. I found it hard and challenging to go back and forward with my settings, including the ISO. Many times I forgot, many didn’t work out, but some did very well.
I’ll definitely will be heading back one of the next days, ‘cause I haven’t seen half yet. Besides I really like to practice the settings some more. I’m happy that I did choose to take the Monochrom, especially in some of the low light conditions, where I had to go for ISO 1600 or even 2500. I have tried to use the summicron 75mm a bit more, but I guess the 35mm is just my lens. Maybe somewhere in the future I’ll try Cartier Bresson’s 50mm. But for now I’m stuck on the 35.
So here we are again… deciding to go color or monochrome. I just arrived in Mumbai and walked around for about an hour. Already I love it - probably because of the wonderful weather up here - and already I got lost in one of the slums. My first instinct was to grab the M9, thinking the Leica Monochrom wouldn’t do justice to the upbeat atmosphere that is going around in the slums. The colors are beautiful, the people friendly and they have no problem with posing in front of the camera. Another big difference, they don’t ask money for it! (Except for the kids – that or chocolate.)
So I took the pictures I took with the M9 and converted them in Silver Efex Pro. I think they look stunning (and I, purposely, didn’t use the color sliders) BUT… what I assumed did happen with a few pictures. They get a drama feel that I think doesn’t completely do justice to the atmosphere that was there… Even though I really like them in black & white. Dilemma. Especially if you take in account that quite a few pictures didn’t work out so well because of slow shutterspeed - 1/15 sec, because I didn’t want to use to high ISO with the M9. Witch is no problem for the Monochrom. ( Hopefully the M is going to be as good as they say it is!) I should have brought a second 35mm instead of the 75mm (as I rarely use it) then it would have been easier to switch cameras. Now, for comfort, I decide up front what to shoot with.
Hope to hear your opinions. On my facebookpage I posted an album with some more color vs black & white that I shot in this hour.
A fortnight ago a girl got molested and raped in a bus in Delhi. This violent act caused an outcry throughout India, demanding the six perpetrators that were arrested to be sentenced to death.
On December 29, the girl died of her injuries in Singapre, turning the six men into murderers and causing new demonstrations in major cities in India. I was at the big demonstration at Gantar Mantar, Delhi. People not only ask for justice just for this case. The are demanding new laws and new ways to ensure women are safer in the streets of Delhi. As one third of Indian women has at least once been mentally or physically abused in their life.
Update: Hearings in court started today (Thursday 3-1-2013). Lawyers refused to defend the offenders. Prosecutor is likely to go for the death penalty with five of the men. The sixth one is possibly a minor (17 years), but this is still under investigation.
Because it’s really getting winter in Varanasi now, the Ganga river is producing a lot of fog. This mist stays pretty much all day and makes it quite difficult to photograph in the gahts (the steps down to the Ganga) because disability is not that good. So I do what I like to do most anyways, I try to get lost in the small alleys and streets that form the city of Varanasi. Here a complete different world enfolds and shows me a city that is constantly changing and at the same time provides me with a pictures that could have been taken 50 years ago. Because the fog filters out most of the sun and the streets are very narrow, I often shoot at 800 ISO or even higher, when using the Monochrom. Using the M9 I try to stay at 400. Getting spoiled with the little noise the Monochrom gives.
a lot of the pictures are taken in the little alleyways at points where the light does fall in because a building or part of a building is “missing” or because a staircase to a roof, provides a small ray of light. These situations are ideal for the Monochrom. Beautiful contrasts are the result and this is exactly what you want with this camera. At night the fog is gone and the lights in the gahts make beautiful contrast. At these times, the Ganga is a perfect backdrop. Still sometimes I just really need to switch to the M9 because, even though I started looking in a complete different way at colors - more from a contrast perspective - I know a color picture when I see one.
Yes, the pictures that come strait out of the Leica Monochrome are good. Perfect even. But… just like with film I find them somewhat flat, grey. So I still use silver efex pro 2 to give them contrast, some punch, burn a little, dodge a little or even add vignetting because that’s something my Summicron 35mm doesn’t give on its own.
In Lightroom I don’t really have to do a lot… maybe sometimes pull a picture up a little, as I tend to under expose a lot of my pictures. As the Monochrom is really good in the shadows, but your screwed if you make a over exposed picture. And when I shoot at night with 6400 ISO or higher I do use the noise reduction tool with complete satisfaction.
Anyway, here’s something I don’t do a lot, just because I like to show you what I saw when I took the picture. ( taking the picture I’ve already converted it to B&W and put it through post process in my head.) But to show you what I do, here goes!
So I finally decided to do the test… I started walking around with the M9 again. See if India really needed the color. I had to see for myself. The pictures I show here are taken with the M9 and afterwards converted with Silver Effex Pro. There are a few (see comments) that I actually took the time to switch and use both monochrom and the M9.
I think it’s fair to say, I really have fallen in love with the Monochrom. Keep in mind that my way of looking at things changed in the past weeks as well. Everything I look at, in my head is converted to B&W, therefor, maybe I don’t see the color contrast anymore. Although I think the lady in yellow, turned towards the blue doors, a high school color contrast, works better and more dramatic in B&W. I didn’t expect that to be honest.
The only picture, according to me, that really needs the color is the one of the women in red. The one with the fire also does better with the fire actually being orange/ yellow. And the man near the fence I actually like more in color as well. The lady in blue on the white chair is a tie, if you ask me… situation changed, so it’s hard to judge.
All in all, I guess I’ll be switching between the Monochrom and the M9 a little bit more. Especially now I’m in Varanasi, witch they say is, the capital of color. Of course just to keep my mind sharp on color as well as B&W and second of all, just because color does have it’s charm as well. Still, the sharpness of the Monochrom, the high ISO that makes it possible to shoot at night as well, the drama of B&W… I really like the Monochrom. I wonder if the M will give me these possibilities in the future…
PS looking back at this post a couple of times, I guess Black & White really is just my thing ;-)
Picture above, shot with the Monochrom
Picture above, shot with the Monochrom