The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 4. The Crucial Shot
From a Single Image to a Complete Story
Are you ready to take some photos? You are now familiar with the technical aspects of your camera and lenses, but that is only half of the story. Technology alone doesn’t guarantee successful images.
Have you ever heard of a famous author who attributes the success of a book to a particular type of pen? Or a musician who cites a specific brand of instrument as the fount of his virtuosity? I am sure you would agree this is rarely the case. Of course, many artists have emotional ties to the tools they use and their tools can vary in their suitability for the job.
The same is true for photographers. A particular type of camera can be perfect for the assignment at hand and may provoke an emotional reaction in the photographer. People often see a kind of cause-and-effect relationship between photographers and the cameras they use, and interpret this as the basis for the quality of the resulting photos. Many camera buyers still seem to think that they will automatically produce great pictures if they use a renowned camera from an established manufacturer—but believe me, this is not the case!
So you have acquired a Leica M, perhaps in spite of or perhaps because of its limitations. You have already reached an emotional decision by making your purchase and, in doing so, you have become a member of the Leica community—a distinction that means you will regularly find yourself having to justify why you use the apparent anachronism you are carrying. But we don’t mind all that; we simply want to get out and shoot some photos.
So what do you want to photograph? Are you going to head out and wait for your images to happen? What kinds of images are you waiting for?
You know how it is when you are toying with the idea of buying a new car: you suddenly see the model you are thinking about everywhere you go. Or you are thinking about where to go on your next vacation and every conversation you have or magazine article you read is about the same destination. Is this a coincidence? Of course not!
The fact that you are thinking about a specific topic increases your awareness of it and you react to stimuli that were previously uninteresting, even though the actual number of stimuli hasn’t changed.
From a photographer’s point of view, once you have decided on a theme, simply waiting for photos to happen makes no sense. You may get lucky and stumble across an interesting subject or two, but you won’t be in control of the situation.
A while ago, I bought Peter Turnley’s book French Kiss, which is basically a declaration of love for the city of Paris and is full of images of kissing couples. My first thought on leafing through the book was that my home city is nothing like the French capital, but I quickly found that Hamburg, too, is full of kissing couples—I just hadn’t noticed before.
What Does All this Have to Do with Our Special Kind of Photography?
And why am I so keen to get you thinking this way? Capturing individual images that please you is a great start but is probably not going to satisfy you in the long run. You have acquired a camera that begs like no other to be used for reportage: a discipline seen by many as the ultimate photographic challenge.
But before we go too far, let’s take a look at what the term reportage really means. What is the difference between a single image and a multi-image story, and does arranging images in a sequence automatically make them reportage?
Reportage-style photography is always based on a sequence of images and has an overriding theme that gives the sequence a degree of innate coherence. Put simply: Reportage tells a story in pictures.
How to Tell a Story
There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories. You can shoot in black-and-white or color. You can stick to a single lens or you can vary your angle of view. You can select a particular perspective or vary your viewpoint from shot to shot. You can work exclusively with available light or shoot using flash and other artificial light sources. There are endless technical options when it comes to building up a photographic story.
There are just as many options when it comes to content: You can tell a story by following an event as it unfolds, or by taking a serial approach that includes a single theme or object in each shot of a sequence. For example, when Pope John Paul I died, the world’s top-flight photojournalists descended on Rome to photograph the events taking place in and around the Vatican. The events themselves were the theme. Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin took a different approach, putting more emphasis on the grieving faithful. The result was an incredibly moving photo story, which he called “Vigil at St. Peter’s Square,” and which is a great example of the serial approach to reportage photography.
Your job is to decide which technical and stylistic devices you want to use to tell your own story. Do you already know which story you want to tell?
I was fortunate to find my way slowly into the world of reportage photography through my work as a photojournalist. When I was starting out, I was sent off to cover low-profile events where there wasn’t much that could go wrong. The important thing was that I brought back a well-exposed, in-focus image. However, I soon discovered that the more images I captured, the more ended up in print. This encouraged me to start covering events from a variety of angles using different perspectives and a range of lenses. During this period, I learned much from my editorial colleagues who had begun their careers taking photos, as they pointed out what a story lacked and what I could do better. This all meant that I was given specific dates and clear guidance regarding the themes I was sent to photograph.
The following sections are intended to help you find your own stories without the editorial support that I enjoyed, regardless of whether you are working professionally or simply brushing up your photo skills as a hobbyist.
Developing Your Own Story
I am assuming that nobody is giving you assignments, there are no financial goals involved, and you can photograph whatever you like. This is a relaxed place to start from, but are you really relaxed? Or have you discovered that it’s not as simple as you thought to come up with a story?
It’s actually quite hard to find and photograph good stories among the everyday events that surround us. You could, of course, put off starting until your next vacation, but don’t you want to get started right away?
Where can you look for a story when life around you is so normal? A good place to start is a family event such as a birthday party, a wedding, or a christening that you can photograph from start to finish. You can document an event like this as an outsider looking in, or you can shoot from the point of view of the main protagonist. The advantage of shooting at a family event is that it will probably only take a day or two; the downside is that you are likely to be so busy shooting that you will miss the party. Another good place to start is in your own neighborhood. Try starting a long-term documentary project about life around a busy square or park. Or how about recording life at a shopping center in your area? You can also use the unspoken trust between yourself and your partner, children, or other members of your family as the basis for a photo sequence. All that really matters is the basic idea and your will to succeed. You needn’t be afraid to rework ideas that other photographers have already used. It is extremely unlikely that you will ever find a subject that hasn’t been photographed many times before.
What makes your story unique is you. Your knowledge, your experience, your hopes, and your fears are yours alone, and they form the basis of your highly personal view of the world. This is the foundation on which to build your work.
Just as kissing couples form the binding element in French Kiss, a repeated element such as people using mobile phones, or inanimate objects such as car parks (an idea realized by Magnum photographer Martin Parr) can be the sparks that inspire a story. Elliott Erwitt (another Magnum photographer) shot a series of photos of people visiting museums, although his most famous photos have dogs as their common subject. I often go to polo matches and photograph life off the field; documenting my hometown of Hamburg is another of my long-term projects. The latter is not a traditional city documentary but rather a highly personal view of the place where I live. I don’t try to show the city from its best side and I certainly don’t aim to produce images that will please everyone. My main motivation is to express my own emotions in pictures. For the last 12 years, I have also been documenting my daughter’s development. I make an annual photo calendar for friends and relatives, and I have even considered giving her a book of her own life for her 18th birthday.
I am always working on several projects at a time, some of which are easier to plan than others. Though they may differ in their approaches and the stories they convey, I enjoy all of my projects. They all have a personal element and nobody has to motivate me to carry on with my work.
You can only create truly great images if the story you are telling affects you personally. I will talk some more about how to find the personal angle in the next chapter.
Photo Exercise #4
Take a look at several photo books and magazines. Try to discover why some stories appeal to you and others don’t. Look closely and analyze the sequences of images involved. Consider the viewpoints the photographers have chosen and try to discern the type of lens they used to capture each image.
The St. Pauli Piers
This reportage gives you a taste of life at the famous landing piers in the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg. In contrast to the long-term projects introduced in other chapters, I shot this sequence in one day especially for this book. The fact that Leica had loaned me an M Monochrom to test was all the encouragement I needed to get out and shoot a new story. This sequence is also designed to demonstrate that you don’t need to travel far or visit spectacular events to produce exciting images. The St. Pauli Piers are a public space and it was easy to find out a little about their history. While you shoot, keep the journalist’s five “W” questions in mind: Who? What? When? Where? Why? You won’t always be able to answer them all photographically, but they provide a good set of guidelines. My gear consisted of the M Monochrom, my M9 as a backup, and my 35mm and 50mm lenses. My bag was so light I was able to leave the car at home and travel by subway to my chosen location. Looking for a parking space can be a chore and can seriously spoil your mood before you even begin to shoot. The St. Pauli Piers are also accessible by public ferry, so I was able to shoot from the water, too. This partially answered the “where” question, although the weather was poor and I wasn’t able to capture the overview I was hoping to snap from the boat.
Back on land, I did some reconnaissance at the water’s edge with my camera at the ready. I noticed a man selling tickets for harbor tours (“who”), some palm trees a café owner had set up on one of the pontoons, as well as seagulls, ducks, food stalls, countless boats, and even more tourists (“what”). At this point I concentrated on trying to register new impressions rather than falling back into old habits. The weather wasn’t particularly good, but do we really need blue sky and sunshine to take photos? Great photos depend on what you make of the situation you find yourself in. Rain, mist, and diffuse light all have their own special charm if you are prepared to open your mind and immerse yourself in your surroundings.
Palm trees in Hamburg are an unusual sight. The surreal effect is underscored by the deliberate blur, while the sloped composition increases the tension.
The next step involved forming a plan from all the things I had observed. The palm trees had a bizarre effect that I really wanted to capture. The piers themselves were often reflected in the windows of the tourist boats, making an interesting subject with people involved, too. I waited for one of the boats to land and hoped to catch a moment with plenty going on. On this particular day I was lucky.
Fish sandwiches are an integral part of the St. Pauli Piers experience and were top of my list of must-have subjects. I really wanted to get some shots of a heavily tattooed woman selling the sandwiches, but I couldn’t gain her attention, which was a shame. She remained dismissive, even when I bought a sandwich, and then when she put on a jacket, the moment was lost. I took some shots of the ducks, although I wasn’t particularly happy with the results.
The man selling tickets for harbor tours made up for the disappointment and he didn’t hesitate to give me permission to photograph him. We chatted for a while and he told me some of his life story while I snapped away. Although I observed him quite closely, he didn’t want to tell me his real name: “Everyone here calls me Captain Birdseye!” A few days later, I went back and gave him a print of one my shots.
Now all I needed was the “where.” I moved away from the water and took some shots of the old warehouse building with its distinctive clock tower and famous water level indicator. The results won’t win any prizes, but at least the shot includes the “when,” too. The only thing missing was the “why,” and that was easily answered by the hours I spent getting to know the piers and their people. Shooting this story was a lot of fun and sifting through the images that evening made me really happy.
The reflections of the piers in the windows of the boat introduce a third dimension into the frame. The dominant lines of the composition all lead to the man hauling the rope, giving this image a clean but interesting look.
The reflections of people waiting to buy fish sandwiches add visual and contextual depth
Captain Birdseye selling tickets for harbor tours. In this shot, I deliberately reduced the depth of field to obscure the distracting background, and the manicured hand of the woman buying the ticket adds an offbeat element. The overall composition doesn’t follow any traditional rules.
There is no reason a story shouldn’t contain two images of the same person as long as they are sufficiently varied.
This image combines classic composition with a wide-open aperture and a slight tilt of the camera.
The clock tower with its flood level indicator is a tourist magnet. The foreground blur is deliberate.
Water and boats are the lifeblood of every harbor town. This image is framed perfectly by the bollard on the left, the three-masted ship Rickmer Rickmers on the right, the Hertha Abicht in the foreground, and the pontoon bridge in the distance.