Ulla Hebgen: A Decisive Moment and Discovery of the Leica M9

A borrowed camera, an engaging subject, and an unexpected opportunity led to a life-changing adventure.

As a pro, I know that commercial photography demands creativity in the face of impossible deadlines, but ironically we hardly ever have time to express our own personal ideas. Once you enter the wonderful world of advertising your role is circumscribed by the strict demands of the client and the job at hand. This intensity and focus is the very reason we feel an enormous urge to refresh ourselves, to rediscover and experience life. What we are seeking is something authentic, something indefinable that’s not optimized nor stylized to fit a preconceived idea. I love this personal and intimate kind of photography. Indeed, at this very moment, I, too, am discarding the superfluous and getting back to basics.

I cannot and will not “steal” a shot from a distance. I need to be up close and let the moment and my intuition dictate the outcome. At that moment it’s just me and my subject. And when it comes to people, photography always means revealing something about yourself. This is the essence of my creative process, and for me M-photography is continually evolving. It’s my own special way of finding and taking opportunities to get under the skin and into the worlds of other people.

The M9: My camera of choice

Everything alluded to above started to unfold on the day I borrowed a Leica M9. I’m not sure why, but it was clear in an instant that this was destined to be my camera. We were booked on an assignment to shoot a management team in Prague. It was during one of the short breaks that I was able to get out to capture my very first street life shots with the camera. It was then that I shot my first ‘decisive moment,’ a picture that now has its pride of place atop my desk, a constant reminder of Prague and my experience in rediscovering the essentials of photography.

My first Leica M9 shoot

While working, the scene outside the window entered my peripheral vision, and I noticed a man driving up in a car. His energetic driving style quickly attracted my attention and I took a closer look. I saw a man. In fact, I saw someone I knew, wearing a fur hat that was quite large. I instinctively knew that it wasn’t simply worn for protection against the cold, and I immediately sensed that today there was something unusual about him. Hilmar Weckert, an artist and my good friend, appeared to radiate a special energy that I wanted to capture with my camera.

The borrowed Leica lay close at hand. It seemed to beckon to me as though we were two souls who wanted to get to know each other, but too shy. However, I soon grabbed the camera firmly, and made straightaway for the door. I knew instantly that my photographer’s intuition hadn’t led me astray. Before me was a man – bursting with energy, an inspiring sight. I thought to myself, and then said aloud, ‘Just what the doctor ordered – come in.’

In some strange way, what was about to happen in the next half-hour was destined to happen exactly as it did. Each of us was infused with a unique and indescribable inner fire. I let it burn brightly, in the hope of getting a really great shot. For Hilmar, it was the urge to communicate that moved him. Within moments, I was drenched in his shower of words.

I began to shoot, fascinated, excited, and imbued with an incredible sense of the power. I asked him if he minded me taking a few shots of him. We squeezed two espressos out of the machine and sat down at the table. The room was wonderfully lit by wintery daylight coming through the windows—could I ask for more? We talked and drank coffee and I casually picked up the camera as if I had known it for years, and simply began to shoot. I listened and shot. My thoughts were saying, ‘f1.4’ … ‘keep it open’ … ‘don’t stop down, whatever you do.’ All of a sudden, I was much more conscious of what these shots were going to mean to me. In some inexplicable way, a strange harmony captured my heart and soul and I knew had to keep shooting. My pulse began to race and my urge to stay with the feeling and the flow, but without pushing Hilmar, grew and grew. It was fantastic—Hilmar clearly saw in me the powers of creativity that are such a vibrant part of both our lives. We alternated between talk, photography and short pauses to catch my breath. In the meantime Hilmar was orchestrating his words with fast, incessant gesturing—and I was shooting wide open. The situation kept on changing from one second to the next and neither of us kept still the entire time!

I was shattered by the time it was over… after all, this was the first series I ever shot with an M9. Incredible. My shots truly captured his inner nature in a way that really moved me emotionally. As I’m describing this, I realize that the experience was truly transformational. It led me back to a place that’s much closer to the essence of photography, a place where my real motivation lies. I gave it my all. I was dripping with sweat and actually had a splitting headache from concentrating so hard. But I also had a big smile on my face because I knew deeply how much it all meant to me. The Leica legend lives on!

Yes, the M9 fits my hands like a glove. The sharpness and look of the shots taken with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH lens are fantastic. Best of all, the camera lets me of express my own free will without getting in the way. It’s a dependable companion that stays cool in the thick of things, inspiring and discrete. Its handling is extremely intuitive, and it embodies the essentials like nothing else. The Leica M9 is more than a camera; it’s a philosophy!

Update

Today I shoot with my own M9, mostly with the Summilux M 1:1.4/50mm ASPH, but just one lens isn’t enough for me, so the new Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 mm ASPH is an absolute must. It’s uncompromisingly sharp, brilliant and extremely compact, and its precise focusing is a real pleasure. I’m fascinated by its ability to reproduce the finest details even at close shooting distances and it’s really fast which enhances its versatility. The 50mm lens is a classic for street photography of course, but the 35mm lens is extremely versatile for almost any kind of photography. Yes, I’m hooked!

By Ulla Hebgen

To see more of Ulla’s work, visit her website at http://www.ullahebgen.com/. For more information about the Leica M9 Camera, visit http://www.m.leica-camera.com/ or find a dealer near you here the Leica Camera Dealer Locator tool.

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30 comments

  • Congrats on starting this new blog. Lovely story, and wonderful accompanying images. It’s an exciting time to be a Leica Photographer, and I appreciate the new efforts in outreach.

    • Leica Internet Team

      Thanks for the kind words Ashwin! We’re glad you liked the post and the blog!

  • wonderful story about the M9 and f1.4. can’t wait to try it out myself. looking forward to everything on this new blog.

    • Leica Internet Team

      Thanks for the comment! We’re glad that you enjoyed the story and are looking forward to more from our new Leica Blog! You’ll have to let us know what you think after you get a chance to test out the M9 too!

  • What a fabulous bit of writing. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to sum up how I feel about my M9. You nailed it completely. Brilliant. Great shots too. Thanks

    • Leica Internet Team

      Thanks for comment Benjy! We couldn’t agree more that Ulla beautifully expressed her M9 experience!

  • Nice to see Leica’s new blog presence and a great first story to kick the blog off! I look forward to future posts…and to trying the Summilux myself.

    • Leica Internet Team

      Thanks for the comment Bishop! We’re glad you liked the first story and hope you enjoy many more to come! Once you try the Summilux, you’ll have to share what you think with us!

  • Darn, reading people reviews about Leica cameras, tempts me to try a Leica again. My first experience with the M8 wasn’t all shine and wonderful, perhaps it is cause I was relatively new to photography that time and had no idea what is a rangefinder. Now with more experience and knowledge about photography, it makes me lust to try out another Leica rangefinder again.

    Thanks for posting a wonderful story. As I am now busy with my daily work, I didn’t get to shoot much and having a DSLR walking around with me attracts too much attention, I wonder if a Leica Rangefinder can change that.

  • Since April 2010 owner of M9 with 28/f2 and 90/f2. And as a former Nikon owner I made the best choice there is, sold all the Nikon equipment and stepped into the world of Leica.
    Although Nikon makes good pictures, I always spent hours on improving photos. With Leica that’s history. I shoot and that’s the picture I was aiming for!
    The new 35/f1.4 will be my next goal.

    Thanks for this blog
    Hemelrijk

  • hi great work i am still whaiting for m 50mm1/4 asph and now thinking to by the new 35mm 1/4 do you think overall to have 1 lens this shot by the one.
    Thanks in advance for replying( i am form belgium so my englisch is …)
    Kind regards eugene

    • Leica Internet Team

      It is a philosophical question!

      It is an excellent exercise to use just one lens to learn to know it thoroughly before you move to the next one. The writer would choose the 50 mm first, but a lot of Leica photographers would choose a 35mm. Choose your team!

  • I’m looking forward to checking out this blog regularly.

    I really enjoyed the story and photos from Ulla.

    I particularly like the “brother” photo with the “ghetto blaster”… lovely composition, expression, textures and conversion.

    I have my M9 for just a few weeks now, with an older 50 summicron to tide me over until the 50 summilux ASPH I ordered comes in.

    By all accounts it’s going to be quite a long wait, but when I see photos like these I really want it NOW 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  • Great story and great idea to start the Leica Blog. I do understand Ulla H. I consider myself and my Leica M9 as kind of symbiotic relationship. Perhaps I should blogg 😉 !
    Keep up the Good Work!
    Kind regards from Sweden

  • my God, i thought you had been going to chip in with some decisive insight at the end there, not leave it with we leave it to you to decide.

  • Great story and great idea to start the Leica Blog. I do understand Ulla H. I consider myself and my Leica M9 as kind of symbiotic relationship. Perhaps I should blogg 😉 !
    Keep up the Good Work!
    Kind regards from Sweden

  • I enjoyed reading it. I need to read more on this topic..Thanks for sharing a nice info..Any way I am going to subscribe for your feed and I hope you publish again soon.

  • Nice story and great photos. Congrats to this new Leica blog! Ciao.

  • My M9 is on order, arriving soon. One lens, preference street/reportage. I’m leaning more towards 35mm than 50mm for the moment. Really need that special creamy Leica look. Maybe a 50mm too but only later? One question…..Which lens…..Summilux or Summicron? Which one.

  • I have never owned a Leica, though I have often thought about it. I find something interesting and Leica-related on the web and think hmmm… and then, I look closely, and I realise yet again that the camera isn’t really much to do with it. Everything depends on the photographer and the world around him at the moment of shooting.

    Many years ago I worked in a studio that did tv room-sets as part of its work; an M3 was often employed for that, and so was a 21mm lens. I remember that printing that stuff, black/white, certainly did provide a different ‘colour’ of print than did the rest of the studio’s equipment. I really was impressed, which is why I remember that today, forty-five years later!

    Much is made of the photo-reportage aspect in conjunction with rangefinder cameras; frankly, you can shoot via pre-selected depth of field just as cleverly with a reflex as with anything else. Further, shooting wide open, you get a far better idea of how your main subject stands out or fails to stand out against the background.

    People publish enthusiastic reports about the wide-open qualities of non-reflex lenses; to tell the truth, none of these glories ever show in the sites where the claims are made. Just do a web search and you have to do one of two things: accept that I am right; accept that you have a blind spot when it comes to objective evaluation.

    This could all be seen as an attack on the rangefinder camera. It is no such thing; I think that all cameras are as good as their owners.

    But, where I would give the rangefinder the top spot is in the matter of portability, the lightness of one body and a single lens counts for a great deal – particularly if you put yourself into a situation where you are simply standing/walking around waiting to see what fish you can hook. There, a digital reflex is a pig. But, on a controlled job, then that’s a very different matter!

    Rob Campbell

  • Good article great photos. Still waiting and waiting for the new 35mm in Bangkok.Thailand.

  • As a Leica M9-P owner I really appreciate the blog. Nice comments and great links. Being in the Visual Arts area I appreciate the comments from all of you. Image is the message and design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Have great light!

  • I find it often quite inspiring when other professional photographers talk about their experience with Leica. I needed my time to settle on the M9 for my journalistic wedding work, but it was worth it.
    Shooting with a Leica envolves me more emotionally and that is a good thing if you want to explore your creativity.

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