A leading pro uses Leica’s innovative new super-speed wide-angle lens on assignment and gives his candid impressions.
Chris Weeks, a seasoned editorial and street photographer based in Los Angeles, is acclaimed for creating photographs that capture his subjects with unflinching honesty and disarming directness. His best pictures are imbued with the very same spirit that characterizes the work of the great photojournalists of the 20th century—a feeling of unmanipulated authenticity, of life captured on the fly, at the incisive instant, as it really is, rather than being shoehorned into a pre-conceived notion. His work hovers breathlessly between an artist’s keen insight and controlled vision, and the spontaneity of life itself as it unfolds in front of his camera. Not surprisingly, Weeks is a lifelong Leica enthusiast and he still runs some film through his well-worn Leica MP, but the Leica M9 is now his camera of choice. “When I first shot with the M9, I was blown away,” he exults. “I knew in a heartbeat that here, at last, was the camera that delivered the totality of the Leica M shooting experience in digital form—all the benefits of digital workflow along with the responsiveness, unobtrusiveness, and sheer imaging performance of the classic Leica M.”
Weeks’ business card reflects the same straightforward approach to life that informs his work—its laconic tag line reads “Freelance Still Photographer.” But while he is loath to toot his own horn, his track record is impressive. His work regularly appears in iconic publications such as Vogue, InStyle, People, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair Italy and many others, both in the U. S. and worldwide. In addition to editorial work Weeks pursues his personal passion for street photography all over the world. He recently directed and produced a documentary called “Street Photography: Documenting the Human Condition,” which has been viewed on the Internet over half a million times. Exhibitions of his work have been seen in L.A., and upcoming exhibits will include Snap Orlando later this month and a show in St. Louis, Missouri slated for this coming September. Weeks has also lectured on behalf of Leica Camera, about photography in general and street photography specifically. Currently, he’s working on his “reel” for cinematography and motion picture direction, a creative departure from his “still photographer” endeavors.
“I have found through long experience that shooting available light images with the Leica is the most effective way of doing street photography,” notes Weeks. “Because the camera is so quiet and inconspicuous, you can shoot discreetly. The pictures look more natural because they’re far less affected by the act of observation. Using flash destroys the moment, and obscuring your face with a DSLR and a big zoom lens deprives you of direct visual contact with your subjects. With a Leica the camera only covers part of your face—you don’t look like an android and you retain your humanity. Until the advent of the Leica M9, I used the MP for most of my street work, but the M9 was truly transformational—a camera that embodies the timeless Leica virtues but fits into the digital time frame in terms of my workflow. I can now access and share Leica images instantly in the same way I could with a DSLR, and the M9’s performance at high ISOs is outstanding.”
“Basically my mission is honing in on the essentials,” observes Weeks. “Whether I’m shooting celebrity portraits, events, and location coverage for magazines or street images for myself, what I’m trying to do in this world filled with distractions is to find moments that really define what’s going on. I strive to eliminate what is superfluous and to cut to the essence of things, both visually and emotionally. Real moments happen in front of me all the time, whether I’m in the street or at a backstage event with special access. I’m always looking for the moment, especially when I’m shooting with a Leica. The first time I shot with an M9 was a moment of epiphany—the evolution of the design, the full-frame sensor, and the firmware were spectacular. If I could, I would shoot everything with the M9.”
“A good example of what I’m talking about happened when I was covering the birthday party of Sam Raimi (director of Spiderman) in Hollywood,” recalls Weeks. The assignment called for flash pictures, but it soon became evident to Sam Raimi and me that this was inconsistent with the ambiance and flow of the event. After I had shot 15 pictures, Sam came over to me and said ‘I’m not feeling that.’” He was right of course, so I proceeded to shoot my ‘fly on the wall’ coverage with the Leica M9 and the incomparable 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M lens. There were 75 candles in the restaurant and that was the sole illumination for the entire family and guests. The light was so low I had planned to make black-and-white conversions but thanks to the extreme speed of the lens and the M9’s superb performance at high ISO settings the results in color were so unbelievably good, esthetically and technically, I was able to provide both color and black-and white images. Yes the camera and lens are only tools, but in this case the tools were integrally related to the art of expression. On assignment you’re often expected to provide flash photographs but I don’t feel that these images capture the reality of what I see. I much prefer sneaking around with the Leica recording what I observe using available light. Real moments seldom react properly to flash.”
Observations on the new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH
“Of all the focal lengths I shoot with, 35mmm is my personal favorite because I like to be fairly close to the subject, to create an actual and visual sense of intimacy,“ says Weeks. “I want to be right there, and with a 35mm lens I have an extra degree of coverage without having to step back. I know that 35mm Leica frame-line like the back of my hand! Fortunately I had the opportunity to use the latest upgraded version of 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH lens for several months before it was officially released, and I can state unequivocally that it’s a significant advance over the previous version I relied on for many years. Both lenses are tops in their class and yield outstanding image quality at maximum aperture, but the new floating-element design delivers noticeably improved sharpness and contrast in the 0.7-1.5 meter range that’s so critical when you’re shooting impromptu pictures of people. I shoot wide open practically all the time and I have enough hands-on experience to confirm that this new lens is the finest 35mm f/1.4 lens I’ve ever used. For me, it’s a crossover lens because I can use it as an accoutrement to my assignment work and as my primary lens for street photography.”
“Another great characteristic of this lens is its beautiful image quality in the out of focus, negative space areas of the image,” explains Weeks. “I don’t like the term bokeh, so let’s just say the new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH delivers out-of-focus areas of the image that look absolutely gorgeous and natural, with smooth transitions and outstanding form retention. This is a Leica tradition of course, but it’s especially important when you’re shooting images that have a very limited depth of field. When you consider that I shot well over 10,000 rolls of film with my 10-year-old 35mm f/1.4 Summilux, I like to think that Leica designed this new lens with people just like me in mind. The barrel is just a hair larger than my old lens, but it feels just as good in my hands and optically it’s everything I could possibly have wanted. I find that the new lens works better with digital capture than my old lens and it has virtually no linear distortion, so you can shoot attractive-looking close-ups of faces positioned near the edges of the frame. For me this is a big plus because I hardly ever place the main subject smack in the center of the frame.”
“In the context of the overall Leica-M system perhaps the greatest thing that can be said about the new 35mm f/1.4 Summuilux-M ASPH is that it brings this critical focal length up to the same exquisite level of performance as the 21mm, 24mm, and 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and the incomparable 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Like these stellar optics it can justly claim the proud title “best in the world.” As for me, I now use it for about 90% of the pictures I shoot, and, in the immortal words of the credit card ad, I don’t leave home without it!”
For more information on Chris Weeks, visit his website, http://www.chrisweeks.net or read his blog, http://www.aphotocontributor.com. To see some of Chris Weeks photographs printed on paper, please make sure to check the current issue of LFI (05/2010).