A successful New York commercial photographer for over 40 years and an inveterate Leica collector, Carl Merkin tapped into his creative core and fashioned a fulfilling second career by combining his love for Leicas with his enthusiasm for Facebook. The popular social networking site drew him out of obscurity and revealed him to be a master of thematic street photography who “no longer has to chase the dollar.” Here in his own forthright words is the amazing story of how his brilliant images have finally achieved the recognition they deserve.
Q: What cameras and equipment do you use?
A: I use two Leica M8.2 cameras and I just got an M9 about a month ago. I have about a dozen M lenses from 12 to 135mm. I also use a Leica R9/DRM SLR with 14 lenses ranging from 19 to 560mm, including three zooms. I’ve been a Leica collector for 20+ years, and have bought and sold Leica on eBay for almost 10 years, so I’ve accumulated a lot of Leica stuff.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: After a career of 40+ years of advertising and catalog still life photography, mostly with large-format cameras and Hasselblads, I now concentrate on my personal work, which is quite varied, but includes travel, landscape, documentary, street, and people photography.
Q: What got you interested in photography in the first place?
A: The first time I made a print and saw the image appear, I was hooked for life. That was in 1956, at age 10!
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, and a profession?
A: I’ve always carried a camera since I was 10 years old and still do to this day. I shot photos for my high school yearbook, and became a photo assistant when I got out of the Army in 1968…my first job as an adult.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: Reading National Geographic and Life magazine, and seeing the book “The Family of Man” in my early teens made me want to be a photographer. I was influenced by the work of Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Helen Leavitt, Josef Sudek, and Dorothea Lange, among others. I am mostly self-taught, but learned a lot from some generous photographers among those I worked for when I was in my 20s.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I replaced my Nikons with Leicas after borrowing one in the late 1980s. I joined the Leica Historical Society in the early 1990s and have been a member of the Board of Directors for the past few years. I am also the Webmaster of the LHSA website (http://www.lhsa.org/), and have developed a Facebook page for the Society.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I see beauty everywhere, often where others don’t notice it, and shoot every day. After a long career of shooting other peoples’ stuff, I am now shooting what I want, when I want.
It’s very liberating and my work has blossomed over the past few years.
Q: Your book on signs of all kinds is amusing and engaging but also says a lot about our society. Do you plan on shooting more images in this vein?
A: Definitely. In fact I deliberately called the book Volume 1 and I’ve already shot 140 more images of street, store, and miscellaneous signs I’ve encountered since it was published. As I said, after a 40-year career as a commercial advertising photographer, it’s great just to wander the streets and create images that viewers seem to enjoy. I’ve received lots of positive feedback.
Q: Where were you raised and where do you reside now?
A: I was born and raised in New York City and I’ve been here my whole life on and off. I managed to survive for over 40 years as a freelancer in New York, but after I semi-retired I started shooting for myself. At first I did so in relative obscurity—despite my long career, my name was not well known. Then I got on Facebook and now I’m famous. It’s an amazing story. I live on Staten Island right on the ocean.
A: From what I can see it seems like the M9 uses a larger version of the same chip that’s built into the M8, but I know that’s not true because the M9 delivers better image quality at high ISOs. I find that using both of them expands my choice of lenses—I don’t have to carry a 20mm if I’m using the M9, but on the M8 a 135mm becomes, in effect, a 180mm which we’ve never had on rangefinder Leicas.
Q: What are your favorite lenses?
A: I generally carry 4 or 5 in the bag and two on the bodies. I like the 21mm and the Tri-Elmar and carry them often, but the older non-ASPH version of the 50 f/1.4 Summilux is probably my all-time favorite. My book “Song of the Summilux” explains my love affair with that lens better than I can express it in words. I find the ASPH lenses are almost too contrasty at times. When you shoot pictures in bright sun or at the beach the shadows tend to go black. In high-contrast situations older Leica lenses, even though dating back to 1954, are better for shadows. For snow or the beach, you can’t beat ‘em.
Q: When do you use your Leica R9 with the DRM digital back?
A: It depends on what I’m shooting. I regularly go to the Bronx Zoo and it’s great for shooting naturalistic pictures of animals from a distance with telephoto lenses. I love the 280mm f/2.8 and I have extenders for it. I also use the R9 when I travel so I’m not carrying the whole house with me. I have a very old 19mm R lens that I like a lot? Nevertheless, if I had to choose one camera to walk around with it would be the M9 with the Tri-Elmar—with a 50mm Summilux in my pocket.
Q: Can you tell us about any other themes projects you’re currently working on?
A: Yes it’s a street photography documentary on public sleepers—people sleeping in the park, on the bus, on the train. Given the endemic problems of sleep deprivation and homelessness in our society I’ll never run out of subjects.
Q: You said you’re famous. How exactly did that come about and what are some indications of your notoriety?
A: I’ve had 3 exhibits already this year and I’m turning out books that showcase my photography and selling them successfully. As I said, it all started when I got involved with Facebook. I’d had personal projects I was working on but never shared them. Then I spilled my brains out on Facebook. Not long afterward I had two gallery owners call me and ask if I wanted to do a group gallery exhibit, and another request to do a solo show—all through people viewing my images on Facebook. Recently a VP on the Blurb publishing site saw my photos of signs, got in touch with me, and said, “Why don’t you write a book?”
Suddenly I was no longer chasing the dollar. I got on Facebook about 2 years ago and it gave me exposure I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. People know me around the world. That solo show took place at The Salon d’ Art in lower Manhattan and included new images from signs project. It worked out very well. We had a closing party on the last day of the show. I now have books in print, self-published at Blurb, and I had copies that I was selling and signing. I’ve been self-promoting it.
Q: Can you tell us why you love the Leica M and what special characteristics it has that are especially suited to the kind of work you do?
A: Basically it’s the simplicity and spontaneity of it. You really take the picture with your eye beforehand and the camera comes in at the last instant to capture it. I always have my camera at the ready, whip it up to my eye, take the shot, and put it away before anyone is aware of what happened. I keep the camera in my hand rather than around my neck. I hide it behind my leg. I keep it close to my body. If I do it right, no one really notices. When you’re shooting with an SLR it’s like looking at a video screen, and you tend to end up with a lot of bull’s-eye compositions with the horizon right in the middle of the picture. With the Leica M, because you can see beyond the frame, so you become more conscious of the composition. The M lends itself to certain kinds of subject matter and focal lengths. With a rangefinder it’s much easier to focus wide-angle lenses accurately. Autofocus, you say? Isn’t that a Japanese thing? I’ve used practically every Leica every made and they all work for me. My wife has a V-Lux 1 and a D-Lux–great cameras!
Q: How do you see what amounts to your second career going forward?
A: Actually for me this is like a second childhood. I’ve regained my old love of photography. It’s such a pleasure to shoot what I want when I want. There will be another book on signs. There will probably be another Streets of New York project.
I should also say something about the changeover to digital–I often get into the great debates with film photographers on this. I’m really sold on the digital image. It’s so much more capable in terms of the overall process than film. I’m basically doing the same thing that I’d be doing in a darkroom but doing it digitally much more quickly and easily. The other aspect of that debate is the green consideration–where do all those chemicals go? Ultimately, into the ocean! Beyond the chemicals, consider the spool and the cartridge that are made of petroleum-based products or aluminum. Image quality? I get a lot of comments on my photography on Facebook and people often ask me if I shoot on digital or with film. Well, if they can’t tell, what does it matter? Finally, I’ve captured images digitally in very low light that I couldn’t have captured on film, and I’ve saved images that wouldn’t have been success on film because I was able to bring up the shadow detail.
Q: What is your relationship to the Leica Historical Society and the Leica community?
A: I’m one of the only professional photographers in the group. I really enjoy attending the meetings that are held twice each year. I’ve also started to write for their quarterly journal, The Viewfinder. It’s a rare feeling being with around 100 people who are all on the same page, and it’s a unique thrill to walk down the street with 100 people carrying 300 Leicas. Life is good.
Getting back to Facebook, the very best thing about it has been the feedback. I’ve met a lot of great people I now consider my friends. Angel Franco from the NY Times just sent me his phone number and invited me to grab a beer with him. I’ve seen his name in print for 20 years and he reached out to ME. The essence of Facebook is just being able to reach out to people, and the comments and recognition are very gratifying. Facebook has given me exposure beyond anything I could have imagined 10 years ago. In a way it’s very much like a Leica camera feels to a true Leica fan—it makes you happy every time you use it.
Thanks for your time Carl!
-Leica Internet Team
To connect with Carl Merkin on Facebook, visit his personal page http://www.facebook.com/carl.merkin or become a fan at http://www.facebook.com/carl.merkin.photographs. To see Carl Merkin’s books on Blurb visit http://www.blurb.com/books/1177745.