A couple of years ago French-born Nicolas Hermann discovered his passion for photography which was instilled in him by his mother’s best friend and mentor, Richard Geneste. A partner in a successful real estate agency, Nicolas has also found the time to pursue his passion for photography, beginning on the streets of Paris and more recently on a six-week long trip to India during which he used only one camera, the Leica M9, and one lens, a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M. In this second installment on his creative quest, Nicolas shares the story of his newfound passion for the photographic medium and his empathy for his subjects whose lives he reveals with insight and compassion. You can read our initial interview with Nicolas here.
Q: You imply that your mission is capturing events, juxtaposition and revealing the essence of your subjects while remaining invisible. Do you believe that being discreet is essential in your type of photography and why do you think this is so?
A: Yes, it is essential to remain as discreet as possible and not to invade the people’s personal space while viewing a scene if you want to capture its essence. Only the subject matters and the photographer must not intervene if he wants to preserve the authenticity of the image.
Q: Some of your images are shot, or at least presented, in black-and-white. What characterizes the kind of pictures you choose to present in black-and-white and why do you believe they look better or convey your intent more effectively in black-and-white?
A: Until now, I have always favored shooting in black-and-white — it provides a sense of drama that you don’t get with a color photograph. The compositional elements, the context in which the photo is taken, and the character of the lighting are the most important aspects. Colors are eye-catching and the viewer, transfixed by their visual presentation, may miss the essential message that the image seeks to communicate.
Q: What characteristics of the Leica M9 make it ideal for your work and what is your feeling about shooting with prime (single focal length) lenses as opposed to a zoom lens on your first camera, which was an SLR?
A: The Leica M9 is a great piece of equipment and I love the sensation I get when holding it, mainly because it is lightweight and easy to carry. Besides, since it is small and discreet, it allows me to make images that would be more difficult to obtain with an SLR. Fixed lenses like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux help to give each shot a kind of transcendent character. The fixed focal length encourages you to master the framing and compositional characteristics of the lens and compels you to move around the subject in order to find the best angle. Picture taking becomes more of an interactive process with the subject.
Q: Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have a special identifiable way of capturing images (“the Leica look”) that differentiates them from other lenses? Have you ever considered acquiring a wider or longer lens than your 35mm f/1.4 or your 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M?
A: The images I get from my Leica always give me a feeling of naturalness, of smoothness when passing from sharp to fuzzy areas of the picture, a magnificent bokeh thanks to the quality of its optics. The focusing adjustment is extremely accurate and the image is exquisitely sharp at the point of focus. No doubt I will consider acquiring lenses such as the 24mm or the 21mm, but at the present time the 35mm and 50mm lenses correspond better to my photographic style and sensitivity. Buying a 75mm or 95mm would be a less appropriate choice for my kind of work, but I can envisage the possibility of doing so.
Q: You made a telling statement when you said “I love entering the subject’s world and becoming part of it.” How do you see the advantages and disadvantages of achieving this being a foreigner and covering a place like India?
A: Being a foreigner in India was a two-edged experience. The good thing was that it was the peak of the summer and because of the oppressive heat, tourists were scarce. This gave me a great deal of freedom and ease of movement. Since I was dressed like a local, I could dive into the flow of people without being noticed. Also, not having seen many photographs of India, I was discovering a new territory with a virgin eye. On the other hand, however discreet I might be, my camera couldn’t escape being noticed by children’s eyes and arousing their curiosity. This sometimes made it challenging to take the picture at the right moment and I often had to resort to tricks to get what I wanted!
Q: Can you elaborate on the simple but eloquent statement you made, “I have an aesthetic approach to all the subjects” and also say something more about how photography has changed your life and perceptions of the world?
A: From an early age I was attracted by the visual and especially by the cinema. Beauty appeals to me and creates the need to capture a scene or a face that arouses a strong emotion in me. Now my focus is shifting and I am also drawn by an inner beauty that moved me during my travels through Indian cities and mountains — the exhaustion in an aged woman, the questioning expression on a child’s face. I guess you could say that photography has deepened my perceptions by revealing the inner truth that lies beyond the physical reality that embodies it.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next five years, and do you have in mind any specific goals, projects or places you would like to cover in the near future?
A: Yes, I have many projects in store. I am organizing all the leisure time I can get outside my job to dedicate myself to photography, planning new travels with the object of developing new themes and asserting my own vision as a photographer.
Q: Your Incredible India photographs reveal a keen sense of color and a sophisticated awareness of lighting and composition. Do you agree, and can you say something about how you use these elements in your work? Have you thought about creating a book or exhibition of these images?
A: Composition is my great passion — the way elements are balanced in a frame. Every morning I would get up around 5:45 a.m. to be on the spot at sunrise and do the same again in the evening at sunset. During the intervening interval, the heat was too stifling. I wanted to work with a softer light skimming the surface and making the subject stand out in my picture. As for creating an exhibition, I have met people who are interested and willing to back me up, but, above all, I need to discover new countries, get more experience and test all the possibilities of my camera before showing my work.
Q: Your striking image of a schoolboy and schoolgirl in uniform wearing ties is both amusing and poignant. Where did you shoot it and what do you think it says about Indian society and perhaps the lingering British influence.
A: I shot this picture in Bikaner’s Street at 6:30 a.m. while they were waiting for the school bus. My eye was caught by such a deep contrast between the women dressed in traditional saris and these schoolchildren dressed in the strict European-style uniforms that are the remnants of a vanished British colonial empire.
Q: The lighting, color and composition of your Incredible India image of two women walking past a stone facade carrying, what appear to be, grain stalks and a sack are very impressive. How did you come to take this picture?
A: It was very early in the morning in Mandawa and I saw these two women seemingly coming from nowhere. Although they shared an equal status with men in ancient times, their lives now are very different. They do not share the same physical and moral burden and this inequality struck me deeply during my travels in Indian cities and villages.
Q: The black-and-white photo of the two girls sitting on the dock has the shadows playing a focal point in the photo. What was your goal in capturing this moment?
A: I wanted to capture the thoughts of these two little sisters with their eyes fixed upon the horizon, dreaming about a happy future. Will they know the same status as their mothers or evolve in a more tolerant world?
-Leica Internet Team