A twenty-something English Lit grad located in “Neverwhere, or occasionally London,” Emilie Rosson puckishly describes herself as a “photographer, writer, and incurable cynic, currently of the red-headed variety.” She continues in the jugular vein of British deadpan humor to list her primary interests as “reading, cultural criticism, videography, writing children’s stories, solving crimes with long-time buddy Sherlock Holmes, defeating evil wizards, and desperately hiding her fan-girl tendencies by pretending to be a serious photographer.” Behind Emilie’s playful self-deprecation is a serious photographic talent hard at work honing her technical and aesthetic skills while having an excellent adventure and immense amount of fun doing it all with her second-hand Leica X1. And many of her observations on the art and process of creative photography are, as the Brits are wont to say, “spot- on!” And so, without further ado we present for your delectation the wit, wisdom, and occasional snark of the inimitable Emilie Rosson.
Q: How would you describe your photography and when did you first become interested in photography?
A: I tend to focus on portraits, architecture, macro, and close-ups of flowers, and I’m just getting into street photography. Artistically I’m becoming more and more of a purist, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I’m still learning, still finding my feet, and storytelling is something I want to incorporate more as I become a better photographer. For now, I’m content to capture my life in photos in the best way I’m capable of at the time, learning as I go.
As far back as I can recall I loved photography. It was never a conscious thing, though. I would wrestle our little disposable holiday cameras away from my dad so I could wander off and take photos of things and, eventually, my parents would just buy me my own cameras. I remember when I was about eleven, we went on holiday to Zante in Greece and I kept asking my dad to take photos of my mum and “studying” the ruins or “exploring” the city. He kept asking us to stand in front of whatever it was we were visiting that day and “say cheese”. Oh, the rage. We ended up with millions of those boring holiday snaps that everyone gets that all look exactly the same—grinning fools under awful overhead sunlight looking identical in every single shot, but with a slightly different background. It infuriated me and to be honest, it still does. That was probably the first time I had an inkling that photography, as an art form or as a mode of storytelling, actually meant something to me.
When I was studying my A levels, I chose to do Art and focused all my assignments on digital photography—portraiture mainly, and architecture. I got a Canon DSLR after university and that’s when I began to get more serious. Right now, I realize that photography is incredibly important to me—more than I ever expected. I’ve always been quite shy, but now I often find myself going up to people on the street and taking photos of them because I’d rather get the shot and be horrifically embarrassed than miss it and regret not being brave enough. As a photographer, you often feel that you need to get the shot.
Q: Are you making the transition to becoming a full-time photographer, and what is your “day job”?
A: I’m not a professional photographer, though I have done some paid work and I’ll be doing more soon, mostly children’s and infant’s portraiture, which is something I’m quite good at. I feel like I have a lot more to explore and learn. I currently work at a university as a student support worker, which is great fun and really interesting work. I help students who are disabled, dyslexic or have learning difficulties to function at the highest possible level.
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: No, I’m self-taught. Photography was a hobby before it was a lifestyle for me. I never had a mentor and I’ve never even had a particular photographer whose work I’ve loved. I’d be lying if I said that Henri Cartier-Bresson isn’t an inspiration, but I only discovered him recently. For me, photography wasn’t “unto itself” in my mind until the last year or so—it was more like a means to an end. It meant I could capture all of the amazing things I saw and keep them in my pocket. I can still be very much a snapshot photographer, because I shoot every day. Only recently, now that I have a far more extensive understanding of the technicalities, have I started to think about the meaning of what I do. I’m just starting to try and think “why, why, why” all the time—it’s not just about what looks best, but about why it looks good and what it means. It’s quite exciting.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: The esteem in which people hold Leica products intrigued me. I’d heard the brand talked about quite a lot and the history and quality both seemed fascinating. It wasn’t until I found a second-hand product that fit all my requirements that I actually got to try and then buy one. I’m a big fan of the X1, so the hype seems to live true. I can’t deny that I lust after an M9 as I become more interested in street photography and hopefully in the future I’ll be shooting with one.
Q: What makes the X1 your camera of choice?
A: I really needed a compact camera for daily use, but wanted one that wouldn’t compromise on quality. For a long time I looked at compact system cameras, but then I found a Leica X1 second-hand for a similar price as the models I’d been browsing and knew it was what I’d been looking for. The X1 has the same sized sensor as my DSLR, but in a tiny body so I get quality and convenience in one. The lens is a 36mm equivalent so it works for pretty much anything, and the wide f/2.8 aperture means it’s nice and bright in bad conditions—plus, it gives beautiful background bokeh when doing close-ups. And, of course, it’s Leica quality so the sharpness and the quality of blur are exceptional. The camera’s layout is marvellously simple, providing a back-to-basics approach to photography that lets you focus on getting the shot quickly and efficiently. On top of all that, it looks like a gorgeous fashion accessory. I’m a “run and gun” shooter so I rarely uses a tripod, shoot in whatever light conditions I’m faced with, and very rarely do setup shots. I need a camera that’s versatile, handles noise well and will give me the best quality even in less than desirable conditions and the X1 does all that for me.
Photography is a very new art form living in an as yet undefined space between technology and art. They say the best camera to have is the one you have with you and when the technology is as versatile, reliable and of remarkable quality, like the X1, it gives any photographer more scope to focus on the artistic side of their work.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: It means a lot. It’s something that I think about, read about, and do almost every day. It’s a way of looking at things that I find gives clarity and makes you appreciative of your surroundings. It’s intellectual and practical; it has endless possibility and always feels fresh. There have been times when I’ve been stuck at formal occasions, feeling like a fish out of water, when just the thought of my camera in my bag cheered me up because it meant I could sneak off later and take some shots of the evening. It sounds silly, but it really is a lifestyle.
Q: There is a certain joyful directness to your images, the freshness and innocence of someone discovering the world and delighting in expressing their consciousness, yet you describe yourself as a cynic, someone who mocks goodness or believes people’s motives are usually bad or selfish. Were you simply being ironic, and if not, how do you explain this dichotomy?
A: No, I wasn’t being ironic at all! I really am very cynical, sadly, but I think the difference with my photographic work is that it’s a liberating activity, a space, a kind of freedom that I indulge in that makes me very happy. So my cynicism falls by the wayside somewhat and the joyfulness comes through. Like almost any artistic medium, photography is a creative experience that encourages the photographer to actively search for and construct meaning, order and significance in a world that is often meaningless, disordered and random. That gives a sense of purpose and control to the photographer that is ultimately hopeful. I think that’s what comes through in my work and that’s why I love photography so much!
Q: The charming picture of a Springer Spaniel peering out from a doghouse almost looks like a black-and-white picture inset into a color surround, and the dog’s expression really draws the viewer in. Was this just a grab shot or did you plan it in advance to some extent?
A: It was a bit of both, actually! I shoot whenever possible, often spontaneously. Initially I went for a snapshot when I saw the gorgeously grumpy look on my dog’s face peering out. Luckily (for me), my cameras have always seemed to terrify him so he sat there perfectly still while I played with exposure and composition. I like the off-center focus and really wanted the texture of the wood to be a part of the image!
Q: You have said that you “don’t feel comfortable doing that (fine art) a lot of the time.” Why not?
A: It’s probably my own prejudice really! Part of me feels it would sound pretentious if I called my photos “fine art”, which is really silly because I’d have no trouble telling someone else that their work falls into that genre. I think I’m getting better at this, though. A few people have told me that certain shots of mine look like art pieces and, as I gain more experience and objectivity, I’m less inclined to disagree, partly because I know that a viewer’s interpretation of finished work is never going to be the same as the photographer’s original intentions. I think with time and experience I’ll get more comfortable with calling my images “fine art” and setting out to get similar results.
Q: You mentioned that you’d like to get into street photography, photojournalism, and storytelling but that you lack confidence and faith in your abilities. Do you think these things will come with time, and how do you plan to explore these genres?
A: I definitely think that confidence comes with time and I’ve already started to branch out more in several directions. First, I’m getting more involved with street photography bit by bit and finding the idiosyncratic technical strengths and weaknesses that I have when shooting in this style, as well as questioning some of my rules and ideologies about what makes a good photo. I think street photography makes you question these things, because, as one of my blog readers said, “it is an aesthetic apart”. (Incidentally, I made a short video about it.)
Journalism and storytelling are things that I’m now coming at from a different perspective because I’m getting more into learning videography. Eventually this will have a greater impact on how I create narrative in photos, because pacing and editing in video is all about imparting as much information in as short a time as possible. I’m hoping this will improve and challenge my still photography in the long run.
Q: You said something provocative in describing your emergence as a photographer: “I’m becoming more of a purist, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.” How would you define being a purist, and what are the downsides of being one?
A: My idea of a purist is two things, really: the first is having a huge respect for image quality and technical ability and the second is trying always to achieve creative effects in-camera without post-manipulation. This is a great attitude to have, because it forces you to hone your skills and ensures the best possible results. I think it makes your learning curve far quicker when you’re beginning, too. The downside, for me, is that I started to have a tendency to avoid using things like Photoshop altogether and to dismiss images that could have been saved with a little re-touch. At the end of the day, purism is great up to a point and then you become a bit nit-picky. Sometimes a crop is just what a photo needs to make it work—even if it does sacrifice some pixels. If it’s best for the photograph, that’s fine.
I guess what I’ve learned is that when you’re shooting in the field, you should be a purist through and through because it’ll get you the best results. But when you’re in the digital darkroom, you should be willing to use the tools at your disposal to make your images the best they can be without sacrificing, but rather enhancing, the charms of the original shot. I’m just starting to get back into Photoshop after a period of avoiding it to experiment with purism and I’m really enjoying it—especially Camera Raw.
Q: You noted in praising the Leica X1 that it’s compact, elegant, and its controls simple and straightforward, and also that “the sharpness and quality of the blur (bokeh) are exceptional.” Can you go into greater detail on the latter?
A: It’s all about lens quality. Now that I’m more experienced (and especially after my pain-in-the-ass-purist-period) I expect a lot from lenses. Tack sharpness is key for me. The Leica lens is the sharpest of the lenses that I’ve used—the way it renders detail is impeccable—but it’s also versatile. You can shoot at many different apertures and the quality of the sharpness doesn’t deteriorate. Sometimes, I find myself disappointed when I use my DSLR’s lenses now because at certain apertures the sharpness just isn’t as good. The X1’s lens is great for those for whom tack sharpness and image quality are paramount.
The quality of the blur is also great. When I started shooting with the X1, the first thing I noticed was that the results were more similar to film than any other digital camera I’d used. It lacks the harsh, slightly digital feel that you can get in bokeh and I think that’s the quality of the lens (I’m guessing because I’m not an engineer and I don’t really understand how it works!). That lens just has“creaminess” to the bokeh that’s visually pleasing and wonderful to look at.
Q: What influence do you think that being an English major and a student support worker have had on your photography, and how do you think the work of Bresson and others will inspire you going forward?
A: I think being an English student left me totally in awe of the power of narrative. And that’s not merely storytelling per se—it’s also the construction of meaning that we all crave. Creating something from nothing, capturing fleeting moments, telling little tales are all the reasons that photography became and still remains so important to me. Going forward, I think that the ideas that I’ve been introduced to in my study and work will also influence how I progress—the sociological and urban themes that I find creeping into my street images, for example. And the fact that I’ve come to much prefer candid portraiture to studio shots is surely influenced by the wealth of human stories and experience you find in such shots.
Q: Your description of photography as a “lifestyle” and your observation that it has “endless possibility and always feels fresh” are very revealing. It is clear that you have a strong emotional attachment to photography and are impelled to take pictures, so why not make it a career?
A: I’m definitely thinking more about the professional options I have, especially since I feel like I’m learning so much so quickly and I’m always on the lookout for new challenges. I’m especially pursuing the more professional side of videography. Although I’m open to many varieties of paid photographic work, in the end I love the personal side of my photos. They mean so much to me in a way that arbitrary work for a client just wouldn’t—aside from the thrill of a challenge. It’s definitely something I’m moving towards so we’ll just have to see!
Q: There are two close-up portraits of the same woman looking straight at the camera in your portfolio. Both have a dramatic intensity that is at once engaging and disturbing. Who is this person, why did you choose to output one image in color and the other in black-and-white, and what guides your decision in choosing one medium over the other for specific images.
A: The only portraits I’ve ever taken with the X1, besides family snapshots, are portraits of myself. I usually do them as technical experiments and if they turn out well I keep them. They can sometimes have value as character studies in some small way that only means something to me—for example, the headphones in one shot. I also have this slightly morbid tendency to take self-portraits when I’m feeling particularly miserable about something. I don’t know why. I just feel like I should take a shot of myself feeling miserable. It’s totally stupid, but sometimes I swear just taking a shot and seeing yourself from an objective standpoint can make you feel instantly better and serves to trivialize whatever is worrying you. Once again, it’s the viewer’s interpretation that breaks the self-reflective deal. What’s really important in the end is what they see in the emotions that the portrait captures.
Q: Like a lot of Leica fans you “lust after an M9.” What do you think it is about the Leica M9 that makes it the perfect tool for street photography, and what’s the first lens you’ll get for yours?
A: I think the size plays a huge factor—a full-frame digital camera with such a small body. It’s inconspicuous, without lacking style. It’s small, without compromising picture quality. Having used the X1, I’m a big fan of the more manual shooting style too so in that regard the M9 would be a breath of fresh air to use. I think it suits street shooting perfectly, both in terms of practicality and quality.
As for lenses, I’d have to start with Bresson’s example and go for a 50mm. Having shot with the fixed 36mm-ewuivalent lens of the X1, I understand very well how a fixed standard lens can work wonders for your shots—in terms of its versatility and in terms of how it makes you use the lens.
Q: You playfully remark that you’re a person that’s “desperately hiding her fan-girl tendencies by pretending to be a serious photographer.” How would you define what you mean by a serious photographer, do you think you’re one now, and what is your strategy for becoming one?
A: I’m not sure there really is such a thing as a serious photographer in the end—it’s all just degrees of experience and passion for the art. But in the world of photography, you get a lot of people who talk very seriously about highly technical things and often move the discourse on photography away from the personal, artistic and playful sides. My work and I definitely live in the more playful arena, but I don’t really think that makes me, or my work, anything less.
Really and truly I think everyone’s work is different, unto itself and intrinsically unique. For me personally, that means I think of my work as “improved but still improving” and probably reflecting the period of my life that I’m in, which is that space that some people call “waithood”. But that’s all good. I’m still learning. I can forgive my mistakes and move forward, learning far quicker than I ever expected. So I think the best way to get better at photography is simply to keep on doing what I’ve been doing: practicing all the time, challenging myself where possible, and most important, enjoying every minute of it!
Thank you for your time, Emilie!
– Leica Internet Team