Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Markus Andersen studied art in high school and his first exposure to photography as an art form was using a borrowed Nikon F M2 and a 50 mm lens to shoot abstract images on color negative film. He subsequently studied photography full-time, earning a degree from the Sydney Institute Of Technology before becoming a freelance photographer.
“After many years of pushing buttons for others I then made a conscious decision in 2012 that I would start concentrating on my personal imagery, as well as shooting work for exhibitions and books,” he recalls. “My work has been exhibited in New York, Paris, Istanbul, Toronto, Sydney and the United Kingdom.” Filmmaker Rob Norton recently directed a mini documentary on Andersen’s Sydney-based street work and its underlying philosophy. Here are Markus’ insightful and heartfelt comments on his life, his work, and what inspires his creative process.
Q: What camera equipment do you use?
A: Cameras: Leica MP .72 and Leica M4, both are film cameras.
Lenses: Leica 28 mm f/2.8 Elmarit and Leica 35 mm f/2 Summicron ASPH.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Documentary, the urban human environment and conceptual work.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images, and how would you characterize them?
A: This is an ongoing series of black-and-white 35 mm film street work that focuses on the unusual within the urban environment. Despair, anguish, thought, and contemplation all play a role within the images in this evolving body of work. I look for the odd and unsettling in everyday life and try to capture a sense of the other or the foreboding through the use of light, composition, and subject.
These images embody the dark and the light of life co-existing within the frame — subjects drenched in shadow or burning in the hard Australian light. Subjects can be in the midst of change from one emotion to the next, a disturbed, unsettling change of state. They may be lost in darkness or emerging from the light.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: When shooting documentary or street work I work very instinctively, photographing the elements of light, movement, shadow, subjects, and the urban environment dancing together within the frame. I look for elements that will add a strange mood to the image, and my creative decisions are made in a heartbeat. I shoot fast, capture the frame and move on before the subjects are even aware of my presence.
When shooting conceptually I am more measured and take my time, looking for specific objects in the frame that will fit within the series I am shooting.
Q: All the images in this portfolio were shot on black-and-white film with analog Leica MP and M4 cameras. What is it, both aesthetically and technically, that draws you to black-and-white film as your medium for creative expression, and what are your preferred films? Also, do you typically scan your negatives and print them out on an inkjet printer or use the traditional wet darkroom process to create silver-halide prints?
A: Aesthetically I like the organic imperfection of film. Film is an organic, living object. It is unpredictable and unique. For me, it is aligned to an artisan approach, closer to print making or even painting. Traditional black- and-white film has a soul that cannot be easily replicated digitally (with the exception of perhaps one camera).
For me, film tends to hold highlights far better than most digital cameras, and is far more forgiving in unpredictable and non-controlled lighting conditions (i.e. street and documentary work). Additionally, film captures the images by means of a physical reaction to light itself. I can visually predict the ambient light and relative exposure at any given time of day when using film, allowing me pre-visualize how the image will appear within a given scene.
In terms of film choice, I use anything really; however, I prefer Kodak Tri-X and Ilford FP4 Plus.
I hand process my black-and-white negatives and hand print them in a wet darkroom (when I get the chance). That said, I am only able to hand print to around 16″ x 20″ in my darkroom. Larger prints need to be professionally hand printed or alternatively scanned and then professionally printed on the finest archival inkjet papers.
Q: What are some of the features and characteristics of the Leica M-System that you find especially useful in your type of work, and why do you find the 28 mm and 35 mm focal lengths particularly suitable for your style of documentary and art photography? Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have a special and identifiable way of rendering images and if so, is that important to you?
A: For me, one of the unique features of the rangefinder Leica M-System (regardless of whether it’s film or digital) is that the documentary or street photographer can view the scene through both the viewfinder and externally simultaneously, with the right eye looking through the viewfinder and left eye observing the entire scene directly on a grand scale. This is very useful for street or documentary photography.
Also, the Leica M-System shutter is whisper quiet and does not draw unwanted attention while shooting documentary, street or urban art photography (where anonymity is crucial). The MP and M4 are inconspicuous and stealthy, allowing me to grab images that would be impossible to capture with other camera systems.
I know both the 28 mm and 35 mm focal lengths like the back of my hand; I have been using both constantly since beginning Leica photography. Both focal lengths produce a different type image. The 28 mm has a more dynamic perspective, with a greater impression of depth, giving a field view of a scene (with less focus on a specific subject) allowing for additional compositional elements within the picture. The 35 mm focal length gives a more classic, flatter, tighter field of view and is easier to compose.
The photographer should take into account that both focal lengths require different attitudes or modus operandi when shooting. The 28 mm focal length requires the photographer to move in closer to the subject and fill the frame, whereas the 35 mm length allows the shooter to step back and have a little more breathing space between yourself and the subject.
Overall, I find that Leica lenses do have a unique, almost elusive quality that is hard to define in words. The aspheric Leica lenses contrast pops within an image like no other manufacturer’s lenses, whereas older Leica pre-aspheric lenses from the 1960s or 1970s exhibit a definite glow that is enchanting to me.
Q: In looking at an image like “The Deep” that has strong geometric elements and a masterful play of light and shadow as well as a decisive moment aspect in terms of the placement and action of the two figures, it’s hard to differentiate between the conceptual and the documentary because both aspects seem to be present. Do you see this primarily as a conceptual image, a street image, or both, and does the distinction really matter?
A: This image, “The Deep”, is both street and conceptual, as it combines the sublime and human anguish set amidst the darkness. The main male subject was in some form of distress; I observed him for a little while and he was pacing nervously. I needed a gesture from him that would visually translate this troubled emotion onto film, shadowed by the abyss of the buildings in the background.
Q: You state that “despair, anguish, thought, and contemplation” play a role in your images. That sounds pretty dark. However, there are also touches of ironic humor and whimsy in a number of these images like “Finding Wonderful.” To me this looks like the surrealism of everyday life. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: It is true that I look for the darker side of life, however there must also be the lighter and/or whimsical side to balance it.
In the image “Finding Wonderful” I immediately noticed three elements that drew me in. Firstly, the girl in the foreground looked as though she had three arms (from my point of view) and that was in itself surreal, plus I liked the design on the wall behind the girl and additionally noticed the word “support” floating within the frame.
As I moved in to take the image the girl pulled her hair across, in a beautifully feminine way, revealing a tattoo. At this exact moment a corporate male raced into the frame from the right and I pressed shutter release.
I knew the frame had some interesting elements when I pressed the shutter release; however it was only after I looked at the contact sheet I realized the picture had more layers of information than I had previously expected.
Q: “Bill” is certainly engagingly enigmatic. It looks as though two people are bending down over something unseen and the asymmetrical shadows and NO BILL POSTER sign in English and Chinese on the brick wall in the background only add to the sense of mystery. What’s actually going on here and what does this picture mean to you personally?
A: This image, “Bill”, was shot in Chinatown, Sydney. For me this image is about design, texture, shadows, and the Chinese text. The frame is somewhat fractured and geometric, like a Kandinsky painting.
As the two subjects began to walk into my point of view, I raised the camera very quickly (curious if they would react as I suspected). They immediately ducked down in unison and I shot the picture, knowing that their reaction would possibly create something interesting and a little different.
Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio and do you think it hangs together as a cohesive statement of the feeling and emotions you felt in creating it? Do you plan to continue this project, or to document other cities or locations in a similar vein? Parenthetically, I would love to see your visual impressions of New York, a city that has inspired countless street photographers.
A: The work on my site and as featured on the Leica Blog is just a taste of an ongoing black-and-white body of images. It is an evolving, personal series that will take a few years to reach the point where it’s ready to be released to the public.
Sydney is my canvas at present; it is where I currently live. In my opinion you have to become bored by a city before you start to shoot in a unique way. Otherwise you tend to just shoot images based on the awe of a new place, rather than looking beyond its surface, to deeper realms of the aesthetic environment.
That said, I would definitely like to shoot New York in a separate body of work. However I would need to live in the city for an extended period in order to shoot beyond super tourist style images and capture work that is more nuanced and interesting.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as portraiture, architectural photography, events photography, etc.?
A: I am going to continue to concentrate on shooting specific bodies of work designed for fine art photographic book publication and exhibition. In truth, I am a documentary/street/art photographer and that is where I will stay.
Q: Do you plan to publish or exhibit this work on any venue other than the Leica Blog, perhaps creating a print or online book, or exhibiting prints of these images at galleries in Sydney or elsewhere?
A: Yes, I have three separate documentary projects that I am working on that are to be exhibited and published in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
One is a dual project with a wonderful Turkish photographer that is to be exhibited this April 2015 in Sydney at the Australian Centre For Photography. The second is a year-long color project on a dynamic, multifaceted, fascinating, and misunderstood location within Sydney and the final one is a long form black-and-white project on the people and environment of Sydney’s coastline community.
The black-and-white street work as featured on the Leica Blog is to be exhibited in the future (it is not a set documentary project with a start and end point); however I want to create a deeper vision for the work, and that takes time and extensive review.
Thank you for your time, Markus!
– Leica Internet Team
You can see more of Markus’ work on his website www.markusandersen.com.