Sebastian Beck: It All Fits Together, A Sicilian Diary

Born in Munich, Germany, Sebastian Beck earns his living as an editor and reporter for the acclaimed Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s largest and best-known newspaper that enjoys nationwide distribution and an international reputation. We last interviewed him in July 2013. Below he shares with us his portfolio that he took in March 2015 in Sicily because “the island was still missing from my photographic map” he explains.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: It is all spontaneous photography and it is my personal diary. It might seem to be an unsorted mixture at first glance, because some images are black-and-white and others are in color. But that’s what I like about digital photography: mostly, I have already decided the output medium before I press the shutter release button. Sometimes the colors are compelling, sometimes it’s the contrasts.

Q: What camera equipment did you use to shoot these images?

A: I used my Leica M9 with a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux, a 75 mm f/2.5 Summarit, f/2.5 75 mm, and a 50 mm f/1.1 Voigtländer Nokton. Sometimes I carry a cheap little tripod with me.

Q: What made this equipment the right choice for this work?

A: After four years of intensive use, I have gotten used to my Leica M9. It fits my hands, it’s simple, and I can predict how it will behave in certain situations. I think this is the most important point: you have to become familiar with your camera and your lenses. The Summilux is a standard lens for almost every purpose and light condition. I love to use it wide open at maximum aperture. The optical quality of the Summitar is just superb. The Nokton is a cheap and blurry lens, but the shallow depth of field makes it ideal for portraits. Usually I carry the 35 mm lens and a second lens in the jacket. That’s all the equipment I need and I never use a flash.

Q: What did you hope to achieve with this portfolio?

A: I don’t want to achieve any particular goal. I just want to capture the atmosphere of a place. And I like people!

Q: Do you think you achieved what you set out to do?

A: I hope so. Sicily and Palermo are absolutely fascinating places for a photographer. Palermo is a vital and chaotic ruin. If you leave the main road, you will see life in all its color — markets, churches, children playing, little shops, refugees from Africa, waste, dirt and elderly gentlemen with obscure professions. It’s a wild mixture of the ugliest and prettiest things. But be sure to have insurance on your camera equipment before you venture forth.

Q: You describe the images in your Sicily portfolio as “spontaneous images” and a “personal diary,” but you also noted that you are attracted to Italian towns for their “mixture of decay and vitality.” Do you think that this perception is somehow embodied in these images even though they have a random street quality and are not aimed at articulating a particular theme? Also, why does that particular dichotomy inspire you?

A: There is a particular theme: daily life in Sicily. Each picture, is at first, a small and random part of a mosaic, but after some days they all seem to fit together. It’s just like a painting that begins with certain colors and then maybe evokes a sublime message.

Q: About 60 percent of these images were output in B&W and the rest are in color. While you did state that “sometimes the colors are compelling, sometimes the contrasts,” can you provide a deeper insight into what attracts you to the B&W medium, and how and when you decide whether to present a given image in color, B&W, or both?

A: As I worked for newspapers, I started with B&W. Twenty-five years ago color photos were not very common in daily papers. I was an admirer of all the classic Magnum photographers. Until 2004 the basement of my house was a no-go area with a developing machine and a Leitz Focomat enlarger. Then I sold all my film equipment including my Leica on eBay to somebody in Taiwan and switched to digital photography. That was the time I discovered color for myself. Later on, the B&W printers improved and so I returned to its abstraction, but sometimes you just need the color.

Q: You mention that you carry a tripod with you. Under what circumstances do you use it? And by the way, what ISO settings do you typically use when shooting with your M9?

A: I use the tripod only at night for still photography, when there’s nothing else to brace the camera against. I take 90 percent of my images at ISO 160 or 320. That’s the reason why I consider all the high-ISO-discussions quite boring. “This is our church tower at 320000 ISO,” or “My wife at 65437 ISO in the shopping mall. Notice the fine contrast and low noise” — that stuff doesn’t mean much to me.

Q: You said that you plan to return to Sicily to photograph the countryside, but also that you’d like to photograph Bhutan and to acquire a 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux. What draws you to the Sicilian countryside, why are you excited about photographing Bhutan, and what particular features and characteristics of the Noctilux do you think you will find especially useful in your work.

A: The Noctilux has a very special and unique character due to the very shallow focus when it’s shot wide open. You really can separate objects from the rest of the universe. They start to float and hover in space. That’s what makes these pictures so magical. As a Nocti costs 10,000 Euro, I love to use the affordable Voigtländer Nokton for portraits, despite the fact that the quality of the lens is rather poor and it’s hard to focus.

I have been a practitioner of Zen Buddhism for years. That’s why Buddhist countries and their cultures fascinate me. And it’s also the reason Bhutan is so attractive to me.

Q: “Catania Elegy” certainly expresses decay laid over an ancient and dignified structure, and the tonal gradation of this B&W image is impressive. Do you agree, and where was this picture taken and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I totally agree with you. I took this photo in Catania after I had dinner in a tremendous bar without heating. In some way it stands for Sicily and how I experienced it: ugly and fascinating at the same time. It’s brutal and poetic, sad and intense. And it’s a garbage collection according to the random principle. My guidebook claimed that there are so many signs of an emergence that will take place in the future, but I couldn’t find them. It’s been totally contaminated by the mafia. To capture this image I used the Summilux 35 mm lens at f/1.4 and 1/90 sec, at ISO 320 and converted the DNG to black-and-white with Silver Efex Pro.

Q: Your second image of Catania shows a barren urban street, moistened perhaps by a recent shower, receding in the distance with a bicyclist, evidently checking his cell phone, as he moves through the foreground. The B&W medium certainly enhances the somber mood, and the composition is masterful. Why did you include this image in your portfolio and what does it mean to you personally?

A: This was the very first picture I took in Sicily. It was on a Sunday evening in Catania. The city seemed to be abandoned, not a single person on the streets. A cold wind was blowing, and it was raining. There was a smell of fish in the air, because the street was close to the fish market. It was totally different from what I had expected. I sought shelter in an entranceway and said to myself, “my shoes will get moldy and I will fall into a depression here, but the pictures will be quite nice”. That’s my sacrifice for art. Then I saw the bicyclist approaching, and I pressed the shutter a millisecond before he was in the center, checked the result on the screen – and felt Grappa-happy. I can even predict the shutter lag of my M9 after four years … okay, sometimes. This shot reflects the atmosphere of this somber evening in spring. I love this kind of picture.

Q: I love your picture of a bright yellow Fiat 500 partially covered by a ratty tarpaulin with an out of focus craggy mountain topped with buildings in the background. It’s a great whimsical statement that is enhanced by shallow depth of field. What lens, aperture, and focusing distance did you use to achieve this effect?

A: I used my Summilux 35 mm at f/2.0 and 1/4000 sec and shot it at ISO 160. It took me quite a while to find the right exposure, because the yellow paint of the Fiat shined so bright. The town you can see in the distance is Castelmola, not far away from Taormina. I think this is a car pit of a Stephen King novel, acting the innocent during the day, but developing a life of its own at night.

Q: “Dreamer” seems to capture the surreal quality of everyday life. How do you see this picture and does it have any particular meaning for you other than an amusing juxtaposition?

A: I think this image shows an absurd, but also poetic moment. It emits the silence and gravity of a grey morning in Palermo.

Q: Speaking of juxtapositions, “Jim” is an amazing image that shows a neatly attired world-weary older man who is stooped over and manning a push broom in an almost despondent and desultory manner while behind him, adorning the slats of a roll-down metal door is the large, vibrant, graffiti-style head-and-shoulders portrait Jim Morrison. To me this suggests the dichotomy between those that preserve and uphold the traditional values and structures of society and those who are primarily concerned with asserting their identity and can therefore be a corrosive force. Am I reading too much into this, and why were you so happy to have captured this image?

A: This is a very interesting interpretation. I discovered the painting on the metal door in a side street. I found the scenery interesting, because it somehow had a morbid charm. But there was something or somebody missing in the foreground. So I decided to wait and see what might happen. Suddenly the man came out on the street to sweep up the crumbling rendering in front of the facade. I was so surprised and excited, that I shook the camera and blurred the first images. But finally I got this shot — a hopeless and absurd struggle of a man against the unstoppable decay of a city. So for me this picture stands for the evanescence of time.

Q: “Police Officer” is a wonderful portrait of a member of the carabiniere in full regalia. The red tuft in the foreground and very shallow depth of field really make this picture a stopper. Where did you capture this image and was it a grab shot made on the fly? Also what lens and aperture did you use to achieve this great effect?

A: I took this picture in front of the Norman Cathedral of Palermo, after a mass for policemen had ended. They were all dressed in their gala uniforms. I asked kindly for permission to take a picture and he was proud to pose. I used the 50 mm f/1.1 Voigtländer Nokton at wide-open aperture.

Q “Windows” is an amazing juxtaposition of an elderly woman with a resigned expression peering out from an open window shutter and a window-like alcove holding a chalice and a floral sculpture with a medallion-shaped religious symbol above the window frame. The picture says a lot about the Sicilian culture and its traditions, but it also has an enigmatic and symbolic quality. What do you think it would mean to a Sicilian and is that different from what it would mean for a typical non-Sicilian viewer?

A: For a Sicilian this picture would just show everyday life, nothing special. Devotion to Saint Mary plays an important role in Italian Catholicism. There are dozens of churches in Palermo and hundreds of those little altar niches on the streets. To me the smoking lady seemed to be lonely and the scenery exudes fatalism, a quite common feeling in Sicily.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres or subjects other than those you have already mentioned?

A: I am a street photographer and I am happy that I have found my subject. The next three years I will try to spend as much time as possible out on the streets, waiting for something to happen.

Thank you for your time, Sebastian!

– Leica Internet Team

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