Josef Szotten: Cigar Shop – An Intimate Urban Documentary

Born and raised in Malmö, Sweden, Josef Szotten is a self-taught photographer with a passion for capturing classic black-and-white documentary images on Kodak Tri-X film with his vintage Leica M cameras. This is the story of how he created a portfolio that conveys the authentic spirit of Martinez Cigars, a traditional old-time New York City cigar shop that manufactures and sells cigars to aficionados who are not just customers, but also friends.

Q: What camera equipment do you presently use?

A: I use a Leica M6 Classic and a Leica M2 with a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH and a Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 that I swap around between the two bodies.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I’d describe it as documentary style, usually of urban spaces and subjects. I enjoy blending in a bit of architecture as well to help tell a more complete story and give the viewer a better sense of the scene.

Q: Can you provide some background information on the images in this portfolio?

A: These photos were taken at a cigar shop in New York City. Not only do they sell cigars, they make them right there in the shop. It’s a small place filled floor to ceiling with cigar boxes and shapers. There’s a very distinct atmosphere in there that I couldn’t resist capturing. It’s one of my favorite places to visit in the city where I feel like I get to experience real salt of the earth Americans in stark contrast to the still wonderful but different, multi-cultural melting pot that is New York City.

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

A: In this series I wanted to get a candid and informal behind the scenes look of the workshop. I think these images really capture the unique vibe of the place; you feel like you’re getting to take part in the process. One of the key things I wanted to convey was the interactions and relationships between the different people in the shop.

Q: You definitely take a traditionalist approach to photography, shooting film with a Leica M6 Classic, a vintage M2, and 35 mm and 50 mm f/2 Summicron lenses. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white film medium and why do you think it works best for your style of photography? Incidentally what films(s) do you typically shoot and do you have your own darkroom or do you send your film out to be developed, scanned and printed out digitally?

A: The main attraction is that the camera gets out of the way and lets me focus (no pun intended) on getting the shot I want. Let’s start with the film stock. I shoot almost exclusively with Kodak Tri-X for B&W and Kodak Portra 400 for color. So my ISO is set from the get go—nothing to worry about there. After that I just need to think about what aperture I want for the shot and what shutter speed to go along with it. Recently I’ve really started to take advantage of the great latitude these film types have in terms of exposure and so I can be pretty relaxed with the shutter speed as well. I’ve gotten to know these film types well enough so I don’t even need a light meter, so all that’s is is to focus and frame the shot.

Another huge draw for me is that the process is a bit slower. I’ve got 36 exposures so I take my time with each shot and make every frame count. That’s allowed me to get a higher ratio of great images per roll and it gives me a sort of calm when shooting. Like most people these days I spend a lot of my time in front of a computer, tablet, or phone screen so it’s a great way to switch the brain into a different mode of sorts. It definitely helps with creativity too.

Finally, there’s the wait between taking the shot and getting to see the final results. I was recently talking about this with some fellow film photographers—there’s this phenomenon when you take a shot and straightaway you know you’ve nailed it. There’s no screen to preview it on, nothing but just “photographers instinct” that tells you you’ve got it.

I don’t think it’s anything unique. In your interview with Nick Ut about “Napalm Girl” he says the same thing about “frame 7.” That’s the feeling that I almost chase each time I go out with my camera.

As for developing the film, while I wish I had space for a darkroom unfortunately that’s not the case. I’ve done a few sessions and it was some of the most fun I’ve had with photography. For now however I use a pro lab out in LA called Richard Photo Lab and I’ve been thrilled with their results. They have some extremely talented people developing and especially scanning the film. I can talk to them about my preferences and the results are nothing less than amazing. If you don’t develop and scan yourself then a good relationship with your lab is vital.

Q: This image is fascinating because it only shows wrapped bundles of cigars in the background, a fan and a stack of freshly wrapped cigars in the foreground, to the right of which appears to be somebody’s shoulder and a small, almost insignificant hand holding a cigar. Yet it manages to convey a strong sensed of place and to capture what’s going on in this environment. Do you agree, and what were you trying to achieve when you composed this image?

A: Absolutely. The idea with this image is to give a bit of context to the scene and to help the viewer feel like they’re there. It’s a hot and messy environment where the only order is the cigars neatly stacked. As you say, the shoulder on the right belongs to one of the three workers still rolling cigars and the space is so tight I couldn’t avoid including the shoulder and hand in the frame. Cropping either one out would have deprived the viewer of that part of the story. As you can see the person rolling is smoking a cigar at the same time, all adding to the final flavor of the cigars. It’s my way of making you feel like you can almost smell the scene as well.

Q: This shot shows a bunch of guys, two of them smoking cigars, hanging around outside the cigar shop that has a prominent HAND MADE CIGARS neon sign in the window. This image, which has an engaging “random snapshot” quality, conveys something of the social dimension of cigar smoking and the fact that cigar smokers share a common identity. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: It’s definitely about the social aspect of smoking cigars; however a big part of it was to give you a more complete experience of the shop itself. One of things I enjoyed so most about this cigar shop is that the customers make up almost as much of its great atmosphere as the workers. They all seem to have a great relationship with the shopkeepers. They’re don’t just visit to buy something and then leave; they’re all good friends. The first time I visited the shop I sat down inside, smoked a cigar with everyone, was offered a glass or rum, and just had a nice chat. They really are the loveliest people and that’s why I was so keen to shoot this series.

Q: This image shows the guy behind the counter evidently selling cigars to a couple of happy customers, one of which is barely visible at the right-hand edge of the frame. The lighting is “authentic” and the interaction seems friendly and genuine. What do you think this image conveys to viewers about the experience of being in the cigar shop, and by the way were all these images shot with available light and do you ever use flash, reflectors, etc. in your work?

A: I tend to do all my shoots very candidly and want to capture real interactions and emotions. As you say that’s what this shot is all about.

In terms of lighting I never use a flash or reflectors and just try to take advantage of the natural available light. To me that means that shooting is a lot less intrusive to the subjects whom I just want to catch in their natural environment. While I had planned to shoot the scene, I hadn’t prearranged anything with the shop. I simply asked if I could take some photos and went from there. That’s very much how I do most of my photography.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years? Do you have any other projects in the works you can mention here?

A: Over time I’d like to develop my portrait work more. There’s a special place in my heart for black-and-white portraits, something I’ve dabbled in a bit but would like to improve on. Something a lot of people find hard when starting off with street photography is to talk to strangers and get to know them a bit before ultimately taking their photo. I’m trying to improve on that too and as an exercise I’d like to do a project where I take a portrait of a new stranger every day, and at the same time pick up at least a bit of each person’s story.

This idea was partly inspired by a filmmaker, Casey Neistat. He found that over time he ended up with too many different projects and didn’t have sufficient time to develop his filmmaking skills. So he decided to make a daily blog, effectively making a new film each day. I want to do something along the same lines. For example I often reserve my photography for times that I travel, and in between my trips I don’t shoot enough. This way I would force myself to take a photo every day and at the same time get to improve my confidence when talking to strangers. I find that an interesting backstory always enriches a photograph; it gives it more meaning for me, and at the same time it’s something you can share with viewers.

Q: Have you thought about creating an exhibition or an online book of your cigar shop images and do you intend to continue your project at this location?

A: It’s absolutely something I’d like to do. By posting the images in this series I’ve already been contacted by other people that have had similar experiences in other cigar shops. I’d love to explore that scene and to travel to more places like this. I’ll definitely be coming back to Martinez Cigars in New York as well though—any time I have the chance.

Thank you for your time, Josef!

– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team

Connect with Josef on his website, Twitter and Instagram.

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