The fact that Canadian photographer Jakob de Boer is a coffee lover comes as little surprise. His Origin project took him to a coffee plantation in Tanzania, which serves as a training centre and demonstration project for the Italian espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco, as an example of sustainable coffee cultivation and local cooperation. Because de Boer regularly tests prototypes and new cameras for Leica, the trip to Tanzania offered a perfect opportunity to carry out a field test with the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246). Here’s de Boer’s interview.
How did you get the idea for the project, and how did the cooperation between La Marzocco and Leica come about?
What I find fascinating about coffee is that you start in a place like Tanzania and this little green bean goes through many processes, metamorphoses. We build machines to extract its elixir, and it ends up in someone’s cup. We often comment that we can’t start our day without coffee.
La Marzocco is the definition of craftsmanship when it comes to handmade espresso machines. In their arena, they are the Leica equivalent. About a year ago, I spoke with Mary Diamond from La Marzocco about the idea of doing this project on coffee, and she immediately identified with my vision. As things solidified in regards to La Marzocco, I was speaking with one of the principals of Leica, talking about this project on coffee that would be shot in Tanzania. At the time I knew Leica was working on the new Monochrom camera, the M (Typ 246). We both thought this would be a perfect fit.
How often did you travel to Tanzania?
We decided to take two trips to Tanzania; one during the harvest, and one during the rainy season. What was interesting was the dramatic change in the landscape. During the rainy season, you have this powerful rain for two hours every day. Everything is very green. Bright green. The coffee plants grow quietly in the shade of these old trees. On the second trip, during the dry season, things were evidently different. It was time for the harvest. Things were much more alive. Pickers were harvesting the plants, others pulping, or sorting the beans. It was an energetic time.
How many plantations did you visit, and what criteria did you follow in selecting them?
The collaboration with La Marzocco was part of their corporate social responsibility project. The hope was to get some visual motifs which would convey the feeling of what it’s like on a coffee plantation. We therefore focused on their Songwa plantation and its sister plantation, Utengule. I had only 14 shooting days all together, so it was a bit short. I appreciated the constraints of focusing on those two plantations. That being said, the plantations are HUGE. I probably could have been there for another two months and would have seen something new every day.
Did you face any special challenges while photographing on the plantations?
Without question, during the rainy season it was the rain. For two hours a day, the sky would open up and it would feel like buckets of water being thrown at you. I once went out with my umbrella and the water just came through the fabric of the umbrella onto the camera. I thought the camera was finished, and the trip was over. But it just kept going. Tanzania is a difficult place to shoot because you have very strong contrasts: bright sun, hard shadows. For a photographer that can be tough.
You photograph exclusively in black and white. Why?
Black and white provides many experiences. In one way, it’s poetic. In another, it gives the sense of reality we’re accustomed to because of journalistic reportage. With black and white, it’s not the colour that conveys the emotion, or the experience, but the relationships, of shapes, of subjects. One is forced to bring one’s own colour palette into the equation, thereby becoming a participant in the image.
In which ways have film and painting influenced your photography?
My photography, or at least my process, is rather deeply imbued with my film background. I’m always trying to find the ‘story’ within each image. I think about how this moment came about. Where it came from. Where it’s going after I click the button. What events conspired to bring this moment together in front of me. I’m looking to photograph that conspiracy. Painting for me is the ultimate expression of telling a story within four walls. Four borders. If you look at painters like Sargent, Sorolla, you begin to understand that’s what they were doing.
You test prototypes and new cameras from Leica on a regular basis. What do you think of the new M Monochrom (Typ 246)?
For black and white digital photography, I think it’s a rock star. I’ve worked with a lot of cameras, especially medium format and it simply blows them out of the water. Having no bayer array, means no interpolation so there’s no ‘fuzziness’. It’s just luminance. Light. I work with a few of Sebastião Salgado’s team (printers, digital printers) and they also felt the same way. The camera is simply impressive.
Which lenses did you use in Tanzania, and which one is your favourite?
I travel with three lenses: the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 Asph, the Apo-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 Asph and the Apo-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 Asph. But without question, it’s with the 50mm f2 APO that this camera shines. 75% of all the images I took in Tanzania where with the 50mm. It’s a very cool marriage.