Chicago-based Sean Hopkins’ first experience with Leica as a photography company happened at a 2014 Chicago photo walk hosted by two photographers known to use Leica, Van Styles and his now close friend David Rasool Robinson. Hopkins, a 27 year old mechanical engineer, was intrigued by the minimalistic styling and what he thought was an ode to the cameras of yesterday’s generation. Fast forward about 8 months and a chance encounter, Hopkins was given an M-P (Typ 240) on loan from Leica USA to use as his main camera. To adjust to using a rangefinder, Sean shot architecture and landscape until being comfortable enough calculating distance and began to shoot on the street again. In his own words, when giving back the equipment, he felt he packed up and sent away the only part of himself that allowed him to genuinely and emotionally connect to the world.
As with any manual focus camera, it completely changes the speed at which a user shoots when compared to anything digital with auto focus capabilities; Hopkins describes he would typically find himself shooting hundreds of images in an outing with his DSLR and only using a handful of images. “With the M-P (Typ 240) I naturally had to slow down to make sure my subject was properly focused, composed, and exposed. However, when paired with an M mount Leica lens I started to notice that the images had a different feeling to them.”
Without any post processing, each image possessed a unique quality that embodied the emotion of the subject within the context of the environment. Furthermore, the images always seemed to produce an unparalleled quality of depth and dimension that only helped elevate the mood Hopkins was trying to relay. Eventually, he says, Sean found himself doing all that he could to reach new levels of creativity by maximizing the characteristics of the body and lens combinations. He finally got to the point where he had the ability to blend in with the environment allowing him to discover genuine moments of the human condition. He accepts: “I quickly transformed from a photographer who shot anything that looked remotely interesting to an inquisitive man seeking moments that consistently told a story by utilizing the emotion embedded within the construct of everyday life. Coupled with the Leica system, my imagery was completely transformed and I felt like for the first time I felt my purpose in photography was defined. ”
While Sean was born and raised on the south side of Chicago where the first photographers he encountered were those covering the violent aftermath of gangs and drugs in the African American community, he always admired and modeled his style of photography after photojournalists and street photographers. It is their ability to capture emotion within the context of an unfamiliar environment with respect to the audience that drives Hopkins to explore new cities, landscapes, and bridge the natural divide between strangers in a time where we as people are more closed off than ever.. He claims that “it finally feels like I have purpose in photography: ensuring those I meet feel empowered and compelled to tell their story through an expressive medium absent of words.”
So, what does mechanical engineering and the Chicago streets have to do in common? Well Sean explains that “as an engineer I am notoriously detailed oriented, calculated, and blunt”, Hopkins continues. “This typically translates into a sharp and properly exposed raw image, coupled with the ability to photograph subjects without the inherent anxiety notorious with street photography. This has also given me the capability to confidently utilize a medium that by nature is extremely subjective by maintaining my identity in lieu of feelings of acceptance and acclaim.”
As a Windy-City native, he talks passionately about its skyline and organization: “Chicago architecture is in part what brought me to photography.One little known fact is how well the city’s grid system plays with light and shadow, which allows for amazing and dramatic moments throughout all hours of daylight. Also I may be a bit biased but I believe Chicago has the best skyline of all the major cities in the United States. The people add a completely different dimension to the city as Chicago is very diverse, but also heavily segregated. Without touching on high level social issues, the people of Chicago always present me with an opportunity to capture something unique.”
When we asked about his experience being witness to those who documented the aftermath of gangs and drugs in the African American community, Sean shares his perception towards other photographers’ approach. “Initially, the sight of photographers covering violence on the south side seemed odd to me. It reminded me older issues of National Geographic where you would see the results of armed conflict in various war torn regions. As a child it made me think that I was living within a war being fought in Chicago, but I couldn’t grasp why the world was not outraged like some of the other wars being fought. This eventually translated into my current style of photography – bringing attention to people and areas that people seldom take a second glance at. Eventually, I hope that I can bring a sense of purpose to everyone I interact with because there are few feelings worse than being invisible or irreverent.”
When talking about future projects, Sean now has a number of street photography and portrait projects focused around bringing to light the common struggles of man with an objective of breaking down the walls constructed out of what has become a continually changing social landscape.