After encouraging his curiosity in the field of photography at the age of 8, Anthony Friedkin began shooting with a Rangefinder 35mm film camera and later acquired his first Leica camera by the age of 17. He vividly remembers the black Leica M4 with a 50mm Summicron lens that had the MR meter on it. Now, he proudly shares his perspective on this very personal piece of equipment, referring to it as “ME”. Amid his exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles opening on Saturday, May 7th, Anthony shares with us his work, experience and perspective on photography. This interview has excerpts of an earlier interview published in Europe, Lamono Magazine conducted by Jaime Felipe Duarte in July 2015.
What camera and equipment do you use? Specifically, Leica equipment?
I own over one hundred cameras…and all of them are super fine pieces of equipment, they go all the way up to the format size of an 8×10 view camera. But I have to say, without a doubt, that the Leica Cameras I own and I continue to use (film) are my most favorite cameras of them all. That camera – plain and simple – is “ME”. I still shoot with it today and it’s like playing a Stradivarius violin.
If that camera could speak, it would have some amazing stories to tell…its photographed everything from (then) Russian occupied East Berlin in the late 1960’s, where I crossed over Check Point Charlie, to Gays in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1970’s, to prostitutes who were working in brothels in NYC, to portraits of James Brown and Michael Jackson. It photographed Cartier-Bresson in Paris and also Josef Koudelka in Los Angeles. These are a few examples of where this camera has been with me, through an incredible journey, one I’m still exploring today. I have the full range of lenses that go with the camera; from a 21mm Super Angulon to the 135mm Tele lens. Many of my most memorable images, the ones I’ve accomplished through the years that have defined my career, where shot with the M4.
Needless to say the optical quality of the Leica lenses are so superior, and the negatives they create, allow me to make beautiful enlargements, like no other 35 mm film Camera could ever possibly produce. I even have a Leica Focomat enlarger in my darkroom. The Leica brand not only represents the height of extraordinary optics along with the superior engineering of the camera, but it also represents a standard of excellence – artistically.
When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and an art form, a profession?
I was very lucky to have been given a camera for a birthday present when I was 8 years old. I immediately started taking pictures of everything around me; my cat giving birth to kittens, my older brother playing knights of the round table with his friends, waves breaking on a jetty by the beach. I couldn’t wait to get my photos back from the drug store and see what I got, to actually hold and look through the negatives and view the prints. From the beginning I was seduced by the whole process. By working in the darkroom at 11 years old I was able to see my photos right away. I could develop them myself and then I was not just taking the pictures but also processing them and making enlargements. Kids love magic and developing and printing my own photographs was like magic to me.
I have been a committed fine art photographer all my life. My work is in major institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood, California. The Los Angeles County Museum’s collection, there are many more as well, including private collections.
I also made a living as a photo journalist when I was young (I was a stringer photographer for Magnum photos way back when in LA). I also worked in the movie industry as a unit still photographer for over 40 years. I’m retired from that now, concentrating on my fine art exclusively.
Your works gather diverse topics such as the surf culture, cinema, and the gay community, to name a few; what thoughts lie behind the selection of each of these?
I try to use my camera as a means of personal discovery. My photographs represent markers of these discoveries in the most artistic way I can achieve them. Whether the images are of a gay couple, a Hollywood movie set, a magnificent breaking wave reflecting sunlight, or a portrait of dangerous convicts, I always try to reveal a deeper truth about what I see, in an effort to preserve it, to immortalize it in the photograph. I explored these ideas in my monograph TIMEKEEPER, published in 2003-and I’m still exploring them.
I work in the tradition of the photo essay, which involves staying with one theme or idea for a long period of time. I create many images within that theme… I get closer and closer to it…hoping to make more extraordinary photographs through that intimacy. My curiosity about life goes hand in hand with my photography work. Together they have taken me into all kinds of fascinating landscapes, both internally and externally, and continue to do so.
Los Angeles is sometimes regarded as a city were the superficial aspects of life become superlative, as a native Angeleno, what do you think about this?
I don’t know how or where this rumor got started, that Los Angeles is a cultural wasteland. It’s really ironic because nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has done research on the history of LA will tell you that creative people have wanted to live and work in Los Angeles going back numerous decades, deep into the early twentieth century. In photography alone, both Edward Weston and Man Ray lived in LA, two giants in the medium of fine art photography. The “Dream Factory” as some people refer to it, has produced extraordinary music, cinema, theatre, dance, visual art, great literature and the list goes on and on. Working as a photographer in Los Angeles has many benefits… the sunlight that comes into LA is special for me, with shadows as sharp as a knife.
The city, and the county of LA are enormous and are filled with different and extraordinary architecture, some totally unique and groundbreaking, like the Disney Hall for example. We have so many different lifestyles here, different cultures of people from all over the world live here, and of course Hollywood-tinsel town gives us an identity like no other place on earth. The whole idea of what’s real and what isn’t could not be more pronounced then in LA. From a visual standpoint this is very exciting for me and I’m sure it has affected my eye. Plus we have the Pacific Ocean in all its grandeur, the birthplace of small wave riding as an art form. I could go on, but I think you get the idea…we also have some of the finest museums in the whole world here, like the J. Paul Getty Museum, which has one of the finest collections of photographs on earth. Anyone who underestimates Los Angeles and the many dedicated artists that live here would be seriously misinformed. There is no other city in the United States, or other countries for that matter that’s comparable to LA.
Did you have any mentor who was pivotal in your life and work?
The remarkable history of photography has functioned as my mentor. From the very first photographs that were accomplished in the early 1800s and up to the present, there have been many great photographers whose works I’ve studied. Their individual vision has enlightened and motivated me. Many of them worked and survived under incredibly difficult conditions, with materials and cameras that by today’s standards would be considered archaic. The great photographer’s Louis Daguerre, Eugene Atget, Carleton Watkins, Mathew Brady, Brassai, E. J. Bellock, Alfred Steiglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Andre Kertez, Cartier Bresson, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Man Ray, August Sander, Danny Lyon… I could keep on going and going…have all inspired me.
There are a few photographers like Josef Koudelka that I consider especially significant. Ones who have changed the way we see photography and what it’s capable of as an art form. They did this with their extraordinary vision, and they changed the very concept of what we think a photograph can be or look like. Koudelka is a contemporary photographer and someone I admire very much, his dedication and eye are phenomenal.
Why the predilection for black & white photography?
Black and white abstracts reality. Psychologically it travels to a very different place than color. It’s a whole other experience. It’s not that I don’t respect color or think less of it than black and white (in terms of art), because I don’t. It’s just for me; my personality and the way I choose to express myself in photography, there’s something about black and white that I’m emotionally connected with.
I also appreciate how incredibly beautiful a black and white silver gelatin photograph looks like in person. Its richness, tonality, its presence….there’s something sacred about it. I have worked in the darkroom since I was a kid and I make all my own exhibition prints. Black and White offers a full range of expression. For me it’s timeless.
Photographs as opposed to cinema or music, are a mute art, do you believe there is any power in this silence?
It’s funny you ask this question because when I was a teenager I would go out to randomly photograph, and let the picture spontaneously happen. I would stuff earplugs into my ears, to cut out all the noise, and the distracting ambient sounds. I was living in this silent world of potential stills, where the image existed in a kind of void…waiting for me to discover it and record the precious moment.
So the answer to your question is “YES” …. In fact there is something sacred about that silence, but it doesn’t prevent the photograph from having its own expressive voice and being visually heard and fully experienced. That’s the great joy of photography.
Thank you Anthony!
To know more about Anthony Friedkin’s work, please visit his official website.