Café culture, a traveler’s viewpoint Olaf Willoughby's interview with Yona Elig

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Yona Elig, a photographer based in Switzerland who works at the edge where photography meets painting. Her Street Photography and post processing techniques using an iPad are remarkable not only technically but as a reminder to us all to look beyond the obvious to see the potential of our images.

To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title & what is its main theme?

I call my project, ‘Cafe Culture, a Travellers Viewpoint’. Many European cafes have a special atmosphere and my aim is to tell the stories of the people in those cafes through my vision and my lens.

I first discovered the pleasure of sitting and observing people in a café years ago, when I lived in Paris. I have to admit that smoking was allowed in those days, so it was a whole “coffee & cigarette ritual”. The smokey atmosphere of the cafes gave my images a soft, dark, foggy effect. Now smoking is no longer allowed (with benefits for pollution) so I decided to create my own effects in post processing, to preserve that Cafe Culture feeling.

There is a certain ambience in Cafes, a game of lights and shadows that plays with the people, the cups, the newspapers and more…this is what I try to capture. People usually mind their own business, share with friends, read the news or nowadays scroll on their phones or laptops. It makes them easy subjects. Simple to catch without disturbing them. I like to respect their privacy even if I am stealing a moment of their lives. Unfortunately I am shy. I rarely get the kind of right eye contact so in my work I try to catch their thoughts.

And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?

As I wandered through cafés in various cities, I discovered the differences which made them unique. It’s as if my curiosity leads me to the most intriguing places. It is fascinating the way the people seem to be part of the decor too. I see them almost as actors in a play.

Some of them catch enough light to read their paper or book. They find a space just where the light tempts the shadow. This light game goes on for the whole day. Some seem to hide to avoid the light and then I catch a glimpse of a computer screen reflecting on their face and hands.

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

This project is entirely for myself. About 10 years ago it was also a proof that I could still enjoy cafes without smoking and concentrate on its customers, while sipping a delicious espresso (best in Italy).

My goal is to have an exhibition. However making that happen nowadays is difficult. When I first tried a gallery their response was, “We don’t take any artist that has not exhibited previously.” However sharing on Facebook, in groups I respect, like The Leica Meet has helped me to get the project together. I print for myself and show a discreet Portfolio on my web page.

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc?

I shoot in both color and black and white but usually black and white is more appropriate for the harmony, contrast and atmosphere that I need. Composition and framing are very important for the overall presentation. I never use flash. I always prefer natural lighting. It suits the mood of these cafes.

What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

For me, having a background in graphic design, a project has to have a theme, a certain presentational style, simplicity of intent plus a little something to make it different. All artists have similar personal choices.

I believe photography is an art form, therefore I try to be loyal to these principles in executing my concept. I cannot really judge if I have been successful. All I hope is that there will be an audience that understands and appreciates my language.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

I wouldn’t say influenced but I am always learning through other photographer’s work, famous or not. That is what brought me to sharing posts and exchanging comments on the internet. I am very open to experiencing photography in all its forms. I particularly love going to photography exhibitions where even the visitors inspire me! I am influenced by what is a pleasure to my eyes…it’s instinctive.

Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

I use Adobe Lightroom for my basic processing, black and white conversion, adjusting exposure, highlights, shadows and so on. When I discovered the iPad Pro and Apple pen plus the Procreate application, I found a marriage made in heaven! I discovered that by adding and painting on textures I could introduce light while keeping part of the composition dark.

This gives me the effect that I want. It is still clearly a photograph but has the hint of a painting whilst keeping the whole effect harmonious.

The main reason I started using this technique was to accent the main subject. I have had positive and negative feedback on the internet as I’m clearly blurring the boundaries of traditional straight photography. Still I believe in what I do and am open to criticism, as long as it’s a dialogue.

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

I have an Leica M ( Typ 240), MM and last but not least the Leica Q which is a delight to use. My favourite lenses are the 28mm Elmarit, 50mm Summilux ASPH 1.4 and a very old Noctilux that keeps loosing it’s screws!

Please list any links to your work you’d like to see included with the blog post.

I have a personal blog/portfolio at : www.yonaelig.com

Please provide a short bio (250 words max) including how you came to hear of the Leica Meet.

I was born in Istanbul, Turkey where I did most of my studies. At 20 I left for London to study Graphic Design at the London College of printing. There I met photographer friends who taught me how to work in a darkroom and got my first old Nikon.

I then moved to Paris and didn’t have much time for photography as I was working as a freelance graphic and web page designer. When I moved to Switzerland I returned to photography and felt free!

Then as I was going to more and more exhibitions, reading books and finally feeling more confident I bought my first Leica M240 in 2013 with one lens, the 28mm Elmarit. It took me a while to tame it but I just knew that it was the right choice for my project. I still have a lot to learn and always will have. However, as we only live once I’m trying to enjoy every moment of it! And The Leica Meet group is helping me do just that.

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 10,000 members. Olaf co-teaches workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College, Leica New York and London plus Brooklyn.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com

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