Beneath the sheltering sky Kevin Sturman has visited Morocco time and again, never leaving home without his Leica cameras

Born and raised in rural England, Kevin Sturman observed his father at work in his darkroom aged 11 before an athletics scholarship took him to the US at the age of 19. He enrolled in a photography class and was captivated by the processes involved, believing that his experiences as a distance runner provided the determination and dedication to push himself further in his photographic pursuits. The following interview explores Sturman’s inspirations, his time shooting in Morocco and his expert selection of camera and lens.

You started out as an assistant to several widely acclaimed photographers. What did these years teach you the most?

The first studio I worked for after leaving school had a strong commercial reputation, which put me in good stead, technically speaking. The days were fun, often long and required stamina. I moved to LA years later with the intent to up my game and landed a few assisting gigs with Herb Ritts. He worked with multiple duplicate cameras in rotation, instead of changing backs, which would have paused the flow. It was a production line and he shot a lot of film. What I remember from those big budget shoots was his 1st assistant’s comment, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Later I worked with Peggy Sirota and, like with Ritts, the scale of her productions was massive. It was amazing to see but also daunting in its sheer excess. Witnessing all that, the thought went through my head, “How am I ever going to make it, if this is what is required?”

It was not until I worked for Helmut Newton that I felt truly liberated. The simplicity of his approach was more in line with my own. It was often just the two of us. He used the light he had there, in front of him. In many cases a raw light bulb, in others a tilted room lampshade or the bright sunlight bouncing back into the room and sometimes a flash. It was effective, simple and concise.

After five years working for Newton, I knew I could not go any further as an assistant. It was time to take the plunge and go out on my own. I sold everything and moved to New York. Thanks to a solid working relationship with American Vogue photo director, Ivan Shaw, I started shooting assignments for Condé Nast publications, which I had been introduced to through my association with Helmut Newton.

Who would you name as your biggest influence or inspiration for becoming a photographer? Is there a travel photographer you admire above all others?

I suppose it would go without saying that Helmut Newton was my biggest influence. I think the most important thing that I did whilst I assisted, was that I continued to take my own pictures. I always had my camera with me. Having said that, I have my fashion and portrait photographers I admire: Guy Bourdin, Bob Richardson, Jeanloup Sieff, Chris von Wangenheim, and the organic styles of Penn and Avedon.

Although it is not travel photography per se, street and war photographers are what I am secretly drawn too. The Belgium photographer Harry Gruyaert, I find very inspiring; the color work of Ernst Haas; the use of shadow, color and form of Alex Webb; the black and white, and color images of Saul Leiter; the simplicity of William Eggleston’s representation of the American South, and use of color, for things most would never think to point their lens at, still captivates me.

Larry Burrows’ color work gave Vietnam a human quality, the raw power of Philip Jones Griffiths and the sheer bravado of Don McCullin, as he immersed himself in his work, are others I also admire.

Before you left for Morocco was there a specific story or angle you hoped to cover while there? Were you successful in capturing what you set out to?

My first trip to Morocco was a test to myself, seeing if I had what it took, since I had only worked in safe, controlled environments. The only story line in my head was that I should not alter, nor influence, what was in front of my lens. The other rule was to react and shoot from the hip. Rarely did the camera come up to my eye. I measured everything – distance and correct camera height, so I would get a 3/4 or full body but not crop the head. I worked strictly with a 28mm Summicron preset distance and aperture, and I refused to stop down past f5.6 or f4, as I wanted to isolate my subjects from their surroundings just enough so they would pop. I trained my eyes to assess that distance, so I knew when to fire the shutter. I was working with an M7 and I was not going to see my results until I got back to the lab. This provided me with enough excitement and I was rewarded when I got back to NY.

You took a range of Leica cameras with you to Morocco. How did you decide, which camera to use for your different shots?

On my first visit I took both M and R8 systems. I used the Leica R8 when I had the consent of the subject. I needed the R8, since I like to shoot with a very shallow depth of focus, and the R8 finder with its blue tint gave me the ability to focus wide open and really see that image pop into focus. My R lenses comprised 35mm/50mm/80mm 1.4 Summiluxs and a 28mm Elmarit. When shooting on the street I used the Leica M7. I had a 28mm ASPH. Cron 35mm and 50mm Lux.

Visits since have comprised of either a digital Leica M8, then later the M 240 and Q. The Leica Q has made life easier for me. It is the perfect street camera and I take a lot more risks with it.

Your series displays a range of settings from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to the marketplaces of Marrakesh. Where exactly did you visit and how did you travel?

On my first trip I was there for 3 weeks. The majority of the time I pounded the streets alone. I like to work alone, without distractions. I carried a GPS with me so I wouldn’t get lost but my intent was to get lost. It felt scary and also exciting. My only goal was to find my way back to where I was staying. This was in the days before smartphones. I would start early and go all day or until the light faded. In most cases I would go past dusk and then reach for my Noctilux.

When my friend, who lived in Marrakesh, was able to, he would drive me up to the Atlas Mountains. We also took trips up towards the Sahara Desert, but sadly I never made my way in because of sand storms. We also made our way to Erfoud. It was not until later that I realized they had filmed The Sheltering Sky there. I found it magical, stuck in another time. I hope to return again. On later trips, I made my way to Essaouira, where I have been a few times, and again, I find this place very special.

The bright sunlight and earthen color palette are defining elements of your photo series. How did the light and color range affect your process while traveling in Morocco?

What became immediately apparent about Morocco was the light. Having lived in the desert in Arizona it has a certain ambience and color palette, while the shadows have a certain quality and the sunlight a crispness that was all familiar to me. In Marrakesh you are either on foot, on a donkey or on a moped. It is total chaos. Where else are you going to see four people, chickens in a cage and a sheep under someone’s arm, all on one moped? So I knew the light but Phoenix lacked the excitement.

Most big cities are grey and orderly. They too are fun to observe but in Marrakech you see the craziest things. It is very exciting to observe and capture. When you are alone you become hypersensitive and the only way it can be shared is if it’s captured.

You have a range of candid street shots, natural scenes and almost classic portraits. Do the varying subjects and styles reflect a change in your technical set up?

If I see something specific, I keep a dialog going in my head. When I have enough there, I dedicate my time to that. As an example, I found a nomadic Berber family that lived in a douar. I set up near by, in the middle of where they lived, and by pure curiosity they came to me, which was my intent. For this, I wanted to shoot 5×4, and this was the only occasion I did not use the Leica immediately. I felt that it was something that needed to be slowed down, to make this a special occasion for them. The 5×4 seemed the right tool and I was able to give them a Polaroid. Once I had their trust, I shot more rapidly and fluently with my Leica M7.

You have a wealth of experience, which shows not only in your composition and color work but also in the overall quality and variety of your shots. Do you feel comfortable shooting manually all the time or are there situations where you prefer to use your presets?

I work manually whenever I can and where I have control. But this is not to say I would not use the camera’s other functions, especially if I am going to get the result I am after. Nowadays, auto ISO means you can cover yourself getting the aperture and shutter speed you need. Sensors are better now, and under exposure is less of an issue with noise.

You also work as a professional studio photographer in the US. How does your work in the studio differ from shooting while on the road? Which do you prefer and why?

In the studio you have control, though I tend to light in a broad manner to give the subject the ability to move. I treat indoors in the studio and outdoors the same way. I am more informed on how I want my subjects to look because of my street observations and I always want to bring that to the studio. One feeds the other. Often we get in the way of the results that we are after simply by our presence and then there are those whose presence makes the image. With street images you never get the whole truth and I sort of like it that way.

What advice would you give to fellow photographers traveling and shooting in Morocco?

Be fearless; push yourself into areas that make you uncomfortable – you will learn more about yourself. I think a part of who we are seeps into the image, so take that leap. It is what makes each photographer unique. Marrakech is a place that people, in general, don’t like to be photographed, so find ways to go undetected, if you want authentic images.

How much work did you put into editing your shots from Morocco and what were you hoping to achieve in doing so?

What I find with editing is that the longer I wait, the more the image speaks to me. With film images this took a long time and was tiresome on the eyes when looking over 35mm proofs with a loupe. With the switch to digital, it has speeded up, though if I have the luxury of time, I will not look at them for a while. I guess processing film and having to wait for the proofs to come back in is still in the blood. It has become part of my process to this day. Mentally, during that down time I am visualizing the end result. I treat it much like film and I use film simulations to get the color I want.

Digitally, I work in Adobe Bridge. Finals will all end up stored and archived in Lightroom. I cull first, getting rid of the obvious mishaps. The next process is into Adobe Camera RAW. I find I can do most of my work there. I will use the graduate tools, in the same way that I would dodge and burn in the darkroom. I use clarity in the same way that I might have used split grading printing. Then I will move onto PS, and add a film simulation, through various plug-ins.

 

To see more of Kevin Sturman’s work both in and out of the studio visit his website or his Instagram.

 

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3 comments

  • Great Article, Stunning images. He certainly seems to have earned his stripes. Respect.

  • Truly beautiful work, love the M8 shots of the covered passage and the view from the window, and the cat in front of the door! Thank you for giving us a glimpse of an exotic place.

  • Mr. Sturman’s images bring us, the viewers, a lively and powerful account of real living in Morocco. These are brilliant photographs, and I was wondering if Leica would be showing more of his work in the near future.

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