Since launching his career as a photojournalist in 1981, Doug’s award-winning work, covering subjects as diverse as the Ethiopian famine, Silicon Valley and the AIDS crisis, has featured in Time, Newsweek, LIFE, USA Today, Fortune and many other publications worldwide. With his main camera, the Leica SL, Doug strives to document and reflect the realities and juxtapositions of the human condition. We talked to Doug about his philosophy on photography and his preference for Leica cameras.
You have shot all around the world, covering all manner of topics from homelessness to celebrities in Hollywood. What was it that first inspired you to become a photographer and how did you start out?
My Dad gave me an old Argus C-3 rangefinder when I was ten. At 12, he gave me a copy of “The Concerned Photographers” and it lit the fuse. I started shooting every day, everywhere I went and I haven’t stopped since. I started covering anti-war demonstrations for local papers at 14, apprenticed in a studio through high school. Met a legend who encouraged me. So I was hooked all the way, very young.
Looking back, what was the most important breakthrough of your career?
Many, many people helped me along the way with many breaks. But probably the biggest breakthrough was Steve Jobs agreeing to let me document him for three years for LIFE Magazine in 1985.
This breakthrough would become one of your most famous series, ‘FEARLESS GENIUS: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985-2000’. Many photos in this series display a candid or ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach characteristic of street photography. To what extent is the line between street photography and documentary photography blurred?
Good question. I don’t change how I shoot whether I’m on the street or documenting in a homeless shelter or for an ad campaign. Of course, for an ad campaign there is a lot of production and I can control the action, yet I’m still trying to get actual moments there too. The real difference is how the work is edited, which depends on the intended audience. So there is no line for me until it’s time to select images.
What, in your opinion, constitutes good street photography?
Typically, in photojournalism we are answering questions, showing what the story is about with graphic clarity so the audience understands instantly what is going on. My favorite street photography does the opposite. It’s mysterious, ambiguous and complicated. It makes you ask questions rather than clarifying things.
Where a news photo is meant to serve the viewer with information, a street photo is more personal, more intuitive and an expression of what appealed to the photographer, possibly on a subconscious level. It can also be an observation or statement by the photographer on some aspect of human experience, often revealing something important overlooked by the rest of us.
What is it that draws you towards street photography?
I think deep down it’s a need to figure out my own place in the world and taking photographs of the people and world around me is a way to orient myself within it.
Some of your photos depicted here on the Leica Camera Blog effortlessly capture authentic everyday situations and elevate them into a timeless realm, like the couple kissing on the subway platform, for example. How do you decide upon a subject for a photo? Is it just spontaneous?
I sometimes think my obsession with everyday moments of everyday life, little interactions, might be a bit boring for most people, but I find these things to be quite compelling. It’s always spontaneous. Every photograph is like an incredible gift you get after hours of walking and looking. Suddenly there it is.
The Leica SL is now your main camera. How has your relationship to Leica developed over the years and what does Leica embody for you?
I got into Leica M cameras years ago as it was the ideal size to always have with me, specifically for street photography. The lenses are astonishing, but I also liked the discipline of simplicity. Switching from shooting assignments with the ease of auto-everything zooms back to the limitations of manual focus and exposure settings forced me to remember the basics of photography and really pay attention and get closer to subjects. So Leica became for me a kind of tool for daily meditation and practice, keeping me in the moment, as I walked the streets.
What features do you like most about the Leica SL?
The SL combines the best of the M street camera feeling with the pro DSLR autofocus zooms and auto exposure features I need when I’m on a commercial or editorial assignment. And I can use it with my M lenses too. So I use it for both and am extremely happy.
What other Leica cameras do you use?
I still use my M9 on occasion.
What is your favorite Leica lens?
The Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH.
Platforms such as – and especially – Instagram have empowered a new generation to explore the street photography genre without even having to buy a proper camera. What advice would you give to the next generation of street photographers?
I’m so inspired by the new street photographers and there is plenty for me to learn from them. However, the one constant thing that has helped me that I would pass on is to maintain respect for and empathy toward your subjects.
Doug’s upcoming exhibition, ‘FEARLESS GENIUS: THE NEXT GENERATION’ – a body of work documenting the next generation of would-be innovators and tech entrepreneurs – runs from Wednesday, September 6 – Sunday, October 1, 2017 at the Leica Gallery LA. Visit the website here.