Combining an inimitable aesthetic with legendary Leica craftsmanship, the recent remake of the Thambar soft-focus lens from 1935 has added a unique creative tool to the Leica M-System lens portfolio. Having worked on countless campaigns, editorials and covers, including those for Vogue Mexico and Vogue Spain, US photographer Mark de Paola captured the following images and video with the Thambar-M 90 mm f/2.2 lens. We caught up with the multi-talented fashion photographer and storyteller to get his take on shooting with the Thambar and the ability of some images to illicit an emotional response.
You were born into a photographic family. Your father was a photographer and your mother a model. How was it growing up surrounded by photography, and how did you discover your own vision?
I was quite literally born into a photo studio, with my earliest recollections being turning the pages of fashion magazines, Vogue and Harper’s, with photo shoots going on around me, surrounded by towering people.
I had my first childhood photo exhibitions at age ten for my family’s advertising and photography friends. I processed my own film and did my own printing. I guess you could say I was hooked and that, which has become my aesthetic developed very, very early on.
My vision is not defined by a moment or an event. My own vision has been an evolution that began with the design and technical elements from Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and my father Alessio de Paola, and expanded with Bert Stern and David Bailey’s imagery of freedom and looseness. My lifelong study through my work has always been to capture or elicit emotion in a photograph.
Was there anyone in particular, who influenced you? And was their any advice you wish you had received while you were starting out?
My father Alessio de Paola was my biggest influence, as we often took long photo walks through the streets of New York City, taking pictures and discussing the image: design, composition, and most importantly, emotional content. He always stressed not just to take a pretty picture but to ask oneself, “What is the feeling or the emotion you are capturing?”
Fortunately, I had the resources of my father and his friends so I was lacking nothing. That being said, the most important advice that I did receive was when father would say, “Son, never do anything that anyone else can do.” In other words, make it your own.
You used the new Thambar lens for this series, which provides a unique flou aesthetic. What do you consider are the advantages of shooting with the Thambar?
There are many. The Thambar offers tremendous versatility and control; from the soft and dreamy images shot at F2.2, to tack sharp and contrast heavy from F4 and deeper stops.
After extensive testing for about six weeks under a great variety of conditions, the Thambar renders differently in front light, back light, side light, soft light and hard light. It is a lens that really rewards experimentation.
One of my favorite features is the click-less aperture ring for ultimate and infinitely variable control. Most lenses offer half stop clicks which translates to a 50% change in light levels in either direction. With the Thambar, one can make micro adjustments that render different results. The clickless aperture also has great advantages on the cinema side where it is variable and again not limited to half stop clicks. All cinema lenses have no clicks because of the precision, control, and accuracy of exposure necessary for large projected images. The lens works extremely well in my workflow because I have the versatility to shoot still and motion.
There is often a great deal of importance put on the sharpness of focus when judging the quality of a photograph. To what extent do you agree with this?
While I encourage everyone to pursue and fulfill their own aesthetic, focus for me is only a starting point in my visual language. A photograph that renders everything apparently in focus renders a 3 dimensional world distinctly into 2 dimensions. This is not the way we see.
Do you prescribe to the theory that blurring can be used as an artistic tool? And if so, what kind of emotional response can be elicited in the viewer?
By exploring the out of focus areas of an image or an environment when composing an image, not only does one control where the viewer looks dimensionally, but one approaches a third dimension.
There is a whole world of unsharpness that helps to tell a story and especially to facilitate emotion. Emotion is contained in the out of focus areas of our vision.
There is no limit to an emotional response from a photograph as no two people on earth have the same DNA, also further complicated by one’s upbringing and experiences.
You are well known for your outstanding fashion and portrait photography, combined with your ability to convey a visual story. How do you go about imbuing a fashion shoot with a visual narrative?
It starts with, as Ralph Gibson says, a “point of departure”, a story you want to tell. My stories typically begin with the personality of the subject. I choose models, who already embody spirit and personality and character and thus, story.
Working with the same models over and over helps me to develop a rapport, a sense of comfort and ease with the model to allow them to communicate in a safe environment.
I am also very selective about choosing my team, considering their artistic expression and personality. Fashion is a team sport.
What was the story you wanted to convey with these images?
I was honored to be able to shoot the Thambar for about 6 weeks so I would take it with me on each assignment and shoot a bit in a variety of conditions.
Each image is a visual translation of what I feel is the most honest rendering of each subject. For me, a successful fashion image or portrait is not that which is particularly the most in focus, or perfect in composition. A portrait is that which best translates the subject’s story during the in-between moments, when one is deep in thought or least expecting a shutter click.
How would you describe the dynamic of your shoots, in terms of direction and interaction with your subjects?
I am quite quiet and create an environment where I encourage people to be who they are. I always begin a shoot with one shot with the lens wide open, adjust shutter speed, and go right into shooting typically without further mechanical adjustments.
Without direction, the subject is forced to settle into themselves, thus my images become more like portraits than traditional fashion images.
I shoot Leica because of its unobtrusive nature. The camera disappears as a barrier between myself and the subject.
You also shot a video with the Thambar lens. What kind of set up did you employ? And how did the Thambar perform in comparison to a standard cine lens?
I shot the Thambar film with the MP-240 and the Thambar at F2.2. As one may know shooting at 24 frames per second, the shutter speed is at a 50th of a second. I employed the use of a variable ND filter so at a 50th of a second at ISO 200, I was able to maintain the F2.2 aperture giving the film its unique Thambar look.
People ask me all the time, why do I shoot film on the MP-240? It’s impossible with a rangefinder, right? Not only is it not impossible, it actually suits my shooting style often as I find the rangefinder focusing system to be fast and precise, even for motion. Also, I love the sensor in the MP-240. It renders a look that I love without any post production or grading.
The Thambar with its clickless aperture operates as a cine lens, which is of great value to me. It shoots very similarly to the other cine lenses I frequently shoot and compares favorably with the mechanical smoothness of the focusing system.
You have been shooting with Leica for a while now. How has your relationship with Leica cameras developed over the years? Do you have a favorite set up?
I have been shooting Leica all my life, starting with the M3 as a kid. I have shot and tested each camera and I believe I have tested every lens made, so my knowledge of Leica cameras and optics has developed alongside Leica each step of the way.
I have been shooting the Noctilux since 1976. I had to wait 36 years to shoot the Noctilux on a Leica capable of capturing motion, the M Typ 240. The Noctilux and the M Typ 240 is my main setup along with the newly introduced SL.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
My series “Art of Backstage” will open at the Leica Store, Soho on 1 February 2018 to kick off next year. I have also been working very hard on a couple of new art series to be announced in 2018. I can’t say much, however one thing I can say is analog, analog, analog… I want to get my hands wet again.
Visit Mark’s website to see more of his wonderful fashion photography, films and fine art.