The Zen Photographer A.B. Watson explores a philosophical approach to photography with the Leica M-System

Alexander Ben Korako Watson, better known as A.B Watson, is a photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Working as a professional in the world of advertising and editorial, A.B. has assisted a number of New Zealand’s best photographers, yet his personal work could not be move removed from the intense world of studio photography. Preferring to escape the city, he seeks out the moments of calm and serenity provided by the nature of his homeland. Simplicity is key to his photographic approach, reflected in his Zen-like black and white images, while in his search for the essential, A.B. has found what he is looking for in the Leica M-System.

Discover the Leica M-System

When did you first discover your passion for photography?

The first camera I used was the family film camera. I started to learn traditional photography in my school darkroom, using pinhole cameras, SLRs and developing negative film. Seeing my first photo magically appear in front of my eyes in the developer tank was the moment I got hooked.

When I was a graphic designer working for an agency, I was walking to work one day and I suddenly decided I wanted to become a professional photographer. I wanted to turn this hobby and passion into a career. I gave myself a two-year window to make a living from it and, as a result, I became a studio photographer.

I love my job and everything about photography. Taking photos every day is just who I am now. You will never see me out and about without my Leica slung over my shoulder.

Who or what inspired and influenced you?

I spent a large chunk of my professional photography life trying to find and develop my own style. I did fashion photography for a bit and loved the black and white work of Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. But all the magazines and publications I was shooting for only wanted color photos of the clothes. So I changed my style to cater to their needs. In short, I didn’t like the end result of my work.

Later on I took a break from fashion photography and did a lot of self-reflection for half a year. At that time I was accepted into a scholarship program at Kingsize Studios in Auckland, New Zealand. It was here that I was taken under the wing of Adam Custins and Russ Flatt. They told me to stop thinking, just take photos of whatever, almost like a kid with a disposable camera, don’t think, just capture. 

It was here that I found my natural black and white style. Apart from Adam and Russ, I have been heavily influenced my Huang Jing and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

When did you first start shooting with Leica?

I can’t remember the exact year but it was around 2010 that I got my first Leica. I love my Leica M6. Back then I would only shoot with Kodak Tri-X 400 and develop it in my bathroom. I still use it today when I’m going somewhere I can’t get access to power. That camera will last longer than me. 

Later on, with the social media and Instagram craze, I needed to process my images quicker. So I purchased a second-hand Leica M8. That was amazing, I still have that camera. I nearly parted ways with it, but in the end, I couldn’t let that classic digital camera go. I then picked up the Leica M Typ 240 and that is my go to camera now. I only shoot with one lens, the 50mm Summilux. It fits my style perfectly. I’m a man of minimal gear, and the less I need, the better, as long as it’s the best quality, for me that’s Leica.

What is it about black and white photography that appeals to you?

Black and white photography takes a step back from capturing reality. When you look at a black and white photo, it’s the shapes and contrast that capture your attention. We naturally see the world in color but with my photos I’m not trying to show the world as I see it. It’s reaching for something else that I can’t quite put into words. 

Black and white photos aren’t used as an archival image anymore. We don’t document historic events in black and white. Most people use a cell phone or a video camera. So black and white photography has this homage, it has turned into an art form now. It has history and depth, that’s what appeals to me about it.

When and how did you discover your very distinct photographic style? 

It took a while and it’s thanks to Adam and Russ from Kingsize Studios. But it comes down to these very specific rules I give myself. I find when you have limitations or fewer resources you become more creative. So I have a set of rules I’m not allowed to break, that forms the foundations of my style.

Photography style recipe

– Anywhere (be able to take a photo anywhere)

– Anything (be able to take a photo of anything)

– Available light (no lighting gear)

– Minimal (only the essential elements in the frame)

– Identifiable (have a consistent feel or tone)

Photography style ingredients

– One camera (Leica M)

– One lens (50mm Summilux)

– One film/preset (Kodak Tri-X 400)

– Lightmeter

– ND filter (no tripod)

Minimalistic composition, a balanced tonal ratio and a hard to describe sense of serenity are all key elements in your photography. From a technical perspective, can you describe your creative approach?

I don’t think about it too much, it comes back to my Zen state of mind. I use Tri-X film or presets. I never use a tripod, so for my long exposures, I’m forced to use the environment around me, which challenges me to take a different perspective from everyone else. I normally set my aperture to f4 for my landscapes. And that’s it really. If I want to show movement I use a 10-stop ND filter and the rest is up to me and my creativity.

How much do you think the analog nature of your work influences the end product?

It influences everything, I love film photography, if I won the Lotto I would only shoot with film and print using the Platinum Palladium process. I just can’t sever that tie I have with the darkroom. The thing I love about my Leicas is that they are stripped back to only what you need, the bare essentials. I’m in love with the Leica MD. I’m waiting for the Leica MD-10 if or when it comes out because I never use the display on my Leica. All I need in terms of settings are ISO, aperture and the shutter speed dial. I love the tactile feel and movement when changing my settings. Using LCD displays doesn’t come naturally to me. I want to focus on capturing the image in front of me, instead of turning my attention to camera settings. And that’s where my love of analog film came from and how I came to fall in love with the Leica M system.

Many images in this series capture water and movement. What is it that draws you to this particular motif? 

In my work, I’m largely influenced by what surrounds me at that given moment. I’ve been taking walks to waterfalls, traveling to remote islands around New Zealand and driving all over the south island, which is surrounded by mountain tops and ocean. It’s a truly beautiful country. Recently I have been experimenting with ND filters and long exposures. It’s just so much fun to take a photo that no one else thought of when you to go a location. Most people visiting these places just take snapshots on a phone. Whereas I like to sculpt my images just a little more, making them mine.

You are from New Zealand, a country known for its breath-taking nature, and you shoot almost exclusively in natural settings. How do you think your photography differs from classic nature photography? 

If you look at my images they are secluded, still, peaceful and Zen. I think it’s my personality that differentiates my style, not so much the location. If I took you to the same location, we would come back with completely different photos, and it comes down to the person. I’m very chilled out and like the Zen, relaxed lifestyle and that comes across in my personality and my photography. The reason I mainly take photos in nature, away from cities is that I make a day of it. Going into town isn’t exciting for me. I like to get away, find somewhere secluded, different, and I just take my camera along for the adventure.

You advocate only using one camera and one lens. Can you expand on this? 

Many people believe that gear is key, that you need everything before you can start or be taken seriously. I like the minimalist way of life. The less I need the better, and the simpler and easier my process and life becomes.

Focusing on one camera and one lens lets you really learn everything about that set up. You no longer have to waste time thinking about settings and what the image will look like. After using the same setup for a while, you just know what the photos going to look like before you even pull the camera up to your eye. 

I remember reading about a photographer giving advice around assignments and to only use one camera and maybe one lens to have a consistent look for a project. I loved this idea, and for me to get a consistent style and look I decided to adopt this process. As a result, I only use a Leica M camera and a 50mm lens. It’s brought peace and simplicity to my photography process. It’s also a nice change from my fashion photography days filling an entire car with gear and lights. Now everything I need fits in the palm of my hand.

You mention your “Zen camera” but which M-System model is it? And what do you consider to be the advantages of this particular camera? 

My Zen camera is the Leica M system as a whole, but right now it’s the Leica M Typ 240. I’m crossing my fingers that Leica makes an MD-10. For me, a Zen camera is a camera that makes your life easier. You don’t need to think or contemplate when using it, you can just react and capture. The Leica M system is the only camera that has helped me reach this state.

The advantages are that you can pick up any Leica M camera and you know where everything is, you don’t need to look at it. Leica has done an amazing job of keeping every model as close to the last. The less I need to think about the camera the better. This is why some people say Leica cameras are like an extension of their vision.

On your blog, you address the philosophical side to photography. What is it that interests you about this particular avenue of photography?

I love thinking and understanding why. Why did you do that? What happened in your past that made you who you are? Why did that happen? Some people find my approach to understanding to be very forward, and I like challenging people. But that’s me, and I’m coming from a good place, I’m inquisitive.

People love stories, people love to be taken somewhere. With my philosophy around photography, it takes people somewhere. It helps them understand why my work is the way it is, whilst still letting them interpret it with their own eyes. 

Philosophy is a way of living. There are many ways in which people see and live their lives, and I bet everyone fits into some sort of philosophical practice without their knowledge. Personally, I consider myself an existentialist. The philosophy of existentialism is based on the idea that the individual person is free and responsible for determining their own purpose in their life. Whatever you choose to give meaning to in your life, gives you meaning. That’s one of many things I love reading, writing and talking about.

Your website also provides advice and tutorials for your fellow photographers. What is the best piece of advice regarding photography you have ever received?

I’ve learned many tricks and techniques from many different photographers and mentors, and just about everything in terms of lighting, gear and processing. But the best advice I have ever been given was to let go, stop trying and go back to the beginning. What made you pick up a camera in the first place? How would you take that photo, if no one would ever see it, only you? That’s how you should photograph. Your photographs should be very personal; your images should come naturally to you, without thought. Let go, and just be true to yourself and who you were when you first picked up a camera.

In addition to your commercial work, what do you have planned for the future?

Over many years, I’ve seen many beautiful things, I’ve found myself and my style of reflection and I have explored the lands, mountaintops and ocean views. Now its time for me to adventure somewhere different and that’s into the ocean. I’m in the process of finding a way to take photos and capture underwater. That’s my next big adventure and I’m nothing but excited to see what the ocean brings me and my camera.

 

You can connect with A.B. and see more of his Zen photography on his website and Instagram.

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3 comments

  • Very interesting. I studied existentialism in my early 20s, but became more interested in zen and zen ink drawing, before turning to photography (I’d been an abstract expressionist painter originally).
    About zen: what I really liked was in the 10 ‘bulls’ the zen seeker goes back down among the ordinary people in the market. I don’t believe in any system now. No rules. I can’t remember which wise man said ‘It’s words that make us stupid’. Right on, brother! My dogs and cats knew that.

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