Jonathan Slack: Capturing China With The Leica M Monochrom
Jonathan Slack is a British photographer, and one of several photographers who had the opportunity to test the Leica M9 prototype (called Leica P8 or P-864) since June 2009. In his website he presents us several galleries dedicated to Leica. You can find also a download section with DNG files produced with Leica cameras. Alex Coghe, the interviewer, is a Leica Blog contributor.
Q: Jonathan, you are a very prolific photographer and that varies its proposal among different genres. How did your story with photography begin?
A: I grew up in St Ives, Cornwall where my father Roger Slack was a local doctor and my mother, Janet Slack, a jeweler. They were part of the vibrant local art scene, my father as an archivist (recording local people’s recollections of Alfred Wallis in the 1950s and 1960s), as a photographer and as a sculptor. Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Tony O’Mally and Brian Wynter were family friends and dinner guests. Both of my parents were very much involved with the setting up of the Tate Gallery in St Ives: Art was part of my childhood.
I started painting when studying science (and learned to draw in botany classes), but with the advent of a real job and a real family, time was limited and so I turned to photography as a more immediate art form (how little I understood!).
We settled deep in the countryside on the Norfolk / Suffolk borders in the 1980s, but still with a close connection with Cornwall and its beautiful landscape.
Q: In your photography we can see landscape, nature, candid portraits, but what do you love to photograph the most?
A: My photography is very instinctive (much more Alfred Wallis than Patrick Heron!). I practice a great deal, but I never plan anything, and although I subscribe to the time honoured principle of taking a ‘ranging’ shot, and then thinking about it – it’s always the ‘ranging’ shot which works best.
I just love taking images; they are the punctuation marks in my existence. If I can make a simple thing seem fascinating, or catch an expression which amplifies a character or find a feature of the landscape mirrored in a cloud formation. These are the things which satisfy me most.
Q: Your site is full of technical information. Do you think it’s important to share this kind of information?
A: No! I really don’t think it’s important, and I very rarely examine it in other photographers’ images. However, people do like it, and it’s so easy to share, why not?
Q: You take photos in color and black and white, but do you have a preference?
A: I don’t think I have a preference. Generally speaking I’d prefer to shoot people in black and white and landscapes in colour. I do like to have it in mind whether an image will be in black and white or colour when I shoot it, and I rarely change my mind later.
Q: How were you first introduced to Leica Camera?
A: I had rather a lot to drink one evening, and I inadvertently won an M6 on eBay. I bought a 50 mm Summicron and a 90mm Elmarit to go with it, and fell in love immediately. Shortly after that the M8 came out, and I was lost.
Q: What characteristics of the Leica M9 make it ideal for your work?
A: I love the image quality, it gives me a little buzz every time I look at a file on the computer, but the real truth is the camera – it doesn’t get between me and the subject. It has everything I need, and nothing that I don’t want. Simplicity I guess.
Q: You work with Leica X2, M9 and also the Monochrom. What are the differences, and are there works that you do with a specific camera?
A: The vast majority of my shots with Leica cameras are with the M9 and the Monochrom.
The X2 is a lovely thing, and the image quality is excellent. The two dials for aperture and shutter speed, with an A setting for each, is a really inspired and intelligent arrangement, making the camera a joy to use. The AF is fast and reliable and the camera just works.
However, I always have a bag with me which is big enough for at least an M9 and a 50 Summilux, and in that situation the X2 will tend to stay behind. On a personal level I just can’t get the hang of the 35mm focal length. It’s a terrible admission, especially in the current climate, but for me 50mm is still perfect.
I often take an M9 (or 2) and the Monochrom, but almost always I’ll end up shooting just with one camera. Logically of course one would use the Monochrom in low light or when shooting people, but I’m not really that consistent and tend to shoot with whichever camera grabs my mood at the time.
My most common working mode in daylight is with two M9 bodies, one with a 75mm f/2 ASPH, and the other with the Wide Angle Tri-Elmar and finder attached together with the 28mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux.
Q: “Monochrom in China” presents a great documentary series realized with Leica Monochrom. What about this camera? Is there any difference, operationally or in terms of the results, between the pictures you shoot with this camera and others?
A: For me, shooting with the Monochrom is a real experience. With digital, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that colour (or not) is something I can decide about later. Of course, I’ll always have an idea about an image, but the option to change one’s mind after the event becomes ingrained.
With the Monochrom you simply must concentrate on the composition and content – there isn’t a safety net of colour. It takes a little while to get used to it, but in the end it’s definitely liberating.
Q: Do Leica cameras have really something special?
A: Absolutely, and there’s nothing mysterious about it. The lenses are just wonderful – they’re lovely to handle, and they produce lovely results. Not just the new lenses, there are gems of lenses which are decades old.
The cameras themselves are pared right down – nothing unnecessary, but all the tools that most photographers need. The menus are simple to use and easy to understand.
For me, the real deal is the fixed viewpoint rangefinder with the frame lines. It was an inspiration in the early 50s. It’s still a wonderful tool allowing you to see around the image, but more importantly, the fact that you always see the same magnification means that it’s really like taking a picture with your own eyes, the camera seems just to disappear.
Q: How do you foresee your photography changing over the next few years?
A: I’d like to become more consistent.
I have a perpetual dilemma between, on the one hand, concentrating on one aspect of my photography and perhaps developing a more obvious signature, and, on the other hand continuing to document diverse subjects, with the inevitable result that it’s hard to produce a consistent and recognisable body of work.
Q: What are some future projects that you plan on working on?
A: I’m working on a book of the China photographs, and I’m also planning a book of landscape photographs of South West Crete.
Thank you for your time, Jonathan!
-Leica Internet Team
Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.