Andy Barton: Silver Linings in the Clouds


Andy Barton: His Leica photography is classic and elegant, a welcome antithesis to “in your face” photojournalism

Andy Barton is the UK moderator for the Leica User Forum, an accomplished photographer who considers himself a “keen amateur.” He derives “great pleasure” from creating iconic landscapes and “non-invasive” pictures of people, and has been shooting for over four decades, literally since he was a tot. As Barton puts it, “My Grandfather bought me a Kodak Instamatic when I was about 5, so that must make it 44 years next month. I started more seriously when I was a teenager, and even more so about 10 years ago. The main camera and lens combination I use now is my Leica M7 with a 35mm ASPH Summicron. However, I usually carry my 50 Summicron, and more often than not, my 90 Summarit in my bag as well. My favorite films are Kodak Tri-X (rated at 320) and Ilford Pan F+, rated at 32. For color work, I’ve generally used Fuji Astia, which has now sadly been withdrawn from the UK market. I aspire towards fine art landscapes, but have a long way to go to get there. I don’t do portraits and I don’t do street photography.”

Barton became involved early on with the Leica User Forum Book Association charity project to raise money for the International Cancer Research (AICR) as a result of his close association with the Leica User Forum. “I know many of the British members personally,” he notes, “and when Bill Palmer had an inkling of this idea last Autumn, he and I, together with Steve Unsworth, put the idea into practice at the end of 2009. I am very pleased to have been involved and everyone should be extremely proud of what we have achieved so far.

To give you a clearer picture of this talented photographer who creates masterfully composed images with that classic Leica look, we interviewed him to get his views on his work, both photographic and charitable, and on the ‘Leica User Forum Book’. Here is an edited transcription of our fascinating colloquy.

Q: How have you worked with Bill Palmer in helping to bring the ‘Leica User Forum Book’ to fruition? And how do you see your involvement with the book, and the charity work for the Association of International Cancer Research (AICR) going forward?

A: Cancer charities are close to my heart and when Bill approached me last autumn with the book idea for the Leica User Forum, I gladly offered my assistance. I would have done so even if the charity idea hadn’t been suggested, because, as in life, with a forum, the more you put in, the more you get out. However, the challenge of raising as much money as possible for the charity has added to the interest in making and publicizing the book. We have been very much heartened by the amount of money we have raised and are extremely grateful to Leica and AICR for their amazing support for the project from the beginning.

Between Bill, Steve Unsworth and I, we split up the required tasks. I set up the charity donation website and have done the majority of the discussions with them over the last year. I have also made contact with the press and Leica’s PR in the UK to get their help in generating publicity through the social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I was a chapter editor. Bill offered to do the editing of the book, and Steve had the time to put to collecting the images, creating the judging matrix etc.

I would like to think that this is just the start of a longer relationship between the forum and AICR, and it would be good to explore other ways in which we can help them. Certainly we will consider doing another book at some time in the future, maybe towards the end of next year. I like the idea of a biennial project.

Q: How did the actual production of the Leica User Form Book roll out and how were the charitable funds for the Association of International Cancer Research generated?

A: The contributions to the book were made in December 2009 and the judging took place in Jan/Feb of this year. So, it is no longer possible to submit work to this book – but you may rest assured there will be a next one!

During the spring we collected the hi-res versions of the chosen images and then the book was put together using Blurb software by Bill Palmer. It was proof read by Bill, Steve Unsworth and me and then we had two proof hard copies made. These were further proof read, changes made and then the sales went live about a month ago. The funds donated to the AICR charity are raised by a £5 mark-up on the Leica User Forum Book, and the £10 entry fee for submitting images. Subsequently these funds were supplemented by a substantial donation by Leica Camera AG.

Q: Does the fact that you yourself are battling cancer give you a special perspective or an emotional reaction to the fact that the Leica User Forum Book is being used to raise funds for the AICR?

A: Obviously, I am very pleased that we have chosen to support an International Cancer Charity as part of this project. Bill and I discussed this when we first spoke about the book last autumn, and initially, we thought about supporting the charity that caters for the particular cancer that has come to visit me. (http://www.lymphoma.org - I have non-Hodgkins Lymphoma - NHL). However, that would have made the book far too personal, and far too “UK-centric”, and so Bill found the AICR, which supports cancer research around the world and in many different fields. This is, of course, much more appropriate for the book which is being supported from people all over and I am delighted that we have raised so much money for them, and for their support all the way through this project.

Cancer is likely to affect 1/3 of people (certainly in the “west”) at some time during their life time – more if you count family and friends – so it’s still something that needs significant support. I am delighted that the time and effort that all involved have put in has paid off so handsomely and will be put to very good work by our friends at AICR. I have also had incredible support from many people on the forum, and indeed complete strangers, through the blog http://leicauser.blogspot.com, which has been very encouraging and supportive. I am grateful to everyone who has offered their god wishes.

Q: Talking about cancer is a hard subject to broach. Is this something that you’re comfortable with discussing?

It’s no problem at all. I am not concerned about people knowing that I have cancer – if I were, I wouldn’t have started the blog when I was first diagnosed. It’s something that should be spoken about, and if my being open about this helps just one or two people, then that’s fine with me. In fact, if I hadn’t been diagnosed last year, the idea for a charitable book may never have come about, so this is one of those “silver linings in the clouds” that makes the effort worthwhile and will, hopefully, benefit hundreds of people through the AICR. If they can support a breakthrough in NHL, then so much the better! :-)

My cancer is not one than is going to kill me tomorrow, or next year, or even the year after that. So, in that respect, I am lucky. One of the specialist when I was first diagnosed told me “If you are going to be one of the 30% of people who get cancer, get this one”. I hope to be able to participate in many more charity books through the Leica User Forum  before I keel over :-)

Q: What do you find particularly effective, fulfilling, or unique about shooting on film with the Leica M7, and the classic combination of 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses?

A: The 35, 50 and 90mm lenses are indeed the classic combination to use with Leica M film cameras and they suit me very well. I enjoy using the 35mm more than the other two, but each gets its turn out of the bag. Their lightness in weight and fabulous image quality right across the 35mm film frame is what makes them unique.

Q: Do you plan on acquiring a Leica M9 and shooting digital as well as film, or adding any other Leica digital camera such as a Leica X1 or V-LUX 20 to your camera bag?

A: When funds allow I might consider buying an M9 (or M10…), but did not consider an M8 due to the crop factor (I’d already owned a DMR, which I sold in anticipation of the R10…). Whilst a compact camera might be useful, my photography is tending towards larger format sizes these days. Perhaps I should put the £5,000 cost of an M9 towards an S2. Now there’s a thought!

Q: When did you acquire your first Leica and how has it affected the content and quality of your work, or your general approach to photography?

A: I started taking photographs fairly seriously as a teenager and had admired an M3 owned by a friend of my father. However, I bought my first Leica, a 1960 M2 with a 50 Summicron, about 9 years ago.  After I had bought the camera, I discovered that it was made exactly 9 months before I was born, so it was indeed the camera for me! The rangefinder experience is, of course, completely different from the one I was used to with my Olympus OM2 system and has slowed my shooting down considerably. The superior quality of the lenses has also made a significant difference to the results, if not the content.

Q: While the Leica M7 is certainly a great camera for shooting virtually any subject most M7 shooters use it for street and travel images, documenting people and local cultures etc. rather than for fine art landscapes. Can you tell us something about your approach to landscapes and what you are trying to achieve?

A: I do find it odd that some people seem to think that a Leica M is only suitable for street photography. That’s complete nonsense, in my view.

For my “fine art” aspirations, I am learning to use another system. However, for my normal travels and most of my landscape work, the lighter weight and more compact size of the M7 has proven ideal. When combined with a fine-grained film such as Pan F+, or the opportunities that a film such as Tri-X offers, I can achieve what I want to in most circumstances. Add to this to the fact that the M7 and a few lenses fit easily into a airline carry-on bag, travel within Europe is greatly simplified—a good thing!

I especially enjoy making black and white landscapes and try to get the best out of them using the lenses “straight”, i.e. without all the graduated and colored filters that so many DSLR users seem to love. I am really just a “scene recorder”, but it satisfies me, and more importantly my family. Without their support the odd new lens or body would be much harder to justify!

Q: In addition to shooting landscapes, you mention that you’re not into “in your face” street shooting, but prefer to take “non invasive photographs.” Can you explain what you mean by the latter, and give us an idea of whether discreet photographs of strangers fall into that category?

A: If you look at my website, you will not find very many portraits aside from family members. I have never really had the confidence to go up to people in the street and ask to take their photograph and I am not a great fan of a lot of the street work that one sees these days. It seems that many Leica shooters want to be someone else (no names), but simply fail. I find shots of people just walking down the street somewhat pointless to be honest. Then again, they probably find my landscapes pointless too, so it’s a good job that there are subjects for everyone.

Add to this the paranoia that the press in the UK has built up against street photography here and, to be honest, it’s something that I would rather not do. However, I do take the occasional people shot “in context.”

Q: Your landscapes in black-and-white and color are very impressive technically, and masterfully composed. Do you think they you a particular style or underlying message? Can you say something about what you are trying to achieve when you’re behind the camera shooting such images?

A: Thank you. I am not sure that landscapes have a message, per se, but I am working on developing a style for my landscape work. As I said above, I just see myself as a “scene recorder”, but enjoy using the grain of some films, such as Tri-X for example, to add some substance to the photograph. In my opinion, not every photograph needs to be clinically detailed but they should capture the spirit of a place. Detail is fine in some circumstances, but it’s not necessary for a good photograph. My choice of film really depends upon my mood at the time.

Q: Your pictures of people are classically straightforward and revealing, but show great respect for your subjects. They have a kind of grandly understated quality. Do you agree, and can you comment on this?

A: I am a straightforward, understated sort of man. I think that one can tell quite a lot about a person if a body of their work, be it photography or painting or sculpture, is viewed as a whole. Every photograph of a person should show some respect and I have no time at all for photographers who do not understand this.

My photographs, especially when I am ruthless with my editing, are generally well received both inside and outside my immediate circle and I find this very satisfying. Whilst I take photographs purely for my own enjoyment, and don’t sell any of my work, it is good to know that others appreciate what has gone in to making the photograph.

To see more of Andy Barton’s work, please visit his website, http://www.andybarton.com.

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the book, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Please visit our page on Facebook to enter the ‘Leica for AICR’ photo contest; this week’s theme is Landscape. Based on Leica’s Twitter initiative, Leica is donating €3,000 to AICR – thank you for making this possible!

Q: How have you worked with Bill Palmer in helping to bring the Leica User Forum Book to fruition? And how do you see your involvement with the book, and the charity work for the Association of International Cancer Research (AICR) going forward?

A: Cancer charities are close to my heart and when Bill approached me last autumn with the book idea for the Leica User Forum and I gladly offered my assistance. I would have done so even if the charity idea hadn’t been suggested, because, as in life, with a forum, the more you put in, the more you get out. However, the challenge of raising as much money as possible for the charity has added to the interest in making and publicizing the book. We have been very much heartened by the amount of money we have raised and are extremely grateful to Leica and AICR for their amazing support for the project from the beginning.

Between Bill, Steve Unsworth and I, we split up the required tasks. I set up the charity donation website and have done the majority of the discussions with them over the last year. I have also made contact with the press and Leica’s PR in the UK to get their help in generating publicity through the social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I was a chapter editor. Bill offered to do the editing of the book, and Steve had the time to put to collecting the images, creating the judging matrix etc.

I would like to think that this is just the start of a longer relationship between the forum and AICR, and it would be good to explore other ways in which we can help them. Certainly we will consider doing another book at some time in the future, maybe towards the end of next year. I like the idea of a biennial project.