État Brut: Jeffry Plomley’s Journey to the Raw State, Part I

This is a two part guest series from Jeffry Plomley coinciding with his portfolio being featured in the April issue of LFI Magazine. This first installment focuses on the tradition of boxing in Cuba and Part II will focus on captures from the street.

My photographic excursion to Cuba (Santiago and Chivirico) last year ignited a passion within for this “État Brut” or “Raw State”. With the aim of self-publishing a book in 2012, I headed to Havana in February to augment my collection of Cuban impressions and to explore other aspects of the culture which escaped me on that seminal visit.

It goes without saying that Cuban boxers are world class and this sport certainly represents a heritage worthy of boasting (e.g. Yuriorkis Gamboa being a four time Cuban National Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist in 2004 and currently the World Featherweight Champion). Yet all of the boxers I met were humble and, needless to say, dedicated to the craft. Practice sessions lasted two hours and were grueling, ending with planks and unassisted leaps into the ring, the latter being chest high. The core strength exhibited by these athletes was impressive. Not once during the workout did the boxers pause for liquids, whereas I was replenishing every half hour. In fact, truth be told, I was exhausted just watching the performance of these athletes! But what an adrenaline rush, as my heart pounded with the sound from every landed blow.

On this second trip to Cuba, I packed two M9s and two M7s, the latter loaded with T-Max 400 and Neopan 100 Acros. Lenses were the 21mm Elmarit Aspherical, 28mm Summicron Aspherical, 35mm Summicron Aspherical, 50mm Summicron, and the 75mm Summicron Aspherical. During the training sessions, which were held outside the ring, it was necessary to give the boxers space to move while sparring, so the 50mm and 75mm lenses were used from a safe distance. When photographing formal matches I was granted ringside privileges and with this proximity both the 21mm and 35mm were ideal.

Regarding technique, the advantage of having a pair of Ms cannot be overstated. Having to change lenses if using a single body would have resulted in lost opportunities. As the light was constant during both the training sessions and matches, I was able to use a single incident meter reading as base exposure, adjusting as necessary to preserve highlights or open shadows as the scene evolved. The absence of mirror black-out when using a rangefinder was a genuine advantage in catching peak action. Leveraging the view outside the frame lines allowed me to anticipate the scene before it unfolded within my lens’ angle of view, tripping the shutter at optimal moments. The discreet mode of the M9 was also used on several occasions to avoid disturbing the interaction between coach and athletes while they were discussing technique. It was refreshing to photograph action in a studied and discerning fashion, which the M form factor forces you to do. In the case of the M9, the camera was operated in single advance mode. This compels a more critically considered image before tripping the shutter, in contrast to a staccato approach, which oftentimes results in large numbers of poorly composed and timed images. Admittedly, there were few occasions where the M9 buffer capacity was an issue, but then this was not a camera designed for sports photography so this shortcoming is readily accepted.

Of course focusing the Leica M is completely manual, but this was not an impediment. When shooting from ringside, I pre-visualized my composition, selected the lens with the right angle of view, then pre-focused. Once the boxers negotiated themselves into the scene at, or near, my point of focus, I could simply trip the shutter (if the composition was compelling). For example, when using the 21mm Elmarit Aspherical set to f/5.6, there was plenty of depth-of-field to carry sharpness through the scene. Using this technique in combination with the Leica 21mm auxiliary viewfinder was a powerful mechanism for concentrating solely on capturing the peak action and not worrying about precise focusing.

In Part 2 of my État Brut series, I hope to round out my excursion to Havana with imagery from the street, as well as share some initial architectural imagery as part of a theme I have entitled “Beautiful Decay”. Of course this project will require another trip back to the Raw State!

-Jeffry Plomley

If you would like to see more of Jeff’s work, visit his website http://www.jeffplomleyphoto.com and pick up an issue of LFI which hits newsstands April 1.