Ulla Hebgen: A Decisive Moment and Discovery of the Leica M9

A borrowed camera, an engaging subject, and an unexpected opportunity led to a life-changing adventure.

As a pro, I know that commercial photography demands creativity in the face of impossible deadlines, but ironically we hardly ever have time to express our own personal ideas. Once you enter the wonderful world of advertising your role is circumscribed by the strict demands of the client and the job at hand. This intensity and focus is the very reason we feel an enormous urge to refresh ourselves, to rediscover and experience life. What we are seeking is something authentic, something indefinable that’s not optimized nor stylized to fit a preconceived idea. I love this personal and intimate kind of photography. Indeed, at this very moment, I, too, am discarding the superfluous and getting back to basics.

I cannot and will not “steal” a shot from a distance. I need to be up close and let the moment and my intuition dictate the outcome. At that moment it’s just me and my subject. And when it comes to people, photography always means revealing something about yourself. This is the essence of my creative process, and for me M-photography is continually evolving. It’s my own special way of finding and taking opportunities to get under the skin and into the worlds of other people.

The M9: My camera of choice

Everything alluded to above started to unfold on the day I borrowed a Leica M9. I’m not sure why, but it was clear in an instant that this was destined to be my camera. We were booked on an assignment to shoot a management team in Prague. It was during one of the short breaks that I was able to get out to capture my very first street life shots with the camera. It was then that I shot my first ‘decisive moment,’ a picture that now has its pride of place atop my desk, a constant reminder of Prague and my experience in rediscovering the essentials of photography.

My first Leica M9 shoot

While working, the scene outside the window entered my peripheral vision, and I noticed a man driving up in a car. His energetic driving style quickly attracted my attention and I took a closer look. I saw a man. In fact, I saw someone I knew, wearing a fur hat that was quite large. I instinctively knew that it wasn’t simply worn for protection against the cold, and I immediately sensed that today there was something unusual about him. Hilmar Weckert, an artist and my good friend, appeared to radiate a special energy that I wanted to capture with my camera.

The borrowed Leica lay close at hand. It seemed to beckon to me as though we were two souls who wanted to get to know each other, but too shy. However, I soon grabbed the camera firmly, and made straightaway for the door. I knew instantly that my photographer’s intuition hadn’t led me astray. Before me was a man – bursting with energy, an inspiring sight. I thought to myself, and then said aloud, ‘Just what the doctor ordered – come in.’

In some strange way, what was about to happen in the next half-hour was destined to happen exactly as it did. Each of us was infused with a unique and indescribable inner fire. I let it burn brightly, in the hope of getting a really great shot. For Hilmar, it was the urge to communicate that moved him. Within moments, I was drenched in his shower of words.

I began to shoot, fascinated, excited, and imbued with an incredible sense of the power. I asked him if he minded me taking a few shots of him. We squeezed two espressos out of the machine and sat down at the table. The room was wonderfully lit by wintery daylight coming through the windows—could I ask for more? We talked and drank coffee and I casually picked up the camera as if I had known it for years, and simply began to shoot. I listened and shot. My thoughts were saying, ‘f1.4’ … ‘keep it open’ … ‘don’t stop down, whatever you do.’ All of a sudden, I was much more conscious of what these shots were going to mean to me. In some inexplicable way, a strange harmony captured my heart and soul and I knew had to keep shooting. My pulse began to race and my urge to stay with the feeling and the flow, but without pushing Hilmar, grew and grew. It was fantastic—Hilmar clearly saw in me the powers of creativity that are such a vibrant part of both our lives. We alternated between talk, photography and short pauses to catch my breath. In the meantime Hilmar was orchestrating his words with fast, incessant gesturing—and I was shooting wide open. The situation kept on changing from one second to the next and neither of us kept still the entire time!

I was shattered by the time it was over… after all, this was the first series I ever shot with an M9. Incredible. My shots truly captured his inner nature in a way that really moved me emotionally. As I’m describing this, I realize that the experience was truly transformational. It led me back to a place that’s much closer to the essence of photography, a place where my real motivation lies. I gave it my all. I was dripping with sweat and actually had a splitting headache from concentrating so hard. But I also had a big smile on my face because I knew deeply how much it all meant to me. The Leica legend lives on!

Yes, the M9 fits my hands like a glove. The sharpness and look of the shots taken with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH lens are fantastic. Best of all, the camera lets me of express my own free will without getting in the way. It’s a dependable companion that stays cool in the thick of things, inspiring and discrete. Its handling is extremely intuitive, and it embodies the essentials like nothing else. The Leica M9 is more than a camera; it’s a philosophy!

Update

Today I shoot with my own M9, mostly with the Summilux M 1:1.4/50mm ASPH, but just one lens isn’t enough for me, so the new Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 mm ASPH is an absolute must. It’s uncompromisingly sharp, brilliant and extremely compact, and its precise focusing is a real pleasure. I’m fascinated by its ability to reproduce the finest details even at close shooting distances and it’s really fast which enhances its versatility. The 50mm lens is a classic for street photography of course, but the 35mm lens is extremely versatile for almost any kind of photography. Yes, I’m hooked!

By Ulla Hebgen

To see more of Ulla’s work, visit her website at http://www.ullahebgen.com/. For more information about the Leica M9 Camera, visit http://www.m.leica-camera.com/ or find a dealer near you here the Leica Camera Dealer Locator tool.