Aaron C. Greenman: Finding the Beauty Under The Grime

A brilliant street photographer in the classic Leica M tradition, he favors prime lenses, black-and-white images, and approaches the world without preconceptions

A passionate photo enthusiast since his teens, Aaron Greenman has always been fascinated with every aspect of newspaper journalism including writing, graphic design and layout. When he left his hometown, Miami, Florida, to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts, he studied art and architectural history, but like many budding artists his career path took an unexpected turn and he found himself in the hotel industry. Fortunately this profession has allowed him to travel around the world and has given him sufficient time to capture memorable street images that convey the absurdity, pain, joy, and glory of the human condition.

For the past three years Greenman has been based in India, first in Mumbai and then in Delhi, and has traveled extensively around that vast, spectacularly diverse, utterly incredible country. Before that he spent several years in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan). “Street photography in India seems like the obvious thing to do” says Greenman matter-of-factly, “since here life (and death) is literally on the street.” However, beyond his seemingly casual demeanor is a dedicated Leica photographer with a great eye for the meaningful and the absurd whose work evinces a profound empathy with his subjects that belies his brilliant sense of ironic detachment. Here in his own articulate and incisive words is his remarkable story.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: A Leica M8 and 50mm f/1.4 ASPH Summilux 75% of the time, with a little CV 28mm Ultron thrown in on occasion.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: It’s unplanned, and non-directive. I like images that mean some things to some people and some to others, and nothing to others. You might call them images that confuse the photographer who takes them!

Q: Would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast or a pro, and what motivates you to take pictures?

A: For me the demarcation was never between enthusiast and pro, only the amount of time dedicated to photography. When I was younger, and involved more in film, I loved the experience of looking through the viewfinder and wondering what came out of the photographic process. Unfortunately, too often it had nothing to do with what I intended, and to me was often times disappointing. In that way I really appreciate digital—not because it allows you to adjust your subject, lighting, etc. on the fly on location, but more because it give you an incentive to just keep taking photographs. Film in that way always seemed a little bit of a disincentive— unless you carried lots of rolls of film with you, you were never quite sure you were judging your pace right. Digital frees the photographer from those constraints.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A:  From as early as I can remember, I was always interested in journalism, and the graphic arts, and photography just seemed a great mix of the artistic and the technical.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I guess I would say I’m self-taught, for better or worse. I love Sebastiao Salgado’s and Raghu Rai’s photos, both for the aesthetics and the subject matter. Black and white has always seemed to be a more powerful art form for me, and more and more against the grain as it’s so easy to get romanced by color—particularly in India.

Q: In what genre or genres would you place your photographs—e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc.?

A: Definitely not fine art. I like to think that my early involvement in journalism and deep down desire to be a photojournalist has informed my style, but it’s really a mix of everything. While many photographers like to define a project and theme, I work exactly the opposite, letting only the aesthetics and subject matter that is available to me at that moment guide me. If the photos are cohesive, OK. If not, that’s OK too.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I got mentally tired of autofocus, and it was really just curiosity. I had always shot with SLRs through 2007 or so; then out of boredom and a desire to challenge myself by shooting with only one or two prime lenses, I took the Leica challenge. It’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution, and sometimes it’s frustrating, but the images I am most proud of over the past three years I’ve taken with my M8.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is a way to make order out of a very messy world, sometimes show its ironies, and often times to demonstrate its aesthetic beauty under many layers of grime. My approach is just to be there as much as possible, without preconceptions.

Q: You mention that your photography is “unplanned and non-directive.” Fair enough, but do you think you have a general theme such as communicating the human condition in India or other places you’ve covered photographically?

A: With the time I’ve spent in East Africa, I’m a little over sensitive to thinking of myself as a photographer hired by an NGO, to help market and advance an organization’s agenda, or be too blatant about photographing for a social cause. Once here in India I was called a “Slumdog Millionaire” photographer (unwarranted, I thought at the time), as there is a lot of sensitivity to arriving as a foreigner and exploiting poverty for entertainment. So while I honestly don’t really have a social agenda, I do find that my eye naturally gravitates towards the beauty of the everyday—to borrow a phrase, the god of small things. It’s like the difference between the theme park versus the authentic destination—which one is more interesting and why? It’s for that reason that I feel so little attraction to fashion photography. Although making something perfect is an art in itself, true beauty is in the asymmetry, the dirt, and the imperfection. It’s like the story about Marlon Brando’s nose.

Q: What is there in terms of its specific features or general operating characteristics that makes the Leica M8 particularly suitable for your kind of work?

A: I’m an absolute sucker for elegant simplicity, and form following function. Looking at an M8 (or another rangefinder camera) you wouldn’t think that it could provide a fundamentally different shooting experience from an SLR, but it does somehow. I wouldn’t say that the M8 makes it easier to shoot a subject, but the result, or the bond that the photographer feels with the subject because of the experience he had taking the photo, seems stronger. But overall, the best part of the whole system is definitely the lenses.

Q: Have you considered acquiring a full-frame Leica M9 and if so which lenses other than your 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH and your “little CV 28mm Ultron” do you think would be your best choices with that camera?

A: “Considered” would be a gentle way of bringing up the subject; “crave” is really more like it. More than anything I would like to use the 50mm as a 50mm, as I find the M8’s 1.3 crop factor makes the lens a little too long for the street, but perhaps it’s better for portraits in the meantime. While with the M8 I sometimes play with the 28mm and consider trying a 35mm (effectively a 50mm or so), I think with an M9, a 35mm Summicron would just about do it.

Q: You note that you were attracted to photography because “it seemed a great mix of the technical and artistic.” Do you have any technical background career-wise or educational, and have you worked in any other art form?

A: As mentioned before, I had a lot of early exposure to art and architecture through my studies, and graphic design through newspaper journalism. When I say “technical,” I’m referring to two things: first, computers, growing up in the 1980s with the first Macs, when they really started to play an active role in commercial design, photography, etc.; and second, math. If you weren’t scared of it in school, and embrace working with numbers, apertures and shutter speeds don’t seem quite as confusing.

Q: We like your pun (intentional or not) about black-and-white photography being “against the grain” and your comment about it being “easy to get romanced by color.” Why do you think that black-and-white is more powerful and suited to your mode of visual expression?

A: The common wisdom says that without color, the composition or emotion of the subject really has to do a better job of holding its own. I don’t disagree with this, and do often find it easier to connect with the subject of a photograph when I’m not distracted by color—unless of course color is part of the story. I also think that black and white is a great juxtaposition to the majority’s need for clarity, certainty, definitiveness in the world right now—leave it to black and white to show life’s shades of grey.

Q: What specifically motivated you to take up the challenge of shooting with one or two prime lenses other than “boredom” and getting “mentally tired of autofocus?” We understand that it is “sometimes frustrating,” but what are some of the operational advantages of doing so?

A: Shooting with primes for a while now has convinced me that most of the time zooms are really just unnecessary; the transition basically just consisted of sometimes having to walk a few steps back or forth, which is not hard. But the biggest advantage for me has not been the fixed length, but the ability to shoot regularly at larger apertures, which helps tremendously for selective focusing and creating more of a three-dimensional sense in images.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward? Do you think you will be taking the same kinds of pictures, say, 5 years hence or are their other areas you wish to explore in terms of subjects, techniques, and equipment?

A: There is no doubt that to date, my photography and mechanics of picture taking have changed tremendously based on where I’ve been shooting and the subject matter. For the moment, India and rangefinder photography really are a great match. I have no idea how my photography will continue to evolve, but I only hope that it does in some meaningful way.

Thank you Aaron Greenman!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more images by Aaron Greenman please visit http://www.acuitycolorgrain.com.