Alfonso De Castro: Professor, Photographer and Daguerreotypist

Alfonso De Castro describes himself as a “photographer and daguerreotypist specialized in portrait, nude and documentary photography.” He has Bachelor of Arts in Physics and a Ph.D. in Fine Arts and has been for many years a Professor of Photography at the University of Barcelona in the Department of Fine Arts. Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe  conducted this interview.

Q: Hi Alfonso, let me start this interview expressing thanks for the consideration you have for me. Together we have shared projects and others will follow in the future. Can you introduce yourself to the readers?

A: I am a passionate photographer and also a University Professor teaching photography in the Arts Faculty, so I am lucky to be able to combine both activities. On account of my condition of photography professor, I have tried to practice every aspect in photography from the point of view of creation and that’s why I’m so interested in historical processes, such as daguerreotype. On account of the few of us who are practicing it, people call me daguerreotypist, but I rather to consider myself as a photographer in the strictest sense. I mean I am not only interested in the processes but in the final result too, the photographic image. You could say that I am a professional photographer unconcerned about commercial issues.

Q: Your photographic activity ranges from portraits and nude to documentary. How do two apparently distant worlds meet through your photography?

A: A few years ago, the kind of portraits and nude photographs that I used to do were strongly bonded to the study of its strict expression. I mean lighting with flashes, plain backgrounds, large or medium size cameras, specially the 8×10’’ and the Hasselblad with a great 110 mm f/2, which provided a very narrow deep of field and a very precise focus. Besides, I have worked a lot with old and cheap medium format stereoscopic cameras. At that time some very interesting works came out, among them “Double Take”, the one I am more proud of.

On the other hand, for street photography I always use Leica cameras with the Elmarit 28mm f/2.8 or 21 f/1.4 in the day time and the beautiful Summilux 35mm f/1.4 in the night time or indoor photos.

At that time, it was almost like living between two separate worlds by a great barrier both conceptual and technical. If I was making portraits it was impossible for me to go out in the street and the other way around, when I was on the street it was impossible for me to think of going back to the studio.

However three years ago, with the incorporation of the digital Leica to my photographic daily routine, things have changed. In my Project “Murders” (“Murders in China”, “Murders in Spain”…) I am working on nude photography with Leica, in particular at this time with Leica M9, so the way of working with models has changed, and the way of expression also has changed.

Q: Do you think your documentary approach may have application when working with models?

A: Allow me to write as an answer the introductory text to the “Murders in China” exhibit that took place last November in Barcelona:

“Murders” it’s a subjective look about the relation between Eros and Thanatos. The Photograpy as desire. Photographs like gun shots, fake murders. There’s no realism. The corpse here drives us straight to life. “Murders in China” immediately arises, like a shot to the forehead. It’s a work apart from what I’ve been doing until now. Therefore It moves away from the easements of the large format, the film and the studio lightings. “Murders in Spain” is the logical continuation.

In “Murders” the austerity of the plain background opposes to the unexpected of the location. The moment provides the light. The pose is given by the occasion and the tones are provided by the circumstance. Space and time are now joined together to produce sensations which are unique, fast, almost immediate, like the time we are living.

It’s photography, therefore. I’d like to add now that this work has strong connections both technical and conceptual with documentary photography.

Q: You are a member of the Street Photographers collective. Do you think that being part of a group so important it also helps your career as a photographer commercial?

A: Indeed, I have the luck and the honor to be part of this select group. It’s a group of photographers that develops a very intense activity, both public, through our website, and more privately with activities destined only to its members.  I can say that I learn, and enjoy every minute of my belonging to Street Photographers, something absolutely apart from the commercial photography.

Actually, but a very specific exception, few of the photographers who are devoted to street photography, do it from the commercial scope. I mean that if we are talking about economical benefits, street photography is not the most appropriate for that. I think that nowadays the profits, from an economical point of view, if they exist, are indirect. And I prefer them to remain that way.

Q: Talking about street photography, this genre is experiencing a moment of popularity. Do you agree? What are the reasons for you? And do you see more negative or positive aspects in this?

A: I totally agree with you. Never before has this photographic genre =had so many participants. So much popularity. It’s funny because it also coincides with a very strange conception of photography, very organic; a time when photography is credited with almost magical representation powers. It’s a conception very attached to the concept “image” in its strict religious sense.

On the one hand, there’s a demonization of anyone who tries to photograph other people, to “arrogate their image”, as If they were common thieves, but at the same time, there’s a strong attraction to represent what’s happening around us from every point of view. I guess that easiness in operating the new cameras and their ubiquity, has something to do with all this, but I don’t think that’s an advantage on itself.

Q: For you street photography is only black and white?

A: No, no, totally the opposite! Nowadays most photographers who work on the street do it, excellently, in color. In fact my third solo exhibit about China, back in 2009, it was strictly street photography, and all in color.

The fact that now I work mostly in black and white it’s just an accidental matter, almost sentimental, I’d say. On the other hand, since some time ago, I have some kind of a conflict with myself because when I work with a digital camera I know that every time I take a picture, it comes with all the information to show it in color. So choosing black and white implies an operation of reduction, but that’s also reversible, something optional, so it looks like there’s never a definitive decision and that always makes me doubt. I’d love to work with the Leica Monochrom to solve this problem for good.

Q: You teach in the University of Barcelona. What do you like most to offer photographic knowledge to your students?

A: I teach at the Bellas Artes faculty and I have a Ph.D in Arts, but my preparation is scientific. I studied Physics, and due to that, I was assigned to subjects with more technical profile. But since a few years ago, what I teach is fundamentally what I do as a photographer and that’s delicious. Because all the time I spend taking pictures I am really making a research that I will use in my teaching later. Mainly I teach: Photographic Study, in particular Contemporary Portrait and Nude and, at last, Historical and Alternative Processes.

Q: Why Leica in your equipment?

A: In the last few years I’ve been travelling abroad about six months each year. I’m used to reducing my luggage to the mandatory minimum.  In spite of that, sometimes I have to carry big to medium size format cameras, and even pinhole cameras. It’s comforting to have my Leica equipment at all times, small, effective and perfect. It’s a delight to work with Leica.

Q: What Leica equipment are you using? And what Leica you would like to try?

A: I have been using Leica cameras since many years ago. I started with a Leica If and a Leica M4-P, and later the M6 and MP. I have to say that all my cameras, except the MP, were secondhand but they worked beautifully for many years, and in fact, they’re all in perfect shape today.

In May 2008, I started to use a Leica M8, and in December 2010 I changed it for the Leica M9. Since then I work almost exclusively with this one, but in my luggage I always carry an M6 or MP, analogic, mechanic, with film. It gives me a big tranquility knowing that I have it with me.

About what Leica would I like to try, as I said, the fact that digital files, or better said, the color, causes me troubles sometimes, I’d love to work with the Leica Monochrom. Besides, the results I’ve seen look sensational.

I have something to confess: If I could manage to balance the advantage that implies the immediacy and comfort of the digital format with the inconvenience of having to scan hundreds of rolls every time I get home from a trip, I mean, if I could count on someone to do the reveal and digitalization work safely and effectively, then I would use my M6 or MP again without a doubt.

Q: How would you define your style?

A: I have no idea! It’s true that I have felt influenced by photographers like Winogrand, W.E. Smith and most of all Robert Frank. Also Ricard Terré has had a big influence in my work because that surreal component, dark, like a frightening joke thrills me. On the other hand, I’ve always considered the excess as one of the main components of photography. I think that in the mixture of all that lays my style.

Q: You are a photographer really active also from an organizational point of view. Do you think a photographer today should be able to have a sense of initiative…we’re actually talking of an entrepreneur of himself…

A: It’s funny, because street photography is taken alone; however, it’s very common that photographers get associated, which is not easily found in other genres of photography.

For my part, although I always take pictures alone (even the idea of having an assistant seems strange) and belong to the group mentioned above, Street Photographers, I also have organized a lot of collective activities. Above I have referred to an exhibit in 2009 with street pictures in color named “So Far So Close: Contemporary Street Photography in China.”  There I exhibited 50 street photos, and at the same time, I invited some Chinese photographers to exhibit their work with mine.

The experience was much appreciated and allowed me to organize “So Far So Close ’11: Contemporary Street Photography In China,” in which we exhibited a set of diptyches formed by a Photography of Junku Nishimura and one of my own. The room had very high ceilings and the pieces were of a very big format: 150 centimeters long!. My photos were from China and Junku’s were from Japan, but all of them in black and White, and taken with a Leica camera. As Junku’s photos were determined beforehand, I had to select mine among my own portfolio so the diptyches made sense. The experience was really interesting. Once again I invited other photographers who worked in China to join me in this exhibit.

With all this, what I really mean is that actually in the photographer, especially in the street photographer; one has to coexist with these two positions: an insatiable ability to be alone, and a sense of cooperation. Being able to work cooperatively is fundamental in these times.

Q What do you have in store for 2013?

A: 2012 was a relatively quiet year. I travelled a lot and taken many photos. A few projects came out, and others didn’t; however, it’s already confirmed a documentary photography exhibit in March 2013, in China once again.

I pretend to keep using the diptych format, black and white, this time with an excellent photographer, very young, novice, but with an amazing sense of photographical vision. After that, I have agreed to a couple of exhibits in Asia. In November, in Barcelona, I’ll have ready something very spectacular related with Mexico, but I prefer to keep projects secret until they’re not closer.

Thank you for your time, Alfonso!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Alfonso’s work, visit his website.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.