Andy Richter: Allowing the Unexpected to Emerge

Andy Richter, born in 1977, is a photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, working in documentary, nonprofit and commercial photography. Andy graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota with degrees in Spanish and Psychology. His clients include UNICEF, USAID, The Travel Channel, Time, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Discover and Outside, among others. He is represented by Getty Global Assignment and Aurora Photos/Novus Select. Below Andy shares his experiences and portfolio from the Maha Kumbh Mela, where 100 million Hindu pilgrims gather over the course of 55 days.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: Photography for me — the act of seeing, connecting, creating order and form — is about being totally present, focused and concentrating one’s consciousness. It is joyous to be in this state, even liberating, yet it is also a challenge. To do something great, honestly, is nearly impossible.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Documentary in nature, content driven, spontaneous, a way to explore, learn and grow as a human being. It asks questions and is an opportunity to look more closely at themes I am interested in. As a professional, I work in the realms of documentary, editorial, non-profit and commercial photography. Sometimes it is on foot, with one camera, one lens, using the light that exists and seeing what comes. Other times, it is working with a crew, lights, collaboration and more control over the outcome. In either case, I allow space for the unexpected to emerge.

Q: Can you expand on what you mean by, “I allow space for the unexpected to emerge.” Do you have a definite concept in mind before you press the shutter release, simply go with the flow, or try to integrate both these approaches?

A: It is important to integrate the two. I have a concept in mind certainly; I do my research, and have a plan. Yet it is beneficial to allow space for the unexpected to present itself and discover what is possible. Often I will be shooting, moving, working hard for an extended period of time, and the scenario just doesn’t lead to what I had envisioned, then, I turn around and there is the picture, like a gift. Better than I could have imagined, it is offered to me. It is truly amazing how this works. I didn’t force it, I didn’t earn it…

So, sometimes I really have to work the scene, concentrate, give it everything I’ve got. Other times it just happens, everything comes without effort. You have to be there though, that is essential. That is a lot of the work — getting to the place where it can all unfold. Then when it does, act quickly and intuitively.

In terms of commercial contexts, I work a little more concretely as there is often a pretty specific brief, concept, and layout that we are working with. Even in those situations though, with bigger productions, spontaneity is a good thing, as is being open — to new input and ideas, to unexpected angles and compositions, to what your talent and team bring to the table — even when everything is lit and ready to go.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I primarily work with a Leica M and 35 mm Summilux these days. Sometimes I use a 50 mm Summilux and a little Leica flash as well. The M9 is a great camera too, though we parted ways recently. Being present is the most important element of my photographic practice, and being able to move quickly, quietly and work unobtrusively is essential.

Q: Aside from its quiet operation and discreet size, what are some of the characteristics and features of the Leica M camera that you find especially useful for your kind of work?  Do you often shoot at wide apertures with your 35 mm and 50 mm Summilux lenses, and do your think Leica lenses have a distinctive and identifiable way they render the image?

A: The quality of the files is amazing and has an expanded dynamic range from previous cameras. The M offers excellent low light functionality as well. I like to shoot when the light is low, which requires fast lenses and higher ISOs. With previous models of digital Leica cameras, specifically the M8 and M9, I was limited with regard to ISO. Beyond 400, I really began to notice banding in the shadows and generally unacceptable noise when going beyond 800 ISO. Mixed light was also a challenge and other DSLRs were superior when shooting in situations with sources of differing color temperature. The new M now deals with these scenarios quite well too. Really, I can probably use one system at this point.

I shoot wide open when I need too, or to isolate something from the surroundings. I frequently choose to open up the lens for portraiture. The separation and bokeh are without compare, except perhaps if you go to a medium or large format camera. There is nothing quite like the way a Leica lens renders reality — amazing clarity, micro contrast, fidelity. Is distinctive to be sure.

Yet, the important thing for me is content and form, the feeling within the frame. You can have all the equipment, technique and knowledge in the world, it doesn’t mean your pictures will resonate — there has to be something more.

Q: How do you decide whether to use optical or digital viewing and composition when shooting a specific image?

A: I primarily use the optical viewfinder. It feels more immediate and I can see what is outside the lines and anticipate. The two systems compliment each other in that I can use the appropriate method when the situation requires, it gives me another choice for composition and ensuring proper focus.

Q: This is a powerful picture that conveys a visceral sense of an individual being physically present in and working for something beyond the self. This image transcends the physicality of his act and points to something spiritual beyond it. In other words the message, if that’s the right word, is actually outside the frame but implied within it. Do you agree, and what are your personal feelings about this image?

A: That is an astute observation, one that I hadn’t thought much about with that particular image. I often try to point at something that may not explicitly be in the frame with my work — an inner state or an emotional quality. This photograph is of a recent initiate into an order of Hindu ascetics. His newly shaven is body smeared with ash, he has committed his life to a path of renunciation, service to humanity, and spiritual attainment. In the photograph, he is collecting wood to bring back to the fire, or dhuni, which burns continuously for the 55-days of the Kumbh, and around which the recent initiates gather, socialize and sleep.

Q: The image of bathers in the sacred river has an eternal quality that is emphasized by its almost monochromatic sepia tone. In some ways it could have been shot in the mid-19th century or last week and it is thus emblematic of the continuity and traditions of human experience. Am I over the top here? What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and can you provide the tech data for this striking image?

A: The photograph could have been taken a century ago, or more, there is no reference to time or place, which I like. These are ancient practices, rites and rituals, yet there is a continuous thread to the present moment.

This particular image was taken at sunrise during Mauni Amavasya Snan, the principle and most important bathing day at the Maha Kumbh Mela, when all the stars are aligned auspiciously, every 12 years. On this day, approximately 20-30 million pilgrims came to the confluence of India’s three holy rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati for a bath.

The sun was rising, and I knew I had to get out of the crowd and to the river. As I was walking on the banks, figures bathing in the Ganges emerged as steam was rising on the river, the light was unbelievable and all the forms started to come together. There were people in the far distance walking, the middle, the near middle and the foreground. It was a moment of intuition and recognition … and of course excitement. M9, 50 mm Summilux, f/11, 1/250, ISO 160.

Q: The picture of a young policeman or soldier with a serious expression and a long line behind him speaks to the logistics of this great event, and also captures the dichotomy and overarching unity of the worldly and the spiritual. This image also creates an expansive sense of space that is emphasized by its extended depth of field. Where and when was this picture taken and what lens and aperture did you use?

A: It is almost impossible to describe the immensity of the Maha Kumbh Mela. Reporting that 100 million pilgrims came to this event over 55 days may be beyond our comprehension. A photo can hardly do it justice, nor can the facts. One must go and experience it for themselves if they are to really know. That said, on this day, the largest bathing day of the entire Kumbh Mela, which took place on February 10, 2013, there were perhaps 20 or 30 million people present.

To manage that many people is truly a feat, and requires crowd management to be very well planned and executed as to avoid problems. All roads and bridges were one way — you had to go with the flow of humanity. Really, just surrender to it, lose the agenda and expectations. There is no other way. That morning, it took about four hours to simply get to where I thought I wanted to be at sunrise. Needless to say, I wasn’t there as the first light came, but the picture I just described, with the bathers at sunrise, came to be. Plans may be thwarted, but perhaps there is something better in store.

With the officer holding the radio, I was shooting with an M9 with 35 mm Summilux at f/8 at 1/250 from a slightly elevated position on the banks of the river. I like to put a strong foreground element into compositions sometimes and shoot through them. The officer is trying to control the uncontrollable, yelling at people, not allowing them to go back across the bridge. In reality, they do an amazing job keeping order given the immensity of their task.

Q: The picture of a turbaned sadhu with his eyes closed in a state of apparent bliss as he is having his forehead wiped with a cloth relies on a very shallow depth of field to make the main subject pop off the soft background. This technique also helps to isolate the transcendent spiritual aspect of the image while encompassing, but de-emphasizing, the chaotic element of the spatial-temporal realm in which it is taking place. Can you tell us where this image was taken and provide some of the technical details?

A: This image was taken in the camp of a group of Sadhus or “babas” that I came to spend quite a bit of time with during the Kumbh Mela. By the end of my time at the Kumbh, five weeks in, we had become friends. The main baba, Laxman Das, liked me and would always look after me if someone was questioning my presence at gatherings. In fact, I walked in a procession down to the Sangam (the primary bathing area) to bathe with the babas on the main bathing day; no other photographers were in. Everyone was dancing and singing on the way down to the river. There was a lot of energy in the air. A few people tried to get me out of there, as the lane going through the masses was just for sadhus and saints, but Laxman Das chased them off with a long staff, threatening to strike, yelling things I couldn’t understand. At one point, after we all took a holy dip, I found myself surrounded by babas, in my wet bathing suit trunks shooting next to Alex Webb who was working on a story for National Geographic at the time. I digress … to answer your question, the picture of the baba having ash powdered on his face was shot with an M9 with a 35 Summilux, wide open, at 1/90, 320 ISO.

Q: What do you think you accomplished with this Maha Kumbh Mela portfolio other than the obvious one of documenting a great and unique religious festival? Do you see it primarily as a narrative that transports viewers to a specific place and time and allows them to experience it, or mostly as a work of art that communicates on a deep emotional level and preserves and transmits the consciousness of the artist to those who engage with it?

A: I think both are true and I like to walk the line, if one actually exists. Personal artistic expression and documentary practice both inform my work. Is it necessary to choose? Maybe the viewer can tell me what they feel this work does for them.

There were hundreds of foreign photographers at the Kumbh. I was actually amazed by how many. Yet, they usually showed up a few days before one of the bathing days and would leave shortly thereafter with their stories. I saw many come and go during the five weeks I was there. About a week in, after learning the layout of the grounds and where different camps and gurus were located, I had to ask myself, what am I really doing here? It was not an option to wander around this spiritual city, set up in the basin of a river, and simply take exotic pictures of characters that reinforce clichés and otherness.

I wanted to go deeper and connect with the Kumbh from a participant’s point of view. I wanted to see what it was like from the inside, to really experience this massive gathering, and photograph that. It was essential to slow down and spend time with people.

I kept going back over and over, which is something Mary Ellen Mark always says you must do. Each day, I would get up before the sun and head out to the same bathing areas on the river, to familiar camps, to hang out with my baba friends. Often, nothing was happening, we’d relax, drink tea, or take a nap even … then, all of a sudden, I would be invited to festivities that I had no idea were happening. Like private parties of the sadhus, everyone socializing, laughing, smoking massive amounts of tobacco and hashish, eating sweets, drinking more tea … they would pose for group photos, as I was their “official photographer”. I had to pinch myself sometimes. With time and patience, people remembered me, it was easier to move freely and do what I wanted to do.

A few weeks later, I was up in the hills above Rishikesh and found the area where all the babas I spent time with at the Kumbh actually live. I paid them a visit and brought prints to them, they were all quite happy to see me and thrilled to see the pictures from our time together in Allahabad.

Thank you for your time, Andy!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Andy on his website, blog and Instagram.