Andy Siddens: Documenting Istanbul with the Leica M Monochrom

Andy Siddens was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England in the late 1960s. After leaving a job in information technology, he now currently resides in Paris where he is working as a photographer and obtaining a degree in photography with the Open College of the Arts. He has had work published in Classic Rock and Q Magazine amongst other places. Below, Andy shares his story of traveling to Istanbul with the Leica M Monochrom and being awarded Licentiate Membership of the Royal Photography Society.

Q: What have you been up to since we last featured you on the blog back in May 2011?

A: It’s been a busy time. I relocated to France last year and Paris is providing me with so much inspiration — too much in fact. You really need to organise your time well.

In May 2012 I was delighted to be awarded Licentiate Membership of the Royal Photography Society (LRPS). This is something I’m massively proud of. Everyone likes feedback on what they do, and this award gave me great confidence. Prior to this award I would never admit to being a photographer, rather someone who did photography. This was a turning point, an acceptance perhaps.

At the moment I am a full-time photography student (albeit a mature one at 46!) working towards a degree in photography with the Open College of the Arts. My degree course has progressed well and the next module to study is art history. The aim of this part of the course is to learn from the masters of painting, architecture and sculpture and apply some of their timeless techniques to photography. The mysterious world of the Baroque awaits! Whilst on the long road to the degree I am picking up photographic work and have recently started offering some basic photographic training in Paris.

As for the rest of 2014, it’s very exciting. I have been offered an exhibition of my work in Lyon this summer and also asked to provide photographs to accompany some poetry, the result of which will be a limited edition book.

Q: Congratulations on being awarded Licentiate Membership in the Royal Photographic Society. How exactly did this come about and how has it provided a turning point in your photographic journey and your acceptance of yourself as a photographer?

A: The LRPS tells me that my work has at least achieved a certain standard. I think of it as a driving license, providing confidence to get out and take photography somewhere. I’m not sure why I particularly like that reassurance it gives; it must just be part of my nature.

However, there are no maps or directions supplied with the award, so where I go is now up to me. But I do know I can at least start the engine and get moving. Which road? No idea, any road!

I’ll send a photograph from where I end up.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: It’s an extension of my feelings for sure. I try to take photographs that show how I see what is around me at that time. I don’t think these feelings choose the subject matter, but certainly influence the way I shoot. On certain occasions it is full of life, at other times it is more closed down with the subject less obvious.

Q: You shot this series of images in Istanbul with the Leica Monochrom. What lens(es) did you use? And why did you choose the Monochrom to document this trip?

A: For the Istanbul trip I predominately used a 50 mm lens. It is a great focal length for me. When travelling light it covers most bases. The second lens I took was a 21 mm lens, which stayed almost the entire holiday in the hotel room safe, except to the visit to the mosques. For certain, some scenes unravel in front of you and you initially think “Oh no, I have the wrong lens for this!” But you can usually turn this to your advantage and make something different, something creative.

The choice of the Monochrom is an easy answer — it is the camera I use almost exclusively for anything. The opportunity to use it in this fabulous city bathed in strong sunlight with all the mysterious shadows this creates was a great experience. The high contrast scenes allowed me time to really get to know the intricacies of the exposure metering. You may only have  > O <  in the viewfinder, but this is enough.

I try and think of the metering as a completely separate stage to actually taking the photograph. Find your midtone if you can and if there is only a ‘>’ then you need to turn the aperture or shutter dial in the direction of the arrow, if there is a ‘<’ then it’s the opposite. Simple, perfect.

The key characteristic of the Monochrom is also another example of me keeping it simple. The choice of a colour or B&W photograph is removed. One less thing to have to decide, which for my way of working this is a true advantage.

Q: Why do you consider the 50 mm “a great focal length for me”? Most documentary and street photographers favor a 35 mm or 28 mm lens, so what is it about your shooting style that makes you gravitate toward the classic 50 mm focal length?

A: I enjoy a 50 mm lens. I understand its field of view. It shows you what the human eye sees without the peripheral vision. This helps greatly when trying to visualise an image because it is already what you see.

From a technical point of view you can be more selective with your focus; the 50 mm allows a slightly narrower depth of field than a wider lens.  Also the metering is affected; you have a more precise central area to meter the light from. It is easier to take selective light readings from a scene. The wider the lens is the bigger the metered central area will be.

Q: Certainly one cannot quibble with your choice of the Leica Monochrom if your aim is creating black-and-white images of outstanding quality, but Istanbul is renowned as one of the most colorful cities in the world, so did you ever feel constrained in being limited to black-and-white? Also how do you think your choice of this medium altered or affected your visual approach to this fascinating and fabled location?

A: Before I owned the Monochrom virtually all of my photographs were taken on an M9 and then converted to B&W. It was rare that I would take a photograph and prefer it in colour. So no, I never felt constrained. Quite the opposite in fact, released from the decision.

Black-and-white photography allows you to convey the spirit of a location; the colour is really not necessary. The strong sunlight in Istanbul created wonderful shadows, so really it is perfect for monochrome and did not alter my approach at all, apart from taking care to not overexpose the bright, high contrast scenes.

Q: What brought you to Istanbul?

A: Turkish coffee.

Q: Turkish coffee is a great reason to go to Istanbul, but it is pretty intense and highly caffeinated. Do you think it affected your ability to handhold your Monochrom at slow shutter speeds, and did you use a tripod for any of the pictures in this portfolio?

A: Well thankfully due to my normal use of a wide aperture and the very bright sunlight of an Istanbul summer, I was able to obtain shutter speeds of 1/1000 second or greater. So thankfully caffeine-induced camera shake was not an issue! If I ever do an assignment in the dark winter of the North Pole I will consider taking the tripod or drinking decaf.

None of the Istanbul photographs were taken with a tripod. I have actually been using a tripod more recently and for portraits I always prefer a tripod. Once the camera is set up on the tripod for a portrait shoot with the light meter readings taken, you can forget about the science of photography … just hold the shutter release and concentrate on engaging with your subject.

Q: The image above shows the intricate and imposing interior of a Byzantine structure and because it was composed vertically it manages to convey a feeling of soaring spaciousness. What were you trying to communicate with this image?

A: The images taken in the Blue Mosque were shot with the 21 mm lens which I took particularly for that location.

I was trying to emphasise how big the building is and capture the light from the ceiling windows at the same time as the people below. This focal length is so wide it does a great job of stretching space. I have to say though, it was such a vast, beautiful building that it needed little help in this respect.

Q: This shot is a dynamically composed picture showing two standing, softly-focused figures in the foreground with arms raised and surveying what looks like a seaside urban vista. Many details in the background are double-image, almost like a double exposure, and the image has a triumphal and assertive quality, but is nevertheless enigmatic. What is going on here and why did you include this image in your Istanbul portfolio?

A: It is included because it is about as close as I got to a standard landscape shot of the city. It was taken from the top of the Galata Tower which offered a clear view of the cityscape, but straight landscapes do little for me and I wanted to add some interest to the shot.

So in an attempt to make a photograph that would beg the question, “What is going on here?” I turned in the opposite direction to the view and took a reflection shot in the tower’s observation window. The people started waving and completed the composition, their hands stretching up in to the reflected space.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as landscapes, architecture, or fine art abstractions, all of which relate to your present work?

A: It is interesting and encouraging to hear you use the phrase “fine art abstractions”. I think that is my direction. Certainly I attempt to make something a little different.

I have been experimenting recently with making prints on paper then backlighting these prints with a soft box and re-photographing them — so you end up with a photograph of a photograph. Yes, of course, you lose some of the initial quality of the capture, but the process adds some wonderful organic nuances to the work. For example, you even pick up the texture of the paper that was used, unexpected reflections appear from the room and other slight quirks.

Obviously nowadays there is a need to get your work out on the internet, social media, etc., but I like to finish with real warm baryta prints and to show them to people. That is my final aim. I’ve been fortunate to have been offered an exhibition in Lyon later this year and I can’t wait to see my photographs mounted and displayed, and obviously the response.

So a lot of the next three years will relate to finishing the degree, but I also want to experiment more using artificial off-camera light. I love the way that Gregory Crewdson works — building scenes, adding actors, creating movies in a single frame. His work is very grandiose but I’d love to explore that avenue, albeit on a much smaller scale. Yes, that is it. That is my road.

Thank you for your time, Andy!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Andy’s work on his website and Facebook.