Arianti Darmawan: An Architect’s Eye

This is Arianti Darmawan’s winning photo from the ‘Leica for AICR’ Architecture photo contest hosted on Leica’s page on Facebook and presented here is an interview with her. The photo was featured on Leica’s profile picture on Facebook for a week during July as part of the efforts to raise awareness about AICR and the ‘Leica User Forum Book‘. The book is still available for purchase. Click for more information about the ‘Leica User Forum Book’.

Arianti Darmawan: Capturing the world with an architect’s eye and a passion for visual expression

A professional architect and an MBA, this perceptive and articulate Indonesian woman was transformed into a serious photo enthusiast when she began shooting with her first Leica, an M8, and deepened with her acquisition of a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH lens and M9. The sophistication and quality of her images reflect not only her innate talent and her academic background, but also demonstrate the great advantage of growing up in a successful, open-minded, visually oriented family. Her iconic and evocative image of architect I.M. Pei’s pyramidal Louvre museum won the ‘Leica for AICR’ Architecture photo contest on Facebook. Here in her own insightful words, are her thoughts on her insatiable quest for meaningful images, and how she intends to use her photography to promote greater awareness of Indonsia, its challenges, and its human dimension.

Q: You mentioned that your first Leica was an M8 with a 35mm f/2 Summicron. How do you think shooting with your new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux on your new M9 will compare with using it on the M8?

A: Yes. The first Leica outfit I shot with was the M8 and 35mm f/2 Summicron, and my first experience in hunting for pictures was in Jakarta’s old port. I fell in love with the details—the Summicron captured all the details and nuances of the scene.  It’s amazing, but somehow, I did not feel the ambience or mood of the scenes despite the color and depth of my images. Then I used the M8 with the 35 Summilux f/1.4 ASPH and I was shocked. It was so ‘me’—the mood, tones, softness, sharpness, color, were totally congruent with my artistic sensibilities. The 35mm Summilux on the M8 is easy to handle too since the crop factor makes its angular coverage the same as a normal lens.

At last, in April, I bought an M9 and used the same 35mm f/1.4 lens on it. I sensed there was a big difference in the feeling of the images. The M8 images seem crisper and more ‘to the point’ but I’m not sure why or whether this is true or not based on the camera’s technical specs. Somehow the M8 has its own characteristics that can’t be replaced by the M9.  So I will always keep my M8. With the M8 my optimum ISO setting is 640 and I love the quality of the images at that speed. With my new M9, the images appear softer and more natural, but with excellent tonal gradation and more vintage color–moodier. The combination of the M9 and 35mm Summilux ASPH is very nice at high ISOs too—I love to shoot at ISO 1250, mixing the soft grain with vintage color that captures the mood like a movie clip. What’s amazing when using a full frame M9 is that even in underexposed images there’s no loss of available data—it’s very easy to bring it up in post-production in Lightroom. I never hesitate to shoot in very low light with my 35mm Summilux on the M9 (I used to worry when using my M8) especially since I always shoot handheld and never use a tripod. Using the 35mm Summilux on my full-frame M9 also maximizes the wide-angle’s versatility, which I really love when traveling and doing street photography.

Q: Your description of how your background as an architect relates to your photography is very eloquent and insightful. Can you say something more about your creative process and specifically what were you trying to achieve in your architecture image that won the ‘Leica for AICR’ photo contest?

A:  The particular ‘Louvre Stairs’ image was an expression of my deep admiration for my lifelong idol, the renowned architect, I.M Pei. Indeed, it was visiting Pei’s famed pyramid-form Louvre Museum that convinced me to pursue my degree in architecture back in 1989. His ideas of juxtaposing the old with the new and incorporating opposing concepts in an elegant manner is what I adore most about his work. Classical is always classical and modernism is always modernism, and there’s nothing in between that’s compromised or diluted.

As I mentioned, 3-dimensional space is what architecture is all about. In this particular picture, I love to see the depth of a 3D space created implicitly, as an inner space, covered with a glass pyramid. It’s a modern way to think about a 4000 BCE pyramid.  I’ve always been amazed by its circular staircase that’s complemented by a round elevator going up and down vertically. I see it as an organic pattern in a geometrical dimension, a movement in a ‘still’ cocoon.  Since I shot it from the top, through the glass pyramid, I captured the geometric frame and also the circular pattern with people moving underground in its inner space. This shooting angle and underground perspective makes you feel the depth of the pyramid. I also like to see my pictures as architectural drawings, and this one is powerful because it consists of geometrical lines that convey rigidity and structure versus a feeling of movement created by an organic circular stairs. Of course the subjects, people interacting with their architectural elements, are also part of the overall visual effect.

Q: Do you think you can bring the architectural concepts you cite to other genres of photography such as street photography, portraiture, etc.? Is there a specific genre or style that fascinates you?

A: I am confident I can bring my architectural concepts to every genre of photography. No matter what I shoot, I tend to think if it as an art form. Balance, composition, color coordination, rhythm, pattern, structure, focal point, background and foreground, even the texture of the materials–all these are art factors in photography which satisfy our eyes and our emotions. They key concept here is emotion, which underlies all artistic creation.

I am not a landscape or documentary photographer. I don’t believe any landscape can be maximally effective in a 2D picture.  Your own eyes connected with your brain and mind is God’s creation that can see and feel at the same time the particular beauty of a landscape. I have seen many beautiful landscapes with my own eyes, but I have never been satisfied with any of the pictures taken when it comes to re-creating the beauty of the experience.  So, I’d love to concentrate my energies on learning more about street photography and pursuing human interest photography, always with some architectural interactions or fine art touches thrown in—that’s what naturally interests me.

Q: How did you feel when you opened your grandpa’s box of classic Leica equipment? Have you been motivated to run some film through the Leica M3, IIIf, and the lenses you discovered, or do you intend to shoot digital with your M9 and M8 going forward?

A: When I first opened the box I felt a rush of nostalgic memories of my grandpa. The box itself was steel army ammunition box full of silica gel powder that I believe was acting as a drying agent to preserve the equipment in good condition. We all know that he owned a photo studio and put a Leica logo in front of his store that was located in a small town called Malang in East Java.  He supported my dad’s family solely through his photography. I still have my grandpa’s pictures of my 8-year-old dad and my grandma on his birthday that grandpa shot with a Leica IIIf in 1949.  It’s an amazing picture for us–he was a true artist.  Nobody used a Leica in a small town in Indonesia back then, but he was educated in Shanghai and studied photography there. We think that’s where he came under the spell of the “western” Leica.

Grandpa had 7 grandchildren, and 4 out of the 7, including me, are visual seekers.  I believe I will try to satisfy my thirst for learning using the digital M8 and M9 first; then I will go back to analog or film shooting using my grandpa’s M3 or a new MP. It would be nice if I could carry on shooting using his cameras, forging a more meaningful bond between us. One of the M3s, along with a 50mm Summilux, was given to him as a present by my dad after he had earned enough money to buy them.  I intend to keep all these Leicas with me and pass them on to the next generation along with my digital M. I already can see that my 10-year- old daughter Diandra loves my Leica, so that idea is not so farfetched.

Q: Obviously you come from a very visual family—you mentioned that your sister is a filmmaker and your grandpa was a lifelong Leica shooter. How do you think growing up in this kind of environment has influenced your photography?

A:  I am so thankful that I grew up in the family that fostered a liberal approach to the process of finding one’s self.  Freedom, creativity, and innovation play major role in our family achievements. We all encourage our family members to express themselves well and pursue innovative ways of thinking. There have never been any borders or limits imposed on us in developing ourselves to our full potential.  For example, my dad is an accomplished knife and bow maker, who starts from zero to create finished products, just as a hobby. Our open-minded culture plus our innate talent for art and visual expression has had a very big impact on my photographic work.  I am never afraid to experiment when expressing myself through any art medium. My sensibilities might be different from those of others in terms of specifics, and yet that is the beauty of my world, and I believe that it should be revealed in my pictures too. Tell how different you are through visual expression and people will still appreciate your individual characteristics and differences. The intellectual level of my family and the range of experiences I have been exposed to have also had a big influences on how I perceive the world around me, using both my eyes and my heart.

Q: What particular characteristics of the Leica M9 and M8 do you find especially suited to the kind of images you shoot compared, say, to shooting with your husband’s DSLR?

A: My husband’s Canon DSLR cannot be directly compared to the Leica M, and when I was using it as a novice my photographic knowledge was a lot more limited. My general impression is that a DSLR is more suitable for shooting bursts and fast action compared to a rangefinder camera, but that the Leica M is optimized for capturing ‘the right moment.’ Another advantage I feel quite certain about is the three-dimensional depth, and mood effects that are possible using the M and Leica’s fine lenses. I am not happy with the flat-looking pictures I often see taken with DSLRs, but of course that may be due to the lenses as well as the cameras. At any rate, the Leica M and its outstanding lenses surely give me the opportunity to “speak” in 3-dimensional space.  The Leica M and its lenses have “soul” as I call it.  That’s really the most amazing M characteristic and that’s what makes it perfectly suited to capturing my kind of images.  One click of an M, with a rangefinder’s manual focus and at the right moment, makes me feel like I’m drawing the pictures one by one and pouring all my passion and all my heart into each one.  To say that I am satisfied with it is putting it very mildly indeed.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward? Do you have any specific or general goals, and do you think you will try other lenses such as ultra-wide-angles or maybe a super-speed lens like the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux which gives you the ability to explore the effects of very limited depth of field and the ability to shoot without flash in very low light?

A: Actually I am still very new to photography, and still just recently embarked on the process of learning and finding my true self through this new art form.  I definitely intend to keep practicing to improve my technique and hands-on knowledge and I know I am deeply committed to developing my photography both as an art form and a means of expression. As I mentioned, I consider my photographic work to be an enjoyable avocation, with no borders as to where it leads me. I will keep taking pictures of my family at holiday time, which is how I got involved with Leicas in the first place.

Happiness is very important element in taking pictures because that’s what keeps you motivated. In other words I love to experiment continually with photography as an art form because it gives me great pleasure. One field that I might try soon is portraiture. I love the idea and will try to focus on it, starting with the people around me. I think playing with emotion and expression in taking revealing and compelling portraits is inherently much more difficult than street or human interest shooting where the visual choices are spontaneous and flexible.

Another thing that I’d love to focus my attention on is my country, Indonesia. So many people around the world come and shoot pictures of us, but not many Indonesians have made similar contributions to the world’s memorable images.  We are still a developing third-world country with numerous issues that are crying out for the world’s attention, especially in the area of children and education. I really have the heart and motivation to help make this happen, but I’m not certain how it can be articulated through my style of photography.  As a result of this Leica opportunity, and of having my picture selected for publication, I am trying harder than ever to figure out how I can help achieve a greater awareness through the images created by one native Indonesian.  That’s really what keeps me motivated— enhancing my skills for a larger purpose. Actually I might bring this idea up among the Leica community in Indonesia.

On a more practical level I’d love to try a wider-angle angle lens than my 35mm Summilux—maybe a 28mm or even a 21mm ultra-wide-angle. I am sure wide-angle lenses can help create a certain emotional quality along with some surprising visual effects I’d love to play around with. That will probably happen very soon. As for the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux, I categorize it as special super-speed lens intended for specific purposes and of course it is a superb collector’s item for passionate Leica enthusiasts.

- Leica Internet Team

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the ‘Leica User Forum Book’, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Based on Leica’s Twitter initiative, Leica is donating €3,000 to AICR – thank you for making this possible!