Atipong Padanupong: A Thai artist with a Leica M passion

This is Atipong Padanupong’s winning photo from the ‘Leica for AICR’ Sport and Leisure photo contest hosted on Leica’s page on Facebook and presented here is an interview with him. 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’.

He shoots film with his MP, loves his 21mm Elmarit and strives to capture the spontaneity of the human drama

An accomplished professional artist who likes to get away from his easel, canvas, paper—and computer monitor—to interact and photograph real places, people and things, Altipong Padanupong is a serious enthusiast on a mission—capturing the truth and harmony of life. His mentor, a beloved Thai Buddhist master, acclaimed photo colorist and Leica shooter, introduced him to the charms of the 21mm, the perfect tool for capturing people in context. He uses his prized Leica outfit adeptly to create documentary and travel images, and his goal is perfecting his shooting techniques so he can capture telling images of Bangkok street life. Here, in his own modest and insightful words, is the fascinating story of his photographic quest and his profound connection with the Leica M system.

Q: What special insight or visual approach do you think you bring to photography as a professional artist? You mentioned that a narrative or storytelling approach is part of it, but could you say something more about it?

A: I guess the best way to develop the sense of taking pictures is to participate in workshops run by professionals, or simply going out shooting as often as possible. Because I spend most of my time sitting in a room doing artwork I think this process will take years, but that the insights gained in creating art will also help me refine and develop my photography. I feel this instinctively and I’ve never really analyzed this process until you posed your question.

As an illustrator the first thing I do is to select the essential parts of a whole story I am going to draw, invariably the parts with an attractive or vivid emotional content. This concept can also be useful when I select the scene or moment to shoot. The second point is to compose each selected part into a picture. I always compare this to a stage with actors. There’s a foreground, background, main and supporting characters, all of which exist in and create an atmosphere or setting. As an artist I use light, shade, color, graphic form, and specific brush strokes to place them together in a simple-looking composition.

This basic idea is likewise helpful to bear in mind when I compose a scene and subject from an effective camera angle and place them into a rectangular or square frame. The essential process I the same whether I’m composing in the viewfinder or on paper.

The third element is the characters themselves. The characters in illustrations always have something engaging or unusual about them, with vivid facial or body expressions. Since I love shooting natural scenes as they occur in reality, I can’t have those special characters or expressions in every shot, but I nevertheless try to capture people at their most interesting moments.

Viewing this process abstractly, you might think I’d be better off trying to set up each shot and bring everything under perfect control, but it’s not like that. In any case, setting up photographs is beyond my abilities at present— I don’t even know how to use studio lights. Dealing with the messy reality of people and places is in many ways more challenging than sitting alone with a blank sheet of paper, so as a photographer I just try to capture the reality of what I see with the sensibilities of an illustrator.

Q: You said you started your relationship with Leica by shooting with a Minilux, moved to an M6, and now use an MP with an older 21mm Elmarit and a WWII-era 50mm f/2 Summitar. Why did you migrate to the MP, why do you favor the 21mm for your work, what do you particularly like about the old Summitar, and do you still shoot with your Minilux?

A: I think MP is at the cutting edge of rangefinder film cameras—its system concept, construction and materials are perfect. The chrome version is reminiscent of the M3 or M2, but with the greater convenience of through-the-lens metering. I love the look of classic M camera. For a long time I was saving up to buy a secondhand M6J, but decided to spend the money on a brand new MP instead.

I bought the 21 mm because I was so impressed with my mentor Mr. Chaipong’s pictures. Of course each wonderful picture is a reflection of many elements besides the lens, but the way he composes such compelling images with 21mm motivated me acquire one. This lens delivers beautiful tonal gradation, a pleasing sharpness without ‘hardness,’ and its ultra-wide coverage is very useful when shooting in tight places— you can include the environment as well as the main subject. However its perspective is a bit hard to control, so every time I use it, I’m at the end of the roll before I know it.

When looking through the viewfinder it seems that everything can be captured beautifully, but once the film is developed, I usually find that only 10% of my shots come out the way I wanted or capture the feeling I had while taking them. This has nothing to do with the quality of the lens—it’s totally about me and the fact that I’m having sp much fun that I’m not calm or careful enough when taking the shot. Right now I’m thinking about the M9 because it will let me review images instantly in the field, and prevent me from going further in pursuit of some terrible shooting angle.

The 50mm f/2 Summitar I have is an uncoated WWII-era version with rounded aperture blades. It’s the oldest thing in my Leica collection and I bought it because of the many beautiful sample shots I saw on the Internet. Its price was very reasonable and it delivers a wonderful classic look with smooth and gentle tonal gradation. I don’t care that much about edge-to-edge picture sharpness. Actually I often prefer some amount of blur, flare, beautiful out-of-focus image quality, etc. that bring charm to the picture. This old lens does all this quite well. As for the Minilux, I rarely use it now.

Q: All of the Leicas you have used or are using are 35mm film cameras. What kind of film do you shoot, do you do your own darkroom work, and have you considered trying a digital camera like the M9, which in many ways is a digital equivalent of the MP?

A: In the 35mm format I use Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5, and always develop them in HC-110. Although I have a Kaiser enlarger fitted with a Leitz Focotar lens I don’t have a formal darkroom, only my drawing room which I make light-tight at night using a dark curtain to create an improvised darkroom. I hesitate to set up a complete darkroom because I don’t have much opportunity to do printing. My printing ability is poor so I have to waste a lot of paper (and time) to get one nice print. And when consider that I have to spend most of my working day inhaling oil paint\, linseed oil, and turpentine, I don’t think it’s a great idea to smell hypo and other chemicals for 3-4 more hours!

Developing film is another story—it’s not time consuming and you need only a changing bag and a developing tank. The only other requirements are time and temperature control. As a result I make most of my pictures by scanning the negatives and adjusting the images in Photoshop. I consider myself very lucky to live in this era. I can use various kinds of film that have been optimized over a long period, and also employ the benefits of digital imaging using programs and printout techniques that can produce amazing results. Actually both systems can yield far better image quality than my meager ability to exploit them fully. I know I still have a lot to learn (and to enjoy,) so I have no problem in choosing between film and digital.

I’ve been interested in the digital M ever since the M8 was introduced, but at that time I’d just purchased an MP so I gravitated toward film. Now I’m delighted to see the full-frame M9 and I’m amazed by the many wonderful images taken with it that are posted on various websites. My dream outfit at this moment is a black M9 fitted with the new 35mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH. This is definitely one of the best duos in the world–you can enjoy traveling light, go anywhere, and come back with tons of beautiful shots. You don’t have to worry about the effect of X-rays and you’re not limited to a single ISO or 36 frames per roll, so the advantages are obvious.

Q: What do you think are a few of the most important things you learned from your mentor Mr. Chaipong, and can you tell us some more about who he is, what kind of photography he does, etc.?

A: Mr. Chaipong, now deceased, wasn’t a professional photographer and he never considered himself one. He was a businessman, a poet, a writer, a Chinese calligrapher, a political activist, a Buddhist practitioner, and an experienced black and white film photographer. He was also very skilled in darkroom methods, loved to paint on B&W gelatin prints and was a master at hand-coloring photos. He took pictures, and developed, prints, and painted them for his own pleasure. Although his art is intensely personal it also reflects his various life experiences, yet manages to convey distinct ideas that are profound and universal. He always praised photography as an important way of refining one’s mind. All it took was a simple conversation with him to convince you that he was a modern man with the heart of an ancient Chinese sage.

For Thai B&W lovers, Mr. Chaipong was renowned for his definitive work on the hand-coloring process. From many years he worked in private without any publicity; then one day he decided to open his hand-coloring workshop to the public and to hold two one-man exhibitions of his hand-colored photographs. In 2008 he published a beautiful hardcover picture book entitled ‘Mind’s Eyes,’a collection of his hand-colored images. This book was launched along with his second hand-color exhibition only a year before his death.

Quite part from his photography and hand coloring, many people love and respect Mr. Chaipong for his vision as a poet and artist, which are too subtle and too vast to express in words. To many of us, the B&W web members, the depth of his personality and perspective was unfolded to us little by little from the meaningful captions under his posted pictures, and also from some memorable face-to-face meetings we had. I often made time to meet Mr. Chaipong in his office, telling him at first that I needed him to assess my negatives and critique my B&W methods. However that was only a pretext—in fact there was a multitude of other things I enjoyed talking with him about, such as Buddhist philosophy, his political vision, his travel experiences, and Chinese, Indian or Himalayan cultures. Sometimes he told me how he was able to live a simple life by being peaceful and happy, and how he balanced his business and family matters with his inner life as an artist. Ultimately we didn’t talk that much about photography, and my friendship with Mr. Chaipong didn’t last very long. I knew him for only 3 years before he got ill and passed away. Some people who knew him for a long time and had the chance to accompany him on photo trips always recall these experiences as precious moments.

Two years ago, before he knew anything was wrong with him, Mr. Chaipong went to India and Nepal to pay homage to lord Buddha’s birthplace and to visit other holy sites of Buddhism. He came back and made many beautiful prints that he shot mainly with the 21 mm Elmarit.  After that he called me into his office to see them. Those gelatin silver prints, some of them hand-colored, still haunt me now. That very day we made plans for many wonderful photo trips, especially to Ajanta and the Ellora caves, but sadly that will never come to pass.

Q: Your artwork is beautiful and has a very traditional feeling, but your photography seems more spontaneous and casual. Can you comment on this difference?

A: Thank you very much. I’m so glad my photos can deliver some sense of spontaneity and casualness. Although my artwork doesn’t convey much of that quality I still hope it can bring a bit of joy and a relaxed feeling to those that view it. My artwork may appear traditional, but if you compare it with real classical Thai art, you’ll find it pretty shallow. Genuine traditional Thai artworks are delicate yet formal, and largely based on fixed patterns and rules because they originated mainly from the royal court or high-class temples that supported the artists. By comparison, my art mostly resembles the work of urban painters who made simple murals on the walls of village temples. I love to simplify traditional arts and mix them with the joyful and easy feeling of childhood. I often add some hilarious details, references to the latest news, or some contemporary life activities, into an epic story such as the Ramayana, as I’m doing by now. Actually, I think my artwork and photographs have many things in common even though the images are created in different ways. Artworks tend to be neater because I can set up the composition and increase or decrease every element at will. My real goal is to create artwork that conveys the same casual sense that my photographs can. If they don’t at the moment, I’ll try to bring them closer together going forward.

Q: What features or attributes of the Leica MP do you find especially useful for your kind of work, and how do you find shooting the 21mm with a separate optical viewfinder? Is shooting the Minilux a different experience for you, and if so can you say something about the difference?

A: I love the MP for its compact, sturdy form, quiet but definitive shutter click, etc. And together with Leica lenses it can produce superb images even in dim light. Since I never take a tripod with me, the MP (actually all Leica M cameras) allows me to shoot sharp images handheld at speeds of 1/8 sec and even slower, with little if any noticeable blur due to camera shake. And Leica lenses are great—they can be relied on even at their widest apertures. In short, this equipment allows me to cover events and activities that occur only at night, and lets me move fast enough to capture the action without using flash.

I don’t experience any inconvenience in using a separate viewfinder. It takes only a split second to move your eye from camera to finder when using it it. Also it’s sometimes fun to use the 21mm lens without a viewfinder, focusing and framing the main subject in the center and letting the surrounding area take care of itself.

By the way the Minilux is a marvelous point & shoot camera. It certainly produces excellent quality pictures but my love for manual settings and some unexplained passion drive me toward the M system (I guess I’m not unique in that). The Minilux is very nice for taking pictures quickly on the fly but I’d recommend avoiding the automatic flash option. Another inconvenience is that when lighting conditions change quickly, there’s no convenient way to change film in the middle of a roll as I’ve done many times with Leica Ms.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward, and how do you think the Leica will fit into your creative process in the future?

A: I take photos just to record what my eyes see and to appreciate the things around me. Now that I’m addicted to rangefinder techniques I know I’ll stay with the M system for a long, long time. Apart from covering the aforementioned nighttime events, right now I still don’t have any particular project in mind, and not sure what my shooting style is going to be in the future. But if anything special does come up, my Leica will be an integral part of the process for sure.

I hope to spend more time with my camera than just using it for travel or weekend trips. I plan to practice shooting more and more until it feels similar to using my eyes and hands top make a painting. A professional photographer friend once told me that even a single camera body and a fixed focal length lens can make the best photo essay if you and your gear can become one. That’s the point I’m trying to reach.

-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!