Bill Palmer: Diehard Leica Fan with a Big Heart, part 2

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Combining his passion for Leica plus compassion for others, he created the Leica User Forum Book for charity project

Bill Palmer, a dyed-in-the-wool Leica fan for 20 years, shoots classically composed graphically compelling images that unfailingly convey deeply felt emotions. But in addition to being an accomplished photographer, he is also a compassionate person who cares deeply about people and trying to help them in any way he can. In a creative symbiosis of both these aspects of himself, he envisioned a project that could use the impressive talent and enthusiasm of Leica photographers and bring it to bear for a worthy charitable cause. The end result is the Leica User Forum Book now being used to raise money for the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). The book, which features 143 images by 101 photographers, all shot using film and digital Leica cameras and leica lenses, includes an intro by Rudolf Spiller, CEO of Leica AG. So far it has raised well over $12,000 and Leica will be continually adding to the donations as the number of followers and supporters increase.

Here is the second part of our wide-ranging interview of this amazing man, in which Bill Palmer reveals his profound insights on what makes Leica cameras, lenses, and ultimately Leica photography itself so very special.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I have been a Leica user for nearly 20 years.  In that time I have used a number of M and R models. My current line up includes an M7 .85, an M2, an R7 and a D-Lux 4.  I also have two “Barnacks” – an 80 year old II(D) and a III.  Leica suits my personal style and preferences.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: My work is a mixture of street photography and what could broadly be described as “travel”.  I like the juxtaposition of people and places – context is not always about what is familiar.  I like to focus on the details in life – shoes on a step, a boy on his father’s shoulders, watching the game, a woman alone with her thoughts and regrets.  Many things motivate me – except still life and flower photography!  I am definitely an available-light shooter and hate the thought of tying my Leica to a tripod.  I like to work fast and focused – “in the zone”.  Much of my photography is “unplugged” – I use my M2 and my Barnacks unmetered, using the “Sunny-16” rule as a guide – or “Sunny 11” as it is here in the UK!  I am currently experimenting with combining words and pictures; both have their place, but together they have a power to deliver a narrative that lies beyond either medium on its own.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a pro or a serious enthusiast?

A: I am definitely a serious enthusiast.  In fact, I describe myself as a “gentleman amateur” – this is a term that harks back to cricket at the turn of the last century.  In those days cricketers were either “gentlemen” or “players”; gentlemen were amateurs, who did it for the fun of it. Players were professionals who were paid a wage to play. I definitely do it for the fun of it!  I have had some work published in magazines, books, greeting cards and the like, and some of my prints are on display in a local restaurant, but that is just “icing on the cake” as far as I’m concerned.

Q. We can definitely empathize when you describe yourself using the 19th century term “gentleman amateur,” which really means “lover.” Although “amateur photographer” is a dismissive term these days, it’s evident from your work that you are a serious and talented photographer. But how do you see your work advancing and changing going forward, and what part will Leica cameras present or future play?

A: A Leica camera will be in my hand as long as I live!  The rangefinder concept simply works for me.  SLRs detach you from the action – put you at one remove by interspersing prisms, mirrors and circuitry between the photographer and the subject.  Too many digital cameras do the same; I find it sterile to compose on a screen at arms length; I may as well be playing a computer game.  The Leica rangefinder puts the absolute minimum between me and my subject – I am right there, both observing and taking part.  As I mature, both as a photographer and as a person,  I find my photography becoming more measured, more selective.  Gone are the days of “ready-fire-aim” that would result in a multitude of mediocre images.  I find myself becoming ever less of a machine-gunner, and ever more a sniper, seeking the shot, the moment, and the angle that makes it all worthwhile.  I also find my work becoming simpler, starker, with more of a definite motif.  I don’t spend a lot of time bent over a keyboard doing post processing – I never have done – but even that is being kept to a minimum these days.  I try to get it right first time, and no amount of post processing will rescue a boring photo.  I have the luxury of being able to shoot to please myself – the joy of the amateur – if what I produce pleases others too, then that is a bonus.

Q: How long have you been shooting?

A: Overall, about 30 years (I am 48 now).  I have progressed from a Pentax via Nikon to Contax and then Leica.  To me it was a logical progression – nothing lies beyond Leica!

Q. Is there any other “mission statement” that expresses what you are trying to achieve when shooting pictures? Have you shot in any other genres besides the two you mentioned?

A: I have shot in many genres over the years, including wildlife, sports (cricket, rugby and motorsport mainly); even some plants and still life!  I tend to shoot what is meaningful to me at the time, whether or not I realize it!  Let me give you an example. I spent a while doing some street work a few years ago and it took somebody else to point out the common theme in much of my body of work at that time – many of the photographs featured doors – portals – through which people were passing, that could be glimpsed at times only in silhouette.  At that time my life was turning in a different direction and the doorways – and my passage through them – were significant to me.  I firmly believe a good image tells a story; sometimes that story is about the subject, and sometimes it is about the photographer himself.  It is up to the viewer to decide.  The most I ever hope for is that my images make people pause for a moment, and think – and sometimes smile.

Q: Of all your film Leicas which is your favorite for actual street shooting? What kind of film do you shoot most?

A: That’s an easy question.  Strangely enough, it is my ancient Leica II (also known as the model D). I love its compactness and the sure handling.  My first Barnack (Ed: A reference to Oskar Barnack’s original form factor) was a IIIc, but I prefer the older II, with the wider spaced windows.  Mine came from the US, and is a 5-digit serial number that indicates it was originally manufactured as a Standard in 1930, and factory-upgraded with the rangefinder in 1934.  I usually use it with a 5cm Nickel Elmar 3.5. This combination fits in a pocket and can be brought to bear in a second. I always use Kodak 400CN in my unmetered Leica cameras (II, III, M2). I know it, and trust how it behaves in different light.  I never use a light meter these days, preferring to rely upon Sunny-16 and experience.  In my M7 and R7 I either use the same film stock or Kodak Portra 160 – I love its rendition of skin tones.

Q. Which lenses do you have for your M7, M2 and R7, which ones are your favorites, and what in particular do you find attractive or special about these lenses or about Leica lenses in general?

A: Now that is a question!  I “see” the world in 50mm terms, so you will not be surprised to learn that I have a number of 50s!  My all-time favorite is the Elmar-M 2.8 – simply the perfect balance of speed, handling, compactness and performance.  With it mounted my M7 can easily fit in a belt pouch, so my camera is always to hand.  I have a number of classic lenses too, including the Dual-Range Summicron from the 1950s – it is a jewel of a lens, handmade with care, and has a fingerprint that is both pleasing and unique.  The rest of my collection ranges from 15 to 135mm in LTM and M mount, and up to 180mm in R.  There is just something special about the rendition of Leica lenses – they perform at the extremes just as well as they do at more modest apertures.  I regard my lenses as a palette – each has a different rendition and fingerprint, from the creamy to the tack sharp – there is no doubt with a Leica lens!  One lesson I have learned over the years, I have learned the hard way – never sell a Leica lens!  I have traded lenses at times, but each time I have bought the same lens again.  An expensive lesson to learn!

Q. Do you plan to acquire an M9, which has been described as “the only digital camera that provides the Leica M shooting experience?” If so, why; if not, why not?
A: To answer this question I need to speak first of the M8; I regarded the M8 as a “work in progress” – not a finished product.  It was the best that could be produced at the time, and kept Leica in with a fighting chance in the digital world, but it was flawed in a number of key areas and I never wanted one.  When the M9 was announced it answered at once two of my primary objections to the M8 – the crop factor and the reliance on UV/IR filters.  Will I buy one?  Perhaps.  But my M7 does all that the M9 does, and more, in a more compact package.  I suspect that I will have one in the future, but my “proper-sized” Ms are still my favorites.  Maybe if, one day, Leica produces a digital version of my M2 – perfectly proportioned, butter-smooth handling and an uncluttered viewfinder with just the “holy trinity” of frame lines (35-50-90) I will take the plunge, but until then…

-Jason Schneider

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the book, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Please visit our page on Facebook to enter the ‘Leica for AICR’ photo contest; this week’s theme is Nature and Wildlife. Help raise funds for AICR by following Leica on Twitter! We are donating €0.50 for every new follower to our account, @leica_camera. Upon reaching 10,000 followers by Friday, July 9, an additional €1,000 will be donated to AICR!