Christopher Michel: The Best Stories Come From Inside

Christopher Michel is a self-taught American photographer who has pursued a number of successful careers but his abiding passion is photography. His work includes photographs from extreme locations like the South Pole, Everest, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Papua New Guinea, and at the edge of space (aboard a U-2 Spy Plane). He has also published a number of books, including Monochromatic, Rajasthan, 90° South, Point 95, and Roof of the World. A prolific photojournalist, his engaging and insightful images are featured regularly in print and online. In addition, he’s the editor at Explorers.com, a site dedicated to adventure travel. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and Harvard Business School. Below, he shares the spirit of the Kalachakra ceremony.

Q: What camera and lenses did you use for this project?

A: I spend almost six months per year on the road shooting. Typically, my kit includes the Leica M plus the 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux and a Nikon D800E with a variety of lenses. For the Ladakh trip, I jettisoned the SLR and went Leica only. In my bag was the Leica M and a variety of lenses: 21 mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M, 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH., 50 mm Noctilux f/0.95, and the 90 mm f/2.0 Summicron-M. Initially, I was worried that I’d miss the flexibility and ease of the SLR. I didn’t … at all. My bag weighed a quarter as much, and I was much, much happier shooting a single, elegant body. The first thing I did when I got home was to buy a second M to take along on future trips.

Q: Can you provide some background about this portfolio?

A: Although the Ladakh shots were taken just a few weeks ago (July 2014), the shoot had its origins at MIT in October of 2012. I had been invited to be the photographer for His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visit to MIT. I spent three incredible days with His Holiness and left with incredible admiration for him and an interest in Buddhism. When I learned that Columbia Professor Bob Thurman was leading a pilgrimage to the Kalachakra Initiation in Ladakh, India, I immediately signed on.

The Kalachakra is one of the most meaningful Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies in existence. This was the 33rd Kalachakra Initiation conducted by the Dalai Lama in his lifetime. Although the Kalachakra has been held in venues all over the world, this one felt very special. Ladakh, meaning “land of high passes” is a state in India that is nestled between the high Himalayas and the Kunlun mountain region. It’s at 10,000 feet and it feels Tibetan in many respects. This Kalachakra attracted 160,000 Buddhist pilgrims to Ladakh.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been a pilgrim before. There were 5,000 foreigners (non-Tibetans or Ladakhis) – and every day we walked along with thousands and thousands of people along the dusty roads of Ladakh, along the Indus river to Jiwe-tsal the summer palace of His Holiness. Arriving at Jiwe-tsal, we sat in an open field for hours of teaching every day among countless Monks and villagers, often in local dress. It was an incredible experience.

Q: How would you describe your photography? Do you have any formal education in photography? Is there a photographer or type of photography that influenced you?

A: I’m interested in capturing passion as manifested by everyone from astronauts to Antarctic explorers to Buddhist Pilgrims. Extreme environments and the people that are drawn to them fascinate me.

I’m a freelance photographer. I became interested in photography in 1998 and have been shooting nearly full-time since 2008. I shoot a blend of photojournalism, travel and street photography, depending on the assignment or situation. Not surprisingly, I fell in love with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eric Kim, Bruce Gilden, and Robert Frank. I also read every issue of National Geographic growing up. So, in a sense, my work could best be described as a combination of Robert Frank & Nat Geo — street photography meets extreme travel. I taught myself — 10,000+ hours of picture taking!

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Three words – Henri Cartier-Bresson! When I first saw his M3, I was in love in the mid-1990s. My first Leica was the M7, and I shot the Noctilux f/1.0 – almost always wide open. After that, I was hooked. I’ve had the M8, M8.2, M9 and M (240). I absolutely love narrow depth of field photography. When it works, it really, really works. Many people say, “f/8 and be there” is the right approach to photography – that might be true, but I’m happiest under f/2!

Q: Can you tell us something more about your process of transformation from being “interested in photography” in 1998 to “shooting nearly full-time” as a pro in 2008, and how you taught yourself?

A: I’ve had a few careers in my life — about every 10 years — I try something completely new. I flew P-3s for the Navy as a Navigator in the ’90s. Following grad school, I was an entrepreneur, starting two companies. Each chapter was about a decade. At 46 I’m now focused on what I’ve always loved most, telling stories through photography. Every day is a new challenge – with countless opportunities every day to take the perfect picture. I haven’t done it yet, but I find the process to be incredibly compelling.

Q: It’s clear from your comments that you’re an enthusiastic fan of the Leica M and that you have a penchant for shooting super-speed lenses like the 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux at the widest apertures. In addition to their speed and sharpness do you feel there is anything special or distinctive about the way in which Leica lenses render the image?

A: One non-obvious byproduct of narrow depth of field photography is that you often have to engage your subject. No-room-for-focus-error portraits often require a relationship between photographer & the photographed. That trust is crucial to my photography – and I think it comes through in the final image. Those two lenses in particular deliver an incredibly beautiful, creamy bokeh – a very Leica-distinctive look. It’s almost as if the camera output were in 3D.

Q: You note that the Kalachakra is “one of the most meaningful Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies in existence” and imply that that Ladakh in India is the most appropriate place it can presently be held because it “feels Tibetan in many respects.” What is the essence of this ceremony, what makes it so special, and what particular elements were you trying to capture and convey in your coverage?

A: The essence of the Kalachakra is that initiates (most of the 160,000) take bodhisattva vows, promising to work toward the enlightenment of all sentient beings. It’s a powerful idea in so many respects. Compassion and love for others is almost certainly one of the most important ways to achieve happiness in our own lives.

Because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama is not welcome to return home. Ladakh might be the closest proxy for Tibet outside of China. So, it was particularly special to be in Ladakh with him.

From a story-telling point of view, I wanted to capture the sense of scale and emotion inside the context of this remote village in the high-Himalayas.

Q: How did you manage to receive an invitation to be the official photographer for His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visit to MIT? Did you have any special relationship with him beforehand or an interest in Tibetan Buddhism before spending time with him at MIT? Also, in mentioning MIT and Columbia Professor Bob Thurman, you seem to have academic connections. Did you attend either of these prestigious universities? What was you academic course of study, and how does this fit in (if it does) with your present passion for photography?

A: My offer to photograph His Holiness at MIT was simple serendipity. I just happened to have recently become friends with The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, the Founder and Director of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics at MIT. I was fortunate that he liked my photography AND that he needed a photographer. Just like that, my single best photo assignment was delivered on a silver-platter.

Q: Your statement that you don’t subscribe to the oft- stated dictum “f/8 and be there” but are “happiest under f/2” is an apposite reflection of your working methods. Why are you so fascinated by limited depth of field, and can you tell us some of the ways you use it creatively and aesthetically to express your view of the world?

A: In our increasingly photographed existence, it’s become very difficult for a single image to stand out as something special. For me, there is almost magical quality to a portrait shot wide open (below f/2 or, ideally, below f/1), especially in black-and-white. Our mind goes straight to the opening lines of the story created through that narrow focal point.

Q: There is a fairly even balance between black-and-white and full color images in your Matho Monastery portfolio. Why do you choose to output some images in color and others in black-and-white, and what are some of the characteristics of the black-and-white medium that you find especially compelling. By the way, even though you now own two Leica M cameras, have you ever shot with or considered acquiring a Leica Monochrom?

A: I almost always prefer the drama of black-and-white. The absence of color allows the brain the opportunity to apply its own colors to the photographic canvas. In this case, however, the colorful Ladakhi people and the beautifully flowing red robes of the Monks were simply too beautiful to be lost to monochrome.

I’ve been exceptionally happy with the black-and-white conversion of my Leica M DNG files. I especially like NIK’s Silver Efex Pro conversion tool. I haven’t tried the Monochrom but would like to!

Q: The person in this image seems to be in an almost blissful state of reverie even while looking at the camera and the depth of field is extremely shallow blurring out a field strewn with rocks and a musk ox visible on the right. Where is this and what is the significance of this image in terms of telling the story?

A: She’s a villager in rural Shey, a small green valley in Ladakh near my tent and about 5km from the venue. This is a good example of where narrow depth of field requires engagement with the subject. I’ve just been showing her a set of pictures on my Leica and she’s agreed to having her picture taken. Despite not speaking a common language, we had a good laugh together. So, she’s here posing for me as her oxen feed in the background. She’s not an attendee of the Kalachakra, just a neighbor. Life goes on in the village despite the many thousands of visitors.

Q: Your black-and-white landscape with an amazingly detailed full moon peeking over tree branches on a craggy mountain ridge is really magical. Where did you take this picture, can you give us the tech data and tell us what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: That night I went to sleep under an incredibly bright full moon. When I awoke, I could see that huge moon setting over the nearby mountains. I would normally have grabbed my SLR and 300 mm lens. But, in this case, I had the Leica and the 90 mm. I only had a few seconds before the moon was lost behind the mountain so I quickly bumped the ISO to 500 and set the aperture to f/4. I was able to get off 5 shots before I lost the moon. I was happy with the shots – and, once again, the Leica delivered.

Q: The colorful image of a local bus driver in his wildly decorated vehicle is an amusing amalgam of the exotic and the commonplace that has a touch or whimsy and irony that makes you smile. The amazing profusion of detail really takes this picture to another level and conveys a sense of place. Do you concur, and what are your thoughts about this image?

A: Those Indian trucks and truck drivers are really something. I saw one pulled over on the side of the road. I climbed up and asked the driver (smiling, gesticulating, etc., etc.) if I could take pictures. He smiled, nodded and looked proud as I took 200 pictures in his tricked-out cab. In some of the other shots, you can see his toothbrush (in the cab-mounted toothbrush holder) and lettuce heads sitting on the dash. Such fun!

Q: This image of two monks ascending a staircase is hard to beat in terms of sheer graphic impact because of the simplicity and clarity of the forms. Where did you take this shot and what’s actually going on here? Also, due to the relatively harsh lighting and the bright white of the staircase, detail in the individual stairs is almost blown out, which leads me to another question: how much post-production work, if any, do you typically do on the images you shoot with your Leica M?

A: It was taken at Hemis Monastery, located about 45km from Leh. Hemis was built in 1672, a place not to be missed if you find yourself in the area. In this picture, you see two monks entering the sanctuary. When I saw the draped entryway, I knew I needed this precise shot. The red robes contrast perfectly with the white stairs and curtains. It’s especially dramatic in the mid-day sun. I use Photoshop on all my images, typically just cropping, color adjustment, and sharpening.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next 3 years, and do you have any other projects or locations in the works for the near future that you can talk about?

A: I’m increasingly coupling photography with writing – packaging 15 images with long-form captions that tell a story. Here’s a recent example for Outside Magazine of my trip to the South Pole.

Q: What do you think you’ve accomplished with this portfolio, and have you learned anything from the experience that you’re likely to find useful in executing future projects of a similar nature?

A: I feel fortunate to have contributed to the documentation of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Perhaps my greatest learning experience is that one doesn’t always have to be removed from a subject to capture it. Sometimes, the best stories come from inside.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is my magic carpet. Leica in hand, I can go almost anywhere and talk to anyone. I’ve made friends with hundreds of complete strangers just by taking their picture and giving them my card. From the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the edge of space, my little camera is the golden ticket to amazing experiences. And the best part is that at the end of an adventure, I’ve got 200 memories captured forever.

Memories are the currency in life….and photography delivers memories at scale!

Thank you for your time, Christopher!

-Leica Internet Team

To connect with Christopher, visit his website or follow @ChrisMichel on Instagram.