Claire Atkinson at 22: A Young Brit Reveals Us To Ourselves With Her Leica M6, Part 1

Claire Atkinson captures the human condition in her hometown of Manchester, UK. As a young photographer she as surprisingly distinct preference for film over digital capture, using a Leica M6 with 50 mm f/2 Summicron lens as her camera of choice. Perhaps it’s a little too soon to label her as a rising star, but her talent is considerable and we expect you’ll hear more about her before long. Here, in her own words, is her unremarkable but remarkable story. We’ll start with her disarmingly direct response to our request for a brief bio, which not only tells a lot about where she came from but who she is.

“I was born in Manchester, England in 1988 and I grew up in a small village in Greater Manchester. I was drawn to the diversity of city life from a young age. I think the monotony of my surroundings made me even hungrier for the city. For me, the village had no character, nor did the people there. All I saw in my home surroundings were people hanging their washing out to dry, planting flowers and adding extensions to their houses. And that’s fine, but it wasn’t for me. I don’t have any kind of creative background in my family. My mum was a nurse and my dad works for a bank, although I do have the painter — J.M.W. Turner — in my family tree. Other than photography, I love expressionist art, music, playing guitar, film, traveling and authors like Hermann Hesse, Bukowski and Kundera. Right now I work part time for the British Mail service. I try to find homes for letters addressed to God and Santa Claus. I’m talking with agencies over representation and preparing my work for upcoming photographic exhibitions in Manchester. 2011 will see me move to London and begin working as a freelance news photographer.”

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: I first became interested in photography when I was 16 years old. I was on holiday in Cornwall, UK. I was taking souvenir style snapshots of the rocky cliffs and the sea. When I looked at the photos I was really taken with one of them. The idea that I had taken a place I love that is so vast and placed it perfectly within a little frame of my own really satisfied me. That was it.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc)

A: I’d say street photography, but I also take a lot of photos in supermarkets and stores, so I’m not so sure what to call that…

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A. I did my own research into the tools of the photographers I admired and Leica was always the name that came up. After using a few different cameras quite unhappily, I finally purchased an M6 with a 50mm f/2 Summicron a few years ago and I can safely say I don’t think I’ll ever need to use anything else.

Q: The Leica M6 with 50mm f/2 Summicron is certainly a splendid outfit for street photography and photojournalism, but have you ever considered adding any lenses to your optical arsenal — say, a 35mm or 28mm Summicron the favorites of many street photographers? If not, what is it about the 50mm focal length you find so conducive to your work?

A: I have used 35mm lenses before and I would happily use them again. I don’t like the wide view of a 28mm lens though; it is too wide. The 50mm helps me isolate the subjects from the background further without disturbing them or the scene. I am usually interested in one person or detail at a time, not everything surrounding them.

Q: You certainly seem to have strong opinions about digital photography and an equally strong commitment to shooting film. What is it exactly that you find aesthetically displeasing about digital photography, and can you say something about why you dismiss digital imaging as “altogether too disposable”?

A: I’m always reluctant to get into the digital vs. film debate because the project/subject matter should determine the medium. Digital is beyond convenient and is perfect for commercial stuff. With regards to my own work I wouldn’t use digital because aesthetically, I find the images flat and I certainly don’t enjoy digital printing when there is another option. The world is polluted with digital imagery that can disappear with the click of a mouse. It makes me uneasy. Even though I am of the ‘digital generation’ I find it sad that most High Street photo labs have no idea how to handle negatives without damaging them. I guess overall there has been a huge increase in quantity and a general decrease in quality. Film teaches quality control. Maybe I was just born in the wrong decade, but I would rather read a book than a screen, view real prints over digital and prefer ­handwriting over type font. Everything is becoming easier and more convenient but losing quality and a human touch in the process.

Q: What films do you favor, do you shoot in color as well as black-and-white, and what are the characteristics of your favorite film(s) that seem to work best for your kind of shooting?

A: For black-and-white I always use Kodak TRI-X rated at 400 developed in XTOL. I have always developed my own film and when I was a student I would develop it for other people too for extra money. That combo worked just fine for me and my customers. If I am in harsh sunlight I will use T-MAX 100. TRI-X is my preferred film because it is fast and fine grain. As for color, my favorite film is Kodak PORTRA NC (Natural Color) rated at 160/400 ISO depending on the light. I only began shooting in color one year ago and did a body of work called ‘Impressions’ that I’ve posted on my website. So I am still experimenting. I like a natural appearance, nothing overly saturated, so this film works well for me. The color balance is usually accurate too.

Q: Many inveterate 35mm Leica M shooters have expressed the opinion that the full-frame Leica M9 provides “the digital equivalent of the Leica M experience” and have used it with satisfaction for classic street photography among other things. Would you be inclined to give the M9 a try, and can you say something about your reasons pro or con?

A: I would give it a try for sure. I enjoy using a rangefinder and I am sure the M9 would not disappoint me. It would be interesting to incorporate a digital rangefinder into my workflow. I would also appreciate not having to pay for film and processing! I know photographers like Constantine Manos use the M9 and I adore his work. However, I can’t see myself being 100% satisfied with digital prints in the near future.

Thank you very much Claire! And a special thank you to Chris Weeks, of http://www.chrisweeks.net/,  who brought her to our attention and curated the photos featured in this blog post.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Claire’s work on her website, http://claireatkinson.net/. You can read part two of our interview with Claire here.