Claire Yaffa: I Dreamed a Dream

Claire Yaffa took her first photograph 45 years ago when her son was 18 months old and it was the beginning of her journey, first as a mother, then as a photographer. She studied with renowned children’s photographer Joseph Schneider, learning how to engage children, set up lighting, use a light meter, and then met Cornell Capa in 1972, who said, “You take pretty pictures Yaffa, what do you want to say?” Thus began her distinguished career as a photojournalist, focusing on problems of child abuse, the homeless, Holocaust survivors, the disadvantaged and children at risk. She has worked extensively for The New York Times and Associated Press, her sensitive eye always able to pinpoint the hope residing quietly in scenes of despair, gently challenging viewers to enter her introspective world, and motivating them to care and to act on their compassion.

Yaffa’s photographs have also appeared in countless influential publications, have been exhibited at major venues in the US and are will be showcased at the Leica Galerie in Salzburg, Austria beginning on September 30. Her Master Series of Photographers portraits were recently exhibited at the Leica Galleries in New York and Frankfurt and Solms in Germany. Here the story of her life and her creative quest as a photographer.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I photograph with film using two Leica M6 cameras and I recently purchased a Leica M9 for digital photography. I usually photograph with one M6 and a 35mm lens and the M9 with a 50mm lens. I treat them equally and have excellent results with both. I have my lenses from my M6 that include a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 90mm. I like the 75mm for portraits. Also, I prefer available light and rarely use flash.

Q: You mentioned that you often forget whether you’re shooting film with your Leica M6 or digital with your M9. Can you tell us something about your experiences with both?

A: I thought long and hard before I actually purchased a Leica M9 this year, largely because of the cost, but a recent health problem clinched my decision. I had had an M9 on loan from Leica when I was photographing fashion in Paris for Chanel and at the Yves St. Laurent shows. The pool of photographers in the pit with their huge cameras and lenses were intimidating. I had seats in the first row, but I wondered whether my small, unobtrusive M9 would let me capture photographs that could compete with those the other photographers would take. I was inexperienced with the camera, but my photographs were all right, not great, but I did capture what I wanted to photograph. I did miss having a zoom or a close-up lens at times, but my 35mm lens captured the models and the fashion event quite well. I photograph with my M6 that is loaded with film and also with my new and cherished digital M9. I do sometimes forget whether I’m shooting with the digital or film camera. In any case, when the photograph happens with either one it is because of the magic of the Leica, digital or film, that enables the photographer to make the photograph he or she envisions, feels and sees.

Q: How would you describe the existential and operational differences between shooting with a Leica M and other cameras you’ve used?

A: I began photographing with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera in 1968. I bought it for $650, which was very expensive at the time. I loved using it and did wonderful portraits of children and other subjects. I was later given the opportunity to purchase a Hasselblad with wonderful lenses for $500. The photographer had only used it one time. I liked it, but returned to the Rolleiflex. I really loved that camera and the results it helped me achieve. I also liked the 2 1/4 negative, which enabled me to make beautiful enlargements. I loved the whole process: photographing, developing, watching an image appear in the darkroom and knowing that it would be there forever because of my photograph.

It was with great reluctance that I tried the Leica M6 at Cornell Capa’s suggestion. He said, “Throw that Rollieflex away and start using a 35mm camera.” I did not throw it away. I still have it, but I tried the M6 three times before I finally got it. I’m not sure why it was so difficult for me to grasp. Perhaps I didn’t understand what I was doing; perhaps it was because of the optical viewfinder and the superimposed-image rangefinder, but it wasn’t until I started using the M6 that I noticed a change in my photography.

I was working for The New York Times then and as I became more comfortable with my M6, they responded with more assignments, front page photographs and I began to photograph very differently than I had with the Rolleiflex. It was a turning point for me as a photographer. It was then that I accepted my passion of being a photojournalist and a photographer who was able to see and feel the photographs I wanted to take. I still do not understand how the M6 helped me to see more, but it was a different way of photographing and seeing and I will be eternally grateful for Cornell Capa’s advice and friendship.

Q: You note that you favor the 75mm lens for portraiture. Which is your favorite Leica lens overall and when do you shoot with the 28mm wide-angle?

A: I do like the 50mm lens because it allows me to focus on more of the subject than a wide-angle 28mm, but I also like the 35mm because it gives me more information than the 50mm. It all depends what I am photographing. When I worked for the New York Times, I used the 35mm more and the 50mm for a closer cropped image. I also used the 28mm then. I used to crop my images, and now, I try to do this in the camera so that when I am developing or downloading the images I do not have to make these adjustments in Photoshop or in the darkroom.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the special value of keeping a hand in the darkroom, developing your own film, and printing it using a classic Leica V35 Focomat enlarger? Does this hands-on connection have any discernable effect on your work or your photographic technique?

A: Being in the darkroom is very important to me. While I value the immediacy and ease of the digital M9, Photoshop and being able to use my M6 Leica lenses for the digital and film, there is something special when I am in the darkroom. The process of developing my film and seeing the images appear slowly in the developer tray has never changed since I took my first photograph of my son 45 years ago and saw his image appear before me. There is a sense of anticipation as I hold my breath, wondering whether I succeeded in photographing what I saw. I’m relieved when it finally appears and all is what I want it to be. The darkroom has always been a place where I could go, turn on my music and smoke many cigarettes as I did years ago. My children and husband were asleep upstairs and after a busy day as a mother and wife, this was my place to think, to be. My children are grown now, but I have had the pleasure of sharing my excitement about creating a photograph with my three grandchildren at the ages of eight, nine and ten. It will always be a magical place for me.

Q: In your 45-year history as a dedicated photographer, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

A: I believe my greatest accomplishment has not happened yet. I am proud of the social problems I have addressed and I do hope my photographs helped people to become more aware of issues that were a concern for me. I also hope there is more I can do. In addition to my photography, one of my accomplishments has been as a mother, wife and now a grandmother. I am very proud to be married 55 years to a wonderful man and to have raised two fine young sons. I am also proud to have helped to found The Emergency Medical Service in Harrison, New York where we lived. I became an Emergency Medical Technician, working on the ambulance for eight years. When I was in the darkroom developing film, I would be dressed in my white uniform holding my breath until the film was developed in case my pager went off and I had to go to a call. I was very proud to be able to help someone in need. I believe this was what I also did with my concerned photography. My subjects often felt better after they were photographed. They welcomed my attention, enjoyed receiving their photograph from me and they appreciated how I treated them and how very much I cared.

Q: How do you see your work evolving going forward? Do you have any new projects in the works? Are you planning to explore any new places, people or other types of subjects?

A: I am very excited about my upcoming exhibition at the Leica Galerie in Salzburg. In addition to photographs from four of my books, there will be two 4 x 5-foot photographs on exhibit, a montage of the Marble Caves in Patagonia and an abstract of water reflections. A new project, Birth, is a replication of the nine months of gestation until a baby is born. It consists of nine abstract montages and will also be exhibited. “Life’s Spirit” consists of color digital prints and will be published in 2012. I am also in the process of completing another color digital book, “Reality and Reflections,” a sequel to “Life’s Spirit.”

I am continuing to photograph for my series “Master Photographers” including projects for Leica and Magnum. I have had the honor of meeting the great photographers of my time and also the privilege of photographing them and I want to continue with this project. I have donated the archives of my photographs during the 32 years I photographed there to The New York Foundling Hospital.

The ten years I photographed children with AIDS at Incarnation Children’s Center in the Bronx, New York is another unique photo documentary and history. Dr. Stephen Nicholas, who was the Medical Director, and Sister Constance Gaynor, who was the nurse administrator, and I hope to compile my photographs with interviews from staff documenting an important medical history of children with AIDS. All but one of the children I photographed has died. They live on in my photographs and we know they were here. I am grateful for the photographs and also that I could be there with them. Today, because of pre-natal testing and the administration of AZT to a mother who has the AIDS virus and is pregnant, she will not give birth to an AIDS baby. It is miracle of our time and in medical history.

Q: Do you have any overarching mission that transcends the various genres that you have pursued, including realistic photojournalism, social documentary, fine art, portraiture and nature studies?

A: I have said this before, but photography is simply who I am. It is a gift I cherish. I will always be grateful to other photographers who have helped to show me the way and to the people who permitted me to photograph them and allow me into their world.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see Claire’s work at the Leica Galerie Salzburg 30.09.2011 – 12.11.2011. You can also see more of Claire’s work on her website, www.claireyaffa.com.