Claude Weber: Images As An Extension Of Human Relationships

An accomplished portrait and reportage photographer of the haute monde and a free spirit in the iconoclastic tradition, Claude Weber rejects the notion that he’s an artist or that his images are art, but insists that people, shared experiences, and human relationships are essential in creating compelling images. He made his debut as an assistant to acclaimed photographers Peter and Vincent Knapp, and has gone on to collaborate with leading interior design magazines including Marie-Claire Maison, Maison Madame Figaro, Masion Francaise, and Casa Mila. He also works with the noted Publicis, Gray, and DDB agencies, among others, in the world of advertising. Claude Weber is also an inspired raconteur as will be evident from the following interview where he expresses his views on the creative process of photography, photographic technique, interacting with his subjects, and having a great deal of fun and fulfillment through is work as a successful professional.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I have several cameras, but I‘m using the Leica M9P more often these days. I also bought several M lenses; mostly I use the 50mm, 28mm, 35mm but also a 90mm and a very old 135mm. When I shoot architecture or indoor locations I need to have different lenses for different points of views.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: When I started out, like most young photographers I thought I had to have a very personal style and point of view, and to control the lighting very precisely. Now, after years of experience, I tend to go more towards simplicity. I try to present the places as they are and work with the light as I find it. A thin ray of light or a simple office bulb enables me to take a picture, whether it’s a portrait or something else. The use of digital cameras and the software we can use in post-production are really helpful. I don’t need to bother so much about color and tonal gradation when I shoot because I can change them afterwards using the Lightroom software bundles with the Leica camera. I use digital technology the way I used to work in the darkroom when I processed my film (B&W or Color), and I can be even more precise now thanks to the technology.

When I go on a shoot, I have my tripod, my Billingham bag full of lenses and a M9P, and occasionally, a tungsten light. So, to answer your question, my photography is simple without too many tricks. In any case the subject is more important than I am. Maybe I’m not the best person to talk about photographic technique!

Q: Are you a full-time professional photographer?

A: Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to have people who trust me, appreciate my work and call me for commissioned work; they include magazines, journalists, producers, and art-buyers. I also have beautiful brands that book me once in a while, like Baccarat, Christofle or Pleyel, mostly for reportage in their flagships or their “ateliers”, replete with beautifully crafted handmade objects to shoot. More recently, I’ve been shooting reportage and portraits for Bell & Ross, a high-end Swiss watchmaker. I have a great relationship with the chief designer of this brand, a man whose spontaneity and vision complement my own. We’re very much on the same wavelength, and this greatly facilitates the quality of the results, the “veracity” of the images. In general, after 10 or 20 shots we have good image and can move on to another subject. For advertising, you usually shoot much more than that! I used my Leica camera for many of these pictures.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography?

A: Not at all. I was trained to become a cook, but I didn’t fit the job, and at the time there was too much of a difference between the training you got in school and the hectic reality of a restaurant. The funny thing is that now, as a photographer, I spend a lot of time with chefs in restaurants. We can compare our professions, which are both arts that require a lot of precision and a personal approach.

Then I met someone who had a photo lab, I tried it and photography became my passion. I read technical photo books (which I found confusing) and I quickly started shooting and processing my own photos. I started assisting the photographer François Dufaux, who shot mainly still pictures and had a very good technique and lighting knowledge. He worked with a view camera, using flashlight. Then I assisted both Vincent and Peter Knapp who both taught me how to get away from the constraints and unnecessary technological aspects in order to make great pictures.

Q: Is there a photographer or type of photography that inspired you?

A: Irving Penn inspired me, for the perfection of his lightning, his perspectives whether he shot human beings or objects. To me he’s the best!

Q: In what genre would you place your photos-fine art, photojournalism?

A: Everything but I don’t consider myself an artist. I don’t have this pretension!

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Firstly thanks to Henri Cartier-Bresson. Then, I enjoyed the irreproachable quality and the apparent simplicity of the camera. And later, I discovered the exceptional quality of the color gradation you could get with Leica lenses, the ease of use and the philosophy of the brand. As an assistant I started saving to acquire an M6 and a second-hand 50mm.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography and what does photography mean to you?

A: As I said, my approach is quite simple and mostly spontaneous. I listen to the people I will photograph, I observe their environment, and I try to make the most of them. It’s a real pleasure to share those moments and situations. It’s like a piece of music getting into my head—I listen to it, I feel as though I am in a dream and I take my pictures. I really enjoy those moments and people who make my life richer and more passionate.

Q: You mention that you’re using the Leica M9P “more and more.” What is it about the M9P that is particularly suitable for the kind of work you do, and which lenses do you favor for portraiture and for advertising work?

A: It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll try. I find it very handy, light, and easy to use, especially since I’m mostly shooting handheld these days rather than using a tripod. It’s very tiring to use a heavy camera on an all-day shoot and the M9P is very light and it’s very easy to set and check your shutter speeds and apertures, and you can trust it to deliver excellent results! That’s partially due to the lenses, which give superb detail rendition and color separation. Even when shooting into the light the colors are really distinct compared to other cameras, and in the end that’s why I was convinced I had to have a Leica camera.

Basically I use 4 programs or capture mode settings, ISO 400 black-and-white JPG/DNG, ISO 400 color DNG, ISO 160 DNG, and ISO 160 black-and-white JPG/DNG. It’s very simple—changing the ISO takes 2 seconds without having to search through programs. It’s very important to me to be able to operate quickly because most of the people I photograph are not used to having their pictures taken and soon lose their patience. Regarding my choice of lenses, I select them based on the particular job at hand; whether I have to shoot a portrait in the studio or an environmental portrait in a restaurant, for example.

Q: You mentioned that when you began shooting seriously, you went through a phase where you were trying to control everything very precisely, especially lighting, but that now your approach is much simpler, relying on ambient light and controlling tonal and color gradations in post-production. What are the advantages of each of these approaches in your opinion, and do you think you learned anything useful in evolving your technique in this way?

A: I think that using flash or any other kind of artificial light gives a result that often doesn’t reflect the atmosphere or ambiance of a place, so when I arrive at a location I try as much as possible to use the existing light. This results in a variety of impressions, and each session gives me the opportunity to try new angles that reflect the ambient atmosphere. Then, thanks to Lightroom I can always correct a shade or color quickly and easily afterward. What’s really great is that I can control my images 100% without having to explain to a processor what I have in mind, and I think the end result has greater subtlety. In short, when I’m shooting I have more freedom to concentrate on the subject rather than on the technique.

Q: Your portraits of Pierre Assouline and Scott Stover are dynamic and compelling, and they reveal the intense personalities, gravitas, and authenticity of these subjects while delineating the haute monde in which they operate. These are masterful fine art images, so why do you think it is somehow pretentious to call yourself an artist? After all an artist is not necessarily some rarefied and ethereal being, and you are not claiming to be Michelangelo or something?

A: Pierre Assouline is a great book publisher. He was friend of Cartier-Bresson and collaborated with him on several book projects. When we met, I had the pleasure of accompanying him in several different places in Paris. He used to be a photographer himself so he was very interested in my M9. Then he told me he still had a Leica himself.

Scott Stover is an American. He lives in Paris and New York, and he’s an art freak and a lover of luxury—he wears tailored-made suits and shoes and goes to very private places like Le Cercle. I wanted his portrait to reveal his essence in all its specificity and his curiosity, and I was lucky enough to capture both his curiosity and his serenity in his portrait.

As for not wanting to call myself an artist I think that word is used far too often in our profession, and that this is also reflected in the over-intellectualization of photographic images in general. I have observed that some photographers, for reasons unknown to me, hope to achieve recognition simply by using silver-based film, and purport to be artists simply by the fact that they are employing traditional technology. The answer is not there! Indeed the answer is not even technical, but is rather a state of mind. When I reflect on my work “artistic” is not the feeling or frame of reference that comes to mind. In short, I think it’s probably time to find a new word to define it now that the word “artist” is so overused.

Q: The amazingly varied expressions captured in your portrait series of Alain Passard show a lively and spontaneous individual who seems very happy in his skin and appears utterly unpretentious though projecting a clear sense of personal elegance. Is he really like that, and do his food creations reflect these elements of his personality? Also, these seem very much like Leica pictures—are they?

A: Alain invited us, the Côté Paris magazine team and myself, to have dinner in his 3-star restaurant. I took my Leica thinking I might take pictures of him, and I discovered he’s a real showman—he loves to entertain people. On my way back, I wondered whether I had taken a picture of the real A. Passard or just the showman! But when I saw the images, I knew it depicted him the way he really is and that also explains his cuisine.

Q: In itemizing the equipment you use for your current “simple” approach to photography you noted that your outfit includes a tripod. Do you use a tripod most often when shooting with your 90mm or your old 135mm lens or because you like to shoot in available light at low ISO settings? Do you think a tripod can be useful for other reasons?

A: I prefer to handhold my camera when I take portraits. It enables me to move in every direction, to test shooting angles, to see if everything is in order and then, finally find the right place/angle/distance. I find it especially important to find the right distance to the person I am photographing. I remember once shooting a man who couldn’t stand anybody being closer than 2 meters away from him, and I had to deal with it! Others let you get much closer; it’s really interesting. I use the tripod most when I photograph locations, apartments, and objects.

Q: You stated quite clearly that for you photography and relating to other people are inextricably linked, and that the process of being involved in photography really began with “meeting passionate people.” Can you say something more about this, and how do you feel this has shaped your photographic style and methodology?

A: Increasingly I appreciate the opportunity to meet passionate people who talk in a heartfelt way about their passion. First I observe them, the way they move, speak, their gestures, their being in the world. Some “speak with their hands”, others with their eyes. All these things help me formulate the concept of the portrait I want to create. I always enjoyed observing people. I remember how the butcher cut his meat when I was a child, and I feel I get to know people more by observing them rather than listening to them. I try not to have any method; I always try to create a new picture, one that is better than last time.

Q: You describe yourself as essentially self-taught, yet you worked as an assistant to François Dufaux, an expert in lighting who used a view camera, and were inspired by the work of the great Irving Penn. Can you tell us something more about how both these experiences enriched your work and enabled you to articulate your vision?

A: When you peruse photo books, you try to understand how the photographer achieved a particular composition, used the light etc., and after a while you try to imagine how the photographer imagined his pictures, how he interacted with the subject in order to make his portrait of a person, famous or not. Of course, when I’m actually working, I don’t think about these things consciously, but I think it is useful to do so when I start thinking about a new project.

Q: There is a straightforward but very engaging image showing two intense Asian men sanding next to each other, one dressed in white, the other in black, looking directly into the camera with rather matter-of-fact expressions on their faces, not conveying any particular emotion. What is this picture about?

A: I call them “the Yakuzas!” I arrived in the restaurant with my friend and fellow journalist Noémie Barré. It was a strange atmosphere, maybe due to the distinctive setting.

I started to work with my tripod to take pictures of the place—this is much better with a tripod. Afterward, I saw these two men coming in, with their very strong and forceful appearance. It was impossible to communicate with then since they didn’t speak French or English, so I had to imagine something very quickly so that I could capture the feeling of this sudden meeting. So for this double portrait, I decided to put them under this big wooden structure, which looked like a prison, in order to enhance the powerful presence of their faces.

Q: There is another image that shows a very amusing man with an almost cartoon-like expression—the same image rendered in black-and-white and in color. We assume he is the chef, but the rest is a bit mysterious. Can you enlighten us? Anyway which portrait do you prefer personally—the one in black-and white or the one in color, and why did you output this image both ways?

A: I like this portrait very much, and I really appreciate this chef and the way he runs his restaurant. It’s a really classy place and the refinement of the food and ambiance might scare some people off who are not used to going to such places. However, the staff is so welcoming and friendly that you are quickly put at ease. I chose this image because I think it’s a bit funny and sympathetic and it was the first

picture I shot. It’s a little out of focus, but when I saw this happy face, I knew this picture captured the right feeling. The other images weren’t as exciting. After the meal I asked him if it was OK to publish this image. He told me that about 10 yrs ago, he would have said no, but that was tantamount to saying yes, and as it turned out I gave only this image to the magazine, both in B&W and in color. When I work for magazines, I usually give them 2 versions, one color and one B&W.

Personally I prefer the B&W version since you don’t have to bother about a red nose or a pimple; you go straight to the person’s story.

Q: The folder “Le Bal” shows fascinating images of what look like a modern Parisian restaurant along with one really compelling classic image two young women in identical striped aprons standing in front of a chalkboard menu and looking directly at the camera. Was it not for the contemporary feel if this image, it could almost be homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson. Can you tell us something about these images and what they mean to you?

A: Le Bal is a photo gallery opened in collaboration with the famous photo agency Magnum Photos. AQ and AT pictured are the chefs

One looked quite serious whereas the other one looked quite joyful. You know immediately who is very serious and who is more relaxed and they both complement one another. This double portrait may look a bit “vintage” and it might be due to the influence of Magnum, and to the fact that this place used to be a kind of “Parisian Quinguette” in the past.

Q: How so you see your work evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years and are there any other genres, subjects, or projects you plan to explore in the near future?

A: For the moment, I will go on with portraits and reportage, which I really love doing, but I’ve been also working on a personal project for 2 years. I can’t speak about it yet, it is still a work in progress.

Thank you for your time, Claude!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Claude’s work on his website.