Dennis Welsh: Telling Stories with Passion, Precision and Empathy

Dennis Welsh has been a nationally recognized commercial photographer and director for nearly 20 years, creating award-winning campaigns for a wide variety of clients ranging from the travel and tourism industry to healthcare and the outdoor industry. He has traveled the world using his unique visual perspective to enhance the brand identities of numerous national companies and continues to help define the image of his clients through his signature style. This is his story.

Q: If I were to pick two words to characterize the images of the artisans you have captured in this portfolio they would be intensity and joy. Even those images that are straight portraits seem to convey these qualities. Do you agree, and what do you think that says about your subjects and the process of creating these pictures?

A: I would agree, and I would add that it says two things about my subjects and the creation of these images. First and foremost, I work hard to put my subjects in a comfortable environment where they’ll feel most at ease. Secondly, I spend a lot of time before we begin shooting simply talking with the subject. Often times, we’ll talk for an hour or so before we begin shooting. That way, by the time the camera comes out, it really becomes only an extension of our ongoing conversation. It’s almost not even there.

I never rush into a shoot with a new subject. There’s so much rush-rush in this world that when we slow down and just talk, not only do we find common ground, but it also conveys that I am genuinely interested in the person I’m shooting. It’s not just a job. This person is giving his or her time to me, and I want to respect that fully. By the time we’re shooting, both my subject and I feel like we’re working on a project together and that’s how it becomes believable.

Q: What camera equipment do you presently use?

A: I use a Leica S-System with the three lenses that I typically bring with me on the road. From wide to long, I use the Elmarit-S 45 mm f/2.8, the Summarit-S 70 mm f/2.5, and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120 mm f/2.5. I’ve worked with all of the other medium format systems out there right now, and for what I’m doing, for the type of work I’m shooting, I’ve found the Leica S-System to be the best. It allows me to shoot in a 35 mm style while achieving all the benefits of medium format photography. I also have a Leica M that I really enjoy as well.

Q: How would you compare the experience of shooting with both these Leica models and which S-system lenses did you find most useful in creating this portfolio of artisans?

A: Both the Leica S-System and the Leica M are great cameras for me. I truly do love them both. However they really do serve two different purposes. I would characterize them in this way – I use the S to produce shoots and I use the M as more of an observational camera.

With the “Artisan” project, I almost exclusively used the Summarit-S 70 mm f/2.5 lens for this reason: it allowed me to be close to my subject, in almost an intimate way, in order to catch every subtle nuance of their expression. That lens also gave me the flexibility to move back and capture them comfortably in their environment.

Q: What kind of images do you shoot when you’re shooting for yourself, and do you typically use your Leica S or your Leica M for your personal work? By the way, which are your favorite Leica M lenses?

A: I typically shoot with my Leica M for my personal work, and prior to that, I used the M9-P, the M7, and the M6, so I’ve been a fan of the rangefinder for a while now. The three lenses I use the most are the 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux, the 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux, and the 24 mm f/1.4 Summilux, all great lenses, all important in my bag.

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

A: I jumped into photography pretty passionately in college. Those were the days of Tri-X film, light meters, darkrooms, and enlargers. I was hooked.

But it wasn’t until the very end of my college career that I met a photographer out of Colorado who showed me that I could make a living doing what I loved. His name was John Kelly and his work simply floored me. He was traveling to exotic locations, shooting beautiful people. It sounded like an adventure. When I first spoke with him about how to make a living at it, his advice to me was pretty simple, “Throw everything into your photography. Put everything else aside.” At the time, I was a recent college graduate with no money, so it wasn’t difficult to put everything else aside — there was nothing else. I just jumped in with both feet and never looked back.

Q: How do you think that experience of becoming passionately involved with analog photography in college has shaped your present technique and affected your creative vision?

A: My technique today is still deeply embedded in my experience of shooting film. I think there are so many intangibles that you see when you’re shooting if you began with a light meter in your hand — the value of light, the range of values between light and shadow, and so on. Also, there were only 36 frames in the camera (or 12 if you were shooting medium format), so you had to be more judicious with each shot. It’s not as difficult to shoot today with a card that has 1,000-frame capacity. But if you don’t really use all of those skills you’ve honed, you’ll just have more images to throw away.

Q: All the pictures in this portfolio are output in black-and-white, but both your Leica cameras capture images in full color. What is it that drew you to the black-and-white medium for creating this portfolio, and what percentage of your work, if any, is output in color.

A: When I set out to shoot this portrait series, I knew I wanted to shoot it in black-and-white. I was really committed to keeping that consistency throughout the photos, no matter what setting I found myself in. Additionally, knowing that this was going to be a study, I really wanted to strip away all of the color and focus on the wisdom and experience of all of these wonderful artisans, and I thought black-and-white would convey that more effectively.

Q: Your two pictures of the violinmaker Jonathan Cooper each have an entirely different character. In the first image he is seated at his bench in his very neat workshop methodically examining a violin. In the second image he is passionately clutching a violin to his chest with an amazing expression of love and reverence on his face — it’s a moment of absolute transcendence. Both images are parts of his story, but how did you manage to get that second shot, and can you tell us what was actually going on at that moment?

A: The first photo of Jonathan sitting at his workbench was really born out of the idea of an image I’ve had in my mind for a long time. I’ve just been waiting for the right setting to use it. That idea of the image is a view through the window of an old toy maker’s workshop, seeing him toiling late into the night, putting the finishing touches on a new toy. When I first saw Jonathan’s workbench, I knew this was the place to create this image.

Then after working through that shot, we began discussing all of the violins he’s made, and the love he has for each and every one, and at that moment, I don’t think he even knew it, he was holding the violin exactly how he was in the second portrait. I asked him how much he loved that one, and this is what came out of that question.

Q: Your second image of Holden is a beautifully lit, masterfully composed classic almost-full-length portrait that conveys a powerful presence and a sense of the individual as a person as well as a distinctive Old West flavor. How did you light this shot, and how did you shoot it to achieve such stunning technical quality?

A: By the time I met Randy Holden I had been a big fan of his work for a while, so I knew that his portrait, like his work, would have to live in a western place. Up in one of his old barns, we found a rack of material that he had been storing for some time. It was a great spot, but unfortunately it was on the second floor of an old barn with no power. There was no way we were going to have the chance to light it, but I did bring fill cards, so I turned up the ISO, moved the whole set over near the window on the right, brought a white fill card in as closely as I could to bring an edge in on the left and got the shot. The confidence I had in the camera’s high ISO performance allowed me to keep pushing this shot, where I might not have with a different camera.

Q: There is a compelling mix of the real and surreal in your outstanding environmental portrait of the artist Millard. Was revealing the disparate nature of the artist’s actual location and his fantastical creation your intention, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I had met Eric a few years earlier at his gallery on North Haven, off the coast of Maine, and we hit it off right away. Travels took him one way and me the other for the next few years, but when we regrouped for this portrait, a lot had happened in his life, some of it very recently, and some of it pretty tough. After catching up for a bit, both on the good and the bad, I had a feeling it would be better to start shooting with some distance between us, then move in as we warmed up. When I backed out of the barn, it dawned on me that Eric’s work is fun and energetic, bright and a little warped. Contrast this with the traditional straight, conservative lines of an old New England barn, and the image begins to get interesting. Then for me, the added tension of the image is that Eric is looking out of frame, but at what, the viewer doesn’t know. It really is one of my favorite images of the collection.

Q: There could be nothing more straightforward than your head-and-shoulders portrait of artisan Moser, and yet it seems to capture the core of his personhood — a mixture of intensity, bliss, and transcendence — with uncommon accuracy and compassion. What is your feeling about this portrait, and what do you think it conveys to those who view it. By the way, in view of its technical excellence, can you please provide the tech data?

A: This is my favorite of all of my portraits for a number of reasons. I’ve been a fan of Thomas Moser for as long as I can remember, and it was his work that inspired me to begin this project in the first place. The day I ran up to his home to scout for locations, I was told that no one would be around. That was a relief, because this was going to be my first portrait of the series and I wanted to start off prepared. When I arrived however, Tom surprised me by coming out of his barn. The first thing he said was “Hey, do you want a boat?” It was one of the most unconventional greetings I’ve ever received. We kicked around together that morning, talking about his craft and his career, my craft and my career, all the while looking around his property for the right place to shoot the portrait.

After we chatted for a while, I said I’d see him in a couple of days with my gear. It was a great way to start the project — easy, no pressure.

When I came back two days later I knew exactly what I wanted, and what camera and lens I needed. We got to it and it didn’t take long at all. For this portrait in particular, I really wanted to feature Tom’s eyes, so I set my aperture wide open at f/2.5 and exposed the image at 1/1000 sec.  We were in the outdoors, so I kept the ISO set at 100.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next 3-5 years, and do you plan to explore any other photographic subjects or genres going forward, either commercially or personally?

A: I feel like I’m in a really great place right now photographically, specifically because I am out taking every opportunity to explore more personal work. Prior to traveling on assignment, I’ll research what’s going on in that area, and I’ll see if there’s something that piques my interest. From there, I’ll develop a story and put together a personal brief that I can build upon when I arrive on the location. I’ll always be interested in shooting people and what makes them tick, so there’s plenty of material out there.

I have a new project that I’ve just wrapped up that I’m really excited about. I shot it in Louisiana and the only thing I can say about it now is that it was also shot almost entirely with the S-System. Hopefully the Leica folks will see it too because it’s not only a departure from my “Artisan” portrait series, but it also represents a different, unexpected side of the Leica S.

 Thank you for your time, Dennis!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Dennis or view more of his work, visit his website.