Dwayne Lutchna: Sharing the Intimacy of Photography

Dwayne Lutchna was born in Queens, New York in 1980 and now resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He graduated with honors from The School of Visual Arts. Dwayne  is currently a Senior Designer at Comedy Central, where he conceptualizes and designs the key art for print and digital ad campaigns. In the below interview, he opens up about his enthusiasm for street photography and capturing the urban landscape.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: Just an enthusiast, who has a real appreciation for good photography.

Q: You used the Leica D-Lux 4 and the Leica X2 to create this street photography portfolio. Which one did you use most often and what are some of the characteristics of each camera that you find especially valuable for your kind of work? Since one is a long-range zoom camera and the other has a single focal-length lens with a 36 mm-equivalent focal length, why do you choose one camera over the other, and does the choice depend on the subject or something else entirely?

A: It’s a pretty even split. I’ve had the D-Lux 4 for much longer, so it’s become this old friend that’s been with me everywhere. I love its size and flexibility — you can shoot close to the lens, zoom, it has a very quick auto-focus and burst mode, and it captures video. It also has a few cool features I’ve experimented with, like double exposures and really slow shutter speeds with a delayed flash. I’m still getting to know the X2, but I’ve been shooting with it a lot lately. Right away, you notice that it has a much shallower depth of field at low apertures and produces higher quality images, especially now that I’ve been shooting RAW files. It also captures a lot more detail and texture in low-light, so that’s expanding where and when I can shoot.

I think initially, the choice to use one camera over the other depended on how confident I was using it. If I didn’t want to risk missing a fleeting moment, I picked up the D-Lux 4 over the X2. I’ve shot so many photos with that camera and have read through the manual enough times that I know it pretty well. I feel like I can shoot anything with that little sucker. Ever since I started shooting with the X2, I’ve been feeling more comfortable with it. I guess I’m transitioning right now. It’s been great at taking portraits; you can really separate the foreground from background. I also love the design, and how efficiently you can make camera adjustments. I’m not retiring the D-Lux 4 just yet, but even if I did, I don’t think I could ever let it go.

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

A: I just keep an eye out for interesting shots: good compositions, memorable moments, nice light, dramatic shadows, beautiful colors.

I think photography is a great way to capture and share moments in your life. You’re essentially letting people step inside your eyeballs and see what you see. That can be pretty intimate.

Q: Can you elaborate on why you feel this process is so intimate and compelling, and what effect this process has on both the photographer and the viewer?

A: It’s intimate because it lets people see into your life. My photos are like little screenshots from a first-person perspective. You see where I live, where I’ve been, the window I look out of, my commute to work, the things I find beauty in and the people close to me. What’s compelling about it, is that it’s real. These are memories I have and moments I’ve shared. One of these days I won’t be here, but it’s nice to know I’ve left a visual journal of my life behind.

One effect this process has had, is when I look back at some of these photos, they really trigger an emotional response. It’s like a time machine — I can remember what it was like that day and how I felt. It’s very personal for me. I think it may be the same for others who have walked down the same street, taken the same subway or been on the other end of the lens. And hopefully everyone else just sees the simple beauty I see.

Q: The image on the left looks like it may have been shot from an elevated train track or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the colorful graffiti, garishly painted c.1900 building on the left, dramatic sky, and green foliage in an empty lot, somehow humanize and transform this oppressive industrial landscape into something serene and affirmative if not quite beautiful. How do you feel about this image, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? The Roosevelt Island Tram shot has some of the same qualities, but what makes this image distinctive is its amazing sense of space. Do you agree?

A: Yes, that was shot from the pedestrian path on the Williamsburg Bridge. I really liked the colors and composition. It looks like a very spirited patch of old Williamsburg surviving on the outskirts of spreading development projects. It makes me think of wild flowers secretly growing on the obscured edges of someone’s perfectly manicured lawn. I tried to get as close to the fence as possible, but actually like that you can see the chain-links in the shot, because it gives you a sense of how and from where it was taken.

I agree about the Tram. The sense of space is even more apparent when you’re up there dangling from one of those things looking down. I also really love the large white typography on stark red sides, and the subtle reflections of faces and silhouettes on the windows. No matter how many times you ride those things, they don’t lose their magic and the kid in you quickly reemerges as you hold on and peer out.

Q: In this image there is a beautiful tension between the realistic elements and the truncated, oblique, abstract composition. It’s a very simple and eloquent image. Can you tell us something about where you shot it and what inspired you to take it?

A: It was while riding the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan. It was my first time out there. I love colors; especially large blocks of color. When I looked up from where I was sitting, I noticed the orange structure against the blue sky and thought it was a beautiful juxtaposition, so I snapped a shot.

Q: This picture of a calico cat peering out from behind a wire mesh fence with another cat and orange construction scaffolding in the background is amusing and kind of wistful. Why did you include it in this portfolio and what do you think it says to the viewer?

A: I think for the viewer, it’s just a photo of a really cute cat, and maybe where it lives. There are a lot of strays and feral cat colonies in Brooklyn, but most of them are out of sight, out of mind. It could be seen as a reminder that they’re still out there, quietly living amongst us.

For me — it reminded me of this kitten I rescued off of McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint a couple years ago. It was freezing out and this poor little orange cat walked into the middle of the street for what I can only imagine he thought was food (an orange peel, which they generally don’t even like). I swerved around him, but then realized he’s probably going to get run over by someone behind me, so I pulled over, jumped out of my car, ran into the middle of the street and halted the oncoming traffic to the sound of horns and profanities. He ran back towards the sidewalk and hid under a parked SUV near the front wheels. We went around the parked car and tried to call him out, but he didn’t want anything to do with us. Still worried he might eventually get run over, we tried to lure him out with cat food purchased from the Key Food across the street. He didn’t budge, staring right back at us indifferently, and then out of nowhere climbed up underneath the car. We tried to wait him out, hoping the the food would eventually entice him; even more worried now that he may get chopped up by an engine fan. After a little while longer we found the owner of the SUV and got him to pop the hood (I had a hunch since my Grandfather’s cat would do the same thing, being drawn to the warmth of the engine). Sure enough, there this sucker was — right on top of the warm motor. He looked startled, but paralyzed, not knowing where to go or what to do. I grabbed him quickly and carefully put him in a tote bag. He was tiny in my hands. I brought him home and helped him out for as long as I could.

I think all animals, like us, are just trying to survive. If you look at it that way, you’re compelled to be kind to them and help when you can.

Q: The contrast between the mundane reality of the crosswalks, traffic lights, window lights, subway lights and store lights in the foreground of this image and the supernatural transcendence and sublime radiance of the evening sky is amazing, yet in a very real sense, both are everyday occurrences. This epitomizes the eternity in every moment. Am I over the top here, and how do you feel about this picture? By the way please provide the technical details such as camera, exposure, ISO, etc., if possible.

A: Wow, thank you. I love that description of it. I really like this shot too. It looks the way it felt, which is sometimes hard to achieve. I live about 100 feet from there, so I see that intersection every day. It was taken on Christmas Day. I was driving back to Brooklyn from visiting my family in Queens and, as I approached the Kosciuszko Bridge, I noticed this beautiful sunset beginning and was kicking myself for not having one of my cameras with me. There was traffic and each minute that elapsed felt like the tick of a countdown clock. I got to my street as soon as I could, parked the car, ran up to my third floor apt, grabbed the D-Lux 4 which I keep in my dresser, in a nylon case and amongst soft t-shirts (to keep it safe). Burst out of the apt, leaping down flights of stairs, charged through the two front building doors with literally seconds left. You could see the colors of the sky changing, getting darker. Took a couple shots, adjusted settings, got closer, took a couple more. After this last shot, the sun was literally gone 30 seconds later. I almost missed it.

This photo feels like home. That intersection is a part of my everyday life. I could be coming home from work, stepping out to get food, going to the bodega for a can of root beer, or hopping on the subway, headed to Manhattan. It makes me look forward to more evenings like this in the spring and summer, when you can just walk around wearing jeans and a t-shirt, enjoying and contributing to the sounds and sights of this living, breathing neighborhood.

Here’s the technical information:

Camera model: Leica D-Lux 4
Date Time: 12/25/2013 — 6:17pm
Shutter Speed: 10/130 sec
Aperture: f/2.0
ISO Speed Ratings: 80
Focal Length: 5.1 mm

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years?  Do you plan on exploring any other photographic genres or documenting any other urban or rural environments in 2014? Have you thought about publishing a book on your street photography or exhibiting your work at galleries or other venues?

A: I really like these simple photos and just documenting the things I see. I want to keep having fun with it, but I also want to get better. I’d like to see a shot coming and be ready; no more missed opportunities. I also want to take more portraits; I’m building up my courage.

I do bring my camera with me on trips. I like exploring and documenting new places, especially local spots — they have a lot more character and are a bit more reflective of the people who live there. A couple years ago I traveled cross country by myself and took thousands of photos, including a time lapse set on the inside windshield of the car. That was a really cool experience; I would do that again. And late last year I went to Portland, which is actually very similar to Brooklyn. I took a bunch of photos but would love to go back and take more when it’s warmer. There’s some pretty good vegan food there too!

As far as other genre’s, maybe photojournalism? I think all the New York Times photographers are sick! I really admire that work and it could be an interesting shift from a first-person to third-person narrative. I’ve never thought about publishing a book or exhibiting my photos, but if the opportunity arises, I would consider it.

Thank you for your time, Dwayne!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Dwayne on his website.