Jack Ottaway: The Compassionate Enthusiast, Part 1

Jack Ottaway’s interest in photography began in his teens, fueled and influenced by the work of his late father Jack who, in his short 22-year life, created hundreds of images of life and landscapes in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. These inspired him to create landscape images of his own in Yosemite National Park. While serving in the Navy in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, Jack was deployed to the Western Pacific where he purchased his first SLR system and used it to capture the people and cities in the Far East. This first street photography experience formed the basis of Jack’s ongoing pursuit of the decisive moment as described by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

In part one of our interview, Jack reveals his passion for shooting with the Leica M Monochrom and the idea behind his Blacksmiths project.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I attempt to capture life as I see it and to do so in as artistic a way as possible. People are my essential subjects. I am project orientated and like to photograph with a purpose and a goal in mind, rather than just make random shots.

Q: In what genre would you place your photos?

A: The main body of my work would have to be categorized as a mash-up of the street, environmental portraiture, and reportage/documentary genres. The common denominator of course is people. To illustrate what I mean, here is an example of a typical day for me in San Francisco.

On a Sunday about a few months ago, I went into San Francisco to look for opportunities to add to my growing catalog of portraits of the homeless people who are very present in the City. I began to notice a large number of very unusually dressed (costumed) people emerging from one of the local BART Train stations, all headed in a particular direction so I followed them and ended up at an event called the “How Weird Street Fair” at the intersection of Howard (How Weird) and Second Streets in the South of Market neighborhood. This annual event draws some very colorfully attired and eccentric people into the street for what amounts to a one-day Mardi Gras scene with music, food, drink and dancing. In a city noted for its eccentricity this is a signature event. I spent over three hours photographing the event and the people, creating what can be thought of as street photography, environmental portraiture or reportage depending on the viewer.

Q: Are you a full-time pro or serious enthusiast?

A: I am retired after spending over 30 years in business, and photography is now my day job. I spend a large portion of each day doing something related to photography. Whether I’m making photographs, editing and post-processing photographs, making prints, posting images online, interacting with other photographers or broadening my knowledge related to art and photography, I stay busy.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I only began to use Leica cameras and lenses quite recently. I’d always had reasonably good photography equipment, but every time I saw an ad for or read a review of a new Leica camera or lens, I felt like the guy with a Ford who really wanted a BMW. In late 2011 I realized that I had to make a choice of what my lasting legacy would be in order to have something tangible, such as a collection of photographs, to be passed on to my son and grandchildren and enjoyed by me, my wife and many others from around the world. To accomplish this goal I needed to gear up and have the best equipment available so I contacted the good people at Camera West in Walnut Creek, CA, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Q: What Leica equipment do you use?

A: I purchased an M9-P and the 35 mm and 50 mm Summicron lenses to begin with and added a 75 mm Summicron and 21 mm Super-Elmar later on to fill out my kit. I think that Leica rangefinders and their superb lenses are the best-designed equipment for street photography. They’re small, portable, reasonably discreet tools that render very high quality images. Moreover, Leica cameras have made me much more deliberative and creative in my photography. The most important addition that I made to my kit occurred in November 2012 when I finally received my Leica M Monochrom. I have also upgraded my 35 mm and 50 mm lenses to the latest Summilux models in the past few months.

Q: What made you buy the Monochrom, and what particular features make it ideal for your kind of work?

A: I bought it because I discovered that the more photography I did with my M9-P, the more images I found myself converting to black-and-white in order to achieve my creative goals that, at the time, were related to the Blacksmith project. B&W really is the only way to tell that story. When Leica announced the forthcoming introduction of the M Monochrom I knew that it was the camera I needed if I really wanted to realize my creative goals.

First and foremost, the camera, in combination with my great Leica lenses captures the most amazing film-like black-and-white images imaginable. A properly exposed RAW file from this camera requires almost no post-processing to yield a very usable, printable digital file. Leica users like to talk about the glow from older lenses, but Monochrom images also have a unique characteristic signature that distinguishes them from B&W images made from converted color RAW files. I am making B&W images now with the Monochrom that I could not have made with files from my M9-P. Of course, I also like the Monochrom for its simplicity, physical size and ease of use. I like its discreet black color especially when I am in some of the rougher neighborhoods I frequent. And I like being able to use Color Contrast filters again for the few landscape photographs I make.

Q: Since you said earlier that you are project oriented, can you tell us some about your Blacksmith project?

A: I started the Blacksmiths project by making photographs at the historic shop in Coloma, CA and showed some of my images to folks at the California Blacksmith Association. They took an interest and encouraged me to create a project in order to show the work in a gallery at their annual Spring Conference, and to allow them to publish the work in their bi-monthly journal. I have since done a full series documenting the historic Edwin Klockars Blacksmithing in San Francisco that will eventually be used in a feature article by CBA. I am not aware of anyone else creating a comprehensive photographic profile that tells the story of Blacksmithing.

Q: There are two images from your Blacksmiths project showing two guys with a bass and guitar and another guy with a flag-decorated bass, all standing in what looks like a blacksmith shop in the background. Both images have a timeless quality with the subject(s) looking directly at the camera. What’s going on here? Are these blacksmiths who are also musicians?

A: These two images were made in the Klockars Blacksmithing shop in San Francisco. They were musicians using the shop as a set for an album cover photograph shoot being done by a young photographer. The photographer invited me to take photographs while he was doing his work. These two images I shot that day, handheld, with my M Monochrom, are among my best Environmental Portraits.

Q: In talking about your decision to acquire a Leica Monochrom you said, “B&W is the only way to tell that story.” Why do you think that’s so, and what is it about the black-and-white medium you find essential?

A: Well, for the Blacksmith project series, the environment that I am shooting in is strictly black-and-white. Blacksmith shops are not places where there is much, if any color at all, so using the M Monochrom camera to document these places is a natural fit. More generally, I believe that when I am doing the work I do, especially photographing people, black-and-white allows me to bring attention to the expressions and emotions of the subject(s) and to not have a viewer distracted by a colorful environment or clothing.

Q: You said that “Monochrom images have a unique characteristic signature that distinguishes them from images made from converted color RAW files.” There are certain technical reasons why this is true of course, but how would you describe that signature in aesthetic or artistic terms?

A: This is hard to describe without referring to a specific photograph, but for me it is the film-like digital files and images that I get with the Monochrom. They appear less digital to me than files from the M9-P converted to B&W.

Q: You describe your photography as a “mash up of ‘street’, environmental portraiture, and reportage/documentary genres,” adding “the common denominator is of course people.” Why do you think that people are such an essential element in your images?

A: People in any setting are endlessly fascinating to me. Every image with people included is inherently unique. Because I strive to depict life as it is, people are essential elements since they give life to an image. Selecting subjects is always a deliberate process. If I am photographing blacksmiths and their shops I choose those that best support a historic theme and have a look that people viewing the photographs would find interesting and informative. Above all, I strive to reveal the character of the person I photograph. Sometimes that can take the movie character definition but more often I am going for the distinctive, redeeming qualities definition.

Thank you for your time, Jack!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Jack’s work, visit his website and Flickr.