John Ricard: Artist with a Leica

A master at capturing the feel of the vibrant, edgy hip hop scene from the inside, John Ricard is irreverent and opinionated, but never boring. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he moved with his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a youngster, but found his way back to New York City as an adult. There he nurtured his passions for rock, hip hop and picture taking and transformed them into a career as an intuitive visual artist and professional photographer. Here John shares his remarkable story with us.

Q: How did you get into photography and when did you begin perceiving and using it as a means of creative expression?

A: Like many people I first got into photography to play with the toys. I was always fascinated with gadgets and I had a lot of fun playing with cameras. Even if I sometimes took an interesting shot it was hard to see myself as an artist — it took me a long time to get to that point. In the beginning, I don’t think I was consciously creating anything. I was shooting rock concerts; just pushing the button and taking the photo. It wasn’t until I started doing group shots before or after the performance that I realized I was composing and creating something.

Q: When did you start shooting rock concerts and rock artists and when did it become a profession?

A: I began shooting rock concerts in 1985, but I didn’t become a full-time pro until 2000. As I said, I began slowly transitioning into a mindset of “I’m doing something” while I was doing portraits of the artists.  Rather than just shooting the show, I started to approach bands with, “Give me 20 minutes before you go on so I can take some pictures.” That’s when I started to control things, to make choices about lighting, soft boxes, umbrellas, etc. And in making my own decisions, I started feeling like an artist. Incidentally, my transitional camera was a Minolta Maxxum, the first workable autofocus camera. Everyone else was using a Nikon or a Canon, but I held my ground with the Maxxum.

Q: When and why did you start shooting with a Leica and what special characteristics does it have that are conducive to your kind of photography?

A: I bought the M9 in February 2011. By that time we were ten years into the digital age and things had gotten so easy that some of the fun was missing for me. The pro-level Nikon and Canon DSLRs are almost too capable. There’s no challenge. No mystery. Again, as a lover of gadgets I was attracted to the form of the M9 and I wanted to play with it. Form and the appearance of things are very important to me. As a photographer you may think that how you look doesn’t matter or what you’re wearing doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the photos, but the way things look does matter since you change what you observe by observing it. To make an analogy, wedding photographers that don’t dress appropriately for the event not only look funny and out of place, their pictures may suffer as a result. In the digital age there often isn’t much thought to how the products and tools we use actually look. They are merely functional and very disposable. Part of the appeal of the Leica is having something that is not only special because of its look and design, but also because it creates something that looks different from what everyone else is creating. I really love using a camera that makes it so easy and intuitive to concentrate on the four essential things you need to control: aperture, shutter speed, white balance and ISO.

Today people expect cameras to do everything, but with a Leica, when you’ve mounted a 24mm lens you have to do everything in 24mm, unless you decide to switch lenses. For example, if you’re covering your daughter’s school play with a DSLR and a long range zoom you can shoot pictures of her dressing before going on stage, performing and even a close-up of her expression as she takes a bow. With the Leica and a 24mm you have to concentrate on the backstage scene of getting ready for play, digging deeper into those visual possibilities, because you know that you can’t get close enough to shoot compelling pictures of her on the stage. In other words, the Leica imposes limitations, but within those limitations the possibilities you can explore are infinite, so you go deep, deep into that world to create those shots. It’s work, but it’s worth it.

Q: How have you incorporated the M9 into your professional work?

A: I am the official photographer for BET’s live music countdown show, “106 & Park” app for the iPhone and Droid platforms. I photograph every taping of “106  & Park,” which airs five days per week. It is the only remaining live television music countdown show. In a typical week, hip hop artists like Trey Songz, Diddy, Chris Brown and a celebrity such as Paula Patton will appear. My photos are posted on the app every day and on the BET website as well. There are literally millions of people viewing my photos each day.

On set I use a Nikon D3S, but the real fun for me is shooting the green room before the artists go on. It’s such a great photo opportunity that the last thing I want to do is shoot it in the manner of a typical WireImage or Getty photographer covering an event. I ask myself how can I shoot something a bit different. That’s why all of my backstage stuff is done with the M9. It’s quiet, subtle, and at the same time, in your face.

I shoot with the 24mm f/2.8 a lot and since I don’t use an external finder, I can’t see the entire frame. I don’t even know everything that is in the shot until I preview the image on my LCD screen. You might think that is a crazy way to work, but you have to understand we are talking about art, not science. Art is best when it is neither technical nor perfect. There needs to be some randomness for art to be effective. That’s why you see so many artists using drugs or alcohol. They are trying to turn off the logical part of their brain. I’d rather just use a Leica.

So all of my green room, backstage and candid shots are done with the Leica M9, usually at ISO 1600. Anytime I pick up the Leica I’m instantly in a different frame of mind. I’m not trying to get a shot that merely captures what happened on set or backstage. I’m trying to create a good photograph — something that will make the viewer say, “Wow, that’s a cool shot.” and not just, “Oh, Diggy Simmons was at BET last week?”

Q: Do you find that the Leica attracts less attention than a larger, DSLR might?

A: No, it’s actually the other way around. I’m consistently amazed at how many artists actually notice the camera. I always thought they were oblivious to such things. Brett Ratner had a whole conversation with me about my Leica.  Yelawolf started telling me how he likes shooting film on a Lomo. I told him he absolutely, must buy a Leica. But even when people aren’t familiar with Leica and its history, once they see you manually focusing and taking your time to create a shot I think they understand that you really care about what you are doing.

My normal kit for BET is the 24mm Elmarit, 35mm Summicron and 50mm Summarit. I also have the 75mm Summarit, which I use in my studio pretty often, but very rarely at BET.  When I first got the camera I bought non-Leica lenses because they were cheaper, but then I read somewhere that they were optimized for film, not digital and that irked me, so I sold them and bought the Leica lenses instead. The 18mm is next for me. I am in desperate need of something wider than 24mm.

Q: How much processing do you do on your files?

A: Virtually none. I have to upload images from the show by 9 a.m. the next morning. I shoot around 500 shots per taping and just making the selections and captioning them takes long enough. I process the 1:30 p.m. pre-tape show immediately after it ends and I often process the live 6 p.m. show on the subway ride home. I’m careful to get it right in camera and although I import everything into Lightroom, the main thing I do there is crop. I don’t even use noise reduction on my M9 files. When did grain become such a bad thing?

I also do an edit for my stock agency Corbis. That’s where various magazines and publications that cover the contemporary music scene can pick up the shots if they want to run them.

Q: Do you expect to incorporate the M9 into other aspects of your work?

A: I already do. All of my BTS (behind the scenes) images from my portrait sessions done in my studio are done with the M9. I use it for street photography as well.

There’s such a misunderstanding about the importance of gear in relation to your photographic vision. Some shooters care so much about gear and pixel peeping that they have no vision. And on the other extreme, you have the shooters who say they have evolved past the point of thinking about gear to where the choice of gear doesn’t matter to them at all. I am of the belief that the gear does indeed matter. Like all art, photography starts with a vision of how you see the world, but in order to make that vision into something tangible that another person can actually hold and view, you need a language to describe your vision. That language is the gear you choose. If you take the time to find the tool that you can really connect with, you’ll have a much better chance of getting that vision from your head onto an actual photograph that someone can hang on the wall.

For some people that tool is a large DSLR, for others it’s a cellphone. For me, it’s the M9. My M9 is not “a” camera, it’s “my” camera. That is a crucial difference.

Thanks for talking with us John!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more photos from John, please visit www.johnricard.com or www.johnricard.com/blog. John also tweets from @johnricardnyc.