Kelsey Fain: The Joys of Downsizing

A medium-format Leica S2 guru braves the Andean heights to capture magic moment as they unfold with a Leica M9. Kelsey Fain grew up in East Greenville, Pennsylvania where her passion for photography began at the tender age of twelve. In 2008 she received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in photography from Drexel University’s (Philadelphia, PA) College of Media Arts and Design. She moved to New York City soon after graduation and managed a fine-art photographer and gallery in SoHo. During this time she also worked as an assistant to fashion, commercial and event photographers. In the summer of 2010 Kelsey had the good fortunate to sign on with Leica Camera, Inc. as their S-System Product Specialist for the East Coast. She currently resides in New York City and continues to photograph fashion, portraiture and photojournalist work whenever possible. Here is the fascinating and inspiring story of her intense, arduous, and gratifying experience documenting Machu Picchu and the surrounding Peruvian Culture with a Leica M9.

Q: What camera and equipment do you normally use and why did you decide to use the M9 the Peru trip? How did you find the transition after being so familiar with the S-System in your work?

A: The majority of my work is done with the Leica S-System. Since I most often shoot in the studio or on location with strobe lighting, the S-system is ideal for my needs. Since the S2 handles like a 35mm camera, I often take it on hikes or around the city to photograph landscape images, so when I was deciding which camera to take to Peru it was a very tough decision. Ultimately I decided to take the M9. I do a lot of side work with the Leica M9, but I really wanted to become more familiar with it by using it to shoot an entire project.

Q: How would you describe your style of photography?

A: As a young photographer, my shooting style is still evolving. That said, over time I have seen a common theme of whimsy, story telling and a glimpse of hidden humor within my images.

Q: What is your role at Leica Camera?

A: I am the Product Specialist for the Leica S-System. I am based in NYC, and I cover the Eastern Coast of North America. My counterpart, Ben Ross, covers our West Coast territories. Ben and I are responsible for all aspects of the S-System including technical support, customer care, product training and demonstrations. Every day for us is different and every day is interesting!

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

A: I think I fell in love with the feel of a camera before I actually took photographs. As a small child, I played with my parents’ 1970s Canon. I knew nothing about photography and don’t think there was ever film in the body! I just loved the sound of the shutter and framing my small world through the glass of the lens. When I was 12 my family moved to a pre-Civil War farmhouse. It was once a dairy farm and the old barn still remains. I spent hours photographing rotten beams of wood and old glass doorknobs, picking apart the structures and focusing in on every detail. Later I would convince my girlfriends to model old prom dresses for me in the barn or surrounding woods; this is when I became interested in fashion/portraiture photography. I went on to receive a Bachelor’s of Science in Photography at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I was very fortunate to have been trained in 35mm, medium-format and 4×5 film as well as alternative processes. That has left me with a real sense of the origins of photography. Nowadays, programs like these are hard to find as most schools focus purely on digital capture.

Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: My professors at Drexel each had their own style, but all of them had a true love for fine art photography. I studied under Andrea Modica my last year and still envision a lot of her work when shooting personal projects. Since I really wanted to shoot fashion I took an internship with a Philadelphia-based photographer, Jonathan Pushnik. He was a great mentor for studio lighting as well as connecting with your subjects. Jon is great at making his subjects feel comfortable on set, and that really carries through in his images. Other photographers that I continue to be inspired by are Bettina Rheims, Steven Klein, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and so many more. The list constantly evolves.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I had always heard the name Leica, but it wasn’t until college that I really understood the impact that these cameras have on the photographic community. Most of the photographers we studied shot with Leicas. At that time I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to work for such a historical company but I always knew that I wanted to be a Leica shooter!

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

A: The reason that I became so interested in fashion photography is because I love dreaming up a concept and putting the pieces together to make it a reality. I love working with a team and seeing collaborations shift and evolve throughout the shoot. I also enjoy having control over my lighting and manipulating my own setup. This is why I love working with the S-System — it generates the best quality for this type of work. However, the M9 forces me to let go and really allows me to step away from the camera and watch the moment unfold — releasing the shutter at just the right second to freeze a moment that cannot be duplicated. Like a painter’s brushes, there are many tools for photography and choosing the right one is almost as important as the vision itself.

Q: Can you tell us about your trip to Peru? Why did you pick Peru? Where did you go and what did you do while you were there?

A: A couple of years ago I came across an image of Machu Picchu that was so striking I knew I had to see it for myself. I decided to go to Peru with a close friend of mine and take part in a four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was one of most intense and gratifying experiences that I have ever had. In order to do the hike you must have a guide and permit so we hiked with a really great group of people from different parts of the world. The days were long; usually we’d wake up between 3-6am, pack up, eat breakfast and hit the trail, arriving to the next base camp around 6pm for dinner. The highest elevation that we reached was 14,000 feet above sea level! The hardest section of the travel is called the “Gringo Killer”. This consists of 3,500 stairs, straight down; my knees will never be the same. Even though the trail was more physically challenging than anything I have ever done, each step was unbelievably beautiful and the perfect distraction to keep me moving forward!

Q: How did your experience of shooting exclusively with the M system in Peru differ qualitatively from shooting with the Leica S2 system you’ve used for the majority of your other work? Do you think you could have created a similar portfolio with the S2 or did the character of the M9 help to shape the outcome?

Q: Both the M and S systems use a CCD sensor, however, the S2’s is twice as large. Therefore, the quality of the files does differ in terms of resolution but both cameras capture images in a way that provokes emotion that’s not always found in other systems. In terms of handling, the M system is much more discreet and I think my images from Peru would have been much different if I had used the S-system. In some ways I was limited by the M, since it rained heavily throughout the trip. There would have been more opportunity to shoot with the S2, which has over 35 weather seals and is essentially weatherproof.

Q: Do you think that your experience shooting portraiture and fashion with the S2 influenced your approach to shooting travel and photojournalistic images with the M9? If so, do you think the discipline you acquired in medium-format studio photography was helpful, or did you use entirely different shooting techniques in Peru?

A: I do believe that my experience with fashion and portraiture influences my photojournalist work. I am most drawn to images that contain people. But, when people are not present, I still look for a story. Sometimes it’s what people leave behind that says the most about them. My background in medium and large-format photography has caused me to become a slow shooter. I take my time framing images (whenever possible) and shoot the M-system with the same approach I would use on a 4×5. One of the biggest drawbacks of digital photography is the “spray and pray” mentality. I much prefer having a handful of strong images rather than hundreds of mediocre ones. That said, some of my favorite images are happy accidents, and being able to edit down and select strong images is just as important for photographers as shooting them.

Q: What do you think you learned as a photographer and about yourself in the course of your intense experience in Peru?

A: As a photographer I learned not to be too timid. I don’t like to invade other people’s space and I know a lot of people are uncomfortable being photographed. I am learning to assess my subject matter and capture them in a way that is fitting to their personality. What I learned about myself is that I am stronger than I look! Some parts of the hike were extremely difficult but you had to keep going. This is a great life lesson; you can’t give up just because a situation is uncomfortable. Patience and the ability to adapt to any environment play key roles in one’s success.

Q: Which M lens or lenses did you favor for your Peru project, and what lens characteristics did you find most useful or conducive for your kind of work?

A. Like a lot of M users I certainly favored the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. To me, 35mm is the most striking focal length for photojournalistic work and I found that it worked wonderfully in most situations. I did crop a few images afterwards but with an 18 MP CCD sensor this is easily done without sacrificing quality. For many of the landscape images, I favored the Tri-Elmar 16-18-21mm. The scenery was so vast and I wanted to capture as much of it as possible.

Q: Your striking images of animal mouths, hanging meat and internal organs next to a tiny fetal animal in a tray in a market are surreal and somewhat grotesque. How did you come to take these pictures and what do you think they say about Peru and it culture?

A: This is a good example of capturing a person’s story without including them in the image. I love the Peruvians’ “waste not” attitude. In America the abundance of food is easily taken for granted and many of us would be disgusted by what other cultures eat. Though I am very intrigued by this concept, and think of it often when I travel, I was most drawn to these subjects because of the light. The marketplace was indoors and most areas were too dark to photograph. I found the cow mouths and internal organs (including a cow fetus) at a stand near a row of windows. When I look at these images I fall in love with subtle colors and soft light. Despite the subject matter they are two of my favorite images from the entire trip.

Q: Your picture of a little boy eating an ice-cream cone has a universal appeal, yet the cobblestone streets, and even the random “snapshot” quality of the oblique composition suggest emotional tension and convey a sense of place. Do you agree, and can you tell us what you were feeling or trying to capture when you took this shot?

A: Earlier I mentioned framing each image and shooting slowly as if with a 4×5; however this image could not have been taken with any camera other than the M. I saw the photograph as I was walking past this little boy but knew that if I stopped to capture him “properly” I would lose the image immediately. I had to act quickly and photographed him with the camera at my side just as we were passing one another. In a way I was lucky to have gotten him at just the right angle and moment. It also shows that photographers see images constantly, whether a camera is held to their eye or not.

Q: The overhead view of a courtyard with trees, and an intriguing maze of wash hanging on lines is a lovely composition that captures a way of life in a way that words cannot. What are your thoughts on this, and what prompted you to create this image?

A: This image was shot from the window of my hotel room in Cusco. I was pleasantly startled when I looked down, as I was not expecting to see the back yard of someone’s private home. It was a great glimpse into their way of life; the birds-eye view allows you to see a more complete story.

Q: There are two strikingly enigmatic black-and-white images of men with large plastic bags in your Peru portfolio. What kind of work are they engaged in and what parts to they play in the society you have revealed?

A: In order to hike the Inca Trail you have to obtain a permit and travel with a guide. These men are porters who assist the groups by carrying cooking and housing supplies as well as some personal items. By law they can only be required to carry 45 pounds (20kg) each; however some of the younger porters choose to carry more weight in order to earn extra money for their families. When doing this trip, it is important to work with a company that treats the porters fairly and respectfully, as many are taken advantage of (I recommend G-Adventures). Their strength and determination is unbelievable and I was consistently awestruck (and at times heartbroken) observing them throughout the hike. These two images were taken when we reached the cloud forest and it began to rain. The porters stopped to take a break and cover their packs with plastic to protect the items. Many porters will do 1-2 trips a week just to support themselves and their families. If you are interested in doing the hike and want information regarding porters, click here.

Q: Another powerful black-and-white image shows two ancient walls of stone looking out on a rugged mountain landscape with a bald sky. Where did you take this shot and what do you think the “severity” of this image says about the locality and its people?

A: This picture was shot at the ruins of Machu Pichu. The Inca had a number of lookout points that they used to communicate with others who were stationed at other points. It was incredible to stand in these areas with your eyes closed, feeling the wind currants. It allowed you to experience the history of these ruins in a different way. The Inca worshiped the Sun and the way that they built their structures completely revolved around the sun’s rising and setting and it’s impact on the earth.

Q: There are a number of your Peru images where the landscape or setting dominates, conveying a lush “Andean” feeling. Was this deliberate on your part, and what are your feelings about this place in the world and how it has shaped the Peruvian culture you documented?

A: There is a great connection between the people and their land in Peru. They have a tremendous amount of respect for their environment and are careful to keep it well maintained. The air is so pure at these higher altitudes and the greenery was just incredible. I believe we passed through 7 different ecosystems within the four-day hike, so every step was unique. I did not add any saturation to these images; the colors were really that vibrant!

Q: Do you plan to explore the M9 system further, and do you think your experience in Peru will influence the more controlled studio work you will be doing with the S2 going forward?

A: I’m not sure how my photojournalistic work will affect my studio work just yet but as I continue to define my shooting style I think there will be a merging between the two worlds. I will definitely continue to work with the M-system; it’s addicting!

Q: Have you planned to take any future excursions to other parts of the world, and how do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years?

A: Yes, I love to travel and do so whenever possible. I hope to go to India and Africa within the next couple of years. I see my work continuing to grow and evolve over the next three to five years but also becoming more consistent in terms of style.

Thank you, Kelsey!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Kelsey and view her work, visit www.kelseyfainphoto.com  and www.appropriatepride.com.