Kenneth Reitz: Exploring the Material World in an Electronic Universe

Kenneth Reitz, was born in 1988 in Central Pennsylvania and currently lives in Winchester, Virginia. He describes himself as a “wandering street photographer, idealist, and moral fallibilist.” By trade, he spends his days as a software developer writing code and he’s well-known in the Python language community. He experimented with photography in high school, although lost touch with it when he started his career. A few years ago he picked photography back up and has been shooting daily ever since because, as he explains, “it makes me happy and keeps me sane.”

Q: What approach do you take with your photography? How would you describe your photography?

A: Street photography is more than an art; it’s a world view.

The act of taking a photo records not only an image, but a perception. Photos are an avenue to connect with objects and feelings of the past. It’s time travel. The key is to consider yourself an observer — it’s important not to alter or manipulate the world, but to appreciate the beauty of existence, of life in a moment, of being itself.

My photos are a mix between street photography and personal photojournalism. I attempt to document human consciousness by capturing people and the things they build.

Q: What Leica camera do you use?

A: My favorite object in my life is a Leica M Monochrom. It’s perfect. Permanently mounted on it is a 35 mm Summicron ASPH. They are always at my side and I’ve brought them with me all over the world. I’ve also started experimenting with film photography lately, with a 1954 Leica M3 and 1979 35 mm Summicron.

Q: You describe the Leica M Monochrom as “my favorite object in my life” but color is an essential element in one of the most striking images in your portfolio. Do you still have your M9 and do you use it for shooting in color on occasion? And what is it about the black-and-white medium that you find especially compelling for your kind of work?

A: While my reasons for switching to the Leica M Monochrom are mostly technical, my reasons for shooting in monochrome are far from technical. Simplistically, I prefer the simplicity of black-and-white.

Color perception is a construct of the human mind — a purely subjective experience. I cannot perceive colors that are outside of the visible spectrum; I cannot even fathom them. I can, however, attempt to perceive absolute darkness and infinite intensity.

Capturing life’s moments with only luminance allows me to get one step closer to perceiving things as they truly are. A constant reminder of our geography within the energy spectrum. Nothing in life is black-and-white – everything is grey.

Q: You mentioned that you just acquired a vintage Leica M3 and an old-style 35 mm f/2 Summicron, which is the opposite of the typical narrative of starting with film and moving into digital capture. How do you find the experience of shooting on film with the M3 differs aesthetically and operationally from shooting with a digital M, and do you find that there is a difference in the images captured by your older 35 mm Summicron and the new ASPH.?

A: My universe is an electronic one — the earliest (and fondest) memories of my childhood are those of playing my Nintendo. Everything I create in my life, be it software, music, prose or photography, exists only in the electronic realm. Computers are simple, predictable machines — the real world is chaos.

A mechanical camera or watch is a far more impressive and magical feat of engineering to me than any computer will ever be. I’m astounded that my M3, which was produced in 1954, still works as predictably as it did the day it was produced. Most code needs to be rewritten every few years, and the hardware that it runs on would never be expected to operate in 60 years.

Q: What characteristics of Leica equipment do you enjoy?

A: The thing that really drew me to Leica was the focus on interface simplicity and build quality. As a software developer well-known for building simple interfaces, I find Leica’s philosophy to be a source of inspiration. It’s obvious that a Leica M is a craftsman’s tool.

The rangefinder is a testament to that philosophy. Instead of focusing on a close projection of the outside world, a rangefinder allows you to observe that world undistorted and unskewed. It doesn’t alter your perception, but it teaches you to see.

I’m also in love with Leica glass — everything from the smoothness of the focus tab, to the way it paints light is perfect. Leica glass is beautiful. I cannot tell you why. I wish I could.

Q: Have you thought about acquiring additional Leica M lenses in focal lengths other than 35 mm?

A: Both the field of view and perspective of a 35 mm really resonates with me.

Having only a single lens is very liberating — the constant choice of which lens to bring out stressful. You always worry that you brought the wrong one. Now, I never have to think twice. I’ve been using a setup like this for a year and a half and the improvement in my photography has been dramatic. I plan to shoot with only my 35 mm Summicron for the rest of my life.

Q: One of the strongest images in your portfolio is what looks to be an evangelical Christian holding up a wooden cross bearing the message “Are You Ready.” This image is certainly enhanced by the limited depth of field that throws the chaotic background beautifully out of focus, and the fact that the subject is looking directly at the camera. Can you tell us where and when you took this picture, a few of the technical details, and what it means to you?

A: This is an image of a member of a religious group that shows up at my hometown’s annual Apple Blossom Festival every year. They stand on a pedestal, spreading a dark message of hatred to the youth who enjoy the festivities.

This is a very important image to me. As a child, I attended an extremely legalistic evangelical Christian school that encouraged this behavior. Today, I’m thankful for this experience. It indirectly taught me to reconsider everything, to question authority and condition me to be open-minded.

This man represents one of the darkest sides of humanity — spreading negativity while hiding behind a synthetic facade of love.

Q: These two images show the main subject in a prayerful or meditative state. What motivated you to take these pictures, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: Meditation is an important aspect of human life — it clears the mind and fosters the imagination. Westerners have a tendency to dismiss the needs of the self, compensating with medication, indulgence and apathy.

I find it refreshing to see others in meditation — makes me feel less alone.

Q: There is something amusing, but sad about this image of what looks like a middle-aged man chasing a bunch of giant bubbles he has just blown on an expanse of urban sidewalk. It has an undeniably antic quality, but also seems to suggest loneliness, lost childhood, and unfulfillment. Do you agree, and what’s actually going on here?

A: I rarely speak to people after I take a photo, but this man was so charismatic that I couldn’t resist. It turns out, he is the Key Grip for the new Captain America film that was being shot in Cleveland that day. After his long days of work, he ventures into the city and blows massive bubbles.

He’s a joyful soul, trying his best to spread positivity in the mundane lives of the city dwellers. Nothing could be more important.

Q: Do you think that being a professional software developer has had any direct or indirect influence on your photography, other than motivating you do something else on the side as personal expression? For that matter, has your photography had any noticeable effect on your approach to developing software?

A: Absolutely — software engineering is often compared to building castles in the sky. Photography allows me to explore the castles that exist in the material world.

Thank you for your time, Kenneth!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Kenneth, visit his website, 500px, and Twitter.