Kent Miller: The Leica M Monochrom at Fashion Week

Kent Miller is a commercial photographer based in New York City who has been involved in photography since the late 1980s. He has worked with national and international clients on editorial and advertising productions including P&G Prestige Products, Macyʼs, The Washington Post and GQ Magazine. Below, Kent describes being smitten with the Leica M Monochrom and how he used it to capture images from Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2014.

Q: Your work spans quite a few different genres. What would you say is the common thread that runs throughout your work?

A: I like doing different things. I love photography. All of it! Solving problems and being diverse is part of what I love. Sometimes we work for days doing pre-production and setting everything up so it’s perfect, only to find out the subject changed and the whole thing moves in a different direction. You need to be prepared for anything, for everything. I think my friend Joe McNally was huge in the development of my lighting skills. I’ve learned so many things from his use of lighting. I think light is the most elusive and awe-inspiring part of photography.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I have the Leica M Monochrom, a 35 mm Summicron-M ASPH. lens,  50 mm Summicron Collapsible screw mount and a 90 mm Elmar from around 1955. I also have an SF 24D flash.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: This is a bit of a crazy story. I’ve known about Leica for many years. I was just never interested in a Leica. I always thought you can create the same pictures with any camera. This may be true to a point. However, it is different with a Leica. I can’t explain why it is, but people are different around this camera. I find myself getting closer to a subject with my Leica. They react differently to the small size and non-intrusive stature of it. Plus it makes almost no sound! The people who do know about Leica are very responsive and the others don’t even care that you’re taking their picture. When I stick a full-size DSLR in their face, people move aside and sometimes get offended. This is new to me. I never knew the power of the Leica. Thanks to my friend Luke for drilling it into my brain!

The real game changer was the Monochrom. I found myself wanting something different to make pictures. I went through a few medium format cameras, some large format film cameras and then picked up a Monochrom. That was it. I obsessed over it for weeks. I read about the sensor and how Leica developed it without the Bayer array. I checked out how the camera was made and why it’s at the top of its game, the fact that it’s simple and easy to use, it has limited bells and whistles. It brought me back to photography. More taking pictures and less making them in post. It’s like using an old camera with new technology inside. It’s not for everyone. But it makes you think and react differently to get your vision captured. In that short period of time, I sold a few cameras and bought an M Monochrom. This camera has prompted me to refocus my vision away from color and towards capturing light and dark, brightness and shadow. For this purpose, the Leica M Monochrom is unparalleled. I have used this thing for almost every shoot since. I still use my Nikon cameras and Phase One for the jobs that require it, but I shoot the same content with the Leica. This year while shooting Fashion Week here in NYC, I was hired to do some alternate views of select shows. I shot with all three lenses, but used the 35 & 90 mm most of the time. I did some shots at 320 ISO and some at 10000. I even used the SF 24D flash. The images are awesome. I love them and so did the client! It is a different look than the same shots I’d been getting for the last 10 years. Even at 10000 ISO the Monochrom looks amazing! I am smitten.

Q: Can you tell us what you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium, and in particular, why you think it was particularly suitable for covering this assignment?

A: When I started photography in the 1980s, I used color to express my vision. I never really learned to see in shades of grey. Picking up the Monochrom gave me a rush. I got excited to go out and shoot. I wanted to shoot everything, to try new things and to push myself to produce a different kind of image. Most of my work is fashion, music and dance. I wanted to move away from using my DSLR and see if I could shoot the same content with the Monochrom. This client was open to the concept and gave me the chance to test the camera’s ability to work in a dark, fast environment.

They are designers. Designers are artists. It was natural to do something different.

Q: Some of the most fascinating images in this portfolio show models being made up. They reveal the intensity and hard work that takes place behind the scenes and also the care and precision of the make-up artists and the bond between them and the models. Somehow this seems to reveal a kind of genuineness behind the perceived superficiality of the fashion scene. Do you agree, and was this focus intentional on your part?

A: I agree. Most people never get to see the process involved in making a runway show happen. It takes many hours and lots of people. The models arrive two or three hours before the show. They get pulled in every direction and have several stylists working on them at once. Many photographers shoot this process as I have in the past. Using the Monochrom gave me a chance to cut out all the distracting color from the scene. I think it shows the real energy, stress and excitement of back stage. Using the Leica lenses allowed me to shoot with different ISOs to produce some interesting visuals.

Q: Not too many photographers would have included these two images of bags neatly positioned on chairs and a row of reserved seats in a Fashion Week portfolio. Interestingly, the first shot has very limited depth of field and was obviously shot at a very wide aperture, but the second has more extended depth of field and was taken at a more moderate aperture. What motivated you to take these shots, and why the difference in the technical approach, or was it just happenstance?

A: The first shot was to isolate the bag. I wanted to show what it looks like for a guest as they arrive to the show. The first thing you see is the massive venue, then the lights, and finally the swag bags. I was on the floor to get this shot. I wanted to have the massive array of lights in the background, but they turned off just as I was shooting. You can still see the flare in the top left of the frame. The second shot is to show how the seating is arranged, not as an art shot. Just a clean showing of the front row.

Q: One of the most powerful images in this portfolio is of a fastidiously attired middle-aged man and woman glancing at a cell phone. What is says to me is “we’re the movers and shakers behind this event — the people who pull the strings.” Am I reading too much into this, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This is Fashion Week. People in the industry live and love fashion. They attend shows for many reasons — some to be seen, some to report on trends, and some to see what they are going to be wearing next season. You have to love the game. Some love it more than others. I looked for them. They are fashion. They look cool. The people with influence don’t arrive at a show wearing sweatpants.

Q: There are two striking images, both shot from a high angle that show processions of variously attired models walking around a long rectangular elevated platform stage above a seated audience. What’s going on here and what do you think these images communicate to the viewer?

A: That is the collection wrap up. All the models walk the runway for one last view. The designer is the last one on the catwalk. They walk, wave and show appreciation for the guests. It’s the last thing you see before the lights come back on. This was a view the client requested. I have never shot from this point of view before. Most people never get to see the show from here. It was amazing to be up high and photograph a very limited and special angle. I think it shows how massive the venue and show really are: 25-30 of the best models in the world all on the runway at the same time. It’s an explosion of design for the last minute of the show. The crowd is clapping. The music is pumping. You leave with an adrenaline rush and hopefully a great feeling for the show.

Q: There is image of a gentleman in a suit looking at a woman, presumably a fashion model. Can you tell us the story behind this image?

A: That is Max Azria speaking with his Marketing Director, Jennifer Sprague. It is before the show. The models do a walk-through to make sure they know the way everything will run. They talk it through and make any changes at this point. I have no idea what they were speaking about — could be almost anything. It’s a very tight-knit group. This was a shot I waited for. I know the lights are only on for the test. He walked down the runway after he spotted the Leica. He turned around twice for me to get the shot. The Leica lenses have an amazing look but this is where the Monochrom shows off a bit. The detail in the shadows and highlights is superb. You see all the detail in her dress and strands of hair. Even at the end of the runway the detail is visible. I made two exposures for as low as I could get. Max is an icon in the fashion world. I thought the low angle would make him seem larger than life. I shot into the light for the flare. I knew the look I wanted and this is where I wanted to be.

Q: The composition, graphic quality and tonal range in this image of a model looking into a mirror creates a really beautiful impression of being there that is accentuated by the central subject who is bending over, his face bathed in light. Obviously this was taken backstage in the make-up area. Can you tell us a bit about the technical details and how you achieved this shot?

A: That shot is a model getting a last look in the mirror before the show. The ISO was 1250 at f/2.8 with a shutter 1/350. I had a second to make this image when I saw him moving to the mirror. I wanted to have the background out of focus but not so much that you couldn’t see the others in the shot. I was using Aperture Priority for this shot and the light on his face was so bright the camera used 1/350th to make the exposure. I filled in +0.7 Exp. Comp. to make sure the whites are white and not grey. The files are so robust you have room to adjust the DNG in post. Focusing is super fast with the 35mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. It was perfect timing. Or I got lucky.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years? Do you have any other projects you plan to cover with your Leica M Monochrom?  Have you thought about acquiring any additional M lenses, or perhaps exploring the possibilities of shooting in color with the new Leica M?

A: I just moved into a new studio on 35th Street off Fashion Avenue here in NYC. I’m shooting every job I can with the Monochrom. I try to at least use it as an alternative in the shoot. A shoot I did for an album cover ended up using the Monochrom shot as the hero! I have used it for products and almost everything I use my DSLR or medium format cameras on. I’ve had only positive responses to the images. Now I have a few clients that request the Leica look. The Leica system has embedded itself in my work. Plus, I am a gear nut so I can’t wait to add lenses to my collection. I just picked up a 50 mm f/2 Summicron newer than my collapsible and have my eye on a 75 mm f/1.4 right now. I would love to take the new M for a spin. I can see myself using that for a lot of work in the future. Plus, vacations are so much easier with an M around your neck. It’s so much less weight to carry. That in itself makes you want to carry it and shoot more. It took me 20 years to pick up a Leica. Now I can’t put it down.

Thank you for your time, Kent!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Kent’s work on his website, tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.