Kokyat Choong, The Camera as a Paintbrush, Part Two

Kokyat Choong grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and after high school he attended interior design school, which may partially explain the strong sense of graphic design that characterizes all his work from sensual images of ballet rehearsals to strikingly abstract and surreal images created as a photographic homage to the renowned French artist Rene Magritte. After working as a project designer in Kuala Lumpur for seven years he saved enough money to quit his job, determined to discover which country and city would be his second home. After a nine-month whirlwind quest through Asia, Middle East, Europe and the USA, he finally settled on New York “to see what differences existed between Malaysian vs. New York in the realm of interior design.” There he continued his education at Parsons School of Design and found a job.

“I had been shooting New York Fashion Week for a few years,” he recalls, “and had come to a decision to pursue other things, but I had a change of heart after an editor asked me to photograph a fashion show in Paris last March, which I did. I actually used my Leica X1 to photograph the back stage and runway for Hermes Spring/Summer 2012. I love traveling and when I am traveling my camera is my only accessory.” It is clear from his compelling images that Choong is fascinated by the beauty and form of the dance, by abstract juxtapositions of form and light and the creative process of seeing itself. That is why he will probably always be an art photographer with the eye of a designer. Here are some of his observations on photographic technique, his underlying influences, street photography in New York and capturing the subtleties of ballet. Also, you can read part one of our interview with Kokyat Choong on the blog.

Q: There seems to be a similar sensibility in your pictures of kids diving into the water at Coney Island and dancers in the dance studio. Do you agree with this observation and can you comment on it?

A: Yes. Both the divers and the dancers are “caught in the act.” Beyond that there is a certain feeling of risk involved in both activities and a type of physical energy that can be felt even in the still images.

Q: How does shooting with the Leica X1 compare to shooting with Nikon DSLRs and can you say something about your preference for f/2.8 wide-angle lenses for your work?

A: When I travel now, I only bring along my Leica X1 because of its convenient weight and size. I know I will get high-quality images, comparable to those captured with the DSLR. The X1 is not as fast as the DSLR, and the auto-focus is not as reliable compared to the DSLR.

Having a fixed focal length lens in X1 is a bit challenging because you don’t have the flexibility to zoom (as people say, you have to zoom with your feet), so it is depends on how creative the photographer is in framing the images. Developing the skill of composition means getting back to the basics. With a wide-angle lens, I have to move closer to the subject I need to photograph. As Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

Q: How do you think that your witty and surreal abstract compositions inspired by Magritte differ qualitatively from your photographs of people? Do you believe that the creative process underlying both types of pictures is the same or somewhat different?

A: I would say that the photos of dancers/people are more of a documentary nature while the Magritte-style photos are more dreamlike images, using color and texture inspired by his work.

Q: You mention being influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the great street photographers of all time, and state that one of your principal genres is street photography. What is your concept of street photography and why do you believe the Leica X1 is conducive to this kind of work?

A: Street photography for me means always being ready. This camera is easy for street photography because it is so compact and lightweight that I always have it with me. It is much easier to use in the streets than my DSLR — it draws less attention and sometimes people even don’t even notice that I took their picture. Living in the great city of New York there are hundreds of opportunities for capturing all aspects of urban life on a daily basis. The most mundane buildings, intersections or activities can provide surprisingly exciting images. I can also use this camera surreptitiously! Whenever I am walking around the streets of Manhattan, the image of Cartier-Bresson (Downtown 1947 —  man with a cat in between the tall buildings) will appear in my mind. Another link with Cartier-Bresson is his famous photo of George Balanchine that ties in with my interest in dance.

Q: Have you ever considered acquiring a Leica M9 and a fast wide-angle lens? Do you think it would have any operational advantages over the X1 for your style of shooting?

A: The X1 is my first piece of Leica equipment, and I hope it won’t be my last! If I am going to extend my camera collection, the Leica M9 will definitely be my next choice. I still remember spending so much time in the Leica booth at the PDN Photo Plus Expo at the Javits Center last year just looking at the M9. If I am not moving to M9 immediately, the only reason will be the cost. Maybe my next one will be the Leica X2, whatever that may be. The big advantages of the M9 are full-frame capture and interchangeable lenses.

Q: You note that you like to shoot dancers using B&W High Contrast mode. Is this because it presents the formal elements in bold relief and eliminates anything that detracts from them, or are there other, perhaps emotional reasons?

A: I do like the black-and-white images I’ve shot in dance studios. I think that medium throws the dancers into bold relief and gives them an inherent sense of drama. I like looking at old photos of dance, before color became the accepted mode. I like the timeless feeling of shooting dance in black and white. For my recent shooting in B&W High Contrast I photographed the principal dancer from NYC Ballet, Wendy Whelan.

Q: You observe that dancing involves raw physicality, sweat and strain that “can be beautiful in its own right” but they prefer “to have an effortless facial expression.”  Do you think this dichotomy applies in some way to your photographs of dancers as well?

A: I try to watch for the moment when the dancer is technically at the center of his or her movement; sometimes that coincides with a facial expression that shows the physical effort involved. Other times the face will look superb, but there is something slightly off in the bodyline — the foot isn’t pointed, the fingers are splayed, etc. Dancers are quite particular about being seen to the best possible advantage both in terms of face and form. I usually take a lot of photos when I am shooting dance because many of them will be rejected for one reason or another. Yet some of the “flawed” ones are actually my favorites.

Q: Do you believe, as many have asserted, that there is something special about the way Leica lenses capture an image, “the Leica Look,” and does the lens on the X1 fall into this category?

A: I am still not sure exactly how to define “the Leica Look.” This question has been discussed many times and we still have no concrete answer, since it is a subjective area. It goes beyond technique and clarity. One thing I am sure about though: I am very much satisfied with the quality of the images from the X1.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward?  And now that you are traveling with a Leica X1 instead of a DSLR, what influence do you think this “light and powerful” camera will have in determining the direction your imaging will take?

A: With this camera, I feel I have no limits and I am looking forward to continuing to explore the world around me. I want to try more portraiture, for one thing; portraits that Arnold Newman described as “environmental portraits” have always inspired me. At some point I hope I can have a gallery showing of some of my works, perhaps in conjunction with a dance performance or maybe I can find a publisher to print a photo book for me.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Kokyat’s work on his blog, http://reddotcamera.blogspot.com.