Magdalena Solé: New Delta Rising

Born in Spain and raised in Switzerland, Magdalena Solé arrived in New York City in 1984 where she still lives with her family. Visual language has been her life’s work. She founded a graphic design studio, TransImage in 1989. She went on to graduate with a Masters of Fine Art in Film from Columbia University in 2002. She served as Unit Production Manager on the set of “Man On Wire” which won an Academy Award in 2009.

Magdalena’s rediscovery of her passion for photography has taken her all over the globe. Some of her current projects include “Kamagasaki: a photo documentary on the shunned elderly day laborers of Japan”, “Cuba: communities on the brink of change, where the past is still visible, but the future not yet in focus” and “Tohoku: when the water receded, an exploration of the aftermath of the great 2011 Tohoku disaster”.

We had the opportunity to speak with Magdalena about her photographs of the Mississippi Delta that make up her first book “New Delta Rising”, recently released and distributed by the University Press of Mississippi. The Wall Street Journal praised her series saying, “The colors Ms. Solé finds everywhere in Clarksdale — the bright green walls of the Wangz and Thangz restaurant, the deep blue backgrounds of Messenger’s Pool Hall, the red spotlight on the stage at Red’s Lounge — are visual metaphors for the culture and history that remain vivid even beneath the cracking surface. Like Clarksdale’s soundtrack, they electrify.” Now Magdalena gives us her take on the series.

Q: Tell us about this series entitled “Cotton Land: The Forgotten Delta”.

A: “Cotton Land” is an exploration of communities in the Mississippi Delta. The Mississippi Delta is an iconic region lying between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, running from Memphis, Tennessee to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Delta evokes visions of sharecroppers, plantations and the sound of the Blues. The area has a small wealthy gentry and a large impoverished underclass living in dilapidated houses and tilting trailers. The Delta is one of the poorest places in the United States with the saddest infant mortality rate and rampant unemployment. What is less known is the warmth, resilience, community and family cohesiveness of its people.

The Delta images have been created for a book titled “New Delta Rising”, distributed by the University Press of Mississippi. The photographs are the result of nine trips to the Delta over two years, a total of 12 weeks and more than 10,000 miles in search of people and their stories.

Q: What made you decide to use your M8 and M9 for this project?

A: I work with a digital Leica rangefinder camera. It is small, and those being photographed often forget that it even exists. When I work I prefer to become invisible, so I can just bear witness. For street photography, speed and portability are very important to me. Plus, the compact high performance Leica lenses with their color and clarity are essential to my work.

Q: Did you have a specific theme in mind when beginning the project or did that evolve over time? What was the overall message you’re trying to convey?

A: The beginning of a project is the most important time for me, especially when I am new to a place. I let myself be guided by a map to find the road, but I use my instincts to find the subjects. Even though I work within a specific geography, I don’t have a specific direction in mind. As long as I can keep my curiosity alive, I can find my subjects. I do not set out with any specific agenda, outside of finding dignity and beauty in the most forlorn places.

Q: What is it about portraiture that interests you? Are there any other genres that you dabble in or may explore in the future?

A: Environmental portraits are difficult to master. It takes time to develop a relationship with the subject until they let you enter their private space. It is so exceptionally rewarding when it does happen and a beautiful image emerges. I also photograph city and landscapes, but always to illustrate the environment of the community I am trying to capture. People usually call my work social documentary or art photography, but to be frank, these distinctions elude me.

Q: How did you discover your passion for photography?

A: My first camera was the Kodak Instamatic 133. My father bought it for me when I was 11. I took pictures of cobblestones and old garbage cans. They were all black and white. When I picked up the developed film, the owner of the local store told me to become a photographer. His comment was so spontaneous that I thought it must be important. I have always remembered it. It took me many decades to come back to photography. I had a son, founded a graphic design company, and got a master’s in film, before I finally found my way back. Rediscovery was such great joy.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I attended graduate film school at Columbia University, which of course trains you to use the camera for motion pictures. I also trained in lighting and editing. Nevertheless, I still would consider myself self-taught. What has influenced me the most were other photographers and painters: Kandinsky, Tapies, Alex Webb, Mary Ellen Mark, and Miguel Rio Branco, to name a few.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Everybody knows the quality of Leica cameras, but when a friend sent his new child’s baby pictures, I noticed that something was very different about the quality than I had ever seen before. He told me that the pictures had been shot with an M6. That was the beginning of my life with the Leica. The Leica contributed to my moving away from working in motion pictures and becoming a professional photographer. The M8 and M9 are great cameras for reproducing vibrant colors.

Q: Can you explain your process and approach to photographing?

A: When I photograph I first see colors and shapes, then I see everything else. Color is primary; everything else flows from there.

My photography is immediate. I like carrying a very small bag that I can have around my shoulder all the time. I don’t stage anything. I just like the surprise of life as it is and how it reveals itself. Photography is the best medium for me to connect what surrounds me with my heart.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Magdalena’s work on her website, www.solepictures.com.