Marc Erwin Babej: Pursuing Art for Art’s Sake, Part 1

If you want to know what Marc Babej is really up to when he takes pictures, why his images are endlessly fascinating and distinctive, and what he’s trying to achieve in a never-ending process of inspired and open-minded exploration, just ask him!  His succinct and thoughtful answer: “I’m a marketing strategist by profession. By training I’m a journalist and a writer. And I was always much more interested in writing opinion columns than in telling stories, like writing features or news stories. For me writing has always been a means to end to express my point of view on a given subject. And that’s also what I do as a marketing strategist and that’s also of course what is important to me in photography. Hence the thought is not so much about representing something, or even speaking through symbols the way we commonly think about them.  What I’m really trying to do is to get people to think, to see things from my perspective. So I would really describe myself as a photo columnist rather than a photojournalist.”

Here in part 1, Babej reveals the intriguing and heartfelt story of his photographic adventures in Africa, the compelling portfolio of provocative pictures he created, and his ironically subversive views on the relationship between the artist and the audience.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: For my African shoot, I used the Leica M9 almost exclusively (didn’t have the Monochrom yet), a Summilux 35mm ASPH, a Summilux 50mm ASPH, an APO Summicron 90mm ASPH and a Tele Elmar 135mm f/4 from 1970 (most of the wildlife shots were taken with this lens). I admit I was a bit nervous about taking “only” a Leica M, with a maximum focal length of 135mm, on an African wildlife shoot since you can only get so close from a vehicle, and approaching a lion or leopard on foot would be a really bad idea! So, to be on the safe side, I rented a Nikon SLR, but I soon found that I preferred crops of my Leica images at 135mm compared to full-frame images from the Nikon at 500mm.  Using a 135mm on the Leica M can take some getting used to, but it’s worth the effort. Stacking a 1.25 and a 1.4X viewfinder magnifier helps a lot.

Q: Do you consider yourself a serious enthusiast, hobbyist or aspiring pro?

A: I’m pursuing photography as an art form. I am having a show of my work at the end of this month, I am looking to publish my work and also to find galleries in the United States and Europe to exhibit it. At the same time, I’m not looking to make photography my main source of income.

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

A: I’ve been photographing ever since I got my first rangefinder camera (a Konica with a 38mm fixed lens) on my eighth birthday. But over the past decade, I have gotten much more focused on photography as a mode of expression. I’m a journalist by training, so photography is a natural outgrowth of writing to me. In fact, I now prefer photography to writing because it forces you to condense information and crystallize your point of view.

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

A: As you can imagine, photography played a role in my training at Columbia in journalism school. But Adam Marelli, my mentor, has given me the formal design training that I value the most. I’ve been a history buff ever since my childhood so war correspondents have always inspired me. Robert Capa’s World War II photos in particular made me realize how important photos can be in bringing a story to life – and how you can say in photos what words alone can’t describe. In the past 10 years, I’ve noticed a big change in my view of photography. Until I was about 30, I viewed photos as filling the gaps left by words. Since then, I’ve come to think of words as filling the gaps between photos.

One photographer I find particularly inspiring is Roger Ballen. Roger has spent most of his adult life working as a geologist in South Africa. At the same time, he has become one of the leading art photographers of our time. His themes and point of view are quite different from mine, but I admire his ability to bring conceptual and existential narratives to still images.

Q: Aside from Roger Ballen Who are some of your favorite photographers?

A:  Among my favorite photographers are Robert Häusser, André Kertesz, Pentti Sammallahti , and Abraham Shterenberg.

Q: What genre do you think would best describe your photos?

A: I don’t think my work belongs to any particular genre, because I don’t think in those terms. What I care about is putting myself into places, occasions, and in front of people that make me think a new thought.  The common denominator among the subjects I cover is not that they are similar to each other, but that they trigger a desire to express a point of view. It’s very similar to my inclinations as a journalist: I have always been more interested in opinion writing then in narrative for its own sake. I guess if you wanted to classify me, you could call me a photo columnist.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography and how do you integrate it into your life?

A: I take my camera with me wherever I go. When I see someone or something that makes me have a thought that’s out of left field, I shoot. Arranging the shot, to me, is like structuring a sentence: it has to have a point of view, it has to make sense—and it has to come to me quickly. If it doesn’t come to me in a couple of seconds I regroup, or I move on altogether.

Q: There is something kind of unique about your African aerial pictures—they give you a very different feeling of the continent. Do you have any comment on that? What was it like shooting these pictures? And what do you think you were able to convey that a terrestrial photographer might not be able to communicate to the viewer?

A: Those are great questions. I think one thing that stands out particularly with the images of the animals is that in Africa you have parts of the earth that are still in their pure natural state. And that changes things a lot. You just don’t see that in other parts of the world so I think it brings something very essential about Africa to life. What I mean is that the people I met there…black and white people…just struck me as being very down to earth and grounded. Those people are natural. They’re not affected. And of course you see that reflected in the landscape and the world that they live in.

On the ground you can get an image of wildlife, but you still have some reference points of civilization. You’re sitting in a car driving on a dirt road but its still a road. And there are probably one or two safari cars not too far away. From the air when you really see places like the Okavango Delta or the Zambeze River or the Chobe River, you see elephants from above in their natural setting and you see them from a distance in context. It is of course the most unvarnished view of the world that I have ever experienced. That I think is what changes your perspective. When you look at the images from above you see tracks where the elephants walk. You see also tracks in that one picture that’s taken in Zambia from a helicopter. There is only one picture that was taken from a helicopter. It’s the one where you see a low forward view with trees interspersed.

Q: Do you have a title for the image of the Chobe River by any chance?

A:  Yes, that one would be “Shumba Camp 12”.

Q: That’s a great picture!

A: Thank you. I mean look at all the tracks you see there.

Q: Well first of all, I would just comment by saying that the experience of Africa and Africa itself is in fact the soul of the human experience on this planet.

A: You are exactly right.

Q: It comes out in the music; it comes out in the landscape; it comes out in the people—especially the people. There is nothing like it. This picture was shot from a helicopter and you’re right, you can see all the tracks. You take a look at this picture and the background is a bald, featureless sky. Now that violates one the “rules“of conventional picture taking. You’re supposed to avoid bald skies. But in this particular picture, it couldn’t be anything other than that and still convey the same feeling and impression. There is a kind of beautiful open space, a wistful but peaceful desolation that is somehow profoundly moving. I don’t know how to put it any other way.

A:  Everything you said by the way—the way you described that feeling of Africa— was better that I had put it and that’s exactly what I was trying to get at. I think you are exactly right in the way you perceive this picture. It’s something I often try to achieve in my photos. I try to achieve a dreamlike quality. And achieving that quality, making the familiar seems strange and making the strange seem familiar is a very important theme in my photography in general.

Q: I think that’s a very accurate and perceptive statement.

A: That’s really what it looks like when you achieve it and because also the sky is like that and because you have a real fading effect as your eye moves into the background it just has a dreamlike quality. In different context and with different subjects, you achieve the dreamlike quality in different ways. For example when I shoot in cities, particularly a city like New York that is so much about layers, I will often use a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux at the maximum aperture because it pulls you out of the regular context and reference points. In the pictures that you see with the animals from above and the river you will notice that the river of course is black. You can tell it’s water because your mind recognizes it as water but it doesn’t typically look like water in many of the images. Actually the black water works as a kind of frame and again that takes you out of your typical reference points and context, which is what I’m aiming at.

Q: Which camera and lens did you use for this helicopter picture?

A:  It was taken with the M9 with my 28 mm f/2 Summicron ASPH and it was probably shot at…sorry I can’t tell you which aperture I used. Anyway, as soon as I entered the helicopter I took the seat next to the pilot in front and I changed to the 28mm because I knew this was going to be my one opportunity on the safari to get an aerial shot that was really wide and expansive at a relatively low altitude.

Q: Right. I’m also impressed with this picture called “Flight chief’s camp to Kasane 30” which seems to show animals. There are like animals dotting the landscape and it’s a very abstract look. And now I realize that the black is water and that’s why the animals are gathered there. It’s sort of hyper-reality. It’s so real that it’s totally abstract and it’s so abstract that it’s totally real, and both those aspects sort of play off each other. Do you think so?

A: Yes.  You really got at the core of it. One of the artists that is a big reference point for me in my thinking (and this has to do with the fact that I’m originally German and educated in Germany since I was 16) is the playwright Bertolt Brecht. You probably are familiar with him. Brecht is known for what we call the alienation factor. The Alienation Effect is a distancing affect. His deal was that he didn’t want the viewers of his play to be immersing themselves in the plot. He would build in devices in order to force the viewers, against their own will and against their own training, to make themselves critical observers of what they saw rather than to immerse themselves.

The most famous example of how he did this was that in one of his plays he would hang placards in the inside of the theater where people were sitting. One of them said “Don’t look around so romantically.” Basically he did things that would disrupt the viewers and block them from letting themselves go and dissolving into the plot. He would have actors pretend that the opening to the auditorium was a fourth wall. Then he would break that fourth wall. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking in my photography on how you would do that in a still image. It’s actually difficult to achieve that because if I put up the equivalent of some kind of sign to yank the viewer out of the reality that they see, it would be a picture of that sign. So I try to achieve that emotional effect through various devices and the way to do that differs from image to image. In that helicopter image it’s the sky fading into the landscape into the background. I think the tracks also play into that a bit. In the picture of the river it’s the river and the color of the river and the angle and the distance that you get from the animals.  These are some of the things create this surreal effect that distances the viewer. Does that make sense?

Q: Indeed, it makes perfect sense.  Now let’s take a look at some of these wildlife pictures–those cute little animals—I always forget their name…

A: Meerkats .

Q:  Yes they are always very amusing looking creatures. In this shot you’re using limited depth of field very effectively to focus the viewer’s attention. In fact there are two pictures of meerkats and both have shallow depth of field.

A: Yes. That’s correct,

Q: I think it’s not only effective, but also seems more natural looking somehow. That’s how the human eye sees anyways. We focus precisely on only a very small section of something. We see everything else of course, but with less detail. That’s just the nature of human vision. Artistically it works very well in these meetkat pictures. Now were you shooting wide open at a long focal length? What’s going on here?

A: Yes as I mentioned also on my city photos where I shoot wide open with the f/0.95 lens in daylight using an 8X or even a 64X and ND filter. You got it just right. For me it would be the f2, f/1.4 or f/1 club.

Q: What lens did you use for the meerkat pictures?

A: Those were shot with a 135mm. I don’t have the lens data for some of the other images in the wildlife portfolio, but they were either shot with the 135mm or the 90mm. Also they were shot at f4. It was bright enough and I could have captured more detail by using a smaller aperture, but to me that’s one of the conventions in wildlife photography that results in pictures that are not very interesting. To me what is important, and the reason I use a shallow depth of field, and sometimes even intentionally shoot pictures that are intentionally slightly out of focus, is that I want to replicate is not the perfection of the lens that can see everything.  I actually strive to convey to the viewer what I personally see, here and now.  And to me reality in a photograph does not often coincide with extended depth of field. You could say that objectivity is like a really deep depth of field because everything is sharp, but to me subjective reality is actually better conveyed by shallow depth of field because it replicates how our mind sees.

Q: Actually the human proprioceptive system accesses visual information in this way so strictly speaking images that are sharp from the foreground to the background appear less natural, hence less real even on a physiological level. Now there are a couple pictures in this wildlife and landscape series such as “Kayamawa Sunrise 7.” That’s a very striking image. I love the black water and those rays in the background. It’s almost magical and surreal. The tonal gradation is not what you would expect. The foreground looks almost overexposed, but it really isn’t. In other words the island itself is startlingly white and in the background you have full tonal gradation with shades of gray.  Then you have this deep lustrous water in the foreground. I like the interplay of the textures and the tones very much.

A: Well that’s funny you should say that because that picture has a great back-story. Basically this photo was taken about six in the morning. We weren’t on safari anymore. On Lake Malawi, it’s much more about hanging out. I hadn’t planned on getting up but I’m guy over 40 and you have to get up at some point to go to the bathroom. So it’s like six o’clock in the morning and I went to the bathroom and when I came back I glanced outside and noticed that this island was directly in front of our window. It was in this perfect light. Only the island was in light and the rest was dark and suffused with color. It’s actually this beautiful pink orange sunrise light. I remember thinking “if I take this picture now I might not fall back asleep again” because I’m a light sleeper. But then I thought “Forget it, this is too good.” So I took my camera, went on the deck, shot the image, made sure it was right, and went back to sleep.

Q: So this is what you call “Pee break photography?”

A: Exactly. That was my pee break good fortune. I could make up a story about how I arose at dawn, waiting for this perfect opportunity, lugging tons of equipment  but no, you’ve got my bladder or my prostate to thank for this!

Q: Here’s another very interesting question for you. When you captured this in color you said there were these beautiful pinks, yet every single one of the images you shot is presented in black-and-white. A guy of your artistic ability should definitely get hold of a Leica Monochrom. Do you agree?

A: I already have one. In fact, I actually have two. I sold my M and now I only shoot black-and-white.

Q: What is it about black and white? You don’t have to sell me, I love black and white. This is more of an informational question. You’re shooting with an M9, capturing all this in glorious color but then putting them out in black and white, and now you’ve acquired two Monochroms. What exactly is it about black-and-white that rings your chimes?

A: There are two reasons for it. The first one is I’m actually as color blind as they get. I found out about this for the first time in my life when I was six years old. It was one of my first days in school, and we were all tested by a doctor. And they put these plates in front of me and asked me what I see and I said, “ I see colored dots” and they said “Yeah but you’re supposed to see something in it” I was like “Yeah I see dots of many colors” And they showed me image after image after image and I couldn’t see what it was.

Q: In other words you scored 0 out of 100 on the Japanese dot test for color perception?

A: Exactly. Zero. It was the first in my life that I had this experience. And then they told me I couldn’t become a bus driver or a pilot. That didn’t bother me much. But even in real life, even though I can recognize most colors, it doesn’t mean that much to me—in life or in general.

Q: What do you think are some of the positive advantages in black-and-white with your pictures?

A: I think the reason I like black-and-white because it doesn’t allow the viewers to just immerse him- or herself in the scene. It comes out of a similar mindset as my views on the depth of field. It doesn’t allow you to immerse yourself in the scene because it’s not how your eye sees. So I think it makes you focus more on shapes and relationships. And it creates a parallel reality. Things are recognizable as to what they are but they’re not presented to you the way you would see them in real life. So black and white is very liberating for artistic expression. It makes a picture more honest in a way. What I mean by that is you can have a so-so picture that will seem like it is a better picture than it is because the colors are pretty. You can’t do that with black and white. It’s either a well-designed picture that expresses a good idea or it isn’t In that sense it’s more honest. You can’t gloss over things.

Thank you for your time, Marc!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Marc’s work, visit his Facebook page.