Matthew Craig: In Pursuit of “Casual Magic” with a Leica M6

Matthew Craig, a brilliant professional photographer and photo editor, lives in the core of the Big Apple — New York, NY. A founding member of MJR and Page One Photo Editor for The Wall Street Journal, he grew up in Pasadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where his family runs a third generation small business in an industrial part of the city. He internalized both their work ethic and their creativity and also learned to achieve the important balance between work and art in his life. Eventually he moved to San Francisco and then transferred to Boston to study journalism. After graduating from Boston University he moved to New York to pursue what he describes as the “nebulous real world.” Fortunately he discovered it swiftly, and he now works with a group of highly talented young photographers all over the world, helping to marry budding talent with real front-page journalism. “There’s never enough time in the week,” he explains half-jokingly, “but I still try to always manage at least three projects at once. My dream is to straddle the worlds of business, art and media in some not-yet-conceived capacity, but who knows — the circus comes to town every year and they’re always looking for new people to shoot out of their canon. Here, in his own direct and thoughtful words, is the compelling story of his creative quest.

Q: You said you started out in the photojournalistic mode, but now feel your images are more about culture than news. Would you call yourself a street photographer in the sense that you don’t direct your subjects? And which cameras/lenses do you prefer for this kind of work?

A: I don’t want to call myself just a street photographer. I’d love to wander off into the wilderness with my Mamiya and shoot trees and rocks and things but I live in Brooklyn so that’s not an option. I shoot what’s around me – If I’m in Vermont I’m a landscape photographer. If I’m at a party I’m running around with a Ricoh shooting event work. I shoot my life. I think every opportunity for making an image is different. In some instances the scene unfolds in front of you. In others you may be noticed by your subject, completely changing the dynamic between subject and lens. For street work I prefer shooting my Leica and the Ricoh GR1v point and shoot. I shoot a 28mm 2.8 Elmarit on the Leica and the Ricoh has a built-in 28 2.8 lens. I like fast wide-angle lenses. I also shoot with a 35mm f/2 Summicron — it was my first lens for the M System and the 35mm proximity/feel is classic.

Q: Your statement that you “look for casual magic” is eloquent. Can you say something more about what you mean by that or give a few examples that give us a clearer picture of your creative process?

A: The phrase “casual magic” refers to the instance a particular shape, beam of light, gesture or scene unfolds in front of my lens. I stopped searching out frames by thinking about it too much. I know that if I am hungry to make pictures that my sensitivity to these moments will be just right — I’ll be able to tap into these casual, everyday magical moments that define the kind of work I love. It’s coincidental and candid, provided by people I don’t know in places that all New Yorkers share. That all said, diligence is the key to producing quality work. I shoot constantly because I know that it keeps me sharp. When you stop shooting you aren’t thinking about the magic. It may be happening all around you, but you aren’t seeing it. You don’t care. You stop looking for it.

Q: Judging by the equipment you use, it seems that you do most of your creative stuff with 35mm and medium-format film cameras including a Leica M6 and shoot commercial assignments (e.g. weddings) with a digital SLR. Is there any reason for this dichotomy and can you see yourself acquiring a digital M rangefinder camera like the Leica M9 or a digital medium-format camera like the Leica S2?

A: The Canon DSLRs are excellent, but I work differently with them than I do with the rangefinders. Because the majority of my work is shot for this daily street project and not clients on deadline, I have the luxury to shoot film and work with the M System. I shoot medium-format because I love 120 film! This past weekend I was able to rent an M9 and it was a great experience. I was able to use my lenses and shoot the way I do normally but felt liberated from worrying about burning too much film or running out of exposures. Also, I don’t have to carry two film stocks — I just simply bump up the ISO. I would love to add the M9 to my arsenal and shoot one every day like I do now with my M6. One thought should ring clearer than all else — that the dichotomy is in place for a reason. I own many different cameras because they all do something different. They all create different images and allow me to work in new ways. Lenses capture light differently, cameras operate differently — there is no one best tool.

Q: With regard to your preference for Leica lenses, you specifically cite the 35mm f/2 Summicron and the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. Is there something special about these lenses in terms of their imaging qualities or characteristics that you find particularly suited to your kind of work and have you considered adding a wider (24mm or 21mm) or a longer (50mm or 75mm) Leica lens to your M-mount arsenal?

A: When I bought my first Leica in 2005 — Tibor at Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles offered me the lens with the body at a great price. That’s how I started shooting the 35. The 35 gives you this beautiful working distance. You don’t have to get up in your subject’s face to feel close to them. But at the same time the 35 allows you to get a ton of environment in and a really beautiful space in the frame. It’s not too narrow like a 50 or too wide like a 24. Sometimes the 35 places limits on my compositional flexibility because I feel like I am trying to fit too much into the frame. The 28 gives me that bit of extra space in the frame, but there is still no distortion in the corners. I hate distortion. I would love to shoot a 50mm f/0.95 or f/1.0 Noctilux on the street. The 21 and 24 are too wide; it’s difficult to control all the information in your frame with those lenses.

Q: Since Chris Weeks is evidently your friend and mentor can you give us some idea of how he has influenced your approach to photography, style, content, etc.? Likewise, how do you think some of the great photojournalists whose work you have studied have influenced your portfolio?

A: Chris was one of the first people who told me I could make it in this industry so I want to put on record that without his enthusiasm and support early on, I would not be where I am today. He taught me how to be a professional — how to carry myself in this industry and he certainly taught me to work with Leicas and be proud of being a Leica user. I think the work of Friedlander, Klein and Moriyama was founded in the same ethos and purpose that I find in my own pictures — they look for that magic I discussed above. Hell, they’re the ones that taught me about that magic!

Q: How do you think your experience at being a photo editor helped you to formulate a new approach to creating honest images that are, as you put it, visually compelling and expressive?

A: At an early point in my career I believed that being a photo editor would make me a better photojournalist one day — more aware of the stories I was telling and more visually sophisticated from seeing so much diverse work. To be honest, working as a photo editor smothered my desire to be a photojournalist. I shoot now because it is my voice and passion. That is the only reason. Not to make money or become famous — I shoot because it’s what I know and what I love. Being an editor made me focus on that love for the game — I shoot every day because it keeps me creative and inspired.

Q: As you note, memory and remembrance has a lot to do with your motivation for creating images. This is a common understanding among many photographers, but can you say something more about why you feel this is such an essential aspect of your work?

A: Don’t all photographers shoot photos to share the images later on? We shoot pictures to preserve and document things that we believe matter and to share them with an audience. I shoot so that I can share my point-of-view with others. This is a really basic definition, but I don’t want my workflow or purpose to sound too complicated. I’m just a guy with a Leica shooting the streets of New York every day. When I’m on the street shooting, most of the photos I take are reactive — I see something and feel this urge. There’s no embarrassment or hesitation — I just click. The Leicas are great for this style — they’re simple and fast and they let me shoot the way want to.

Q: What exactly is MJR and what is your involvement with it?

A: I’m a founding member of MJR, a group of 6 photographers from around the world that I work with. We came together in 2007 to build a brand and support each other. In January, MJR exhibited in New York at 25CPW and in November at the Angkor Wat Photo Festival in Cambodia with a group called Blind Boys. MJR has been a great motivation for my personal work and keeps me tapped into a really inspiring community of young photographers. It started out as a passion project, but is quickly becoming one of my primary focuses. MJR has a communal office space in the Lower East Side in New York and we come together several times a year at photo festivals and retreats. In 2011 we hope to announce a new business partnership and release limited run publications and prints. It will definitely be a very busy and exiting New Year!

Q: How do you see your photography evolving and changing going forward, with respect to style, subject matter, or anything else you think is relevant?

A: I’m not sure how my work will evolve, but hopefully I will be able to start traveling more and shooting more places than New York! I think the way people interface with photography is getting really stale — we either look at a print on a wall, a computer screen or buy a book or newspaper. We look at an image and move on to the next one. I’d like to play with the way we display images and develop new experiences for the viewer — make exhibitions more interactive and public. In a perfect world, I’d like to project my work on the side of the Empire State Building every night for the whole city to see.

I’ll get there one day.

-Leica Internet Team

Thank you Matthew and a special thanks to Chris Weeks for bringing Matthew to our attention.