Morten Albek: Back to the Basics of Photography

Morten Albek works as a cameraman on TV2/Fyn in Denmark in addition to his work as a photojournalist. Albek, a Danish citizen, was born in 1963 and is a member of the Danish Photographers’ Union and Union of Danish Journalists. His work has appeared in various international publications.

Q: Hi Morten, can tell us how you got started in photography and when you realized you wanted it to be your profession?

A: I came into photography in two different ways. For some reason, without knowing anything about photography at all, I bought a camera when I was 17 years old with the very first paycheck I received from my first job. All my money went to that, and I had to find other money for food the first two months. This was when I was starting out as a gardener trainee, my first education after primary school. I just wanted a camera without having any idea about how to take a decent photograph, but inspired by my aunt who was a keen amateur photographer. I took loads of pictures, color prints of  holidays and family, and loved it.

At the same time I accidentally helped out my local soccer team who needed a hand recording games on video. I was asked to stay on, and soon after I applied for a part-time job at a local television station established in my city (again without knowing anything about what I was doing, just feeling my way through). It was helpful earning a little money from it in order to buy a new camera. I must have done fine because I was soon shooting many stories. I was still going for the Olympus OM system at that time, enjoying it alongside the video shoots. My enthusiasm for my part-time television job made me apply for a full-time professional job as cameraman. I was extremely lucky getting a full-time job at the oldest, still working film company in the world, Nordisk Film, at their broadcast division. It was giant step for me after six months practice at the local station. Leaving my short career as a gardener, now I was suddenly working at the hottest TV broadcaster at the time in Denmark making large documentary stories and studio productions. So my professional career has always been with both video and still photography side by side, with most work as a cameraman.

Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t been a photographer?

A: I could have stayed on track as a gardener, but I also can’t see how I should not have ended up being a photographer in the end. I think it was meant to be, and I love every bit of it.

Q: You are also working as cameraman on TV2 in Denmark. Do you think that this work is training and enriching your skills as a photographer?

A: I think it is the other way around. My photography practice sharpens my eye for good compositions as a cameraman. Shooting stills and shooting for television or film productions is very different though. Telling stories with moving images and combining these cannot be compared with the way of telling a story in a single or short series of photographs. But the balance and composition in the still photo can be a great inspiration when composing with the video camera.

Q: At this point of your career what is your focus with photography? What do you seek as a photographer?

A: I am seeking to go back to the roots of photography, to avoid conformity and traditional ways of thinking. So I basically seek inspiration in any form, way and subject. It may sound like a contradiction, but leaving behind modern large zoom lenses and heavy DSLRs forces me to actually think about photographs, rather than just shooting them. Less and simpler equipment develops your brain, instead of letting the equipment take over the power of your work. So going back to basics should move me onwards in my photographic development.

Q: You are a photojournalist, but you are also into fine art photography. Do you think there are differences and as a photojournalist does your approach change?

A: My approach as a photojournalist can’t avoid being part of my way of doing fine art photography. It is all about telling a story. Implied or evident, all pictures have to have a story to tell in order to work and to be interesting for others to watch. Fine art photography is different than photojournalist work. When doing a photo for a journalistic purpose, it is important to be honest to the story you bring to the audience. Pictures may have an artistic and aesthetic expression, but may never be overdone; not in post-production or other misunderstood creativity. Honesty is my keyword for this kind of photography.

Fine art photography is free of any of these limitations. This is art in its pure and simple meaning. Anything is allowed. But the link is the story. Every picture must have it when I seek a motive. Art is not interesting if it does not tell a story, and I even do not think about it when shooting a photo. It is just there or I do not see it as a subject to be recorded.

Q: Why do you shoot with a Leica? What Leica equipment do you use?

A: I worked with larger professional SLR and later DSLRs for years. But I reached a point where I needed to reinvent my way of thinking about photography, in order to not get stuck in traditional thinking. So I sold all my equipment, and purchased a Leica M8.

This step was the best I had taken in years. I chose the Leica M8 after some talks with a fashion photographer in the family who praised it. And I will never regret the choice I made. I actually didn’t expect this camera to develop my way of working so much, but the simple operational camera (which may not seem simple for auto setting photographers) puts all attention to making the photo, not just point and shoot forgetting to think.

I shoot all at fully manual settings, and with the quality of the camera it is really a joy to work with. All cameras have their limitations and quirks. The M8 too, but it forces the photographer to be sharp and work, not just be a recording machine.

Q: What are your thoughts about a camera like the Monochrom?

A: When I first heard about the Monochrom camera, I just thought YES. The courage to develop such a camera fits with my own needs for limiting equipment and thereby expanding photographic understanding. Sometimes seeking back to old virtues and values develops and bring up new ways of working. I would love to try this camera out in future.

Q: I would like to talk with you about the diners project, an on-going collection of situations and atmospheres from diners and restaurants. I think this project is interesting because a moment at a restaurant reveals a lot about a person. Is there a lot still to be done to finish it?

A: The Diners and Restaurant project is in its early days, and my aim is to let this and other selected projects go on without an end date. I live with deadlines on a daily basis at the TV station where I work, so it is liberating to work with something open-ended.

I try to find moments and pieces of situations and I am sure I can continue this story for years exploring life as it shows in this frame. There are so many reasons for people to meet in a café or a diner: a meeting between lovers, business talks, friends or lonely people. It all unfolds within a meal, a coffee break making us able to read the faces and situations telling small or large stories from life.

Q: Is there a particular story relating to this project that you would like to share with us?

A: Sometimes I know when I click the camera button that it will be an expressive picture. Sometimes I get disappointed and sometimes I am happily surprised when something shows to be great, without knowing of it at the moment it took place. But afterwards the photo shows what it captured and surprises me.

One of these photos that surprised me is the photo named “Legs.” It was shot at a local restaurant in Denmark when I was waiting to film an interview for television. I observed the two women talking and played around taking a few photos meanwhile. I shot this and a few more of their legs because I found it interesting, but without any clear idea at the moment. Afterwards as I converted it to a black-and-white version, the dynamic and the history unfolded. The story began when the picture opened up on the laptop, not when I activated the shutter.

Thank you for your time, Morten!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Morten’s work, visit his website.

Alex Coghe, the interviewer, is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.