Otto Schulze: Capturing the Decisive Moment, Part 1

Otto Schulze grew up in a small South African town on the Botswana border and managed local photo labs after finishing high school. Despite his involvement with photography, he never seriously thought of becoming a professional photographer. Years later, while living in Kathmandu, his abiding passion for documentary photography was kindled by a chance encounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work that made a deep impression on him. He spent the next two years in Nepal trekking through local villages in search of young “decisive moments,” but decided to return to Africa and study photography at one of the country’s leading art schools to hone his skills. After three years of study he married an American woman he’d met in South Africa and he and his wife and young daughter now live in Denver, Colorado. His initial plan was to start shooting for the local newspaper. However, in a very short period of time he had had booked a significant number of wedding assignments and this has evolved into a very successful business.

As you might expect, Schulze’s specialty is shooting completely unobtrusive documentary wedding coverage. He’s discovered that wedding days are “loaded with so much beautiful emotion, anticipation and expectation” that they’re the perfect venue for wandering around, camera in hand, in pursuit of his beloved “decisive moments,” just reacting to events as they unfold.
He now runs a full-time fine art wedding photography studio and gets to travel all over the world to document this special day in the lives of his clients. “My wedding work is not typical wedding photography in any way,” observes Schulze, “especially since the Leica M9 allows me to be as unobtrusive as possible. I do also do a limited number of commercial shoots, but honestly the weddings keep my year pretty full! My goal is to soon start returning to the third world countries again every year for a few months to continue my true passion for documentary photography.” Here in his own thoughtful words, is the first part of his amazing story.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I’ve been a Nikon shooter all my life, but the M9 and new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH has since become my favorite image making tools this past year.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Authentic. True. Observant. I really work (whether in some village or at a wedding) as unobtrusively as possible. My goal is always to react to real moments as they unfold rather than creating things. I observe and then I react. As Cartier-Bresson said, “I see, I feel and the surprised eye responds.” I’d describe it as fine art documentary photography.  The human condition and how man interacts with everything around him fascinates me. This fascination really lies at the core of my work.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: I actually managed photo labs and never really thought that this would become my profession. It was only years later while living in Kathmandu, Nepal that I truly discovered photography as my passion. I picked up a Henri Cartier-Bresson book in a bookstore in Kathmandu and for the first time I saw in an image what I’d been seeing all my life all around me. It truly astounded me. And from that moment, my discovery of photography began.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: Like I said, it began with that epiphany in the bookstore in Kathmandu. Seeing “the ordinary extraordinary” of everyday life captured in those Cartier-Bresson images was transformational. For the most part, these weren’t spectacular moments or special events but rather everyday life captured on film — so simple and yet so profound. Of course, back then I didn’t know what the extent of this discovery would be years later. But it was profound. I’m not very good with words and photography gave me the ability to express my experience of life through images. And the Leica M9, more than any other camera I’ve ever used, allows me to communicate exactly this.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught.

A: Obviously Cartier-Bresson’s work has been a huge source of inspiration for me, as have many other artists. I did study photography in South Africa, but honestly almost everything I’ve learnt of value has been through self-study.

Q: What genre are your photos? (E.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc)

A: I would call them fine art documentary. I do a lot of street photography as well. Wandering around the streets is probably the most enjoyable photography for me personally.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Obviously my first introduction was via observing the little Leica hanging around the neck of Cartier-Bresson. The Leica lenses are obviously known as the benchmark of optics, especially for my shooting style. So Leica has always had that appeal for me. But it wasn’t until I finally got my hands on the M9 and the new 35mm Summilux last year that I absolutely fell in love with the Leica experience of shooting. I have long been a huge rangefinder fan (especially the Hasselblad X-Pan) for the unobtrusiveness of the camera as well as the unique viewing experience. I feel that the ability to see focus through the viewfinder of an SLR really distracts from the frame. With the M9 I am left with the simplicity of the moment. It forces me to look at composition more carefully and then has me wait until that decisive moment happens within the frame. It really is glorious simplicity and has certainly added a whole new dimension especially to my wedding work. With the Leica, people really let me into their personal space.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Honestly I just try and observe life as it happens right in front of me. I’m not sure what photography means to me other than being honest. It’s just observation and reaction to me.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Otto’s work on his website, www.ottoschulzephotographers.com and you can view his recent project “The Leica Wedding Project” with Leica and Rangefinder Magazine on his blog, www.ottoschulzephotographers.com/blog.