Otto Schulze: Capturing the Decisive Moment, Part 2

Otto Schulze shoots weddings with the deft eye and casual air of a classic photojournalist and captures “decisive moments” on the streets of the world with his Leica M9.

His abiding passion for documentary photography was kindled by a chance encounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and he spent the next two years in Nepal trekking through local villages in search of “decisive moments.” After honing his technical skills at one of South Africa’s leading art schools he moved to Denver, Colorado to start shooting for the local newspaper, but he started shooting weddings in a signature documentary style that established his worldwide reputation. Schulze 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. He loves his work but plans to spend a few months each year in third world countries pursing his passion for documentary photography with his beloved Leica M9. Here, in his own incisive words, is the second part of his amazing story.

Q: You mention that your technique for creating photojournalistic wedding images has many parallels with your documentary coverage of third world countries. Fair enough. But are there any differences and if so can you say something about them?

A: Absolutely. Both with weddings and my documentary or street work, my objective is to move into any scene with as little intrusion as possible. To capture untouched, real moments as they unfold. But I think the biggest difference with weddings is that in the midst of that very pursuit I’m still trying to make people look good. I’m looking for beautiful moments of joy, expectation, fulfillment, whereas on the street or in some village, even though there I encounter much beauty, I don’t have the objective in mind of making people look good. I’m not looking for something specific but rather just wandering in pursuit of what I don’t know. In other words, I get to simply capture things as they are, whether that be incredible beauty or tremendous sadness. Now granted, weddings are days of tremendous joy and celebration so it definitely lends itself towards beauty and joy. But with weddings I find myself deliberately shooting wide open (in fact I seldom shoot stopped down beyond f/2) often in order to create an almost surreal beauty using shallow depth of field. It’s not that it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ but I guess I’m choosing to see things in a certain way. However, on the street I often find myself stopping down to smaller apertures. I want to capture all the grit, everything it has, no matter what. It is quite the tension for me in my wedding work and something that I am still working out.

Q: We can certainly understand why you extol the virtues of the Leica M9 and the new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH lens. What characteristics of that lens do you find particularly useful in your work? Do you think there’s something special about the quality of the images it captures, and have you considered adding a wider or longer focal length to your M9’s optical arsenal?

A: More often than not I shoot at f/2 and wider. In fact, with the new 35mm Summilux I shoot wide open at f/1.4 for the most part. The performance (sharpness, contrast, color) of this lens, especially wide open, was the first thing that stood out to me. It’s just wonderful. And let’s be honest, Nikon and Canon make wonderful lenses, but when shooting them wide open like that all the time, well, let’s just say there is some compromise involved. The difference is marked! And there is, of course, the purely subjective preference one has with specific lenses. The way each lens draws in its own unique way. This I absolutely loved with the new 35mm Summilux. And this I cannot quantify, but to me it is so special that I would be more than happy to just shoot with this one lens exclusively. The simplicity of it is glorious.

Q: After trying your hand at capturing “decisive moments” wandering around Nepal, you were motivated to upgrade your photographic skills by studying photography in South Africa, yet you said, “everything I learnt of value has been through self-study.” Can you say something about this apparent contradiction?

A: Ha, yes. What was so wonderful (and oftentimes frustrating) about those initial years of photographic discovery in Nepal I think was the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. That of course really left me with only one thing – seeing! The specific school I attended in South Africa was very much geared towards commercial photography and initially it really ruined photography as an art form for me. The image, and my own personal expression, became secondary to commercial appeal and techniques. But I had to go through this and, make no mistake, I learnt a lot. However, when I say “everything I learnt of value been through self study” I’m talking specifically about studying the work of others. Not technique but vision and consequently ‘figuring out’ of my own style and vision. This, of course, is still a work in progress. Life is lived through experience, not mere theory. And seeing as photography is merely an extension of my life being lived, I believe experience over theory holds true in photography.

Q: Can you tell us something about some of the great photographers or genres that have influenced you other than that legendary master of the Leica and de facto philosopher, Henri Cartier-Bresson?

A: Yeah, I’m quite obsessed with his work and honestly whether that’s good or bad I don’t really care. But there have been so many others: Richard Avedon, Sebastio Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Trent Park, Joel Meyerowitz, James Nacthway…the list goes on. I’m constantly influenced by everyone around me. Music has had a huge impact on my work as well. I’m still trying to justify shooting weddings with my earphones on. Luckily I have a wife to object to this – ha! There are so many incredible artists. The only original creative is God. The rest of us are simply borrowing from one another and Him. I have no problem admitting to this.

Q: There’s a delightfully whimsical quality in many of your wedding pictures — a fair number of them make you smile. Why do you think that’s so?

A: Thank you. There are a lot of beautiful things happening around us every day. And this is especially true at weddings. There is so much anticipation and fulfillment at weddings. There’s so much raw beauty to react to. This is why I’ve always objected to the typical approach of wedding photography where every couple gets forced into the same mold of poses and methods. There is so much originality, and uniqueness to every couple. Why touch that?! Why not just look for it, react to it and capture it?!

Q: What is it about the Leica M9, aside from its general unobtrusiveness, that makes it such a favorite of photographers that want to capture revealing moments on the fly and do so with unflinching honesty and integrity?

A: The unobtrusiveness of the camera truly is invaluable. It’s not simply because of the simplicity and ease of use for the artist — its main strength lies in how subjects react to the M9. With the M9 I truly find people ‘let me in.’ They really drop their guard and just go about their business, which is exactly what I want. Another big plus for me is the fact that I’m not looking through the lens. The fact that I can’t see focus happening (which can really for me distract me from ‘seeing’) really makes me look at things in a whole new way. With the M9 I see composition and moments. I see, I frame and then I wait for the scene to unfold. This is probably my favorite part of shooting with a rangefinder.

Q: Many great photographic teachers have commented on the discipline and eye training one can acquire by sticking with one camera and one lens for a while. Do you agree and can you say something about how this process works from your point of view?

A: Absolutely! Simplicity is the key for me in everything. And it’s especially true for me with the M9 and 35mm Summilux. It makes me work for my images. Moving in and out…looking. Whereas often times with zoom lenses we get stuck in one spot zooming in and out. We’re so caught up with the mechanics that we forget about the frame! The moment! Which again is what I love about the M9 and Leica lenses so much. The camera is gloriously simple (and yet that sensor packs a punch!) and the lenses perform exceptionally every single frame. So my gear has been sorted out. Which leaves me with one task – “the decisive moment!”

Q: Have you ever considered shooting with a compact digital Leica such as a D-LUX 5 or an X1? The X1 would be a natural for a guy who’s partial to the 35mm focal length on the M because the angular coverage of its lens is nearly identical and many shooters use it with an optical finder.

A: Honestly I haven’t really given it a go. The X1 especially looks very appealing for street work though.

Q: Do you have any specific projects in mind when you return to documenting life in third world countries from time to time and can you say which countries or what particular subjects fascinate you?

A: Nothing specific really other than just observing life there. For me, things start to come together only once I start seeing things in front of me. The first country we  (that is, me, my wife and our little girl) have lined up is Ecuador. We’d like to go there later this year and live there for 3-4 months — especially in the mountain towns. What will happen once we get there I don’t know, but it will definitely be shared with the blogging world!

Q: How do you see your wedding photography evolving going forward and do you think that it will tend to converge or diverge from your personal work?

A: I can’t separate my wedding work and personal work. It’s all personal and it’s all me, but as I’ve progressed as a wedding photographer I have become even more and more ‘hands off.’ I find myself not wanting to intrude even more. And so I think in that sense my wedding work is maybe moving even more in the direction of documentary and street photography.

-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.