Otto Schulze: The Wonder of The Streets

As a photojournalist currently based in New York, Otto Schulze has photographed weddings all over the world, and his personal fine art documentary work has also been exhibited in numerous galleries worldwide. In 2008, Otto was named as one of the Top 15 fine art wedding photojournalists in the world by the AGWPJA, as well as being named as one of the best wedding photographers in the world by Junebug Weddings. Otto also frequently shoots assignments for the Wall Street Journal. Otto Schulze is also a passionate street photographer. Alex Coghe, the interviewer, is a Leica Blog contributor.

Q: Hi, Otto. How would you describe your photography?

A: That’s always tough for me to put into words as words aren’t really my strong suit. I think it’s also tough to define as I often (especially with regards to my street or documentary work) do not shoot with any objective in mind. But, rather I seek to react to whatever is presented before me. My work is very much reactionary: my response to what I see. The only objective I have is to, as far as possible, be accurate and authentic in what I capture. But, photography is obviously a very subjective thing and that’s where it gets interesting and tough.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica, and what is special about this brand of cameras?

A: Henri Cartier-Bresson was my first introduction to Leica. Then, years later, a friend returned from a holiday in Switzerland with his grandfather’s Leica. That was the first time I actually got to hold one. Honestly, aside from the incredible Leica lenses (and this they truly are!), I think what most appeals to me about Leica is their simplicity. I’m a huge fan of simplicity and I love how Leica strips it all down to the essentials.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Right now, almost exclusively the Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. and the M9. Last year the  f/1 Noctilux and new 35mm Summilux got a lot of my attention, but this year the 50mm has been dear to me. I find this little lens to be nearly perfect in every possible way for what I do.

Q: And how have you incorporated the M9 into your professional work?

A: For my wedding work, the M9 gets used almost seventy percent of the time alongside my Nikon SLRs (and sometimes medium format as well). It’s only really during the reception and dancing that the Nikon cameras win out. For everything else, the M9 is my companion. My street work is done with the M9 one hundred percent of the time. It’s so perfect for me on the streets that I honestly have no desire to even try something else. My M is pure perfection on the streets.

Q: How much processing do you do on your files?

A: Quite a bit and very little at the same time, if that makes sense. Let me explain: I don’t do very much to the files other than dodge and burn, so in that sense I do very little. However, I do take my time with every image: looking at it, evaluating it and considering the image. For me, shooting is like sketching and post production is where I finish the painting. But honestly, I do nothing more than what I used to do in the darkroom . . . just minus the chemical smells and darkness. I don’t miss that!

Q: Are there any photographers who have influenced you, apart from Henri Cartier-Bresson?

A: Oh man, there are many. Starting out as a documentary photographer/photojournalist, the work of Sebastião Salgado, W. Eugene Smith and Steve McCurry immediately comes to mind. As a street photographer, I immediately think of Trent Parke, Joel Meyerowitz, Elliot Erwitt, Richard Avedon and the like. Tremendous!

Q: On your website you say that street photography remains your first love. What does this genre mean to you?

A: The street is truly at the core of my work. The wonder and the random encounters of the streets are at the heart of my fascination with photography – especially within the context of the human condition. This is where it started for me and where I still go to this day for inspiration. To me, there is nothing like going for a walk with music in my ears and a Leica in my hand.

Q: I argue that the street photography method and approach is one that we can apply to all photography. Do you agree, and what approach do you take with your photography?

A: I absolutely agree, and this concept is very much true for me. Like I said before, this approach has always been a reactionary one – reacting to what’s in front of me as opposed to creating it. This is true for me in all work and on all assignments.

Q: Besides the Leica M9, you have also used a Leica X1. What are your thoughts on this compact camera?

A: I don’t use the X1 on a regular basis. I had one on loan a few years back for a week or two and that was the extent of my experience with it. Like I said, for my street work I find my M9 to be perfect so I really don’t have any need for other cameras. With that said, I did find the X1 to be exceptional. With the viewfinder attached, it felt just like shooting with an M. In fact, the X1 rewarded me with one of my favorite images of all time, ‘Cigarman’. If I was ever to buy a compact, it would definitely be the X2.

Q: Many of your images have a particular tension. Your street photographs have “dramatic force” about them.

A: That sounds fancy. Perhaps you should elaborate . . . hah! Seriously, thank you though. Honestly, I don’t really know what to say about them. I think the images should say something by themselves, and I leave that to the viewer. I don’t have a message I’m trying to convey through them. They are what they are.

Q: How important is the viewer’s interpretation of your work?

A: I don’t think I really care to be honest. I like for people to enjoy them and to get something from them.  Whatever that benefit is, I leave to the viewer. It makes no difference to what I see and how I react to it.

Q: Not only do you do street photography, but you do wedding photography in many parts of the world. Can you tell me about that?

A: Yes I can, and I absolutely love it. My approach remains the same: to react. The wedding day is a day loaded with so much emotion, expectation, anticipation etc. that it makes for wonderful reactions. I never thought I’d be a wedding photographer, but it has been a very blessed discovery for me.

Q: With street photography you play with reality and with weddings, you are documenting a reality. Is that correct?

A: Honestly, there is no difference to me. In both instances, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. I just make images. That, at least, I know. More than that, I couldn’t truthfully say. Sorry.

Q: What are you seeking in the streets?

A: Nothing specific! That’s what is so marvelous. Nothing. I go and get what I’m given.

Q: Have you some particular goal for the future?

A: To move to a Third World country every year for a few months, in my slow season, with my wife and two girls. I would like to go and help out – love people and shoot documentary/street work purely for the love of it. No assignment, exhibition or project in mind – just to be with people as they are in their lives.

Thanks, Otto!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Otto and view his work, visit his website.

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