Paul S. Bartholomew: An Architect’s Eye on the World

Based in Pennsylvania, Paul S. Bartholomew has spent most of his career as a commercial photographer shooting architectural exteriors and interiors. Currently he employs tripod-mounted DSLRs for this purpose, but he’s fascinated by the prospect of shooting architecture professionally with the Leica S2. Bartholomew also brings the sensibility of an architect to his personal work, which he shoots handheld using the Leica M9 as his “sketchbook.” A loyal Leica enthusiast since working for a leading Leica dealer, he acquired a Leica M7 outfit shortly after attending the Leica Akademie in Solms, and is now a big fan of the M9. His dream is to create a book on the edifices of Northeastern France, an area replete with gorgeous architecture, and to explore the challenging new genre of food photography. Here, is the story of his working methods and his creative quest.

Q: Can you tell us something more about your personal work with the Leica M9? It seems to parallel your commercial images, with a strong architectural context, precise, almost formal composition, technical excellence and a keen awareness of light. Do you agree, and what do you think these photographs say about your creative process?

A: My personal work can be similar to my commercial work for many reasons, but it’s created under different circumstances and for different purposes than my commercial work. The client assigns commercial projects, and I’m given the subject matter that I need to photograph. I have to keep in mind what the client requires and that is often some kind of design element or feature. The images are typically used for marketing purposes so the images must be created with a specific promotional concept in mind. This often involves a good deal of compromise and the resulting images are a balance between interpretation and documentation. My personal work is created entirely for my own purposes with my own direction and subject matter in mind. There’s no compromising with details and I can experiment with my own interpretation. The M9 stays with me all the time and it allows me to capture unexpected moments such as a change in light or people interacting in relation to a structure. Subject matter can often be a matter of luck at a given moment with no solid agenda. There are no high expectations so I can relax and experiment.

Q: You mentioned that you use your Leica M9 as a kind of a “sketchbook,” which often implies a freewheeling off-the- cuff approach, and also that these images may be “sketches” for more formal or commercial work. Do you think these concepts apply your personal work, or do you have a different intention or aim in mind?

A: I like to use the word “sketchbook” to describe how I use the Leica M9 for many reasons. I have a fine art background and was taught to always have a sketchbook with me because you never know when inspiration will strike. I wanted a professional level compact camera system such as the M9 to have with me at all times. This way I have no excuses for missing opportunities. The M9 is also considered my “sketchbook” because I’m handholding most of my shots and I often compose and recompose till I find something. My commercial work is always shot on a tripod and carefully planned but I can move around freely and quickly with the handheld M9. It’s exercising my way of seeing things and I compare it to sketching and reworking an idea until the concept evolves. This makes me a better photographer, both in my personal work and my commercial work.

Q: Do you have the same mindset or take the same basic approach when photographing modern and classic or traditional architecture, or are you striving for a different mode of expression for each?

A: I like to examine what truly grabs my attention when I first see the structure and compose its strong points. A modern structure may be mostly about the building materials and abstract views. An older structure may be interesting because of its character from years of usage or the way it was built during a particular time period. These are just examples because each structure is unique. Lighting is extremely important and I want to be sure the quality of light enhances the structure’s characteristics. Interior spaces are the most challenging because they may entail using special lighting equipment to photograph them properly. The lighting can help enhance textures and create dimension. Most of all, I think it’s important to preserve the true feel of the interior atmosphere, to enhance the ambient lighting but not to replace it.

Q: There seems to be a dynamic linear tension in many of your professional and personal images, like this photo taken from The High Line, an overhead view of a street scene dominated by riveted steel beams. Is this a conscious decision, and do you think it is an element of your style?

A: Yes, I do think it’s an element of my style. I feel my way of composing is intuitive and I frame my shots based on a certain balance and feeling I get from the scene. I’m sure I’m somewhat conscious of why I compose a certain way. I like to see abstractly and play with geometry to create something dynamic. I think it’s interesting to have a basic structure to the composition by using certain elements. My personal images will involve more of the human element and imperfections that reveal character. I like to think intuition takes over, but I’m sure years of photographing architecture just allows me to react to the scene and not over-intellectualize it.

Q: What is it about the Leica M9 you find conducive to your kind of informal photography? Are there any specific characteristics of the Leica M you find especially valuable?

A: The compact size and the ability to be unnoticed is what I love about the Leica M system. I know what it’s like to stand out as the professional photographer setting up a large camera on a tripod. People take notice, people react and often times they approach and ask me lots of questions. I love my Leica M9 because I can blend in and not disturb what’s going on in a scene. I’m no longer standing out as the professional photographer and may look like a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera. I also feel less self-conscious of standing out and that helps me to relax and concentrate. I’m sure some people will say that a point-and-shoot camera will do what I’m describing quite well. Perhaps to a certain extent it will, but the Leica M9 is one of the best cameras in the world and I don’t like to compromise. If an opportunity is missed or something gets messed up, it’s my fault, and I want to keep such things to a minimum.

Q: The people in your pictures have an anonymous quality while the architectural context seems to be the dominant element, yet there is a feeling of emotion and beauty in many of these images. Can you say something about this apparent contradiction?

A: When I photograph architecture I can plan the basic composition, but people and activity can be random. No one is posed in my personal images, some may be out of focus and be blurred, and some may fall into shadow. People are secondary and give a sense of scale and human interaction. Architecture is designed for people and we often see very formal views that are void of people or with posed people. Maybe we aren’t used to seeing real life activity in architectural photography so much and that’s what grabs people’s attention when they view my images.

Q: Have you ever tried shooting interiors handheld with the 24mm Leica M lens on your M9? And if so, what do you think of this combination for shooting architecture in general?

A: I often shoot handheld interiors with the M9 when I’m traveling simply because tripods aren’t allowed in some places. I find interiors to be difficult and often compromised when you shoot handheld. The lighting is usually much darker than exteriors so a higher ISO and a wider aperture come into play. As a result the mages may appear softer with less depth of field than I prefer. Using a wide-angle lens such as the 24mm makes it easier to shoot handheld because it shows less camera shake at slower shutter speeds. I can get away with more and my depth of field covers a greater range. If I were to use a 50mm lens in such circumstances, I wouldn’t be able to drink as much coffee! When I use a tripod, I can use any ISO and aperture I prefer. I also like to bracket exposures and blend them in post-production to achieve a better dynamic range. This is something I do for almost all of my commercial interior work and having a steady tripod is required for this. I should point out that I use perspective control lenses with another camera system that I use for commercial work. With the Leica M System you have to correct perspective in post-production and some cropping is required during the process. I do see great potential for the Leica S System if a perspective control lens is developed. I see a lot of potential indeed.

Q: Your lovely romantic image of the Wetzlar Bridge certainly brings a twinge of nostalgia to inveterate Leica fans who’ve made the pilgrimage. How did you come to take this picture and do you think it has a different emotional quality from most of your architectural images?

A: The image was taken with a M7 while attending the Leica Akademie. This was toward the end of a week-long trip that took the students to France and then to the Leica’s headquarters in Solms, Germany. I stayed in Wetzlar and was excited because this is the region some of my ancestors came from. Everything inspired me and I had a hard time sleeping because I wanted to take photos constantly. I woke up early one morning in Wetzlar, took a walk at sunrise and found this view. It was a great trip and everything was wonderful, so perhaps that is the reason I love this image so much. It instantly revives that feeling and takes me to my happy place. I think this sort of image is quite different from most of my architectural images. Perhaps it’s just subject matter and this is what I can do with it. We don’t see many historic places like this in the USA. If I could make a living traveling and photographing historic structures I would. It’s what I love most.

Q: Your black-and-white images of New York’s Times Square and the Philadelphia Reading Market are the closest you come to street photography. Why did you shoot/output them in black-and white, and do you think this is a genre you would like to explore further?

A: It’s been a long time since I tried black-and-white photography and I feel these images are stronger this way. The color versions are a bit drab looking and don’t have the same impact. I liked how black-and-white emphasized the geometry and textures. The M9 is incredible for B&W photography and the tones are beautiful. Sometimes I like to see what I can do without any kind of agenda and I find street photography rather fun. I will definitely do more of this kind of photography and see were it leads me.

Q: How do you see your work, both professional and personal, evolving going forward? Are there any personal or professional projects that you are motivated to pursue in the immediate future?

A: I hope that my personal work eventually merges with my professional work. I spent 14 years just doing commercial projects and never set time aside for personal work other than vacation time. I decided it was crucial to get serious about experimenting with personal projects, otherwise my creative growth would stay in neutral. What I pursue with personal projects will hopefully carry over to commissioned work. Besides architectural photography, I do see myself venturing into food photography and I see the Leica M9 being useful for photographing markets, farms and other places that relate to the culinary world. I would like to capture the complete experience from the food on the table to the environment people enjoy it in, to where it comes from. I see a lot of potential here and that makes me both excited and nervous because it’s out of my normal specialty. But pursuing new things has many rewards, and it always expands your visual horizons.

-Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to see more of Paul’s work, visit his site: www.psbphotography.com.